If I had to pinpoint one pivotal moment in my life that has shaped my artistic practice, it would be eating an egg, cheese and Canadian bacon sandwich at McDonald's on Passover when I was a kid. My parents had recently divorced and my siblings and I were on the way to our father’s house for the weekend after a whirlwind observance of Passover with our mother. Our days leading up to this fast food trip were filled with services, matzah ball soup, matzah with cream cheese, matzah with butter, matzah with jelly, matzah brei and enough eggs to warrant a cardiogram. Passover was not over yet and when my father pulled up to the “golden arches” with the smell of all things “traif” in the air, we faced a wave of mixed emotions. Guilt was followed by acquiescence and then elation, as we devoured our delicious biscuit sandwiches with the extra-un-kosher pig meat inside.
My parents were an unlikely pair. He was a rugged Gabe Kotter look-alike with a 70’s white-guy-afro, the son of assimilated New York Jews who served shrimp alongside the Jell-O mold at his bar mitzvah. She was a southern belle from New Orleans, the daughter of orthodox Jewish immigrants, observant despite the many “goyish” temptations around them. Their union set in motion the identity crisis among their children that was to follow; our family was a mini-melting pot within the New Orleans Jewish community.
Throughout my life, I have had a love/hate relationship with Judaism. As a child, I yawned my way through high-holiday services and religious school. None of my friends were Jewish; there was far more of a connection to my artsy kin than to the daughters of my mother’s Hadassah friends. I did not believe in god. But, somehow, I felt the need to fast on Yom Kippur; I packed matzah sandwiches in my school lunch on Passover; I lit the menorah on Hanukah. As if practicing Judaism were innate, I have always been driven to do it, despite my ideological doubts.
As the years went on, I realized that, just as I was driven by mysterious forces to be Jewish, the world around me was wired to label me as such. My elementary school, Newman School, had a large enough Jewish population to be afflicted with the rhyme “Newman Jewman Hebrew High—all the kids become rabbis.” In junior high school, I switched schools and found myself one of two Jewish kids in the entire class of 250. I attended church dances with friends. For kicks, I joined them at midnight mass, dodging the communion cracker tray as it made its way around the congregation. Some situations were not as comical. I remember a classmate saying to me “What’s wrong with you? How can you be Jewish?” I felt insecure about my nose, my star of David necklace, my weird matzah lunch.
In high school, I continued to be a minority among my classmates. Most of the time, I felt okay about it. My best friends thought I was unique and exotic; some of them even read books about Judaism and said they wanted to convert. But, one experience in high school brought to life the realization that I was branded, whether I liked it or not. In my junior year, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, ran for governor of Louisiana. Having had a grandfather who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, I was horrified by the thought of an anti-Semitic and racist leader in my home state. Debates in Social Studies class mirrored adult voters and I was shocked to find that nearly half of my classmates were rooting for Duke. Ultimately, he did not win the election, but the experience stayed with me as a reminder that forces in the world bind even the most assimilated Jews to their heritage.
All these experiences have shaped my work, which reflects an “assimilated Judaica” that is filled with cynicism, personal narratives and humor. I am sure there are many like me, who go through the motions of Judaism with furrowed brows, questioning the meaning of it all. In my paintings, I try to embody the feeling of being connected and disconnected, to which I hope this audience can relate. Regardless of culture or religion, I hope my work will inspire any viewer to analyze their own traditions and find comedy, hypocrisy, imperfection, but most of all, an unwitting, yet unbreakable bond.