Last spring, together with a group of Jewish artists, I launched a Jewish exhibition space in Toronto with a highly public dimension. FENTSTER (Yiddish for”window”) is a window gallery on a busy downtown street. We invite artists to create installations especially for the window that examine themes connected to the Jewish experience. These exhibitions, visible day and night to the passerby, take on a range of topics including identity, history, family, tradition and more.
I was not looking to start a Jewish art gallery but the opportunity surfaced when the grassroots community Makom: Downtown Creative Judaism moved into the storefront at 402 College St., formerly the studio of local artist, Rochelle Rubinstein, who had presented contemporary art in the window for years. I found the notion irresistible of exploring Jewish topics in such a public outlet and felt compelled to continue Rochelle’s practice, rebranding it with a distinctly Jewish flavour.
The fourth FENTSTER project in less than a year is currently on display entitled Grine Kuzine by Evan Tapper. This little gallery has received a huge response. I love how democratizing it is to show art in a window and how there is a constant, ever-changing, wide-ranging audience.
However, I must confess that I felt worried upon waking up to a photo of a swastika and an awful derogatory word spray painted onto the glass-door of an Ottawa Rabbi’s home and on learning of similar graffiti found just blocks away from our gallery on the University of Toronto campus. Will FENTSTER be a target of anti-Semitic vandalism given our public positioning as a Jewish space?
Despite these rather founded concerns in an increasingly noxious world, now is the time to be very public with our Jewishness and to insert Jewish culture into the multi-cultural tapestry of Canada, just as our exhibitions insert themselves into the urban fabric of College Street.
Working in the arena of Jewish arts and culture for over a decade, I have observed how for many Jews, the history of anti-Semitism has resulted in complex thoughts and feelings about Jewish identity. I have produced Jewish music concerts in popular downtown clubs and been asked whether it was okay to bring along Gentile friends. Jews have insisted that my work was “too Jewish.” Many of us have what anti-oppression expert Sarah Margles refers to as “a trail of nervousness” about showing our Jewishness and it being fully accepted as part of the diversity of Canadian culture. I often encounter the self-conscious attitude that Jewish culture could not possibly be of interest to anyone but Jews and the related implication that working in the field is isolationist and clannish.
The opportunity for Jewish artists to show themselves as Jews in their art, especially in a public window gallery in downtown Toronto, offers a contradiction to this outlook. It is important and valuable to give Jewish artists platforms to mine our cultural heritage to create new work in ways that allow them to voice the particularities of their identities.
It is equally important to give the wider community access to meaningful encounters with Jewishness and to create meeting places between ethno-cultural communities. The arts organically and beautifully provide that access point.
And yes, others are interested! Of the estimated 60,000 people who attend the bi-annual Ashkenaz Festival of Yiddish and Jewish culture at Toronto’s major festival site, the Harbourfront Centre, at least half are not from the Jewish community. Vancouver’s Chutzpah! Festival is another long-running, esteemed Jewish culture festival that also draws a highly diverse audience, extending well beyond the Jewish community. The Museum of Jewish Montreal now operates out of a storefront nestled along the ultra-hip St. Lawrence Boulevard, attracting a mixed crowd.
As public expressions of hatred become more commonplace in Canada, rather than retreat into the comfort of exclusively Jewish circles, we must celebrate public expressions of Jewish culture and share them with our fellow Canadians.
Evelyn Tauben is an independent curator, producer and writer as well as the curator of FENTSTER.