NOW WHAT? (part 2)

On Tuesday, May 15, Speakers’ Lab and the Forward will present a moderated town hall event called “Now What? The Future of New Jewish Culture” hosted by 14th Street Y. “Now What?” brings together ten experts from across the country, including Stephen Hazan Arnoff of LABA and the 14th Street Y and Jody Rosen, from Slate, (see yesterday’s blog)  to take a critical look at the last ten years of flourishing Jewish creativity in America and its precarious position today. Join us for the conversation. The event is free and open to the public. To register and for more information, including pre-event panelists’ statements, visit

 In preparation for the event, six emerging Jewish artists were interviewed about their work, and what they think is the future of new Jewish culture in America. One of those artists, is LABA fellow Tirtzah Bassel.

The 14th Street Y

Tirtzah Bassel, Visual Artist


Tirtzah Bassel is an Israeli artist currently living and working in New York. She works in oil, intaglio and digital sketching apps. Tirtzah studied drawing and painting at the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel and is a recent graduate of the Boston University MFA Program. Her work has been exhibited in Israel, the U.S. and Europe, and she is currently a resident artist at the Chashama Visual Arts Program in Brooklyn and a LABA Artist Fellow. For more information, please visit:

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now? What was the inspiration for the project? I am working on a series of paintings titled TSA that explores the airport as a contemporary space of transit and transition. I’m focusing specifically on moments of physical intimacy that occur during security pat downs, or the way people hold their body when they are waiting in line.

A couple of years ago I was randomly selected for what turned out to be a particularly invasive body search at the airport in Beijing. I was struck by the gap between the intimate nature of the physical touch, and its utter banality within that context. I also realized that this moment of contact contains within it an entire constellation of relationship to power and space, that it is simultaneously formed by it as well as continuously shaping it. It induced a whole series of questions: Who occupies this space? Who can move within it? When does a movement become a provocation, an act of discrimination, a sign of communication, a form of resistance? These questions form the basis of this body of work.

In the next stage I am taking it one step further and designing the TSA Chapel, an intimate meditative space. The chapel juxtaposes the secular images of the airport with the structure of a sacred space, thus providing a place to view the paintings that is both critical and contemplative.

Can you tell us about your Jewish-inspired work? I’m thinking specifically of your work with LABA where the starting point is Jewish text. The theme for our study group at LABA this year has been Blueprint. In each session we explore different types of spaces such as mythological, domestic and wild spaces through the lens of Jewish texts. What was striking to me is how these spaces seem to simultaneously reflect particular places in our personal and cultural psyche w­hile at the same time they also shape our vision of the world. In many ways, an attic in the Bible is just like an attic today, Reb Chanina Ben Dossa’s kitchen feels a lot like my kitchen. But at times the location of these spaces in our psyche seems to change with the culture or time. For example fields, the wild space of the Bible, have been replaced in the American psyche by forests. I thought about the ritual spaces of past, the places where people went seeking transition, transformation and a connection with something bigger than themselves. It struck me that airports play this role in our contemporary psyche.

My starting point is quite literal. Airports are points of transportation that connect us to other places, they are where we go when we want to get from here to there. When I walk through the airport I think about the time in the location that I am in, but am aware of the time in my destination. I look at the travelers and wonder where each one of them will be in five or ten hours. There is the weight of too much luggage, the pressure of the security check, the frustration of waiting in line, of waiting in general, the uplifting feeling when the plane takes off. The paintings evoke these familiar images and cast them in the role of mythology, a symbolic investigation of our relationships to place, time and other people.

You’re originally from Israel. Do you notice a difference between the Jewish-themed visual art coming out of Israel and the Jewish-themed art coming out of America? Is there a big difference in the themes or way they approach the subject matter? I see a significant difference between the way Israeli Jews and American Jews relate to Judaism in their work. I think most Israeli artists make a conscious effort to stay away from overtly Jewish themes, and those who do, often approach it through filters of cynicism or dark humor. I am thinking of the work of Roee Rosen or the earlier works of Zoya Cherkassy. One reason for the use of these defenses is that in the past Jewish art was associated with kitsch or was not considered serious art, prompting Israeli artists to avoid at all costs having their work labeled ‘Jewish art’. A deeper reason is rooted in the unresolved relationship that Israelis have with Judaism in general, due to the historic break that Zionism had with tradition and its attempt to replace Jewish forms with Israeli ones. In addition, the lack of first hand access of many secular Israeli artists to traditional sources prevents them from perceiving them as potent material for their work.

In contrast, artists working in America today are part of a cultural climate that actively celebrates ethnic and cultural roots. One of the biggest challenges that artists face here is getting lost in homogenous oblivion, and many turn to their ethnic roots in the process of establishing a unique voice. The rise in popularity of Klezmer music in the United States over the past decade is a good example of this. Young musicians, both Jewish and not, have returned to this traditional form and through a process of revitalizing it have developed new and exciting materials. In the visual arts I see a strong trend to reexamine Jewish themes and symbols, including ritual objects, from a point of view that is both proud and inquisitive. Deborah Kass, Toby Kahn and Tobaron Waxman, each in their own way, bring Judaism to the forefront of a critical artistic discourse that speaks both to the contemporary art world and the Jewish community.

Do you feel there is enough financial support for emerging Jewish artists in America? I believe there is a real need to build more support for emerging Jewish artists in America who aren’t making ‘Jewish art’ per se, but are engaged in a robust artistic practice that is informed by their Judaism in a more open sense. In civilizations throughout the ages, artists have been a creative, critical and revitalizing force, impacting all layers of a culture over time. Structured societies tend to fear the full force of creative freedom, but only through this freedom can artists truly use their medium to engage critically with the symbols of their culture and to offer new ways of engaging with them. Jewish artists working in America today are situated at the meeting point between Jewish culture and the contemporary art world. Inevitably these worlds inform and confront each other in profound and unexpected ways through artistic practices. Beyond the belief in individual artists, support for artists at this critical point in their careers testifies to a belief in what Judaism can offer to artistic discourse, and in what art can offer to Judaism.

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