By Chana Tolchin, Barnard College JOFA Fellow
On a college campus, involvement in the arts is hard for anyone. Commitment to a play, a cappella group, or dance troupe is an “all-or nothing” deal; the hours are long and being active in any of these activities requires weekend and late night sacrifices. It’s a lot for any college student to handle, but for religious women on campus, art opportunities pose the issues of modesty on stage (including the restriction of Kol Isha) and scheduling conflicts with Shabbat, as all plays in college have Saturday performances.
In high school, my life revolved around artistic activities. I performed in school musicals and the school choir, and in my junior and senior year I helped plan and run an arts-fundraiser event that was open to the community at large. In college, I sought similar opportunities - even auditioned and got in to the Jewish women’s a cappella group – but I struggled with the requirements of my courses and ultimately felt that the time commitment was just too much. I wanted a more doable artistic outlet but didn’t know where on campus to find it. I put all my efforts into other pursuits that were important to me, concluding that performance would not be possible during my college career.
My friend Talia Lakritz, a current freshman who I sat next to and harmonized with during Kabbalat Shabbat, approached me early in the year with a dilemma. She was a self-described “theater geek” and felt that she was in a quandary at Barnard. She didn’t feel comfortable performing in a student play from her religious standpoint and, like me, she felt that the other singing outlets on campus were not right for her. She wanted a safe place to perform, a place where she would not have to worry about Shabbat, Kol Isha, modesty, or long weekends away, and she wanted other women on campus to have this opportunity as well.
I jumped on the bandwagon immediately. The chance for me to perform on campus was only part of the motivation for co-planning our “arts festival,” as we referred to it at the start. I had learned from running a similar art program in high school that part of what I loved most about the arts was the ability they have to bond and connect people. It means the world for performers to express themselves, and it means just as much to audience members to take a break from the rat-race of life and have the opportunity to reflect while touched by a dance or a song. Art, and especially the performing arts, have so much potential to connect people in a context of community. The competitive nature of performance in college cuts away at the comfort of artists to be the creative beings they are.
Together with Deborah Pollack, the representative from J-WOC (Jewish Women on Campus) who, like Talia and I, is an artist (a writer) herself, we became three women on a mission. We were going to create a safe space for all female performers on campus, regardless of religion, to express themselves artistically and gain the venue and the attention they deserved. We set out to create an evening of the arts for dancers, musicians, singers, writers, and actors. We wanted the night to have a sense of bonding. We also wanted the night to have a feeling of collective empowerment. Our drive in creating an all-female arts-festival event wasn’t just to combat competition on campus or to deal with religious restrictions; we also wanted to address the empowerment that women gain through self expression, especially through art. We wanted a community of women, bound by their passion, to come together to support and celebrate each other’s individuality.
We started in Hillel, where we knew our idea would receive immediate attention. We received an extremely encouraging response at our initial interest meeting; already musicians, singers, dancers, dramatists were lining up to perform. We decided not to have an official audition process and instead produced a screening sheet asking for each artist’s performance idea and previous experience. We didn’t want any of our performers to feel that they had to “be” a certain way to please a panel of judges. This would be their show. They would be free to express themselves in the way that they best saw fit.
We advertised our event campus-wide by putting fliers in every building we could, getting our blurb in the online newsletters of other religious groups on campus, and spreading the word through Facebook, email and social media. The puzzle pieces started coming together, and we had women of all artistic arenas signing on. The only thing we wished we had pushed harder for this year (which we plan on making a project in years to come) was to partner with Christian and Muslim groups on campus. We reached out but were unable to receive their official sponsorship, and as such, all the sponsors for the event became Hillel-based. Still, we had a range of performers – not all performers were Jewish, and among those who were, all denominations were represented.
We secured a beautiful location for out event; The James Room, which is open and sleek with a grand piano. We decided on a “coffee-shop” feel for the event, with round tables to foster togetherness and conversation during the initial mingling time before the performers would take the stage. We called our evening of the arts “New Moon: A Festival of the Arts” since the date we chose corresponded to the Jewish Rosh Chodesh, and we felt that the symbol of the moon was important in connection to women and also to spirituality.
The night was an amazing one: our expectations were met and surpassed. Overall, we saw over 65 women in attendance. All performers were graceful, passionate, professional, and wonderful. We had cookies and coffee to eat and tables decorated with elegant decor and inspirational quotes. Our performers included a clarinet player, a violinist, dramatists, singers singing original songs, singers singing show tunes, ballet dancers, belly dancers, a slam poet, writers reading their works aloud, piano players. The feedback we received was overwhelming. The performers who spoke to us afterward were so thankful for the space to express themselves, and many women – performers and audience members alike – requested that “New Moon” be an annual event.
Feminism, for me, is about the freedom of all women to be themselves and to express themselves away from the restrictions society or culture places on us or the inhibitions we may feel by the pressures and judgments that can come from our own communities. The way I understand feminism is that when there’s something in the way of you getting to be who you are because you are a woman, that’s when you need to fight the fight. “New Moon” was a place where all types of women from all places on the religious spectrum felt supported and got the chance to be who they were. My dream is that the type of expression that took place in the James Room the night of February 17 can expand into the world as more and more women have the space and the support that they need to connect with each other and to showcase the essence of who they are.