What’s So Jewish About Dr. Who?

An innovative network looks to find homes for arts education in Jewish contexts, and Jewish education in artistic contexts.

by Jonah Rank

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Whenever I am asked if I’m a Jewish musician, my gut reaction is “No.” But the truth is that I actually am a Jewish musician, at least literally. Not only do I spend all day tapping my feet and my hands as if I’m playing piano, all of my values in life are informed by my Jewish identity.

I’ve devoted much of the past three years to Jewish Eyes on the Arts. Jewish Eyes challenges Jews (and those interested in Judaism) to find Jewish meaning in, or Jewish dissonance with, different works of secular arts, including theater, video, music, writing, and the visual arts. Although we explore every work uniquely, we always begin with a few basic questions:

Are the values endorsed in this movie (or book or play) values that I hold dear as a Jew, such as the pursuit of knowledge, tolerance, human rights, creating a peaceful home?

Is the artist (or director or songwriter) telling a story that I have heard in a Jewish context (the Talmud, the Zohar, a Yiddish folksong)?

Does this painting (or show or album) allude to the broad spectrum of Jewish philosophy (a God who performs miraculous works versus a God of the still, small voice; a world where some people are just plain evil versus a world where all people have traces of the Divine good inside them)?

Is there a certain artistic technique that was part of the Jewish tradition before the dancer (or actor or singer) tried it out (beginning and ending with the same themes; creating chiastic, or symmetrical, structures; inserting newer layers between older layers, like the modern edited Babylonian Talmud)?

When Timna Burston and I cofounded Jewish Eyes on the Arts in 2010 we wanted to do something new in the world of Jewish arts, and encourage people to view the arts as Jews, and Judaism as artists. We ask our core questions in a wide range of contexts.

Here are a few snapshots:

Snapshot 1

In 2012, Timna and I facilitated two sessions at the pre-army Mechinah program at Kibbutz Hanaton in Israel. Timna, a sabra, led a session for the young adults in the program about protest art in and outside of Israel, by Jews and non-Jews alike. After discussing examples of protest art in Israel and in the West Bank, the mechinistim took the roles of people standing on different sides of Israel’s security fence. Timna gave them spray paint bottles, and they created their own Jewish political protest art. That evening, we reconvened and sang songs (naturally, in Hebrew) about Jerusalem – idealizing Jerusalem, criticizing Jerusalem and asked how we as Jews relate through song to this holy city that feels homelike to many but alien to others.

In Israel, Jewish Eyes has a different perspective. After all, the country essentially is what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called “Judaism as a civilization.” The Jewishness of Israel – religiosity aside – is pervasive. The challenge is, where else can we see Jewish ideas embedded in the arts?

Snapshot 2

After Purim, Jewish Eyes asked for donations from supporters for prizes for our Passover Blog Contest. Our bloggers range from the secular to the Orthodox, from the mystical to the rational, but our Passover Blog Contest was the first time anyone received money to write for us. ( Jewish Eyes currently, as one might imagine, runs almost exclusively on a volunteer-basis.) College-aged and recent college students across the globe competed online for the best blog post answering: Where do we see reflections of Passover in the secular arts?

The first-place winner wrote about the British TV series Dr. Who. The compassion of the main character is a Passover lesson in itself, wrote Eliana Light, a recent alumna of Brandeis University. Though the doctor is powerful, he manifests his freedom as responsibility rather than by hurting others. And, indeed, Passover recalls the children of Israel gaining freedom from slavery, only to be given immediately afterwards a series of sacred obligations, the mitzvot. Passover and Dr. Who both celebrate freedom with responsibility, and not freedom from responsibility.

But, Jewish Eyes looking toward a computer screen is far from social. What does it look like when Jews meet in person to look Jewishly at secular art?

Snapshot 3

Made possible by a grant from the Bronfman Alumni Venture Fund, the first of our Salon Nights were small (about 15 people), intimate gatherings where poets, actors, singers, painters, sculptors, writers, and enthusiasts got together to discover each other’s works-in-progress. We asked: what inspired us as citizens of a secular world to explore these questions? Was there a Jewish subconscious that led us to write particular lyrics or to mold particular contours? Where did our Jewish kishkes enter the picture, or paint it?

Zooming Out

Jewish Eyes on the Arts constantly looks for avenues for engaging Jews and artists in unexpected ways and in surprising places. Among other projects, we intend to facilitate more workshops in Israel and the United States, to hold our second annual Passover Blog Contest, and to host Jewish Eyes Salons at homes anywhere they are requested.

Jewish Eyes is on the lookout to widen Jewish horizons and to find homes for arts education in Jewish contexts, and Jewish education in artistic contexts.

Keep your eyes open.

Jonah Rank, a rabbinical student, musician and writer, is creative co-director of Jewish Eyes on the Arts. He is also secretary of of Siddur Lev Shalem, the Rabbinical Assembly’s forthcoming siddur for Shabbat and Festivals.