As a cis woman in my late thirties, I do not go a week without having a conversation about reproduction, in the procreation sense. As a contingent academic in the humanities, I do not go a week without using the word “reproduction” in the social sense, meaning the reproduction of systems and categories used to organize culture, gender, class, and so much else. I know this word intimately right now. Its p’s and d’s burble through my lips and my hands gesture automatically when I speak it aloud. My wrists twist and my palms form a chute downwards from my abdomen. Passing on.
I am not a parent, but many of my friends are. A few months ago one of my closest friends gave birth to her first child, a birth met by a generous and elaborate system of both chosen and biological family. My friend is a single parent by choice, so she did not have the normative option to burrow into a nuclear family and close out the rest of the world. We mapped out sign-ups for who could grocery shop for her each week, who could do sleepovers, who could open packages while my friend breastfed, and who could send the email announcement of the baby’s birth and Meal Train sign-ups when my friend herself had no free hands. I’m particularly proud of typing out that last one, the extremely light lift that it was. It’s delightful when something easy for one body can make a huge difference for another.
This experience with my friend was the closest I’ve been to a birth (after my own, which I do not remember), and to the sleepless frenzy of care in the days immediately following, the urgency of new living. After a few days of total preoccupation with my friend’s child and her recovery from birth, I realized that I needed to change course, and dramatically, because other work was required of me and I was not, in fact, on parental leave. I was instead just a few weeks away from a different kind of milestone: an exhibition I had curated was opening very soon, and the final edits on the wall labels and plans for opening events needed my attention.
The exhibition, Material/Inheritance, was—and is—a showcase of the work of a specific group of people, artists who have received the New Jewish Culture Fellowship (NJCF), which provides financial and communal support to groundbreaking Jewish artists. The show was a birth of its own, if we are to use that term in its most stretched-open meaning. I am stretching both “birth” and that phrase from Virginia Woolf that I know as well as my own skin, without knowing who first taught it to me: “A Room of One’s Own.” In her 1929 essay by this name, Woolf declares that a woman needs physical space of her own (among other things) to work creatively, in order to resist the social expectations that bind and bear down upon a woman attempting to have a new idea. In the weeks before the opening, amid the expectation and my half-blurry baby brain, I compared my friend’s birth and the exhibition: my friend was getting to design birth and parenting without the forced boundaries that sometimes accompany new life, and I was birthing a show in a form and place that hadn’t held this genre of exhibition before.
Material/Inheritance opened in one big room, indeed—the Feldman Gallery at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM). This gallery had held art before—guided by prior curator-in-residence Liora Ostroff—but it was the museum’s first partnership with NJCF, and its first art exhibition organized around an emergent group of affiliated people, collaborators, and friends. It was the first time this group of people had shown work together in one museum, and, for many of the artists, the first time showing work in an explicitly Jewish context, a risk-taking endeavor for a variety of reasons.
The risk, for some of the artists, grows from the ways their work challenges certain institutional Jewish norms by including content about queerness, race, class, or anti-Zionism. For others, the risk was less about potential hot-button conflict with their audiences or presenting institution, and more about how it might affect their work to be associated with Jewishness. “I knew for sure it wasn’t cool,” one artist said to me a few months ago about the exhibition, “but I also didn’t know if it would change the connotation of my work.” Art never exists in a vacuum; it is always affected by the company in which it’s presented and the identities held by those who view it.
I’ve written elsewhere about how I situate myself within several of these identity considerations, particularly as regards identity-based organizing, Jewish assimilation, and the potential impact of internalized antisemitism. I’ve never felt that being Jewish was cool, and I’m certain this is due to both internal and external conditions that code many American Jews as simultaneously assimilated into whiteness (i.e., boring, privileged), and at the same time as stereotypically nerdy, self- or tribally-centered, overly attached to our own identities. These are two opposite sides of a knife that none of us can walk safely.
