Re-Examining the Jewish American Diaspora: Art, Ethnicity and Race
The construction of the Jewish American diaspora as a space embodying a single homogenous identity that encompasses an entire ethnicity, physical features and history needs re-consideration. An expansive and inclusive Jewish identity that stretches beyond hegemonic Ashkenazi and European American borders finds expression through individuals, artists and scholars who see the compositions, histories and peoples who identify as Jewish. My research argues that heterogeneity of the Jewish experience remains most powerfully asserted by those Jewish artists who live in the intersections of Judaism, ethnicity, race and culture. I combine academic discussions about the intersectionality of diaspora, Judaism, and art in the United States. With the expressions of these Jewish artists, this paper creates a critical, specific ideology that defines artistic expressions of multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic Jewish peoples in America.
Diaspora, most simply, defines a removal from one’s homeland. Diasporic communities and peoples who live across the globe experience this removal, displacement, and contested immigrant status; however one particular framework dominates references to the Jewish global diaspora. The immigration story of Jewish peoples to North American soil in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Europe, does not accurately reflect the current Jewish American diaspora. But, important works by European Jewish immigrants of the time do illustrate their own artistic claims and cultural pride upon arrival in the US. Scholar Norman Finklenstein’s chapter “Jewish American Modernism and the Problem of Identity” within the text Not One of Them in Place marks the arrival of a wave of German Jews to the United States in the early twentieth century. The chapter highlights a group of Yiddish poets, led by Louis Zukofsky, and their fight for recognition within a literary circle in New York City during the 1920s. Refusing to conform, these poets remained attached to their German heritage and language, in order to manifest a strong Jewish diaspora across the Atlantic. Finkelstein reinforces Zukofsky’s commitment to maintain his Jewish cultural space by means of art and language. In order to maintain cultural solidarity, pride and recognition, the poets insist on writing solely in Yiddish, not conforming to English text and language for their publication. Finklenstein’s text represents an incorporation of artistic solidarity and pride within an expanding and evolving diaspora, particularly the Jewish diaspora. Expressing roots within language and arts also manifests in contemporary Jewish American diasporas. As will be further introduced later in this paper, artist who I examined, Sun Mee Chomet and Siona Benjamin, assert their expressions as Jewish peoples with intersectional racial, ethnic and plural identities in America’s hegemonic Jewish diaspora.
Just as Finkelstein references the poet’s words as spaces of cultural solidarity and expression, the Jewish diaspora continues to use language and creativity to express community. In anthropologist James Clifford chapter “Diaspora”, he emphasizes the impossibility of defining a holistic diaspora which all Jews can identify, situating the term in relation to migrant, immigrant and borderland inhabitants. While some peoples attempt to reference immigrants as “the Other”, in author Bluma Goldstein’s “A Politics and Poetics of Diaspora: Heine’s ‘Hebraische Melodien'” she identifies German nineteenth century poet Heinrich Heine’s fascination with the oriental, or other Jew. As members of the Jewish diaspora, living in Sephardic Spain, this exotified Jewish community encompassed the far-reaching points of Judaism which, according to the poet, he could only dream of encountering. Instead of glorifying those experiences, I argue that these exotified Spanish Jews living in Spain should remain members of a larger Jewish diaspora, peoples able to encompass additional modes of Jewish expression. Even within the early nineteenth century these extensions of Judaism set examples for the expansion of Jewish diaspora today.
Similarities between people in separation from their homeland signify that many peoples experienced and continue to experience removal from a homeland. Clifford emphasizes that the intersection of peoples as members of the Jewish diaspora hold validity and possibility for how to redefine diasporic identities. Such diasporic experiences create expression through artistic mediums. Clifford mentions the work of performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, an artist who represents and conveys life in the Mexican-American borderland. Just as Pena expresses his place as a person encompassed by a border territory, Jewish artists perpetuate the livelihood amongst their own diaspora(s). Clifford regards the Jewish diaspora as a space to potentially include the expressions of m/any peoples in removal from their homeland. These opportunities for cross-cultural expressions suggest recognition of peoples whom I interviewed and researched, Sun Mee Chomet, Siona Benjamin and Larry Rivers.
