Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky presenting a participatory celebration of a Yiddish song, activating their banner installed in the exhibition Material/Inheritance at the Jewish Museum of Maryland (all photos by Sid Keiser, courtesy the Jewish Museum of Maryland)

Jewish continuity — that is, the relationship between older and younger generations of Jewish people — is always a concern within the community. The Jewish Museum of Maryland is tackling this discourse in partnership with the New Jewish Culture Fellowship (NJCF), currently presenting work by fellows and guest-curated by NJCF fellow, writer and curator Leora Fridman. Material/Inheritance: Contemporary Work by New Jewish Culture Fellows features 30 current and former NJCF artists, presenting a total of 49 works in the gallery, as well as a series of live performances during the opening, exhibition run, and closing weekend on June 11.

“Central to the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s mission is a call to imagine better futures,” the museum’s Executive Director Sol Davis told Hyperallergic. “Jewish artists play a crucial role in that project, both as creative people critically reflecting on the world today, and as ‘inheritors of the prophetic tradition,’ as my collaborator Maia Ipp put it in her essay, “Kaddish for an Unborn Jewish Avant-Garde.”

“Contemporary Jewish artists are vital to both commenting on the contemporary world and shaping worlds to come, and it is time for Jewish institutions to give them the space and freedom to do just that,” Davis added.

At the opening of Material/Inheritance
Installation view of Material/Inheritance
Tyler Rai, “Neshome Likht for Ecological Relatives” (2023), installation with video, candles, driftwood, and notebook

Fridman is a Mexican-American Jewish writer, curator, and educator whose work is centered on issues of embodiment, care, and identity. Her next book FASCI/NATION, forthcoming in 2024, use “the framework of Nazi kink to consider embodied approaches to inherited trauma.” Fridman participated in a virtual interview with Hyperallergic about the nature of contemporary Jewish art in general and in this exhibition, which “emphasizes resilience in contemporary forms with inspiration from and foundations in ancestral Jewish texts, practices, histories, and griefs,” according to her exhibition essay.

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Sarah Rose Sharp: What themes did you see as you chose work for the show; were you looking for something in particular?

Leora Fridman: The call for proposals was specifically for New Jewish Culture fellows, so it was really oriented around communal experience, as opposed to particular themes for an exhibition. I think that a lot of what’s really exciting about this exhibition is the sense that these are artists who are part of a movement of boundary-pushing and risk-taking in Jewish art, experimenting with how contemporary art can meet cultural, social, and religious needs and desires, etc.

Ben Gassman and Brandon Woolf, “Between the Bread” (2023), audio installation, duration: 10 minutes

The kind of themes that emerged in the show are diaspora and home, ritual and reinventing ritual, activist movements and political histories, and how those influence the contemporary in terms of contemporary activism, contemporary politics, wanting to draw mentorship and support from past histories. A lot of the work is addressing issues of the chosen and biological family, what it means to make a family, choose a family, and more. Issues of queer and trans identity, issues of embodiment and sexuality really push the boundaries of what’s often in the past been considered acceptable, or normative material for institutional Jewish display or institutional Jewish support.

SRS: What motivated putting together this show?

LF: Jewish museums typically are often historical museums, or cultural history museums, not necessarily art museums. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has been at the forefront of making space for more risk-taking, experimental, or less conventional forms of Jewish art, and contemporary art in general. There was a show last year called A Fence Around The Torah: Safety and Unsafety in Jewish Life, which received a lot of attention. There’s a big shift underway at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in particular to bring in artists as cultural bearers of Jewish culture and to stage Jewish art as a legitimate and important aspect of Jewish culture that should be held within a Jewish Museum.

SRS: What is the community around the museum like, demographically? 

LF: The Jewish Museum of Maryland, historically has been an older generation of more traditional Jews, not necessarily focused on politics or activism of the present — and I think there are a lot of stereotypes about what that means. Material/Inheritance is bringing a lot of young energy into these museums. One thing that was really incredible about the opening was being able to see a lot of older Jews, many of them retired, interacting with Jews in their 20s to 40s and interacting with their art-making, politics, similarities, and differences in concerns.

A performance during the exhibition opening, featuring ceramic work by Julia Elsas (played here by Kirk Knuffke)
Julia Elsas, “Ugav Nights” (2019)

SRS: It looks to me like there were a lot of performances and lectures as part of the program — can you mention any highlights?

LF: At the opening, we had Sonic Mud: Ugav Nights, which was a performance on ceramic sculptures made by Julia Elsas that reimagine the biblical instrument, referred to as the ugav, performed with various collaborators. We had a performative lecture from Liat Berdugo, who is a critic and digital media artist, presenting archival photographs from the Jewish National Fund to examine the artist’s own relationship to the formation and maintenance of Zionism, through the engagement with forests in that area. And that was a real highlight of the exhibition because I think it had the potential to push some buttons in terms of different thinking about Israel, Palestine, and Zionism within the Jewish community.

SRS: Could you attempt to address the question of what it means to be a contemporary Jewish artist today?

LF: The art in Material/Inheritance is kind of questioning what makes it Jewish art, if it’s not specifically religious. If you look closely at the pieces and performances in the show, there’s actually a lot of reference to ancient and biblical texts and religious practice, a lot of people who have done deep studies of those in order to inform their creative work — but you know, the majority of the work in the show does not reference those. There have always historically been many ways to be Jewish, not all of which involve a relationship to biblical texts or ancient texts, not all of which involve religious practice — and that’s the case, not just today, but for many, many generations.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....