In curating this show, I wasn’t trying to be cool, or at least less so than in other art spaces. Here I was trying to net together urgent artwork that is committed more to making than to catering to cultural stereotypes. I selected creative work that I believe in, and allowed what Jewishness meant and means to emerge amidst and between the works, instead of controlling for what their themes should be, or planning in advance how I wanted them to cohere.
In late March, after months of preparation, and just a few weeks after my friend gave birth, Material/Inheritance opened at the JMM. The exhibit operates itself as a form of anti-closure. It’s social reproduction in some senses—namely, the expression of Jewishness and its continuity in the individual bodies of these artists—but at the same time, it breaks open what this continuity means. Can a person love Jewish ritual and also need it to stretch to consecrate contemporary griefs and processes? We see this in action with Tyler Rai’s expansion of neshome likht to include ecological beings disappearing due to climate change, or in Ellie Lobovits’s installation of photographs in which the tools of in vitro fertilization are placed alongside more customary symbols of fertility and family, including flowers, fruit, and grandparents inside a sukkah.
I’m thinking again of Woolf, and how she believes that the Room can be a barricade against social norms and demands. I’m thinking of this exhibition as a Room in which the artists get to self-determine, not ignoring the histories (religious, ethnic, gendered, classed) of identities that surround the Room, but choosing what of these histories support their own ideas and cultural flourishing. We could say that instead of solid walls, the Room has a few portholes drilled through at the artist’s behest.
As the artists in Material/Inheritance are invested in weaving ancient and new, so too I’m invested in expanding Woolf’s definition—not to negate its cultural context, and the radical nature of highlighting “women” in Woolf’s time, but to reconfigure it with all due respect, with the knowledge of our present moment. There are many ways I’m thinking of that here. An obvious one rooted in a contemporary understanding of gender is that the way Woolf defines “woman” feels antiquated, and maybe even unnecessary.
I’m thinking of Ira Khonen Temple’s opening day performance at Material/Inheritance, which included music challenging the linearity of Jewish life cycles through a reworking of traditional Yiddish and klezmer tunes into songs that celebrate trans adulthood. Like the work of many queer and trans artists in this show, this work resists the boundaries and assumptions of gender normativity, offering agency in choosing one’s gender expression, as well as one’s kin.
I’m thinking about who is in the Room here, and how the Room expands, and when this expansion is possible. Given that a majority of NJCF fellows work in non-static forms, I incorporated performances as an integral and ongoing part of the exhibition, as opposed to tacked on top—as we sometimes see in “activations” of museum shows or opening and closing events. These performances took place just outside of the gallery, and several used objects featured in the show itself, extending the edges of the formal static exhibition space.
The Room formalizes and validates certain ways of working, but it too can limit. I’m definitely not the first to rework Woolf in this way: Woolf’s model has some clear blind spots, particularly in terms of race and class; it assumes that privilege is necessary for artmaking and thus risks decentering those without such privilege.
Some of the artists in Material/Inheritance have received strong support from big-name institutions, and some have not yet. Nat Sufrin’s Google Image translations of two iconic poems about the Holocaust—in which the facts and phrases of genocide are reshaped and refracted into the ever-expanding connotations and juxtapositions of a Google search—are his first ever installation of visual art, but his piece was one of the most remarked upon at the exhibition’s opening. On the other side of the spectrum, sculptor Julia Elsas has long imagined the contours of mythical biblical instruments and sold the resulting sculptures at the Jewish Museum and the Whitney, but found an intimate sense of belonging in this exhibition unlike others in which she has shown.
Both Sufrin’s and Elsas’s works refuse narrative closure by making new art from ancient or well-trodden texts. And all the work in Material/Inheritance is characterized by a commitment to continual inquiry, investigating allegiances and loyalties on many levels, including spirituality and religion, nation-states and families. Can a person be anti-Zionist and still be Israeli, as Liat Berdugo asks in the performative lecture she gave at the Material/Inheritance opening? Can a person challenge the core beliefs they were raised with, and still love the family and place that made them?
