“People Want Meaning and Good Visuals”: an Interview with Jessica Tamar Deutsch

LABA fellow Jessica Tamar Deutsch is a New York-based artist and creator of the Illustrated Pirkei Avot. Her work explores the intersection of ancient tradition and contemporary culture. Here she discusses her life and work with Amy Handelsman. Deutsch will be presenting animation and drawings at LABAlive III on Thursday, May 23rd at 7:30pm. Click here for tickets.

Q. Tell us about your upbringing and your family.

A. I grew up in Westchester, in New Rochelle. I went to Jewish day schools. Nothing too ultra-Orthodox, but I did grow up with a Jewish education. I had a traditional, down-to-earth Jewish upbringing.

My father was born in the Hungary-Transylvania area. When he was three, his family went to Israel, and he grew up there. His family lived in Jaffa and Bat Yam. He moved to Cleveland when he was 18 and finished high school there and went to college in the States. My mom is from California. My parents caught on early that my [two sisters and brother] and I were creative.

Q. You went to Parsons. When you were there, did you do Jewish art?

A. Right before I went to college, I went to an all-women’s seminary in Jerusalem, Midreshet Harova. It was very intense. After that, I made more connections with my art. I had always loved Jewish practice, but I had an initial fear that I would be pegged “the religious one,” and then I realized that there are weirder things, and that people want meaning and good visuals.

Q. Did you study art in the seminary, or was it primarily text-based?

A. It was a very text-based program. At the time, I figured that for the next four years, I’d be making art, so I spent a gap year to do seminary studies.

It’s nice that in the last two or three years, in whatever space I’ve been in, I can feel art with deep meaning that is not “otherworldly.” It’s nice to work with Lab/Shul [as a Resident Artist] which is appropriate to my background. Whatever knowledge I’ve gleaned, I use in that setting.

I tell my cousins in Israel about Lab/Shul and they are incredulous: “What do you mean ‘G-d optional?’” [Lab/Shul describes itself as “an artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop-up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in New York City and reaching the world.”]

Q. How did you get involved with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie and Lab/Shul?

A. I first heard of them when I was doing a residency at Art Kibbutz, and I had dinner with him in his home in the East Village when he was becoming a rabbi. He was balancing a lot of worlds of seeming opposites in a very beautiful way. A few years later, a friend reminded me of its existence and I got in touch with Ezra [Bookman, Artistic Director]. I found out they had used my Illustrated Pirke Avot at an LGBTQ meet-up. They used it as a primary source. I was excited that it was being used as a text for a group that is not Jewish.

[Amichai] is good at making a home for alienated people, to be able to connect with non-traditional Jews. There, I sometimes feel the most ultra-Orthodox, and other times, the most liberal.

Q. How did you find out about LABA?

A. It’s one of these things on the radar if you’re plugged into the Jewish creative world. I heard about it in college but would miss deadlines. The way they present it, it’s so well done. I thought this is a great way to connect with different people in different fields—not like in college, where you critique other people.

Q. Where are you in your LABA project?

A. I’m figuring it out. The theme of life and death really intrigued me. Regarding death, I wanted to know “What is this mysterious veil around it?” I joined one chevruta kadisha [a Jewish burial society], but I wasn’t ever called, so I have no experience yet. I took a course to be a birth doula.

I’m interested in [the Hebrew word] for “truth,” emet [אמת] The letters alef and mem spell mother [אמא]; the letters mem and taf spell death [מוות]. But it wasn’t flowing the way other projects do; it wasn’t feeling right.

I wanted it to be a project more naturally flowing and not so contrived. And the fellowship is under a year, so it’s not that long [to develop something]. I could be inspired by a life-changing experience at a moment’s notice, but not if it’s manufactured. I need to be ready, to be comfortable with it.

Q. What are you working on for LABAlive?

A. Drawings about my day-to-day life. There are a few lists, lessons from the birth doula and with the chevruta kadisha. They both say: “If you want to be doing this work, you should be doing it; if not, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Q. You seem to have a strong relationship with text and drawing.

A. It’s a newer thing to be coming up with my own combination of words. For most of my career, I was finding text and then illustrating it. It’s a different experience when both are coming from the same brain.

I’m doing a lot of moving around, like a lot of people in their 20s, dealing with disappointments in relationships and career. My way to make things feel better for a bit was writing. I really clung to it last year when I was trying to find balance.

I became so appreciative of this practice. It’s a really true but emotional experience for words to make you feel better.

Maybe this is true for everyone. I’m trying to believe in the words coming from me. The idea is to make a book in a playful way that deals with comfort. Comfort is a Jewish thing in general and as women, we deal with it in a different way. I’m also trying to make it accessible.

People assume I’m an author. I am also a feminist and it’s important for feminists to encourage other women to own their creativity and learning. Women tend to think they need men to teach Jewish studies, but I’d like them to trust the Torah within them.

Abraham didn’t have Torah; Sarah neither. They didn’t have school. But the idea was that they had it in their kishkas.  G-d had Torah flowing within them.

Q. Have any texts from this year’s LABA study sessions been inspirational to you?

A. I enjoy text studies, but it’s more an opportunity to learn from people. There was one learning session that was more mystical, when we learned things with wild language (demons, chickens, cat placenta). I love Jewish magic talk. That was very exciting, whether or not there was face-value truth. It was so fun. I loved the wildness of it.

Q. What else are you working on?

A. Outside of LABA, I am a freelance artist. I’m working on two commissioned books for two rabbis in the neighborhood. It’s nice to have other work out there, and to get the money.

I feel closest to the LABA project. It is called The Torah of My Kishkas: The Diary of a 20-Something Jewess. It’s exciting to make all the decisions, to have something fully my own.