How To Be A Creative Jew In An Uncreative World

This is part of the series “Readers Take Over Hevria.” Elad’s assignment was: “How to find your creative outlet in a community that might not have existing opportunities.”

Unfortunately, the loneliness of the creative life is not limited to religious Jews.  When I was in high school, despite their incredible arts programs, no one really considered the idea of ever doing something creative for a living.  To be an artist was to be weird.

Creativity is intangible, it is not something that people see as useful, and we live in a world built on industry, productivity, and practicality.

And so, just about any artist in the world has to find it within themselves to create a world within themselves, one that is safe and beautiful and a reminder that what they do matters.

What is difficult, perhaps, about being a religious Jewish artist is the fact that people don’t just see true creativity (the kind that scratches your soul to bring out the even just the skin of something real) as unproductive, they often see it as dangerous.  To expose your flaws is often to expose the flaws of the world around you.  To address the challenges in your life often means to discuss the challenges of being religious.

Yes, there are artists who are purely positive, God bless ‘em.  I know some.  They’re beautiful. But the truth is that this is the beauty of art: it is completely individual.  And while you may be positive one day, you may be dark as the other side of the moon on another day.

The religious world doesn’t, maybe never will, totally understand what it means to be an artist.  Few, if any, rabbis understand the meaning of artistic creation, which is why so often their mentorship can be more damaging than it is helpful.  And so we artists must group together and advise each other, grow together, learn together.

Which brings us to the question: what do you do if you live in a community where there is no one to turn to?  What if it’s that extreme?  Or what if there are few, ones that you don’t connect to?  What if it’s a low-grade version of that?  What if there are simply no resources, even with encouragement everywhere?

Let’s start from the top:

1. Know that your work matters

No matter how alone you feel or are, know that every piece of artistic creation you make matters.  Even if no one sees it.  Even if people see it and criticize you for it.  Even if you totally screwed it up.  Every time you work at your creativity, your mind is growing, your approach is improving, and you are letting something out that needs to be let out.

So it is to be an artist: there is no relationship between what the world around you approves of and how much your work matters.  Your work always matters.

Know this, and you can at least create.  Know this, and nobody can stop you.  Know this, and your work itself will create the energy you need to keep yourself flowing.

2. Go to the art

To a creative person, art is oxygen. It must be inhaled just as much as it is exhaled.  Do neither, you die.  Do only one, you die.

There is nothing but your own fears and self-judgments stopping you from absorbing beautiful art, from connecting to the kind of things that will inspire and uplift you.

Most people, they don’t understand this.  They think, like so many do, that art is a hobby, something that is not vital to life.  I would argue it’s vital to everybody’s life, but there is absolutely no question that it is essential to a creative’s life.  Every creative thing you absorb connects you more deeply to the aspect of your soul that God has implanted with the strength to look beyond the physical and into the emotional and non-physical realms.  Every time you suck down something beautiful, you are integrating it into your toolset for future creation.

Does this mean you may do, read, see, connect to things you find disagreeable?  That your community finds disagreeable?  Most likely.  You must accept this.  You must accept that art is inherently uncomfortable, inherently pushes boundaries, inherently will always have some flaws.  The religious world at large has still not accepted this reality, and so their art is largely dry and empty, ironically completely lacking in spirituality.

And so you will be different.  You will be willing to go where no one else goes.  Which brings me to…

3. You must be brave

Now, this is not meant to scare you.  Please do not take it that way.  Although it may be initially scary, it is in fact the best part of being an artist.

An artist is a warrior.  One who must go into the darkest and most hidden parts of themselves and bring it out in the most vulnerable way possible (often not overtly, unless you’re a crazy blogger like me).

You must embrace this.  You must understand that part of your journey will be scary.  And if you are in a community that does not understand you or your creativity, then the journey will be doubly scary.

So where’s the beauty?  A warrior is the one who makes others brave.  He or she goes into the jungle, where no one dare roam, and comes out with treasures that no one knew existed.  To be brave simply means to embrace fear, not to hide from it.  And those who do, they come out stronger, healthier, happier than those who do not.

Are you worried about criticism from your community, your friends, your family?  Are you worried about being an outsider?  Are you worried about yourself?

Good.  That’s a sign that you are faced in the right direction.  Now it’s time to step forward.

4. Go to the artists… wherever they are

Those of us who live in religious communities tend to think within our own world.  We tend to think that the art we absorb must only be our people’s art, or that the artists we connect to must be from our tribe.

There is no greater proof of how damaging this viewpoint is than people who live in communities that don’t support art.  It is utterly damaging to force yourself into a box that doesn’t accept you.  As much as all the other points will help, the support of others is vitally important for loving your work and for strengthening you as you move forward.