Theorizing diaspora remains an importance project, but exploring complex notions of identities within the diaspora prove important for discussions of the Jewish diasporic subjectivity, which recognizes many different options, races, religious views and belief. Recognition of several opinions, races, thoughts, religious views, and beliefs hold importance in recognizing a complete Jewish identity. Professor David Biale published “The Politics of Philanthropy”, that asserts in order to continue Jewish tzedakah (charity) within the Jewish global community, donors must recognize the diversity of Jews throughout the world. He asserts, “Only by accepting and affirming these diversities publicly can a true pluralism be allowed to flourish and only by affirming a true pluralism can a much more realistic sense of Jewish unity emerge.” Similar to Biale’s push towards unity, Humanist Rabbi Daniel Friedman emphasizes the new possibilities created by many American Jewish peoples who turn away from religious Judaism and identify as ethnic Jews. Rabbi Friedman explains,
The reason that so many Jews are estranged from Judaism is that even those who do believe in God no longer accept the classical definition of the Jews as the divinely chosen people . . . Yet they continue to identify themselves as Jews. They wish to maintain their connection to the Jewish people and to the history of the Jewish people. They are proud of that history and see no reason to cut themselves apart from it.
Members of the Jewish diaspora identify as Jewish peoples without its religious affiliations, thus perpetuating individual modes of Judaism separate from Judaic hachala, or established rabbinical rules. This individuality allows for creativity and expression, especially within the arts. Rabbi Friedman identifies this creativity through discussions, intermarriages and Jewish presence in science and art. His own denial of god gives opportunity for the freedom of thought and discussions. The fluidity of Jewish identity spans from atheist to Hasidic giving way to multiple means of expression.
Both Biale and Rabbi Friedman emphasize the individual’s ability to assert their own portrayal of Judaism through dialog, philanthropy and identification. Scholar Kerry P. Steinberg’s chapter within Contesting Identities in Jewish Philanthropy informs readers about the power of visual media, especially photography as a means for ethnic identification within Jewish philanthropic organizations. In her comparison of two well-known Jewish philanthropies, she deciphers how each philanthropic institution reinforces and perpetuates their ideological positions of Judaism, identity and capital. She examines New Israel Fund, a philanthropy group that supports grass-root work in Israel and the developing world. She explains how the group appeals to multiple Jewish peoples and identities by means of their photographs. Using an artistic lens, she references the creativity within the confines of money and philanthropies. These visuals give direct messages to members about this organization, peoples, work places and recipients of the funds.
Examining other forms of art, Jewish artist Larry Rivers holds an ethnically Jewish identity similar to that which Rabbi Friedman discusses. Rivers’ art emphasizes his Jewish identity and fascination with to African/African American culture. As Rabbi Friedman discusses, without religious ties, ethnic Jews create ties and relationships through creative expression. Milly Heyd discusses some of Rivers’ most controversial works in her chapter ‘Hot’ verses ‘Cool’ within her text Mutual Reflections. Lucky enough to hold an identity as a “hipster from the Bronx”, Heyd describes Rivers’ relationship to Black culture: “difficult[y] in pinning down Rivers’ artistic stance as related to Blacks is due to his wavering between identification with and sincere admiration for Blacks, to the point of expressing envy of their creative powers.” Rivers’ admiration for the African American community emerges throughout several of his paintings. Heyd writes a detailed analysis of Rivers’ works, such as his African Continent and African piece, which not only suggests Rivers’ own reference to Africa and African peoples, but also a place and home. A reference to the understood return to Africa transfers to the widely accepted Zionist return to the Jewish homeland, a tie that many create between Rivers’ as a Jewish man and the Black community. Without clear reference to, but still alluding to a Jewish diaspora, Heyd notes Rivers’ tie to a Jewish diaspora through this piece by recognizing his call to Zion. Whether it refers to an African Zion or biblical Zion, his art builds bridges between his Jewish identity and the African peoples. This analysis expands notions of Jewish diaspora, one that Clifford highlights in his chapter as overlapping and cross-cultural connections.
