Friday, August 17, 2012

Exploring Through Story

I’ve written previously of the legacy grant  received from the Minnesota Historical Society. The state grant funded a series of oral histories with elders within a Jewish residential facility. Last year I completed a series of interviews and began to develop artwork around the stories that were shared. I’ve written of that effort in these pages and it remains ongoing.

Late last year we were awarded a second grant to do a series of cross-generational interviews and much to my chagrin I realized I haven’t written of them since. It is not for lack of activity. I just completed the last interview, finished the transcriptions and have begun the video editing. When a project is in a gestational stage, it is often difficult to write about. Whether it is painting or writing, it often helps to wait until I have a cross-section of content. It is only then that I can begin to find patterns and themes and in doing so consider my own response, all necessary steps before I can share that response in writing.

The focus of this project has been on identity and legacy. The topic is of interest to me as I evaluate my own relationship to Judaism. Growing up as a Reform Jew in a fairly secular family, I’ve never been quite sure how to classify myself. Add to that growing up in a small Midwestern town with a small Jewish population, a non-Jewish spouse and no children. For most people having children forces the question of how to raise them. Despite my casual relationship to religion I have never had any doubts about my answer to that question. Jewish it would have been. So where does that come from? Why the certainty on something which outwardly would not have appeared to be a significant part of my life. Perhaps it is much the same instinct that drew me to family history.

When I became involved with family history research I began to go down a road that connected me to many people within the Jewish community as well as my own history. And I liked the people I was meeting. I liked the sense of community even as I felt a bit outside of it. As I developed my more recent artwork, I was forced to put myself out there as someone who was not only Jewish, but talked about it when I discussed my artwork. Suddenly my Jewish identity was front and center. No more flying beneath the radar. When I want to explore something I circle around it, examining it from different perspectives. I always picture the way a dog circles around before settling into the grass, flattening it out to make a comfortable spot to settle. Perhaps it is how I test out ideas, finding my comfort zone. I don’t think it is an accident that I’ve chosen this topic to examine.

These interviews give me a perspective across historical events, lifetimes and even generations. They give me a view of those who were active in the Jewish community and those for whom it was more peripheral until their life was threatened because of their Jewish roots. So often our Jewish identity is formed out of oppression and exclusion and the spectre of anti-Semitism did indeed loom large, whether it was Soviet persecution, Nazi murder or merely the garden variety of anti-Semitism that has dogged society through time. Some quickly seek to shed their Jewish identity in the face of such trials, but for each of my interviewees, it remained a part of their identity. While they varied in their degree of religious practice, they all identified themselves as Jews, connected by religious or cultural ties. Even for those who would not have described themselves as religious, an emphasis on the values of supporting human rights and dignity was very deeply felt and lived.

My interviewees ranged from 92 to 97 so this was also an evaluation of what it is to age well. All seemed rather indestructible, but I must confess to Googling obituaries to make sure they were still with us prior to calling. Best not to assume. They all had at least one family member who seemed very present in their life and in one case were a couple who had shared many years of marriage. All of those factors were doubtless considerations in their longevity and well being. Several of them were natural storytellers and they had shared many of their stories with their children. Storytelling was an
important aspect of their life. As my work focuses on story telling, I especially appreciated that quality and found myself thinking of the role of storytelling in Judaism. We are after all People of the Book. We recite a Torah portion throughout the year as part of the weekly service, telling the story and searching it for meaning. Storytelling and Judaism are indeed inextricably connected so it only seemed fitting for that to be the mode of exploration on this journey. In the next several entries I will share some excerpts of the interviews and my reactions to them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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