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How does Jewish art work?

For graphic designer Randy Burman of Miami, it only took reading the Song of Songs in the Bible. "If I let my hand do the drawing, the letters started dancing -- they took on a life of their own."

How does Jewish art feel?

Even amid a Sephardic-style dance, Myriam Eli of Margate can't tell you. "I can't tell if I'm happy or sad. It's more ethereal. It goes beyond music and dance to a movement of energy."

Jewish cultural arts, once relegated to books and Torah mantles, have blossomed in recent years into music, dance, theater, sculpture, painting, drawing, even handicrafts. In so doing, it is starting to change the way some Jews practice their religion.

In South Florida, they find an outlet in Next@19th, housed at Temple Israel of Miami. The organization, which takes its name from the temple at 137 NE 19th St., is an experiment in using art to reach the 85 percent of Jews who don't attend synagogue services.

"We're not trying to do what temples do," says Jenni Person, founder and director of Next@19th, which is not an outreach of the synagogue. "We're trying to bring together Jewish thought and Jewish culture. And we want to engage Jews and non-Jews alike."

Artists' workshop

One example: a recent workshop on the biblical Song of Songs, bringing artists together to compare notes on how they interpret the book in their work.

Burman tells of "total immersion" and how the Song of Songs inspired him to pick out chords on a guitar.

Dina Knapp talks about making a long coat decorated with pomegranate designs, saying that the Song of Songs is "the ultimate love poem of God for his people, and of people for people."

Sculptor Nicole Soden speaks of her art as "almost a meditative act, integrating the scriptures into my work. The Song of Songs tells of the deep connection of all people, a desire to connect with something greater than ourselves."

The artists plan to finish their works by late fall, in time for a full showcase. But the listeners don't just listen: They break up into small knots for scripture study, then try some papercut art under Soden's coaching.

Rabbi Judy Cohen of the temple looks on approvingly at the non-traditional goings-on. "So much of what we do is about creating community," she says. "There is an aesthetic about it that enhances spirituality."

Part of the art community

Next@19th could hardly be better placed for cultivating creativity. Temple Israel is just south of Miami's Design District and north of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Westward is the Wynwood Arts District, home to numerous galleries and private studios. On the east are cafes, high-rises and Biscayne Boulevard.

The temple complex itself -- a traditional Moorish Mediterranean sanctuary plus a cavelike chapel that could have been designed by Fred Flintstone -- suggests a congregation willing to try different things.

"Temple Israel has always had a reputation as a progressive place," Person says. "It's not afraid of curiosity. It values inquiry and experimentation."

Her biggest success story is the Guava Rugelach Festival, touting what she calls tropical Jewish culture. The festival has featured singers and musicians in Sephardic songs, Mizrachi rock and klezmer-Latino music. The first festival in 2007 drew 800 people in two days, and Person had to turn away 200 at the gate.

Next@19th last January started a monthly concert in a café setting, using Temple Israel's palm-shaded patio. Called the Guava Rugelach Lounge, it's thus far hosted a Yiddish-Spanish singer, an a cappela group, a flamenco guitarist and a ballet troupe.

Also part of Next@19th is the so-called Sanhedrin, named after the ancient Jewish religious court. In a recent debate on whether Jews should get tattoos, speakers stood on each side of the room, and listeners literally took sides -- physically walking to one side or the other.

'Alterna-Jews'

If Temple Israel is the right place, Person is the right person. Growing up in a progressive Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, she heard an English choir backed up by organ, and Yiddish singing accompanied by guitar. She even recalls a cantorial soloist with accordion and dancers on the bima.

But her route was not direct. Coming to South Florida in 1992, she went "shul shopping" and came up empty. "I didn't find other Jewish young adults who wanted creativity and community," she said.

Finally she gathered her own group at her apartment near Miami Beach's Lincoln Road. "Alterna-Jews," they called themselves, experimenting with things like interpretive poetry and tap-dancing at aPassover Seder.

Person then drifted off to jobs in Atlanta, Los Angeles and West Palm Beach before returning to Miami in 2004. She finally found a comfortable fit with Temple Israel.

For artists like Myriam Eli, having Next@19th as a venue is, well, a godsend. A Cuban Jew, half-Sephardic and half-Ashkenazic, she blends Turkish, Iraqi, Egyptian and other dance styles. She and husband Joe Zeytoonian have their own arts organization, called Harmonic Motion.

Eli says South Florida has music and dance venues for Haitian and Hispanic people, as well as the African diaspora. "But there's not a lot of presentation for Jewish material. Music and dancing and prayer -- it's all part of the same thing: connection with what I call the Great Power, and some people call God."

Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, scholar-in-residence at Temple Israel, has a more expansive view. Chefitz, who invited Person to the temple, sees the rise of Jewish arts as a sign a historic "paradigm shift" in Jewry -- on a level with the shift in ancient times from temple worship and Torah study to synagogue services and Talmud study.

"There's a lot of searching, a spiritual longing for alternative approaches," he says. "People are missing an engagement with the Jewish soul, and there is nothing in conventional service or teaching that does it. But art, music, poetry -- that attracts them."

Person and company are hard at work on the next Guava Rugelach Festival, planned for Sept. 3-4. Thus far, they've lined up more than half-dozen acts including Myriam Eli. Also there will be Galeet Dardashti, a Persian-style composer and singer, along with a band called Yemeni Blues.

Dardashti's planned tour -- including New York, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles – shows the spread of the new trend of Jewish arts. Linking them is the New Jewish Cultural Network and its parent organization, the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The foundation has been around since 1960, but it focused first on scholarship. It broadened its scope in the last generation, says Andrew Ingall, its program officer for the arts.

"We did a study in 2005, which found that Jewish culture is the portal by which young unaffiliated Jews connect to Judaism," Ingall says. "That showed our funders that it was a worthwhile investment."

The goals of Next@19th are lofty, and the means are varied. How to know if/when to declare success?

Chefitz is rather blunt. "When people stand at the door. And when we get national attention and money."

Person is more general in her gauge of success. "If one person has been touched and is engaged, we've succeeded. It's an evolving measurement."

JDDavis@Tribune.com or 954-356-4730.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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