Artist Larry Rivers also holds important intersections and seemingly exemplifies the argument of author Norman L. Kleebatt’s “Master Narratives/Minority Artist”, which acknowledges the struggles of minority representation within American art, especially during the Contemporary Art Movements of the mid-20th century. Kleebatt emphasizes the importance and assertion of minority artists as peoples of resistance and voice within a hegemonic western artistic canon. The assertion of intersectional Jewish artists reinforces a successful space for expression outside the “movements” and institutionalized walls.
The Jewish diaspora creates a plethora of opportunities for individual expression and creativity. While Finkelstein and Goldstein’s texts do discuss European Jewish experiences, they highlight the importance of artistry to maintain an ethnic solidarity. Both texts use the arts as a means for expression, allowing Jewish identities as points of guidance for expression within their own Jewish diasporas. Clifford highlights the expanding boundaries of diaspora as a removal from a homeland; the fluidity of diaspora is endless. Similar to his discussion, Biale and Kerri P. Steinberg discuss multiplicity within the world of Jewish philanthropy. Both writers assert that sustaining the tzedakah (charity) and acceptance of the multiple identities within the global Jewish community aids in maintaining their organization. Heyd examines extensions of a Jewish multiple identity in Rivers’ connection to his own Jewish heritage and his fascination with African and African American culture. As the Jewish diaspora continues to expand past its own boundaries, artists maintain rhythms of thought, sound, and sight.
Theories and Methods
I re-examine the American Jewish Diaspora by re-centering multiculturalism and multiracial peoples within the Jewish community. My own research includes interview with a Jewish woman, who holds an intersectional and multi-ethnic/multiracial identities. I became acquainted with my interviewee through my professor at Colorado State University for this project, Dr. May Fu. During spring break 2008, we traveled to Minneapolis, MN where I met with actress, artist and poet Sun Mee Chomet on Saturday March 15th, at her dance studio in downtown Minneapolis. Our interview lasted for approximately fifty minutes, and our discussion addressed important issues such as her identity as a Korean adoptee within a Jewish family, how she expresses herself as an artist and how she creates a continual tie to Jewish culture and Korean/Asian American issues.
This project also looks at the work of Siona Benjamin, an Indian American Jewish female painter. I discovered Benjamin’s work while browsing the internet for Jewish artists and was immediately drawn to her paintings for their intricate style and obvious overtones of Indian and Jewish cultures. Most of my research about Benjamin comes form her own artist website as well as other primary source newspaper and journal articles that previously interviewed Benjamin about local art shows or discussions. Benjamin’s intersectional identities are exemplified in each of her miniature painted self -portraits.
My research also analyzes the life and work of Jewish visual artist Larry Rivers. A closer look at his own autobiography, newspaper articles and art journals, a critical analysis of his artistic adoration for the African American community and Africa reflects his place as a multicultural artist within my discussion. Two pieces by Rivers, a mixed media painting and installation, emphasize Rivers’ tie and association to both African and African American communities: African Continent and African and I Like Olympia in Blackface. This paper discusses Rivers’ fascination and attempt to associate himself as an ally with these groups during the late 1960s early 1970s. Holding a Jewish identity himself, Rivers’ raises questions of self-reflection, cultural commodification and embracing multiculturalism as an ethnically Jewish person in America.
My research investigates how the artists creatively portray their Jewish identities and expand discussions about heterogeneous Jewish identity, race and multiculturalism. I analyze each artist for his or her work and position within the Jewish American diaspora. Using their individual stories and creative expressions, I compare the artists’ experience and works. These intersecting stories not only connect these three Jewish artists but also implicate my own identity and attachment to this research and analysis.
Through my few years as a student within the Ethnic Studies department at Colorado State University, I learned not only to embrace my own Jewish heritage, customs and family, but also the importance of looking beyond an already assumed dialog and history about ethnicity and diaspora. While Ethnic Studies provided an opportunity for me to reclaim my Jewish American identity, I also realize the flaws within Jewish American assumptions about physical features and lineage, recognized in personal dialogs in addition to scholarship and other literature. Both sides of my family encompass identities as descendents of European Jews. And while I grew up holding a situated knowledge of what it meant to look Jewish, or as we discuss in my own family, distinguishing someone as “a member of the tribe” or “a map of Israel” (referring to a person who’s features appear to look “Jewish”), I now understand these observations and assertions as biologically essentialist. Ethnic Studies challenges a popularized and limited history. In this case, I challenge myself and other American Jews to look beyond their assumptions of the Jewish American diaspora, towards a multiethnic and multiracial Jewish peoples that more accurately defines the expanding Jewish American community.
