Jewish artists, performers and musicians regularly approach me about their latest endeavour. Recently, however, I received a note about a self-described “Jewish creative initiative,” which literally breaks the mould of any other project I have been approached about, giving rise to questions about the makers of Jewishly-inspired forms of creativity as well as the audiences for such modes of expression.
The note was from Tel Aviv-based design studio Piece of History, which makes contemporary Jewish/Israeli collectibles informed by irony, humour, history and good design. Their products include Oy Vey T-shirts, clever Zionist posters, and the best-selling Herzl figurine.
The studio teamed up with fellow Israeli makers of the Angry Jew gaming app to produce the first chassidic action figures inspired by the game’s super-heroes, Yeshiva Student Mendel and Rabbi Zimmerman. The premise of the game is clever enough with time-travelling Chassidim in 19th-century Russia rescuing holy books while fighting off angry Cossacks. Seventy-thousand downloads later, Angry Jew creators believe in the marketability of PVC action figures replete with fully dimensional payes, heaving shtreimls and a nose on Mendel to rival Nazi propaganda posters.
As if reading off of their gimmicky T-shirts, “oy vey” was my initial reaction. Is there any other response to such meshugas than the primordial sigh of the Jewish people? But dismissing the project is too simple. At press time, their crowdfunding campaign already had 103 backers. And, as they point out, theirs is but the latest (and most modern!) in a long history of chassidic collectible figurines.
Indeed, chassidic figurines are ubiquitous in Jewish gift shops across Israel, North America and online from silver-plated studious rebbes to ceramic dancing figures to klezmorim clad in tzitzit. Visitors to Poland cannot miss shops filled with hand-carved Chassidim varyingly playing an instrument or clasping a book or a coin, the latter intended to spread Jews’ good fortunes with money. It’s a safe bet that none of the makers of these collectibles are themselves chassidic but others – Jew and gentile – peddling established stereotypes and the perceived exoticism of the ultra-Orthodox with their distinctive costume, public piety and particular jubilance. Jews (and Poles) often object to these objects, especially with the increased association with money. But are the Jewish-made figurines dramatically less objectionable? The Angry Jew game homepage announces “Made By Jews” as though granting themselves “kosher” certification.
Concordia University professor Erica Lehrer examined the Polish paraphernalia phenomenon in a 2013 exhibition presented in Krakow. While she admits that the specific Jews-with-coin trend is disturbing, she discovered that many Poles don’t perceive the Jewish figurines as anti-Semitic but rather reflect a “longing for something that doesn’t exist” – “expressions of nostalgia” for a lost world. Furthermore, the clientele in Poland is composed of a large number of Jewish tourists. Many of them also see the hand-made totems of Jews in various poses (with the exception of the Jews-with-coin variety) as “tokens of a lost ancestral world,” according to Lehrer.
I think a similar misguided mystique informs the souvenir buying of Jewish visitors to Israel – a desire to connect to a seemingly more genuine Judaism embodied by Chassidism and a longing for a Jewish way of life imagined to be a part of their ancestral past. Jewish tchatchkes alongside a chanukiyah and Jewish books, lends a home, however secular, some “authentic” Jewish flavour.
My own grandparents’ otherwise elegant Montreal home was peppered with tacky statuettes of rabbis and Chassidim collected on trips to Israel where our Sabra cousin ran a Judaica business. Always appearing misplaced to me, these objects connected them to family and a sense of place. I doubt they would have sprung for a Rabbi Zimmerman action figure. But the Angry Jew target audience is clearly a younger nostalgia-loving, app-playing demographic looking for their next tongue-and-cheek Jewish kitsch fix. What makes this take on the trend truly contemporary is not its styling (as the Angry Jew makers tout) but the distancing injection of irony – a fit for the aloof hipster dismissing PC-boundaries and expressing identity through the acquisition of satirical stuff. The world doesn’t need a new chassidic figurine but evidently the allure of the visible, virtuous Jew lives on.
Evelyn Tauben is a producer, curator and writer in Toronto.