I say all this because you wrote to me telling me that your community does not support your art.  That’s because they are not a creative community.  Which is fine.

So they’re not your community in the creative sense.  In other words, there is another community out there for you when it comes to art.  Or, more than likely, more than one.  You must search them out.  You must be willing to connect with people you might normally not in your day to day life.  You must be willing to think outside the box when looking for them.  You must be willing to go into bars, into classes, into concerts, places many religious people dare not roam.  You are a warrior, remember, and to go into the untreaded territory is your very nature.

You must find the people that are fellow warriors.  The ones who will support you, not criticize you and bring you down. The people who will say, “Please tell me more!” when you share your art.  The people who will go into battle with you because they get you.

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To have such a community cannot be understated.  Support is important in love, in religion, in our careers.  So why on earth would we not pursue the same with all our heart when it comes to creativity?

5. Learn

Learn.  Learn.   Learn.  You want to be creative?  My gosh, you need to learn.

No teachers around you?  No problem.  Get a book.  Watch a video.  Research the artists you admire and reach out to them to find out how they learned.

Learning is different than absorbing art.  Absorbing art is about breathing.  Learning is more like exercise, meditation, eating well.  It’s what makes your breathing stronger, more alive, able to last longer and to be used for more and more purposes.

We learn Torah, yes?  We learn Torah because we know that when we do not learn, we are losing what we have known.  To not go up is to go down.  So it is with anything, and so it especially is with art.  To be a healthy artist, you must love to learn.

6. Do

What use are any of the other steps if you do not do?  If you are blocked, if you are only inhaling and not exhaling you are turning into a bursting-at-the-seams blueberry like the girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Every day create something.  Anything.  Sit down at your computer and write.  Or don’t, but get in the headspace at least.  Stand in front of a canvas.  Take out your guitar.

The one reality that so many people miss is that creativity has inherent worth.  Since it lives inside of you whether you accept it or not, to ignore it is to hurt yourself and to live it is to be a non-blueberry.

Now, there are many reasons some of us may not create.  We may have our own self-judgments.  Or we may be scared of others’ opinions.  We may be perfectionists, preferring to create nothing than to create something flawed.

Well, look at the above step.  Learning.  Even the actual act of starting our work is a skill.  If you are blocked, do not expect it to simply evaporate.  You must actively pursue the doing.  You must be a warrior even with yourself.

7. Share

When you are ready, you must share.  You must open up.  You must allow the positive and negative voices to come in.

I could go on and on about how if you have a creative soul then God sees this as a responsibility.

But that’s dry.  And it’s kind of mean, and it’s horrifically paralyzing.

The truth is that God gave you this power and this responsibility because He loves you, not just as a 9 to 5 job that you tap in and out of and succeed or don’t.  God gave it to you because He knows how good it is for you and for the world.  You are blessed.

To share is to tap into the blessing.  It is the saying of a blessing before eating that creates the chorus of “amens” afterwards.  It is the ultimate expression of being the warrior: you will get to see your creation change people.  There are few greater gifts that God can give.  It is the gift he gave himself, the creation of the world.  And he gave it to you.

8. Use the internet

I wanted to save this one for a bit later because I wanted to set up the above as being the basis for happiness as an artist.

But I kept hearing voices as I wrote saying, “But I can’t find them!” “But there aren’t museums, open mics, bars, libraries, anything where I live!” “But there are no classes near me!” “I can’t find anyone creative!”

Well, maybe you really do live in the middle of nowhere.

But if you are reading this article, then you are experiencing the power of the internet in action.  Every single one of the above tools and ideas can be accessed through the internet, and for a religious person, it is absolutely essential.

The Jewish people are so creative, and so diverse in their creativity, and so brimming with life and spiritual power.  But the reality is that God has spread us throughout the world, alone and confused.  Confused because we forget that our little corner is just a small bit of it all.

The internet is like Geula 1.0, the first true ingathering of the Jews.  It’s (present day) Israel on crack.  It’s where every Jew can meet, connect, and create.

This is one example of how it can be used.  This community we built.  But there are, of course, countless other ways.

You can learn just about anything on the internet.  Google your subject, the style you want to do, whatever.  Subscribe to blogs that teach it.  Sign up for online classes (They have free ones! Lots of them!)

You can experience art, from books to paintings to movies to blogs.

And, more important than anything, the internet is a place to share.  Yes, it’s a glut and everyone on earth is sharing and Facebook can’t handle the weight of it all, but to have a place where anyone in the world can see your creativity?  That is a gift that only this generation has been able to truly experience.

How could you let such an opportunity pass?

Your art is alive inside of you.  Your creativity is burning.  And whatever you think, there are literally no boundaries holding you back from embracing it, learning it, and sharing it.  The internet is a physical metaphor for just how much you can do.

Now go.  The entire world is waiting.