exploring the concerns of the south african Jewish community
In this article, Leigh Nudelman Sussman looks at how art can serve as a medium to help explore and navigate the challenges facing the South African Jewish community. She further argues that art and artists can play a pivotal role in attracting otherwise disengaged South African Jewish millennials back into communal life.
A recent community survey provides evidence that South African Jewish millennials are becoming increasingly disengaged from community life. Arguably the future of a vibrant and sustainable Jewish community in South Africa resides with the youth. Urgent rethinking about this demographic then must be done to ensure that the community in South Africa carries forward into the future, especially since the survey also reveals demographic decline.
In May 2018, I participated in the South African regional Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF). Here, young Jewish leaders of different religious and political persuasions asked what our role is in South Africa. This question was posed alongside a myriad of internal and external challenges facing the Jewish community. Some of the issues included the challenge of being Jewish and white in South Africa, a chasm between Jews and non-Jews, silos within the Jewish community, the generation gap, engagement around Zionism, the rising cost of kosher food and a Jewish education in a slumping economy, gender inequality, and the disengagement of younger Jewish people from Jewish communal life. With all these difficulties facing young Jews in a complicated society, many, myself included, seemed dispirited.
As someone who cares about the future of the Jewish community in South Africa my gut instinct was to assemble Jewish creative people to continue the conversations started at the NGF. A month later 9th Street was born.
"9th Street’s common goal was asserted from our first meeting: the group could advance the sustainability of the Jewish community through the medium of art."
9th Street is a community of Jewish multidisciplinary artists based in Johannesburg. Either the artists’ individual practice connects to Jewish narratives or, more personally, the artist might be longing to connect to their Jewish identity particularly after grappling with it in more traditional communal structures. It is a work in progress, moulded by a team of practicing artists, academics, community leaders, and people seeking to live more creatively in Johannesburg or more intentionally as Jewish South Africans. 9th Street is what is referred to as a “Jewish intentional community”; a group of like-minded Jewish people working together towards a common goal. Aharon Ariel-Lavi, our mentor and director of 9th Street’s funder, the Israel-based Hakhel, believes these types of initiatives “engage young Jews in their 20s and 30s within the organized framework”. Recognising the need to bring millennials back into Jewish community structures, Ariel-Lavi affirms that “… the second most important component of Jewish identity, after the family, is the community, and without community, Jewish survival chances are very low”.
9th Street’s common goal was asserted from our first meeting: the group could advance the sustainability of the Jewish community through the medium of art. From the start, we anticipated that our creative work could act as a mirror, reflecting the Jewish community’s challenges. Once moved by the work, Jewish viewers could then explore possible solutions.
Farryl Roth, Steve Barnett and Leigh Nudelman Sussman perform at the ‘Ushpizin’. Photograph: Alon Cohen, 2019.
In that first meeting, we all agreed that activating abandoned Jewish spaces in the city would achieve our above goal. For example, having a klezmer music performance in an old shul in an area Jews no longer frequent would push those same Jews out of their white Jewish silos. The name 9th Street comes from this idea; the synagogue referred to as 9th street shul and officially named Orange Grove Hebrew Congregation is where we thought to start our work. We believed it was no longer active and that we might invigorate it through cultural events. We later learnt that it was, in fact, still operational as a synagogue.
Before activating any abandoned Jewish spaces however, we quickly realised that 9th Street would have to nurture the artists who would be participating in these activations. 9th Street has become a place for these artists to show work in progress and receive feedback and advice. (See more about participating artists in the 9th Street blog curated by Amanda Ballen.) 9th Street is also where Jewish artists network and, as such, 9th Street has forged collaborations and common projects. Nurturing high-quality Jewish creative work in Johannesburg is now a major part of our mandate and we regularly hold in-house meetings for artists and creatives.
Once a handful of in-house nurturing sessions had transpired, we were ready to present collective creative work under the 9th Street banner to the public. Our biggest public event thus far was a collaboration with Creative Gatherings, another artists’ community, in October 2019 and held at the Genesis Hotel pool deck. 9th Street leader Farryl Roth suggested borrowing from the traditional concept of an ushpizin on the 4th night of sukkot.Ushpizin refers to the custom in a sukkah where ancestors are “invited” as “guests”. 9th Street ‘disrupted’ this tradition by telling the stories of the ancestors through performances and visual art. One of the ushpizin performances included a story about Leah, the matriarch, as opposed to the traditional invitation to the patriarchs. (You can watch the performance on Youtube here). We also tried to connect these old traditional narratives to our own modern-day experiences in South Africa by inviting both Jewish and non-Jewish performers to invoke their ancestors through song and/or storytelling in an open mic session.
The ushpizin was very different to the usual cultural South African Jewish event one might ordinarily experience. Non-traditional Jewish cultural events in Johannesburg ostensibly attract primarily older audiences. For younger viewers who are seeking something different from their parents and grandparents by way of Jewish culture, there has been nothing which presumably appeals to them. Our public events, like the collaborative ushpizin, is focused on attracting younger audiences and have begun to activate a new type of Jewish South African culture.
"Being Jewish in South Africa is highly complex and often fraught ... Jewish artists in South Africa have an important role to play, not only in helping Jews work through their complex identity, but also in showing non-Jews in South Africa what Jews are all about."
9th Street has begun asking a pivotal question, which is one asked by emerging Jewish artists all over the world: what is Jewish art? More than mere representation of our traditions and heritage, more than oil paintings of rabbis, high-quality Jewish art seemingly draws from traditional Jewish narratives and practice, but often with the goal of disrupting the status quo or of revealing something previously hidden. In this, it can provide the means for social reflection and possibly evoke change in our communities.
Ronit Muszkatblit, senior director of arts and culture at the 14th Street Y and artistic director of LABA, (both situated in New York City), says that “through art, we can show others what being Jewish is all about.” Being Jewish in South Africa is highly complex and often fraught. Muszkatblit has intimated that Jewish artists in South Africa have an important role to play, not only in helping Jews work through their complex identity, but also in showing non-Jews in South Africa what Jews are all about.
Rebecca Guber, director of Asylum Arts, has suggested that the South African Jewish community is in the process of creating new communal narratives. The old narratives, the myths of our origins as South African Jews, for example, or our community’s staunch Zionism, no longer seem to be serving or holding our community, particularly for younger Jews. Guber asserts that Jewish artists who shape and mould new narratives have the potential to play a pivotal role in the Jewish community here and maybe even help to ensure its survival.
9th Street, as leader Caryn Katz says, aims to make our artists and viewers “be more and feel more”. This is vital in a context where to be Jewish and South African often feels difficult and fraught. Thus 9th Street will continue to act as an incubator to the arts and to offer our artists and viewers ways of negotiating this complex mode of being. 9th Street will also continue to narrativize Jewish communal issues for both Jewish and non-Jewish viewers in a way that is entertaining, perhaps a little edgy, but always deeply profound. In this way, we hope to enable Jewish artists to sustain a vibrant and relevant Jewish community in our current South African context, and play a role in attracting otherwise disengaged Jewish South Africans back into communal life.
Leigh Nudelman Sussman is a founder/leader of 9th Street and a performance artist based in Johannesburg. Her latest creative project, “A Bis’l Libe”, which revives Yiddish songs, catapulted her into the world of Jewish heritage and culture. It has been showcased in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tel Aviv and New York City. Leigh completed a Masters in Performance Making at Goldsmiths College, University of London.