The exhibition, I hoped, would serve as its own answer. As artists, we require nothing to be off limits; or, perhaps more accurately, we require the limits to work as material around which we can perform, consider, and create, whether we are working within or outside the boundaries these limits mark. Our work is not ever finished, even when preserved for a period of time as in a formal exhibition. In Daniel Terna’s multimedia installation Not Yet Titled (Verso), mourning a parent is represented as a looping of images that do not end, an infinite procedure. Allegiance, love, and tradition are certainly being passed on, and in that sense this work highlights cultural continuity, even in fragments, even in the various jagged forms in which the artist experiences it.
In this exhibition, we may have our symbolic Room, but still so much of the work in and around that Room is about resistance—not being completely comfortable here, and maybe never wanting to be comfortable within the norms this place establishes. We do not assume abundant acceptance is necessary to creativity. Instead, we choose resistance, jitteriness, and questioning as permanent states of creative life.
Curation is itself a creative practice, particularly when working with and against existing cultural narratives. I choose what to place where, and how its arrangement will change what a viewer sees. With thirty artists in this show, it was particularly complicated while curating to consider relationships. By which I mean, thinking about how each work related with others (intentionally or unintentionally), and how I might influence a viewer’s experience of these relationships by placing one work beside another. For example, by looping a comforting animated music video on the same screen beside a more politically-challenging short film with related content, or by intentionally expanding the form of an exhibition to include not just art that hangs on walls, but temporally-bound performance.
I wanted viewers of this exhibition to feel welcome and invited to engage. I wanted to conjure some familiarity and some strangeness—knowing that what is familiar and what is strange would vary across a range of viewers. In the context of the JMM, which was until recently known primarily as a regional Jewish history museum, viewers might expect a more nostalgic touch, an exhibit focused (as is common in these spaces) on immigration and economic growth, narratives of eternal victimhood, or exceptionalism against all odds.
In Material/Inheritance, viewers find a different stripe of pride in identity, one that treats Jewishness as solid enough to serve as creative ground, ground solid enough that it can be a foundation for new, challenging ideas, and ground porous enough that it can be scooped up as mud to be molded into new shapes.
I thought long and hard about what aesthetics to bring into the design of this exhibition, particularly when to mimic or challenge the conventions of an art museum, a Jewish museum, or an experimental arts performance space. In the end, I chose to preserve most formal gallery conventions—the walls were white, the installation minimalist, and the text introduction greeting visitors when they enter the exhibit followed a familiar form: a series of open-ended questions concluding with a more practical summary of themes. I chose to reproduce these conventions because they inhabit a new environment, a world of Jewish institutions with its own conventions that historically have not welcomed the risks and boundary-pushing experiments of contemporary art, particularly when it comes to content with such themes as queerness, class critique, anti-racist activism, and anti-Zionism.
A curator sometimes has to play the role of the therapist, comforting artists when their wildest visions are not yet executed and reminding them that together we will get there, or empathizing with tireless museum staff tasked with installing work not envisioned for real-life walls, negotiating between dreams and delivery. Prior to the opening of the exhibition, I reverted to this therapeutic role as museum staff and artists prepared for the possible moral and continuity panic that might arise in the face of a widening conceptualization of Jewish life. I’d heard about confrontations between artists and audiences at events elsewhere, though, to everyone’s credit, I have not witnessed these panics arising at the JMM. And because I have not done curatorial work in such an explicitly institutional Jewish context before, I have fresh eyes and the resources offered by people who have navigated complex conditions before me.
I’m thinking about the way my friend prepared to communicate around her child’s birth: she expended a great deal of thought and energy on how she wanted to communicate with other people, what to ask of whom and how. And yet in the days after the baby came, I drafted an email announcement for her very quickly, and she looked at it only briefly before nodding her approval. Enough groundwork had been laid to just send it, in some ways alike to privileges I held with Material/Inheritance; so much groundwork had been laid by JMM staff, prior curator Liora Ostroff, and JMM executive director Sol Davis (not to mention prior generations of Jewish radicals and artists) that I got to just send it out into the world, too. The opening would be the moment of birth when you let go and hope for the best.
