Jewish Artists of Color: A Candid Conversation

Inspired in large part by a call to action put out by No Silence on Race last summer to build a more inclusive, anti-racist Jewish community in Canada, FENTSTER (Yiddish for ‘window’) gallery has focused on programming work by Black and Jewish artists — first in their street-front window gallery in downtown Toronto, exhibiting new work by photo-video artist Ella Cooper, followed by an online conversation and artist showcase that has been viewed over 500 times. Out of those initial projects, an idea was born to create a space specifically for Jewish Artists of Color to come together — a closed conversation that would be welcoming and safe, informal and intentional.

And so, FENTSTER curator Evelyn Tauben teamed up with No Silence on Race (whose founder — Sara Yacobi-Harris — is also a filmmaker, among many other things) to give shape to PRISM. Together, they assembled a diverse core team of JOC creatives from across North America — artists, performers, curators and producers from Toronto, Texas, New York and Vancouver. The PRISM core team includes Rabbinical student/theatre artist Kendell Pinkney, Carmel Tanaka – founder of one of Canada’s only Jewish queer trans organizations, JQT Vancouver, writer / cultural producer Devyani Saltzman, dancer/community organizer Adam McKinney and No Silence on Race’s Yacobi-Harris. Over the last months, this group has been dreaming up a context to allow fellow JOC artists and arts professionals to be able to come together with the hopes of building connections, artistic collaborations and community. Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the move to online gatherings presents possibly the best moment yet to begin to seed a new Jewish creative network.

After becoming connected through the PRISM team, Carmel and Devyani quickly discovered many intersecting points in their interests, backgrounds and lived experiences.

Lilith invited Carmel to ask Devyani about her artist practice and being a JOC. (In the next blog post, the tables will be turned as Carmel responds to Devyani’s questions!) Devyani is a Canadian writer, curator and arts leader with a deep interest in relevant multidisciplinary programming at the intersection between art, ideas and social change. She is the author of a memoir, Shooting Water, a founding curator at Luminato, Toronto’s Festival of Arts and Creativity, a former Director at the Banff Centre and most recently Director of Public Programming at the AGO. PRISM will meet online on March 16, 2021.

Carmel Tanaka: How does your identity inform your art or your art inform your identity?

Devyani Saltzman:  I feel the identity that informs my work is one that is truly that of being mixed race. Growing up, my parents raised me with an equal connection to my Jewish and Indian roots, both culturally and in terms of religion. And they both inform my work as a curator/arts programmer.      

I feel the identity that informs my work is one that is truly that of being mixed race.

Devyani Saltzman

I felt an odd insider/outsider perspective growing up in a hybrid household, neither fully part of the South Asian community in Toronto nor the Jewish community. Growing up, people often assumed this led to feeling dislocated, but I actually always felt comfortable in both worlds and somehow even more comfortable in my own home as Devyani Saltzman, a Hinjew. 

CT: In my Jewpanese community, some of us fuse our Jewish and Japanese identities in our recipes by fusing ingredients as well, while others will not alter recipes because TRADITION! If we were baking together, what do you gravitate towards?

DS: Ha! I love this question so much. If we were baking together I would gravitate towards fusing ingredients, definitely, but I would maybe still maintain a nod to its original form. And if I was to answer this question more literally in terms of food, I would totally serve tandoori chicken with kugel, or make matzo ball soup with a spicy twist. One of my favourite hybrid dishes is not a traditional Jewish dish but does capture the wildness of playing with form. Vikram Vij’s Butter Chicken Schnitzel is up there.

Devyani with her Nani-maternal grandmother.

Devyani with her Nani–maternal grandmother

CT: Do you ever feel pressure to live up to some expectations in light of your identity, heritage, family accomplishments, etc?

DS: I have definitely felt this in terms of my family’s accomplishments in the arts, especially in my twenties when I didn’t feel established in my own career. But in terms of identity and heritage, I wasn’t raised with any expectations with regards to specific cultural milestones. If anything, I sometimes wished there had been more of those expectations as guideposts in a pretty free, artistic upbringing. When I was in my twenties, I think I started to impose them on myself, especially in terms of ideas of marriage. A good Jewish partner/a good Indian partner. I quickly discovered that a good person with shared values despite background was more than enough.

CT: Describe the value of your work to yourself, to your family, to your community.

DS: I’d like to think my work is about bringing people together for shared experiences which are multidisciplinary, joyful and hopefully transformative. Personally, programming — and gathering and supporting other’s programming — gives me great joy. It’s the creative process and interaction with many publics that is of value to me. I know my family has enjoyed a number of these experiences, and I hope the community has as well. 

CT: What has been your experience of being a JOC?

DS: My experience growing up was not being aware that I was a JOC, nor having a specifically JOC community in my life. I was aware that I was a person of colour and experienced direct acts of racism growing up, but they were directed to me as a South Asian as per the POV of those enacting violence. But my experience now, especially in terms of all the change that is occurring in the world, is one of really appreciating finding in my early forties this community and exploring this specific hybridity in relation to Judaism. 

CT: Do you feel the Jewish community is inclusive and welcoming towards JOCs?

DS: I think it really depends on which Jewish community we are talking about. I’d say the Toronto Jewish arts community I grew up in was, but I also think unconscious bias is real within any community.

CT: What drew you to being involved in PRISM and what you’re looking forward to about this gathering? 

DS: I was drawn into finding a new community that spoke to my hybridity, especially in this isolated COVID world, and I hope this JOC gathering provides the same for others. I’m looking forward to meeting new people, being involved in more of that community as a curator and programmer and beginning to be inspired to embrace more of my JOC roots, including learning to speak Yiddish, a language my Bubbi spoke at home which I wished I could have conversed to her in!

PRISM is an online gathering for creatives and culture makers by Jews of Color for Jews of Color. This convening for artists and arts professionals will be on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 (5 PM PST; 8 PM EST) It is a free event, but advanced registration is required. Click here for additional information, including commonly asked questions and to register.