As discussed above, explanations of multiethnic, multicultural, and multiracial peoples within the Jewish American diaspora remain important for this research. Multi-ethnic, racial and cultural peoples within the Jewish community provide significant insight to this pluralistic community. Jewish, Lesbian, Feminist, wrier/poet Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz posits that, “Jews are a multiracial multiethnic people.” As peoples with Arab, African, Indian, Asian, and Latino roots, Jewishness marks a removal from the assumed white Ashkenazi/European identity and includes multiethnic and multiracial linkages throughout the globe. Kaye/Kantrowitz continues, “Given that most of the world is completely ignorant of Jewish cultural markers such as Ashkenazi or Sephardi, stereotypes about Jews are by default usually about Ashkenazim. The diaspora Jew is an Ashkenazi.” Rather than tracing a Jewish identity to a specific part of the world, she argues that assumptions of Jewish identity are embedded within ethnically European Ashkenazi communities. Kaye/Kantrowitz’s emphasis upon these multiethnic and multiracial peoples that defines the Jewish community in turn postulates Chomet and Benjamin’s as multiracial artists in America’s Jewish diaspora.
Professor David Biale notes within his article “The Politics of Philanthropy”, “by only accepting and affirming these diversities publicly can a true pluralism be allowed to flourish and only by affirming a true pluralism can a much more realistic sense of Jewish unity emerge.” Clifford argues that diaspora is characterized by continuous, intersecting and overlapping processes of interpretation. By relocated peoples who bridge race, culture and ethnicity this enforces the notion of diaspoic communities as pluralistic. These theories by Kaye/Kantrowitz and Biale allow for expression and creativity from within the plural and intersectional Jewish community. By recognizing the vast Jewish community as cohesive multiethnic and multiracial peoples, Clifford’s interpretation allows for convergence and allegiance, through the individual.
The Jewish American diaspora provides a space for people to find and express their identity. While this community historically lacks recognition and remains defined by its white, Ashkenazi members, its actual community includes peoples of all races, ethnicities and cultures. This revival and recognition of all Jewish peoples through creative expressions allows for an alternative lens to view the Jewish American diaspora. Allowing individuals to express their place within Jewish society gives power and voice to their own individual experiences. By extending dialog, this gives an alternative lens with which to recognize multi-ethnic, racial and cultural peoples who encompass the Jewish diaspora past the restrictive Ashkenazi white community.
A multicultural discussion of Judaism and diaspora leads numerous scholars to recognize the plurality of American Jews with the arts and creativity, offering solidarity to individuals sharing their stories and pushing the larger context of Judaism to expand its restrictive boundaries. Minneapolis actress, playwright and poet, Sun Mee Chomet identifies as Asian American, culturally Jewish and a Korean adoptee. Adopted from Korea into a Jewish family, she explains,
I wasn’t raised learning Korean or other parts of the culture like a lot of other kids now, I was raised with a Jewish father and a Protestant mother who were raising there kids like they were hippies . . . You just absorb whatever your adopted into, so I guess being adopted into, having a Jewish influence from my parents creates a sensitivity to the subject of identity and it also has forced me to reflect a part of me that is Jewish . . . I don’t claim to know thoroughly the ins and outs of Orthodox Judaism . . . It’s part of interact[ing] with people, part of your humor, your sarcasm, you know, your, um, your commentary on the world. (Sun Mee Chomet, 3/15/2008)
Chomet reflects on her positive Jewish upbringing as a child in Detroit. Her creative expressions and identity as a Jewish artist reflect upon her positive experiences amongst her own Jewish family. Just as scholars Kaye/Kantrowitz and Clifford discuss the plurality within the Jewish diaspora, Chomet embodies the intersection of her own borderlands as an Asian American, culturally Jewish and Korean Adoptee woman through artistic expression. She also described her encounter with her own family as one of luck. In the same way that she just happened upon her family, she explained her Jewish identity also happened upon her. Chomet remains strongly affiliated with her Jewish family and recognizes herself as culturally Jewish, through connections with her grandparents, family stories, mannerisms, food and traditions. She explained her involvement with Jewish artist group called the Ramon Artist Salon in Minneapolis those supports and funds young Jewish voices of all ethnicities in her community. During our interview she expressed her experiences at Ramon as very welcoming, a solid embrace of the Jewish community and her non-religious, artistic and multiethnic identities. The salon provided an early space for her to perform her monologue, “Sun Mee You American Girl,” in front of other Jewish peoples. She explains her monologue within our interview,
It’s about all the stupid questions I’ve been asked as a Korean adoptee . . . So you know, questions go from being ridiculous, . . . everything from “Are you related to Bruce Lee?” to, you know, “Do Asian men have small penises?” like people ask the stupidest question, but one is “How are you Jewish? How could you possibly be Jewish?”