And hope for the best I do, still do, now that the exhibition has opened and been received by viewers. I choose to empathize with the fears projected around me, and still leap, not knowing exactly how each person will react or participate. I think: all of us are scared of change sometimes. Recently, when I spoke with Matthew Baigell, a longtime scholar of Jewish art, he (thoughtfully and respectfully) asked me what, exactly, is Jewish about this exhibition, given its emphasis on change, open questions, and contemporary concerns. He put into words a fear that I have imagined lies behind Jewish institutional brittleness: What will Jewish identity become if it continues to evolve away from tradition and toward reinvention? What will be left to pass on? Is it being watered down? I offered him the take that for many of these artists, this exhibition means engaging with Jewishness for the first time, when many had no prior interest in or affiliation with Jewishness at all.
What does it actually mean to pass on, to make something like you, or in your likeness? To carry on an identity and set of practices, and to re-produce them? Perhaps because I am not a parent, I have the spaciousness to ask these questions and use them symbolically. If we take the model of human birth, we can more easily see what these acts of reproduction can mean: opening up the very center of one’s self to change, to a future inherently unknown and full of possible reroutings, reeducations, influences, loves. As in much of the art in this exhibition, reproduction is continuous and multitudinal, not only occurring linearly from parent to child, but also from child to parent, in many different directions between others involved in the practice of relation.
One way to tell the story of Jewishness itself is through a story of tectonic shifts, periodic transformations and rebirths. I understand that this might be terrifying for people who want to preserve something very important to them, to maintain Jewishness exactly as they know it, but the metaphor of parenting may offer a guide. Many of us accept the fact that parents are completely altered by the birth and raising of their children. I think of all the friends who have stared at me, sunken-eyed, in the months after their child’s birth, and muttered, “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Material/Inheritance attempts to live out the question of who we are from a stance of not knowing. I can’t define for anyone what this Jewishness is or means, and that is why it’s generative. I am still in the newborn fog of witnessing it emerge. It turns out I love this newborn fog. It is a space where I feel artistically and communally alive. I surprised myself by how pleasantly focused I felt holding my friend’s baby, how called into presence I felt, in a manner that is difficult to find in my daily contexts. I don’t know who I am to this child, and I bristle a bit when my friend calls me “Auntie” to the baby, because it feels like a title from a different world. This child is in a new world, a family of now, and who knows what transgressions and challenges this child’s generation will offer to mine. My best hope is that I’ll be able to shift; my arms as I hold them, my weight as I balance to stand or sit, my ideas as they accommodate the room this child needs to make and be.
What’s helpful about the birth metaphor, for me, is that it represents socially normalized radical change. Many of us experience pressure for Jewish babies, so let us reroute that pressure, taking known narratives from an old world to understand what matters to us. As exhausting and unpredictable as the whole parenting experience can be, we are told that this rough transition into parenthood is ordinary, even good, that it brings us close to a new range of human experiences and emotions. So we could incorporate that knowledge here, too, in the context of what it means to live, act, or create Jewishly. We’re witnessing a tremendous level of process-oriented, relationship-driven creative production to match the tremendous upheaval of our times. We will all be altered by this, and by one another. May it be so.
Material/Inheritance: Contemporary Work by New Jewish Culture Fellows is on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from March 26–June 11, 2023, with accompanying performances and events. For details and event registration, see the exhibition’s website.
Leora Fridman is author of Static Palace, a collection of essays about chronic illness, art, and politics, and My Fault, selected by Eileen Myles for the Cleveland State University Press First Book Prize, in addition to other books of prose, poetry, and translation. She is currently curator-in-residence at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and faculty associate in the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. Learn and read more at leorafridman.com.