Why Jewish Artists Will Continue To Be Rebels

It was a message I have now gotten used to receiving.  A bit angrier than usual, a deeply felt freakout about my writing.  Angry about my politics, but also what the person described as a spiritual falling as well.

It had been two years now that I as a writer who had once written proudly about my community had turned a corner and started writing rebelliously, angrily, and sometimes with open hostility.  So the messages had been coming in at a regular flow by now, and this one wasn’t really any different than the rest in tone or content.

“You’re proving that it’s not possible to be a public Jewish person without succumbing to klipah!”

Klipah means “peel” in Hebrew, but in the Hasidic world, klipah is also used to describe the outer shell of the spiritual world: the outer element, the part that’s meant to be discarded, the unreality of the world that distracts us from truth.

This was a line I had heard a lot about Matisyahu after he shaved his beard and on from that.  It wasn’t just a theoretical question: is it possible for an orthodox Jew to work in the secular music scene, for example, without losing who they are?  Without rebelling against their beliefs?  How is it possible, in that den of sin, to stay committed to the truth?  Klipah is powerful, the source of evil in the world, and so spending so much time outside in the klipah, despite all the potential to change the world that comes with it, means taking an enormous spiritual risk.

At the time, I shrugged off the person.  I had been receiving a lot of angry messages from people in my world at that point, and learning to shrug them off had become essential to my wellbeing.  It was part of why I had stopped calling myself Chabad despite how much I still really wanted to be called Chabad: the more I took on labels like that, the more I was seen as a danger, someone to be vilified until he left.  So I left, but with the caveat that I would keep writing about what I had experienced, and still make it my mission to elevate the world through my writing, even if this new stage meant people seeing me as an angry rebellious outcast.  I would take the mantel if that meant I could write as I wanted to, say what I had been holding in, and take a stand for what I believed in.

So yes, I had learned to shrug off the anger and venom.  But that one sentence still stuck with me: “You’re proving that it’s not possible to be a public Jewish person without succumbing to klipah!”

I think part of the reason it stuck with me was that I had wondered this myself before I made my choice to rebel.  As a Jewish creative, I had seen a lot of my friends and others I admired choosing to leave their communities or simply be rebels on the outskirts of their communities.  There was Y-Love, Lipa, and Sara Erenthal.  And these were just the more well-known examples.  But especially after I moved to Crown Heights and got to know the creative community in Brooklyn, I saw this example repeated in so many levels of popularity.  From people who were popular in their neighborhoods or just among a certain sect or who were trying to break out into the secular art scene, it seemed like so many faced seemed to succumb to the “klipah.”

And so I couldn’t help but wonder if I as a writer would also face the same challenges.  I hadn’t felt them so much when I first arrived in Crown Heights: I was succeeding at integrating while still holding onto my creativity in a way that I hadn’t imagined possible when I saw some of the challenges others faced.  It was even helping me get jobs in the community as a marketer, and in no time, it seemed, I was helping build a creative community here.

The fear of the klipah getting me, however, was always looming.  Could it get me?  Would it?  I was happy, and I was building a reputation and even getting invited to speak at Chabad houses and other venus…. I didn’t want any of that to fade.

And then, of course, it did.

Which, I suppose, is why the klipah comment bothered me so much.  Because I had heard others say it, and I had myself bought into the possibility that it might be the case for some of those I knew, and so some part of me felt extremely vulnerable when that word was brought up about me.  It hit a nerve that had been hiding ever since the moment I decided to be both creative and religious.

 

And there’s another thing that made the criticism hard to shrug off: there was clearly truth to it.  In fact, my joining in the ranks of artists and public figures who have rebelled against their communities seems to actually give even more credence to it in my mind.  Something is clearly happening here.

But as the words of the angry messenger forced their way into my consciousness, I couldn’t help but also remember everything that had happened along my journey, and what I had learned of others.

If I was still in yeshiva, or I had still only begun my creative journey, I think his words might have had more power.  But I had also seen so much up to that point.  And yes, I knew something was happening, but I also had stumbled upon the real reason, the non-klipah reason, these things were happening.

Despite all the controversies I’ve felt myself get embroiled in over the years, despite all the anger and confusion I’ve felt towards the orthodox community, despite all the feelings of pain and loss, and despite the very real fact that I’ve proudly taken on the role off rebel in response to those experiences, one deeper truth keeps revealing itself to me: I am happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been.

And of the artists I know personally who have gone through a similar process, I’ve mostly seen a similar dynamic.  Painful transitions away from their community followed by a sort of inner peace that didn’t seem to exist before.  A friend of mine, who had spent years trying to make his work acceptable to the orthodox world, and who had suffered from enormous pain and depression throughout that time, has recently blossomed into a joyful, excited, thoughtful person years after he finally decided to stop trying so hard to fit in, and when he accepted his work might never be accepted in the community he had joined for the rest of his life.

And, as for me, the transitions I’ve gone through seem to have only made me prouder to be an orthodox Jew and stronger in my observance.  I love my new community, I love the school I send our girls to, I love the creative community I’m building in Brooklyn, I love the politics I’m involved in. And I love that each one of these things involves my Jewish identity, that they are an expression of it, that they are true to who I am.

