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Jewish artists won’t be silenced

With art, we express defiance, process loss, and achieve freedom, like the captive girl's drawings found underground -- of mountains, houses, and a sunny sky
We Will Dance Again, Anna Abramzon, mixed media on paper
We Will Dance Again by Anna Abramzon, mixed media on paper

The anti-Israel movement is trying to silence Jewish artists. Musician Matisyahu had to cancel two concerts because the staff of the venue where he was due to perform boycotted him. Israeli painter Zoya Cherkassky’s conversation about her exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, which is a compilation of drawings of the October 7 attack, was interrupted by protesters calling her work “imperial propaganda.” The graphic artist Alex Woz posted a heartbreaking testimony of being left out of art spaces because his art was deemed “too political” for touching on his Jewish identity.

Having spent my life in various corners of the art world, none of this is surprising. As a student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the Second Intifada, both students and hostile professors would regularly try to bully and intimidate me for starting the first pro-Israel group on the campus — I was even booed on stage at graduation. It is no surprise that the school is currently being sued for severe antisemitic harassment.

The silence from my fellow creatives following October 7 was deafening. These are the same people who had dutifully supported every marginalized group throughout the years, but the mass slaughter of Jews did not warrant a response. Prestigious art magazine Artforum published an atrocious open letter to the art establishment demanding support for a ceasefire and condemnation of Israel. Online artists big and small obediently began peppering their social media feeds with hostile anti-Israel content, like salt in an open wound. The message from the art world was clear: get on board against Zionism or be shunned from polite society. And so we, Jewish artists who are devastated by the brutal attack and the flood of antisemitism worldwide, find ourselves alone.

Creating art is a vulnerable experience, and sharing it is even more so. It bares an intimate piece of your soul for the world to judge. This makes the antisemitic attacks coming at us all the more hurtful. And still, we must not let it deter us from creating, because art has never been more important.

Art is a danger to oppressive ideology.

Growing up with refusenik parents in the Soviet Union, I lived in the shadow of their heroes: many of them dissident artists who were willing to risk their lives for their art. My early life was saturated by wondrous stories of writers who never put their work on paper because it was too dangerous, so they shared it orally and spread it from memory. I heard about secret meetings in dimly lit hideouts, where groups of young intellectuals would copy illegal literature by hand. This was my parents’ world, a universe that celebrated artists like Jewish dissident poet Osip Mandelstam who died in a prison camp after writing poetry that criticized Stalin. My mom even named me after Anna Akhmatova, the tragic poetess whose husband, poet Nikolai Gumilev, was murdered by a firing squad after being accused of being an anti-Communist conspirator.

The Soviet Union is far from the only oppressive regime to inspire powerful dissident art.  Art and activism have a long, intertwined history and many artists have paid dearly for their brave voices. Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was assassinated during the Spanish civil war and Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa was sent into exile during the Argentinian dictatorship. The cartoonists of French magazine Charlie Hebdo were gunned down for drawing Muhammad. Novelist Salman Rushdie had to live in hiding for years and was ultimately the victim of a stabbing attack for offending Islamists. These are just a few of the many examples of artists being seen as a threat by totalitarian regimes and oppressive ideologies, because good art is the antithesis of binary thought.

Now we live in a time of meme culture, in which simplistic messages are doled out in TikTok length soundbites. It is also a time of cowardice. In the Western world we are threatened not with our lives, but with trivial unpleasantries, such as being “called out” online. Yet, like sheep, so many creatives bow to the pressure, dutifully joining whatever online mob is the most fashionable at the moment. The current cultural climate demands that real artists bring nuance and complexity to the conversation. As a friend wisely told me, “Art should be the opposite of social media culture…an antidote to fast food activism.”

Art tells our story.

One of my favorite childhood activities was exploring the Art Institute of Chicago. It was on one such visit that I stopped dead in my tracks in front of  the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall. I stood frozen, staring at it for a very long time. I remember my dad trying to coax me to move on, but I wouldn’t budge. The painting reached inside me and opened a valve.

White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall 1938

White Crucifixion centers a suffering Jesus on the cross surrounded by images of devastation caused by pogroms: a ravaged burning shtetl, three Jews fleeing, one wearing a single shoe and clutching the Torah, a synagogue consumed by fire, a mother soothing her child. I may not have known the stories of my ancestors yet at that age, but that painting told a story that lived inside me. I felt it in my bones. This was the first time that I experienced the power of art to, as Picasso put it, act as “a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

We must make art now so that future Jewish children feel that shiver down their spine as they begin to understand what came before them. We must bear witness not only to the horrors of October 7 and the ongoing war, but to the strength, perseverance and unity of Israel and the Jewish community worldwide. As artists, storytelling is both our gift and our responsibility.