Reflecting on her past experiences, Chomet encounters her own space to project an identity as an Asian American Jewish woman. By openly admitting her difficult confrontations in the past, laughing about their absurdity, and then creating her own art in response, Chomet takes charge of her identity and place within the Jewish American diaspora. She asserts her status as an artist, using voice and creativity to respond to those life experiences and questions about her positionality through her monologue “Sun Mee You American Girl”.
Chomet also continually encounters confrontations with peoples who lack an understanding of Jewish diaspora beyond their own Ashkenazi features. With her voice and talent as an actress, she mocks those who refuse to comprehend her multicultural and multiethnic identity. For Chomet, it remains simple; she is a Korean adoptee Jew. That others lack an understanding for her multicultural identity undoubtedly remains an important aspect to her work, and therefore forces her to continually reclaim her Jewish identity. She explains that, “in everyone else’s eyes it seems so crazy, you know? . . . I feel like I am a representative of what other people would claim is so difficult to understand about multiculturalism. Well, it’s not so difficult for me to understand. Its just part of the way I see the world.” Chomet’s own lens maintains strength through her layered identity. By distinguishing herself as “multicultural” she steps into a space for thought and expressions as a Jewish woman. While the Jewish community struggles to place her within its tight-knit Ashkenazi boundaries, Chomet breaks ground and voice by asserting her intersectional Jewish identity within this Jewish American diaspora in the United States.
Chomet also situates her own identity within multiple Korean adoptee, Asian American and Jewish communities. During our interview, she explained that her Jewish identity remains closely tied with her creative and artistic voice. In her monologue, “Sun Mee You American Girl,” she uses her voice to speak back to hurtful words she encountered in the past. Chomet creates characters that share similar characteristics to those people with whom she experienced negative conversations. Through her own artistic ingenuity, she then combines those experiences into a new satirical persona (or character) to exemplify the misconceptions that people make about her own identity. By performing these characters, she creates a powerful assertion of her own multiplistic identity. These actions also allow her to take charge of the homogenizing Jewish stereotypes that continue to challenge her individuality. During our interview, Chomet described Audrey, one of the characters in her monologue:
One of the later characters, her name is Audrey, and I’m going to Passover, and she’s going “Ooooh!” You know, I kind of made it up, but it’s kind of, “Ooh, its so nice to have you, we usually don’t have exchange students!” [laughs] So, I come in and she goes, “Oooooh, your not an exchange student? Well, we welcome you anyways.” And she goes, “What did you say your name was again?” and I go, “Sun Mee Chomet” And she goes, “Oooh I thought your last name was French, I thought you forget the end like ‘beret'” I say, “No, its Chomet (AY)” and she goes “Oooh Chomet. Well what is that, Korean?” And I’m like “No”, and she goes, “Ooh it’s Polish…Ooh, so next thing your going to tell me you’re Jewish.” [nods her head as herself], “Your Jewish!?! How are you Jewish??”
This character, an attempted well-meaning bubbula (older Jewish woman) hosting a Seder for college students, exposes the stereotypes and misconceptions held within this religious and ethnic community. Through her satirical monologue, Chomet displays the existing misconceptions of not only outsiders, but Jewish peoples themselves. She gives Audrey a thick New York accent, another stereotype associated with the Ashkenazi Jewish American immigrant. By asserting her identity as neither Audrey nor the New York Ashkenazi Jewish American descendant from New York immigrants, she constructs herself a multicultural person.
