When I was in seminary in Israel, one of the girls I was in school with gave a presentation about her former life as a ballet dancer. She talked about how far she got in an extremely competitive industry. She was accepted into a prestigious dance company and performed at large theaters on the weekends. She showed us one of her beautiful routines.
But she told us that as she became more religious, she didn’t have opportunities to dance anymore. She loved being Orthodox, but she had to give up what she loved. She couldn’t follow her dreams.
Her story was incredibly relatable. My husband Daniel started becoming more religious as I went through an Orthodox conversion process. Daniel was a stand-up comedian on his way to big things. He was a huge hit on “This American Life,” which 2.2 million people tune into every week, and he was performing on the road for thousands of people when he opened for Ralphie May.
Slowly, religious observance started to interfere with Daniel’s career. He realized that if he was going to become an observant Jew, he had to immerse himself in Shabbat. Being on the road and performing in comedy clubs was not conducive to that lifestyle. While he continues to pursue his art, this puts him at a major disadvantage.
Like the ballet dancer, my husband found there was no arts infrastructure set up in the Orthodox community as an alternative. There are a few understandable reasons why.
Many Orthodox people don’t watch TV or movies or listen to secular music, and they don’t want to engage with it in any way. Also, living an Orthodox Jewish life is very costly, and you have to work a job where you’ll make enough money to support your family. In my community, we take Torah learning very seriously, and the arts may seem like a frivolous waste of time.
As a writer, I fully believe in the power of the arts. They can, at the very least, make someone feel less alone. When I read Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion and David Sedaris, I stopped feeling like an outsider. I was inspired to follow my passion.
On a broad scale, the arts can transform society and change the course of history. The photo of a Saigon execution shocked the nation and helped end the Vietnam War. Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” became the anthem for the anti-lynching movement throughout America. There are countless examples you could find.
On a personal level, art can calm you down and help you feel connected and happier. You are channeling holiness when you create.
When we step away completely from the arts and pretend the media doesn’t exist, we don’t have any representation. The writers and producers tell stories about us without knowing us.
The fact is that my Orthodox community cannot afford to disengage with the arts. We are portrayed negatively in the media with shows like “Unorthodox” and “My Unorthodox Life.” When we step away completely from the arts and pretend the media doesn’t exist, we don’t have any representation. The writers and producers tell stories about us without knowing us. This can lead to a number of negative repercussions, including antisemitism.
I absolutely believe we can participate in the arts and still stay true to our Torah values. It’s not so black and white.
Fortunately, there are a lot of Jewish organizations that support the arts. Unfortunately, few of them are Orthodox.
We need arts funding in the Orthodox Jewish community. This could include grants and fellowships for all different kinds of artists. We should make sure there are more art classes in religious schools and children are encouraged to express themselves through art. Every child doesn’t have to follow such a narrow path and go into a “safe” career. Creativity should be celebrated. One artist could change the world.
My hope is that this piece will reach the influencers in our community, like teachers and parents who also believe in the arts. I hope we can cultivate and nurture creative expression in children and adults. And as a writer, I hope my fellow artists read this and know just how much I value the holy work they do.
Kylie Ora Lobell is the Community Editor of the Jewish Journal. Want to reach me? Please send me an email at [email protected].