Judaism through t-shirts

Anne Grant opened her traveling art exhibit “Shmattes” at the Brody Jewish Center Friday. Grant, who received her degree in Jewish Studies from the University in 2012, presents viewers with a collection of t-shirts to show different representations of cultural Jewish identity in modern America.

Over the past two years, Grant has compiled over 150 shirts for her collection. The project began as a response to an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper that warned readers about the rise of American youth who consider themselves culturally Jewish but are not ritually observant, labelling them as a threat to Judaism.

“Many critics believe a big issue in the Jewish world right now is the rise of young Jews who don’t feel a compulsion...to be religiously observant,” Grant said. “I think … it doesn’t matter in terms of numbers who is religious and who is not…[I think] about what culturally Jewish people are contributing. What do they care about? What is this adding to the mosaic of contemporary Jewish life?”

When Yale University invited Grant to create an exhibit of her work, her original intellectual project blossomed into a traveling art exhibit. Grant decided the simplest way to present her project was through the unique medium of t-shirts, which she views as “artifacts of identity and class” that serve as “relics of a very contemporary period of Jewish history.”

The title of the exhibit embodies the central theme of Grant’s research. “Shmattes,” a Yiddish word for “rags,” exploits a Jewish concept in a humorous way, as do many of the t-shirts in her collection.

The project tries to define a viewer’s basic knowledge of or identification with Judaism, including whether that basis is religiously informed. Viewers will understand the t-shirts in varying degrees and the extent of their knowledge of Judaism will determine what Grant refers to as their “positionality,” or place in the Jewish world.

“A lot of [the] t-shirts riff off of the idea of not really knowing much about Judaism and poking fun at it or the t-shirt creator’s own lack of knowledge,” Grant said. “That’s really what this project is getting at.”

The t-shirts are divided into four main sections within the exhibit, entitled Cultural Appropriation, Post-Modern or Self-Referential, Hillel Shirts, and a final section that presents a knowledge game to the audience.

T-shirts labelled as Cultural Appropriation create puns and jokes based on widely known Jewish concepts, such as the “Purple Drank” shirt. Post-Modern or Self-Referential t-shirts poke fun at the lack of knowledge of many Jewish and non-Jewish identifiers — for instance, a shirt showing three crossed-out spellings of “Hanukkah.” The Hillel shirts in the collection come from universities across the country and feature each university’s name in Hebrew.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the exhibit is the game Grant devised to test the viewer’s knowledge level of Jewish culture.

“Which of these shirts do you understand?” she said. “If you don’t understand what the t-shirts say you are either non-Jewish or culturally Jewish. Part of the whole concept of ‘Shmattes’ is determining your positionality among a legacy of Jewish knowledge.”

As she refined the exhibit, Grant eliminated most of the displayed text, giving viewers the opportunity to find their own positionality and draw their own conclusions about the t-shirts displayed.

In general, the exhibit allows viewers, especially college students, to view Jewish culture in a less traditional way.

“Where my scholarship comes in is to make Jewish studies palatable and interesting and fun and sexy to Jewish students,” Grant said. “What I try to do is use a lot of contemporary cultural theory and scholarship and try to incorporate it into the Jewish Studies period which had been more historiographic than theoretically inclined.”

“Schmattes” will be open to audiences at the Brody Jewish Center through April 2015.

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