Chomet also explained several reasons that drive her to create art that reflects her upon Jewish identity. While being referenced as a removed member of her own family because of her different ethnicity and adoptee identity, she became inspired to create artwork that emphasizes her positionality within her own family and the Jewish American diaspora. She explains:
This poem I just wrote is based on a person who was in Germany visiting the concentration camps and telling me about it and said to me, “I thought of your father’s family when I was there,” not my family but “your fathers family”? And feeling like this inspired me to want to create something as an artist because I felt so offended by that, I felt so pushed, I felt so pushed, someone says to me, “I think its so funny, that you claim your adopted family as your own,” – you know you just absorb whatever your adopted into, so I guess being an adoptee, having a Jewish influenced from my parents creates a sensitivity to the subject of identity and it also has forced me to reflect on parts of me that are Jewish.
Chomet’s continual relationship and value she placed upon her Jewish identity by means of her family, reinstates the importance of looking beyond Ashkenazi Jews as the definition of the hegemonic Jewish community in America. While her drive stems from encounters with peoples that misunderstand her pluralistic being, Chomet and other members of the Jewish American diaspora must use their arts and expressions to inform others of the plurality within this multi-ethnic, racial and cultural community.
Multicultural and multiethnic persons encompassing the Jewish American diaspora hold key to Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s The Color of Jews discussion. She takes deliberate and radical moves, naming the traditionally embraced diaspora of Jewish culture as falsified. Kaye/Kantrowitz re-defines the diaspora, re-titling it the theoretical radical diasporism. Her reasoning? She explains,
There is no casual invitation to perpetually wander. . . Inside this longing, Diasporism represents tension, resistance to both assimilation and nostalgia, to both corporate globalization that destroys peoples and cultures, and to nationalism, which promises to preserve people and cultures but so often distorts them through the prisms of masculinism, racism, and militarism. Radical Diasporism, sans army, sans military heroes and victories, meshes well with feminism in valuing a strength and heroism available to those within armies; and suits queerness, in rejecting the constraints of traditional gendered existence.
Instead of identifying with the fixed and traditionally understood diaspora, Chomet may identify with a radical diaspora. Other creative thinkers and artists cross and encompass different stories and definitions of Jewish discovery as well.
Siona Benjamin encompasses similar identities to Chomet in that she holds an identity as both an Asian American, Jewish and a female artist creating works within the American Jewish diaspora. Benjamin, originally from Bombay, India and now residing in New Jersey, creates paintings that reflect her identity as both Jewish and Indian. As part of the Bene-Israel Jewish peoples of India, her family traces their roots back to an Indian Jewish community for nearly ten generations. She paints miniature depictions of figures, of mostly women who represent both Indian and Jewish culture, as a reflection of her own heritage. Her education within American collegiate art schools taught her to paint to the standards established by her white male professors. She explains how she learned to copy the ideas and large motions of movements like Abstract Expressionism. But these abstract strokes and meaningless areas of paint did not give Benjamin the creative empowerment she needed to sustain and drive her place as a Jewish Indian woman removed from her home in Bombay. Journalist Judy Oppenheimer’s article “Currying Favor” and interview with Benjamin tells, “Large, abstract art was in. Narrative, decorative, storytelling art was verboten. But bit by bit, ‘I found my voice’ she said, which involved, ‘all of the above’.” Benjamin developed her own, successful signature style, small, portraits emphasizing her own intersectional identity.
Numerous paintings by Benjamin depict a blue woman, a self-portrait that enables her to embraces her woman of color identity. Prior to her arrival in the United States she always, by default, was surrounded by mostly Indian peoples; but once Benjamin moved to America she realized the importance of enforcing and establishing her roots as an Indian female and artist. Benjamin always paints herself blue, in reference to the Indian blue-skinned goddess Krishna. With her blue skin reflecting her Indian heritage, many times she covers herself, or paints extensions of her body as Jewish symbols. By referencing these identities through such portraits, autobiographical interests Jewish and Indian identities and images intersect in this artistic space. Benjamin elaborates on her purpose and intent for creating her works on her website in her artist statement:
The ornateness of the culture from which I came once seemed difficult and unnecessary to apply in my work. Now I have found a way to use it, to be able to weave current issues and parts of my life in its intricacies, thus making this ornateness strong and meaningful. In this way, I attempt to create a dialogue between the ancient and the modern, forcing a confrontation of unresolved issues.
