The motivation behind my work is to find the light and relevant holiness in this world. Primarily, I’m a visual artist, however, this is not to say that my work is limited to paper and pen. While I’m working on a piece in my studio, I’m almost always simultaneously dreaming up a vision for community and sustainable, affordable, impactful, Judaism. The propositions that Rabbi Sid explores in his thesis on what Jewish communities should shift their focus on that best align with my work currently are: chochma (Jewish wisdom), kehillah (community) and kedusha (holiness).
My attempt to make Jewish wisdom accessible is primarily channeled through my illustration work. Over the past four years I have been working on my first sefer, a Pirkei Avot graphic novel (available in spring 2017). Each teaching of the six chapters is written in a playful tone and is illuminated with whimsical drawings. This book has the potential for children and adults to study Mishna, possibly for the first time, through a telling that is welcoming to all levels of Jewish learning. The characters vary in appearance, allowing each reader to find themselves in the teachings. My dreams for this sefer are to reach supplementary Jewish education programs and to inspire the next generation of Jewish makers and shakers to confidently pursue creative careers which will allow them to enrich Jewish culture. I have blueprints for several other book projects that I hope children will find to be fun and deeply informative. I hope that parents will find the books not only affordable but also a form of sustainable holiness for their children.
In my work that veers more towards fine art illustration, I strive to challenge what Jewish symbols and expressions can be. I believe that Jewish wisdom is alive, so it can grow, maybe even have a sense of humor, and surprise us. I believe that the meaning of the teaching that the Torah is not in the heavens, rather on this earth, is that the Torah is here for us to explore, love and challenge. It is another way to say that each person can feel a sense of ownership with our tradition. Rabbi Sid explains that Jewish culture needs to be on par with the culture we are surrounded by. Each time I begin a new work, I remind myself that besides creating Jewish art, I must also strive to produce art that will appeal to viewers beyond my Jewish audience. Exclusively relying on traditional Jewish symbols in art is not enough to capture such broader interest from the public. Especially in cities, where we are bombarded with advertisements, technology and a fast paced culture, Jewish art needs to be able to compete for the attention of viewers.
Over the past year, I have joined forces with two JTS students to create a spirited traditional egalitarian minyan in my home. We call it Shira b’dira, (loosely translates to “song in the home”) a play on the Israeli phrase Shira v’birah (loosely translates as “song and beer”). We are trying to create a minyan that allows folks in the neighborhood to connect with others who long to linger in the songs of kabbalat shabbat. Another goal is to play with what an inspiring synagogue space can look like.
During the week, my studio space sprawls through the living room area in my apartment and once a month, on Friday afternoon, all materials are pushed aside to make room for our minyan. Our eastern wall is covered with my sketches and sprinkles of traditional Judaica, while the other walls feature my completed artworks. Creating community in a space covered in Jewish-inspired art allows for attendees to engage easily in conversation about the work. I also believe that those who are less moved by song are given the option to enjoy & explore the visuals around them and still feel that they are experiencing something authentically spiritual and Jewish. After each service, we have a vegetarian potluck, and anywhere from twenty to thirty people will stay for the entire evening or make an appearance. A plan to host creative Jewish classes and experiment what a yeshiva can be, are also in the works.
Jessica Deutsch is a New York based artist who has taught at the New Shul, facilitated workshops as the 2D artist in residence at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute and completed a residency and volunteered with Art Kibbutz. Her work seeks to explore the intersections of Jewish spirituality and contemporary city life.