Art is a step towards healing.

Making art is deeply therapeutic. When I was in my twenties I began writing a graphic novel. I didn’t have a plan when I picked up my sketchbook, I simply started drawing. What emerged was an exploration of my experience as a child refugee. Working on it was surprisingly cathartic. It helped me process memories from my childhood and explore unanswered questions.

Excerpt from graphic novel, Valley of the Ghosts by Anna Abramzon
Excerpt from graphic novel, Valley of the Ghosts by Anna Abramzon

In the weeks after September 11, my friend Joy Langer, a native New Yorker, was working on an exercise in her class at the Art Institute of Boston. Her professor looked at her painting and asked, “Do you see what you are doing? Just do it and get it out.” Joy had not realized she was painting the Twin Towers, but their essence was emerging on her wood panel. The trauma of 9/11 had shaken her to her core, and that painting was the beginning of her healing process.

9/11, Joy Langer, oil on wood panel

Israel and the Jewish world at large are a nation in deep grief. With so much uncertainty and ongoing loss, art is an outlet to process emotions that can’t be put into words. Take for instance artistic responses to October 7 like the Empty Shabbat Table, which has been replicated all over the world, or the Kidnapped from Israel posters. They have become a rallying cry and a battleground worldwide: both installation projects make a statement and provoke a response in a uniquely impactful way.

My friend Shiran Zaray-Mizrachi, a painter based in Beit Shemesh, began creating haunting sketches in the weeks following the attack.

Prayer for the Captives, Shiran Zaray-Mizrahi

“The events of two weeks ago shattered more than just my heart. It broke the barrier surrounding my heart,” she wrote in October. “I am sure I am not alone in feeling reignited and truly connecting to the words of Tehillim for the first time in my life.” Her raw sketches have given way to beautiful, light-soaked oil paintings. “Our horror here is collective,” she told me, “and making art is our way of showing that we stand behind and support and contemplate the agony of those mourning.”

A Thousand Shall Fall, Shiran Zaray-Mizrahi

I have a therapist friend who advocates for using art as a way to process grief and emotions.  Since October, her family has been inundated by antisemitic threats and incidents. She has been painting as a way to cope. As we grieve the end of pre-October 7 life in the Jewish Diaspora, “art is a way to connect to humanity,” she told me.

But the most painful example of art as a way to process loss are the heartbreaking drawings the IDF discovered of one of the Israeli children held captive in the squalid tunnels beneath Gaza. In the darkness, the little girl drew mountains, houses, and a sunny sky: an ode to the ability of art to express a raw yearning for freedom in even the youngest and most vulnerable.

Making art is an act of defiance.

Matisyahu did not capitulate to the protesters demanding the cancellation of his concert. Instead, he performed for free in a venue nearby. “I am standing up in defense of the Jewish people, as I wish many had done prior to World War II and the extermination of millions before it was too late,” he said in a statement. Zoya Cherkassky did not let the interruption to her presentation phase her. Her response to the protestors was short and sweet: “F— you,” she said. Similarly Alex Woz did not allow the hate to silence him. Instead he has been cranking out powerful Zionist pieces on his gorgeous and content rich Instagram feed. Jewish artists will not cow to intimidation or bullying. We are the descendants of survivors of genocide, pogroms, and exiles – it is our duty and our privilege to make our voices heard.

As for me, it took a long time to begin to translate my reaction to October 7 into art. After many failed attempts I finally took a deep breath and dove head first into the emotional tsunami. I forced my brush onto the page, not knowing what would come. And before long, there they were, the ones calling out from the darkness and the ones who have overcome. I painted the pain, the grief, and more than anything else, the hope. Because that is the Jewish way. We will overcome, and we will dance again. And in the meantime, we will keep on painting. Am Yisrael Chai.

We Will Dance Again, Anna Abramzon, mixed media on paper
About the Author
Anna Abramzon is an artist based in Los Angeles. Her work explores the intersection of contemporary figurative painting and traditional Judaica. She specializes in ketubah art, painted tallitot, and Jewish motifs. She is also a blogger on issues of Soviet Jewry, Israel, and Jewish lifestyle.
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