Artist dissolves distances, differences between U.S. and Israel

Throughout history, as they roved from country to country and from language to language, Jews found themselves masters of the in-between. They were traders and money-lenders, translators and interpreters, border-crossers and connectors.

U.C. Berkeley professor Yuri Slezkine, in his book “The Jewish Century,” describes this way of being in the world as “Mercurian.” Other ethnic groups, like the Chinese and Armenians in their respective diasporas, have demonstrated these qualities, but Slezkine identifies the Jews as being the most Mercurian. The 20th century — the Jewish century — is when the world caught up with the Jews.

If anything, the 21st century promises to be even more Mercurian than the last one, going further into the mobile, globally connected, knowledge-based gestalt that Slezkine and others have identified as particularly Jewish.

In this new column, The Space Between, I will explore ways in which the creativity of Bay Area Jewish life draws much of its inspiration from this in-between-ness. And for the first one, I wanted to focus not on a Bay Area resident but on a visitor: Israeli composer, musician and curator Emmanuel Witzthum, who is a resident fellow at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at U.C. Berkeley this winter, courtesy of the Schusterman Family Foundation’s Visiting Artist program for Israeli artists.

As part of his residence, Witzthum created for Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life a gallery version of his performance “Dissolving Localities,” a subtle and sumptuous audiovisual character study of the city of Jerusalem. And at a free event 6 p.m. Thursday, March 15, as part of the Jewish Music Festival, Witzthum will premiere at the Magnes the next iteration of this project, “Dissolving Localities: Berkeley/Jerusalem,” which twins the two cities in a second audiovisual installation.

Why start with an Israeli?

It’s a profound irony that after so many centuries of living between exile and home in the diaspora, the spiritual and cultural energy of Jewish life pointed toward erasing that difference. And with a vital, independent Jewish state now in existence, Jews in the Bay Area and Israel often find themselves so far apart from each other.

Witzthum, a third-generation Jerusalemite who has lived and worked throughout the U.S. and Europe, doesn’t believe that a work of art — or even culture itself — can fully bridge that gap. But he does believe fiercely in the power of art to create a platform for true dialogue and conversation between Israelis and American Jews, as well as between Israelis and others around the world.

Emmanuel Witzhum

“With the Magnes installation, I’ve had an unusual opportunity to speak to the public about Jerusalem. It’s interesting to see that many who visit have heard of Jerusalem from friends or the news, but don’t really know the city,” Witzthum explains over breakfast at a café near campus. “But all of a sudden they see it there. They want to know, what’s that? Why are those people talking to one another? What does that mean?”

At the same time, Witzthum’s absorption in Berkeley’s diverse spiritual possibilities has begun to alter his ideas of Jewish identity. As a secular Israeli, for example, he was struck by the openness, confidence and musical sophistication of Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev congregation, which identifies with the Jewish Renewal movement.

“If there were more streams of Judaism in Israel, like there are here, it would be easier for secular Jews to engage in religion,” he said.

Despite the gulf between America and Israel, Witzthum identifies the space between secular and religious Israelis, and that between Israelis and Europeans, as much more pressing issues. In order to bridge these multiple communities, Witzthum became director of The Lab, an experimental Jerusalem arts hub that uses the city as a site of artistic inspiration, and creates a place for artists from around the world to learn about Israel through artistic collaboration.

One Lab-hosted project, “Highway No. 1,” presented five Orthodox rabbis dancing in a contemporary dance idiom, in front of both men and women. The title refers to the road connecting secular Tel Aviv with Orthodox Jerusalem, a cultural space not easily traversed in an increasingly polarized country. That the piece (with music by Witzthum) was a huge success — judged mostly from the conversations it has generated and the reactions of audiences — has given Witzthum some hope, both for Israel and for the power of art.

There is much work to do, and Witzthum, an artist’s artist, is modest in his hopes for art. “Art can’t change reality,” he said. “But it can create an open platform in which something can evolve and change.

“My work as an Israeli and Jewish artist stems from this: Art happens in the space between what is known and unknown, what is meant and said, what is material and spiritual. To talk in these terms is the only way to really understand what it means to be Jewish or Israeli today.” n

Dan Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and co-hosts its podcast series, “The Space Between.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.