Benjamin’s paintings give attention to both her identity as well as hope for a dialog that reflects ancient and current issues. By bringing in elements beyond her own self-reflection, Benjamin’s paintings enable a critical re-thinking of complex identities with any persons no matter their ethnicity, race or culture.
In Finding Home No. 35(“Khamoshi”) (Fig. 1), Benjamin depicts an Indian woman, with blue skin. At first glace, this miniature painting might look as if it solely contains traditional Indian painting techniques and features; yet a closer look reveals the Hebrew and Judaic references mixed within the woman’s limbs and environment. One limb extends into a menorah, an overtly recognizable Jewish symbol; yet it is colored blue in reference to Benjamin’s intersectional and overlapping Indian Jewish identity. Hebrew letters spelling the shema (“Hear-O-Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One,” one of the most commonly known Jewish prayers referencing a belief in one monolithic god), is inscribed upon a pentagon shaped object that sits in another hand. This image also depicts Benjamin surrounded by images that arguably sustain her life and artistic drive. She spreads her two paintbrushes, a dish for paint or water, and a piece of paper to her right. On her the left, sits a plate of food. The border is decorated with images of swords, axes, grenades and knives, but the figure sits comfortably on her mat surrounded by items of protection: paints and nourishment. Her outstretched limbs embody her intersectional multicultural and multiethnic identity and present the viewer with the sacred Jewish prayers. She also surrounds herself with brilliant colors, foods and tools for creativity.
Benjamin uses her intersectional identities to create and paint. Her miniature paintings, such as Finding Home No. 35 (“Khamoshi”), give obvious clues to her attachment to each vital force that sustains her life: her Indian and Jewish identities, food, and creativity.
While Asian American racial identity, mark the creative expressions of Chomet and Benjamin, Jewish artist Larry Rivers brings racial issues to his paintings and installations of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Originally named Yizroch Loiza Grossberg, Rivers was an Ashkenazi Jew, born in New York City. He was raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents and from the Ukraine and first encountered creativity through music and his saxophone. Joining jazz bands in his own local settings, Yizroch began playing with these musical ensembles as a young person. Switching his name to Larry Rivers after a night club owner mistakenly called their group “Larry River and the Mudcats,” Yizroch steered away from his ethnic name recognition as an Ashkenazi Jew as a means to assimilate into the new American melting pot. After struggling to remain in the Bronx jazz scene, Rivers was introduced to the visual arts by Nell Blaine, the wife of one of Rivers’ band-mates. Rivers made frequent visits to her on Twenty-first Street in New York City. Her influences and introduction to visual arts led Rivers to pick up the paintbrush and enroll in the New School II in 1947 with legendary Abstract Expressionist teacher and painter Hans Hoffmann.
These learned styles and established artistic movements did not suit Larry and his approach to art. His fascination and adoration for his African American neighbors and musicians shone clearly within a plethora of his works in the 1960s and 1970s. Creating works that rivaled the Black Arts Movement Rivers imposed his own adoration for Black culture, through his own creativity, Jewish identity and jazz music. My own discussion of River’s works in the past showed admiration for his adoration of another culture, but I now turn a new critical approach towards his work and realize one must understand the sensitivities of calling oneself an ally, rather than participating in a commodification of another culture to make-up for the lack of the self.
A long history of Black and Jewish relations stands within this country. Alliances remained strong throughout the early 1900s Civil Rights era, while a more recent history tells of Black and Jewish peoples feeling more aggressive towards one another. Scholarship and discussions of Rivers works is contained in the context of Black/Jewish relations and art. But Milly Heyd, art history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, critically analyzes Rivers’ inclusions of Black culture within several of his works. Within her text “Mutual Reflections”, she specifically discusses Rivers’ involvement with African/African American culture in his works. Within her opening paragraph she states, “Larry Rivers’ engrossment with African-American culture does not arise from ties with other Jewish-American artists carrying a social banner.” Heyd creates and sets Rivers in a category of his own, by deliberately detaching his intrigue for Black culture from any reference to his Jewish-American heritage.
