Chicago to keynote Women’s Shabbaton

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Judy Chicago, internationally acclaimed feminist and Jewish artist, will be the keynote speaker at the Kol Nashim/All Women Jewish Celebration of the Arts and Learning Shabbaton and Conference, sponsored by Nishmah in partnership with the Jewish Community Center, which begins on Friday, March 7, at the Crowne Plaza in Clayton. That evening, another icon of feminist and Jewish artistry, acclaimed author and poet Marge Piercy, will be the featured speaker following the welcoming Kabbalat Shabbat (beginning of the Sabbath) and dinner. Chicago’s address will be delivered on Sunday, March 9, following another address by Rabbi Karyn Kedar.

Chicago has previously visited St. Louis to discuss her major artistic works, including a 1980 program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she discussed her “signature piece,” called “The Dinner Party,” which contains representations, in ceramic, of hundreds of major female figures in history, religion, literature and mythology. She was also a featured speaker at the 1993 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, where she discussed her acclaimed “Holocaust Project,” her most explicitly Jewish work, in which she collaborated with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman.

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The St. Louis Jewish Light was the first Jewish newspaper to interview Chicago on her Jewish background, starting with her 1980 talk at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in which she sat down for an interview in the Chancellor’s Residence following her talk. In that interview, Chicago discussed the fact that she is descended from 23 generations of rabbis, including the famous Gaon of Vilna, one of the major rabbinic figures in history who was said to have committed the entire Jewish Bible and much of the Talmud to memory.

“There is more to me than my gender,” Chicago said. She added, that in 1980, “I have been struggling to make the female experience stand for a lager life experience, and I can only go as fast as I can go. I wish it had not been necessary for me to spend 20 years trying to fight this battle. It is very difficult in a world that disenfranchises, hates, beats and violates women…I feel that I could just deal with that for the rest of my life and that would be okay.”

When she and her husband Donald Woodman launched the Holocaust Project, Chicago broadened her concerns to include a deep examination of issues important to the Jewish people without losing her focus on women’s issues. She told the Jewish Light that she was born in July 1939 as Judith Sylvia Cohen, the daughter of Arthur M. Cohen and May Levenson Cohen. She spoke fondly of her late parents and how they encouraged her intellectual and artistic growth.

She added that it was her father, Arthur M. Cohen who was descended from the generations of rabbis. “As the youngest and brightest male in his family, he was supposed to carry on the family tradition, but he rebelled as a child and refused to go to cheder,” Chicago said. Her father’s rebelliousness was later channeled into strong support of secular and progressive causes, including union organizing. In tribute to her native city, she adopted the name “Chicago” as her professinal moniker.

The focus of “Dinner Party,” completed in the 1970s was to “redress the omission of women from much of Western history and culture. The work is an open, triangular table set on a porcelain floor, on which are 39 place settings, each of them representing a symbolic expression of the 39 major female figures in mythology, religion and history, covering the total span of Western culture. The floor is set with 2,300 porcelain tiles, inscribed with the names of 999 other women who had an impact on history, religion, mythology or literature.

Chicago was inspired to do her Holocaust Project with her husband after meeting a non-Jewish poet named Harvey Mudd who had just completed a long poem about the Holocaust. “He told me about the trip he’d made to Auschwitz and Treblinka in preparation for writing the poem, and I expressed surprise that he, a non-Jewish poet would have wanted to explore the subject of the Holcaust. He was equally surprised at my not understanding the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work makes you free”), that was inscribed at some of the concentration camps where, of course, thousands of peoploe had been killed rather than ‘freed’ by the numbing, dehumanizing work.”

As a result, Chicago and Woodman spent eight years devoted to visiting the death camps, researching and preparing paintings and photographs of their experiences and impressions. One of those works, called “Banality of Evil/Struthof,” by Chicago and Woodman, depicts SS officers casually enjoying coffee and snacks across the path from a Nazi concentration camp.

“We are thrilled that Judy Chicago was available to us to be our keynote speaker at our Jewish Celebration of the Arts and Learning Shabbaton and Conference,” said Ronit Sherwin of Nishmah. She and Sara Winkelman, also of Nishmah said that Jewish women and teens of all generations will attend the confererence at the Crown Plaza, 7750 Carondolet Avenue in Clayton.” Women from the St. Louis Jewish community will be joined by Jewish women and teens from regional, national and international Jewish communities to “celebrate and conect through the spirituality of Shabbat, the arts and Jewish learning, which is titled, ‘Kol Nashim — All Women.”

Attendees will have a choice of attending either a traditional or a progressive Shabbat service. A “Teen Track” of workshops has been designed especially to cater to the needs and interests of teenage girls. Shabbat will end Saturday evening with a Havdalah (ending of Sabbath) ceremony.

Saturday evening will showcase the “Evening of the Arts,” described as a “collage of entertainment by local performance artists: comedy, dance, vocals and The New Jewish Theatre.” Saturday night will also launch the opening of the Artisan Bazaar, which will feature works by local Jewish women artists and interactive craft activities.

The conference will conclude on Sunday, March 9, with a short closing ritual. For additional information call Ronit Sherwin at 314-862-2777, or Sara Winkelman at 314-432-5700.

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