The young man was bright, creative, energetic and sincere. I had taught him for a number of years in high school and was visiting him in his post-high school year in Israel in a very prestigious Yeshiva in Israel. Faced with significant intellectual challenges he was prepared to invest considerable energies, and felt that he had made substantive progress in the previous five months. Despite his growth, he was not happy.
The intensity of the program demanded excellence, and that excellence had to come at the expense of other pursuits. Throughout his adolescent years he had found expression and solace in his guitar, but now there was no time. Even worse, he was being discouraged from pursuing his music as it would interfere with his studies.
We had a long discussion in which, amongst other things, I shared with him a midrash that I had found personally meaningful many years earlier. Commenting on the verse in Psalms kabed et A-donai mei-honekha (give honor to God from your wealth), the midrash suggests reading the last word instead as mi-geronekha (from your throat). Essentially, my understanding of that midrash is that each individual is granted his or her own form of wealth – for some that wealth is financial, for others it can relate to skills or talents. That which God grants us is His gift to us; we give honor to God by using that gift in His service.
The young man thanked me for the conversation, and later related that he began pursuing his music again, reenergizing him. While in college he formed a band, developed a unique sound in Jewish music, began performing in concerts and recording albums, and became something of a sensation for a large segment of the world of Jewish youth.
In many ways we have come very far from The Jazz Singer or Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, but it is fair to say that the Jewish educational community’s engagement with the arts leaves room for improvement. The arts serve as a window to the soul and as a means of expression of our deepest thoughts and yearnings. Perhaps even more importantly, they can touch the soul and move it to new places.
Multiple studies in recent years have pointed to the role the arts play in the development of cognition, conceptualization, personal development, self-discipline, intuition, reasoning, imagination, and dexterity. A 2009 presidential advisory panel credited arts education with helping to bridge gaps for financially disadvantaged students, bolstering student achievement and engagement, and providing students with the skills to creatively solve problems. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation about the visual arts argues that the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing,” creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion. And a recent Presidential Committee determined that arts education is an effective tool for school reform, even as arts education funding has declined.
We open this issue with a thoughtful reflection by artist Tobi Kahn. We continue with a review of literature on the arts in education by his colleagues at AVODA Arts, Josh Feinberg and Debbie Krivoy. David Debow articulates a theory of Jewish spirituality through the arts, Miriam Hirsch presents research on resistance to the arts, and Matt Williams closes the section with an analysis of using the arts in education.
Our Applications section is rich and varied. Robbie Gringras shares practical lessons on performance art, David Moss and colleagues present the work they are doing using art to explore Jewish themes and Gail Baker reflects on her arts-based school. Shimshon Hamerman bridges between theory and practice, Avi Rose examines the use of art to instill Jewish values in a post-high school program and Peretz Wolf-Prusan (together with one of his students) reflects on an innovative and transformative camp experience.
In our Features section, Levi Cooper’s From the Classics explores the world of cantorial music, or chazzonus, and focuses particularly on self-imposed limitations that hazzanim established for themselves. Finally, Prof. Mel Alexenberg, who is still (after many decades) at the cutting edge of arts education, graces our Perspectives page. There is one additional feature of this issue – almost all of the graphic art used was provided by the authors themselves, and is reflective of their own creative spirit. We hope that the visual and textual enhance each other.
Errata – Eliot Feldman was previously the Vice Principal of The Toronto Heschel School, not the Principal. We apologize for the error.