Rivers’ attempt to experience an attachment to Africa is reflected in his piece African Continent and African (1969) (Fig. 2). Critics claim this image embodies Rivers’ own Jewish Zionist ideals, but revamped and imposed upon his obsession with Africa. By creating an image of the continent, he marks his artistic power or control of the fate of his African image, an imperialist mark of control over his own Africa. His painting of Africa depicts a young male in motion, walking. The African boy, faces west, towards the United States. In the corner sits a profiled photograph of a woman in traditional African headdress. By leaving her identity anonymous, she remains a faceless commodity, that symbolizes Rivers’ glorification for the African continent and its people.
Rivers created one of his most political and satirical pieces in 1970. A more positive and compelling mark of his successes as an artist and friend to the Black community, Rivers worked against the established Western European canon to create the installation I Like Olympia in Black Face. Rivers uses this work as “a statement about the social stratification of Western society, in which traditionally the Black is the slave or servant.” Rivers recognized these harsh portrayals and reversed the racial roles in his depiction of Edouard Manet’s 19th century Olympia (Fig. 3). In his sculptural version, I Like Olympia in Black Face (Fig. 4), Rivers switches the race of the central nude woman, Black maid and even the cat in the background. The idealized, young European prostitute, Olympia, becomes Black in River’s portrayal, and the often-ignored African servant is pushed aside as Rivers paints her skin in a pasty pink tone. This satirical depiction of Manet’s 19th century painting shows a fight for recognition and beauty for the Black community. In this case, Rivers uses irony and humor to articulate his argument for the abolition of the Western artistic canon. At the same time, his work is a gesture of friendship and solidarity towards the Black community. Heyd adds that this installation, as well as other works by Rivers, depicts the characters with only one eye. This alludes to, “the one-sidedness of the perception and vision” of the Western artistic canon. Rivers’ racial revision of Manet’s Olympia shows his ingenuity as an artist who simultaneously uses art to affiliate with the Black community.
At the same time, I Like Olympia in Black Face also reveals fundamental problems by means of Rivers freedom of expression and articulation within his title and reference to Black Face make-up. Heyd points out that Black Face evidence to Rivers’ own real fantasies by literally whitening a Black face and blackening a white one more deeply refers to Rivers’ own obsessions with Black society. As Heyd explains,
“Black Faced” places the image in the connect of theatrical tradition of the minstrel shows, in which blackfaced White actors and musicals played Black people; the most famous of these was the Jewish singer and action Al Jolson . . . There is an obvious racist component in these acts of mimicry, provoking laughter by exaggerating the features of body language, and habits of Black people.
By disguising himself behind the label of Black Face within the title, his role as an ally to the Black community immediately comes under scrutiny. Rivers’ intentions as an artist remain questionable, yet his identity as an Ashkenazi Jew, second generation, born in the Bronx from immigrant parents who moved to New York City directly from the Ukraine remains unquestionable. As an ethnic Jew, Rivers’ work personifies a fascination with the racial other as a means of hoping to obtain a new America, a new commodified American identity through his artistic majesty.
Diverse artists continue to perpetrate ideals of Jewish identity and diaspora. Sun Mee Chomet asserts her voice through poetry, theater and acting. Siona Benjamin paints portraits of her Jewish and Indian intersecting identities, reflected by the blue skin she uses to depict her figures. Each variation alludes to the multiple ways Jewish artists express their identities and cultures. Their works provide meaning and sustenance to support their livelihoods. Larry Rivers’ work, reflects a provocative yet problematic inter-cultural artists engagement with the African/African American community. While he does hold a Jewish American identity, his personhood does not implement his ability to transform space as a member of a Black community. These continual intersections by Jewish artists who encompass multicultural personhoods express the ability to continue forth upon an artistic path towards expressions of identity that reaches beyond the hegemonic Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. As Jewish artists continue to create arts that reflect their positionality within the Jewish diaspora within the United States, the Jewish community must recognize its multi-ethnic, racial and cultural members.