But (and this is what interests me most as an artist) what fascinates me most is that the the more rebellious my writing has been, the more that those feelings of fulfillment and joy have gone through the roof.

And it is in this, I think, that I have found the answer to this question I used to ponder: are all Jewish artists at risk of losing themselves in the klipah of the art world, of the part of themselves that isn’t Jewish?  Will these people always be at risk of losing themselves?

 

Well, I think the answer is yes.

There are multiple reasons for this.  And I think it’s important for the Jewish world to understand them if they want to have a healthy relationship with its rebels.

First, artists and public non-rabinnic figures have a different relationship with their communities than most members do. The very virtue of having a stage, at any level, exposes them to a side of the Jewish community that others do not have to deal with.

Do you know what it’s like to have hundreds of people in the same community as you’re in attack you? I do.

Do you know what it’s like to receive almost daily messages of those who are afraid to tell others about their problems in the community? I do.

Do you know what it’s like to have your looks, your level of modesty, your very intentions questioned because of how you present yourself as an artist?  I don’t, but ask many women who want to be musicians in the orthodox world what that’s like.

These are maybe… the more negative sides of this work.  There are also incredibly beautiful sides to it, like knowing you’re having a positive effect on a large group of people, or hearing how much something you wrote/said/performed changed someone’s life.

But these experiences, even the positive ones, have a way of changing the way you look at your community.  They give you access to understanding and seeing dynamics that others simply don’t experience or are so caught up in that they see them as natural.  They change your relationship with your community whether you like it or not.  Seeing what it’s like to have an entire community turn on you for one controversial stand, for example, can leave an impression that never goes away.

And these impressions and experiences all eventually add up to a different relationship with our work.  Unless we want to suffer from a form of spiritual dissonance that inevitably leads to depression and anxiety, we must express these experiences, and we must do so in a way that is true to our form of expression.

When we finally do this, we get access to something deeper: the power of being ourselves despite the reaction of those around us.

This is why I get a deep level of satisfaction out of rebelling.  Because I don’t experience it as rebellion.  I experience it, internally, as serving my community.  Because the experience of a writer, or any artist really, is to take what they’ve experienced and to turn it into something productive and consumable by others.  And if they care to, they might also try to change the world with their work.

And so when I write, for example, about how I am deeply concerned that the talking points of white nationalists are infecting my community, I know that I am speaking for and with others who have experienced this fear because they have reached out to me and spoken to me about it.  And when I’m willing to take the heat of anger that inevitably results from writing about what many see as a betrayal of the community, I also feel the cool, refreshing spray of love and gratitude that people privately share with me for saying what they can’t say.

And so what happens is a sort of feedback loop: the more we speak out, the more we become targets of ire as well as a voice for others who cannot or choose not to speak.  This means that at some point, we must make a choice: are we willing to commit to this course of action?  If so, what does that mean for the rest of our life?  Our lives as lived Jews, who must still go to shul and send our children to school and find a way to have friends in our community.

For me, it meant something quite drastic, but not something that I think is out of the norm for others in my position.  It meant changing shuls.  It meant sending our kids to a different school.  It meant starting and joining organizations that could feed the need we had in ourselves as well as what we saw in others.  It meant losing friends, mentors, colleagues, and more.

And while so much of this had to do with our simply growing as Jews, the experiences my wife and I had as writers experiencing the heat of our community down our necks were inextricably tied to these choices and guided us in the steps we took towards our new Jewish lives.

And while some may see this all as a tragic, the truth is that I see it as a gift from God: part of why I am so happy as a Jew today with everything from my own choices to where I go to shul to where I send my kids to school and even to choosing to remain broke by staying in Brooklyn, is that every single one of these choices fit the vision we have of the kind of Jewish community we want to be part of.  And if it wasn’t for our writing, and for our being subject to a lot of pain, we never would have made choices that others simply are too afraid to make.

 

All of this is what I see in my fellow artists as well.  The artist who stopped worrying about whether his community would accept his work has also moved on from the community itself, but also still expresses his Jewish soul and heart in ways that deeply move and inspire those around him.  Lipa’s choice to move on from some of his past led him to go to college and to flourish ever-more as a musician.

In other words, unless something drastic changes, I think we are going to continue to see this dynamic of rebellion among those who have been, at first, uplifted by their communities.  There are simply so many dynamics at play here that it’s hard to imagine it being any different, and there aren’t so many artists and public figures who are willing, thank God, to quiet their inner voices as they go through the process of looking at their communities from a birds-eye-view.

The important thing to remember, then, is not whether we should change it or not.  But that it is a good thing when it happens.  It means an artist is listening to the voice inside them and the hidden voices around them.  It means the artist is committing to their communities even more.  It means they’re choosing a healthy path.

And, ultimately, by doing all this it means that they’re doing God’s will.  We aren’t commanded, “Do whatever makes your community happy.”  We are commanded to be much higher than people-pleasers.  And so rebellion in and of itself does not equate to a rebellion against God or our beliefs. Often, it means just the opposite.

And it is in this that we see the truth: the experience of an artist choosing to rebel is not them getting caught in the peel, in the klipah, of the world.  It is their throwing the peel away and biting into the fruit of truth.