Dusk had just turned into darkness, and a group of 30 artists were huddled around an empty firepit, in freezing temperatures. Our artist-leader, Nisan Almog, explained that we were going to build a fire, but conceptually, in a silent ritual. One by one we all took a log and laid it on or near the firepit, creating a collaborative sculpture that slowly took on great beauty. To light the fire, we all used our flashlights to create the flames, light moving in and out of the sculpture.
We had just completed celebrating Chanukah together, and had been thinking deeply about the symbolic power of flames, light and communal ritual to create meaning and change. This new type of ritual allowed us to explore these ideas in a new unexpected way, resonating in the moment and throughout the retreat.
This was our fifth International Jewish Artist Retreat, and we continue to build and learn each time, and this year represented our most diverse group ever geographically. We had 63 artists from 14 countries with our first artists from Australia and South Africa! We were so pleased to have a strong representation of 14 artists from Latin America, I don’t think the walls of the Garrison Institute have ever heard so much beautiful singing in Spanish.
To give a sense of the local art scene and to use the expertise we had nearby, we brought in experienced local and NYC art professionals to teach Master Class sessions which included, How to Use Marketing to Increase Your Profile, The Two States of Jewish Culture, Presenting Emerging Artists: Best Practices for Relationships with Presenters, Building Relationships: Artists and Jewish Cultural Organizations, and Residencies.
The most interesting and idiosyncratic part of our time together were the 22 sessions taught by artists, which was a magical smorgasbord of topics and ways to learn. Whether you wanted to paint latex pastrami at Raya Bruckenthal’s Kosher-Style, or experiment with diverse traditions of calligraphy with Tunni Kraus or sing with Ella Joy Meir at Vocalize Yourself, there was something to explore at each moment. And we were overjoyed at the loud and joyful disagreements at Roni Packer’s Hummus for Dreamers, where a diverse international group peeled chickpeas and argued the merits of more tahini, less lemon, more salt until late in the evening.
Our Rabbi-in-residence was Rabbi Brent Spodek of Beacon Hebrew Alliance who led two sessions based on the moments around the celebration of Chanukah. The first deconstructed the concept of ritual in Jewish life and gave the artists tools to create their own Jewish Rituals. The second explored the varied ways that the Chanukah story has been told throughout history and led the artists in their own interpretations. The sessions delved into deep Jewish wisdom while allowing openness and creativity.
Despite the challenges and struggles many of the artists are facing in their home countries this year, we were so glad to see a Jewish artist community form that was generous, joyful, and full of collaboration.