In this piece artist Nicki Green and artist and kohenet Rebekah Erev talk about how their overlapping interests in queerness and Jewish ritual in their work.
Both artists are involved in the Queer Mikveh Project, a documentary film and project asking why mikveh, a Jewish ritual of water immersion is not more accessible to queer and trans people. The project aims to reframe who gets to do mikveh and how, document queer mikveh projects that currently exist and create more opportunities for engaging in this powerful ritual.
NG: Maybe we should start by introducing ourselves and then just diving in?
My name is Nicki Green, I’m a visual artist living in San Francisco. I work in a lot of different materials, primarily ceramics and painting/drawing, and have been using my art practice as a way to re-explore/re-enter a Jewish identity that I’ve felt really distant from for most of my young adult life. I’ve been working with mikveh for a while now in my studio practice and academic research, mostly spurred from Sex and the City. In the 6th season, Charlotte converts to Judaism, and in her immersion scenes, the mikveh is made up of all this gorgeous tile work. This revelation that the pool itself is a ceramic object, that it may be possible to bring mikveh into the language of a ceramic practice was revelatory for me. I ended up getting some grant money to travel to visit Mayyim Hayyim to do research, it was a really monumental time in my art practice and life!
What about you? How did you first dig into mikveh?
RE: Yes to diving right in, pun completely intended.
I’m Rebekah Erev and currently live on Lenape land. Although I work in several mediums: painting, sculpture, performance and the written word, I kind of realized I’m a project artist. Is that a thing?
NG: It’s totally a thing!
RE: I co-founded a DIY Master in Fine Arts (essentially an artist collective), self-published a deck of oracle cards, like tarot cards and now I’m working on building community and making a documentary film about queer mikveh.
I like to think of my first mikveh in the womb of Susan Lubarr Giffen, my mother. I didn’t realize it at the time. That would be completely aligned with the Jewish myth about knowing everything while in utero and getting punched in the face before exiting to knock all the knowledge out of you! (I learned that iteration of the story from Jhos Singer when we were interviewing him for the QMP film.)
You were asking me about my first mikveh dig in. I was in a queer chavurah (group of friends) in Olympia in the early 2000’s and mikveh was something I did with some of those people. This queering of Jewish ritual really came right along with getting politicized about Palestine and, coming out in general.
Baby queer me, taken by Malka Fenyvesi, a friend I learned about Palestinian struggle with. We wrote a zine in 2001 called, Chutzpah about our identity shifts coming to terms with the realities of zionism.
NG: It sounds like the act of Queering was a bigger blanket experience rooted in a politicization – coming out, adapting ritual, developing a political identity and awareness of Palestine. Would you say this is true?
RE: I think politicizing ourselves rooted in radical queerness is part of building the world to come. For me the experience of messiah is in moments of embracing the wholeness of our experience both what’s difficult and liberatory. The messiah isn’t something in the future, it’s fluid like water. Our bodies are mostly water, so we can make our vessels holy by working for justice, embodying our ancestors wishes and future generations dreams. For me, that’s the essence of queerness and I hope it’s the essence of the Queer Mikveh Project.
NG: What other ways have you queered Jewish rituals?
RE: A lot of queering Jewish ritual for me is about relevance. What’s relevant is cool, it has allure, you want it. It’s the desire to make something your own. Whereas coolness often feels inaccessible, relevance is ultimately about accessibility and resonance. Depending on race and class identity and where we grew up, we can feel we don’t belong, as a queer, as a Jew, or both. It’s that sense of exclusion that has pushed me to make ritual my own. I queer ritual by bringing my politics as sacred, by giving myself permission to feel holiness in simple words. As Audre Lorde says, “the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” I’ve made a choice to bring personal relevance to ritual. I’m a Jew and a queer with radical politics. A ritual might be a protest or it might be saying a prayer even if I don’t remember the Hebrew. That’s been the revelation of adulthood for me, to create more choices for how we engage with ritual.
RE: I’m curious to hear more about the mikveh / ceramic revelation and how you’ve brought that into your work and if that might have been a divine spark. I’m thinking about these kinds of moments of inspiration we have as artists, that they are revelatory in a spiritual sense.
NG: Revelation is a hugely inspirational concept, I mean, I love the image of the divine spark, it’s a very romantic and theological relationship to art making. These moments of revelation set me off in a specific direction, but I also think a lot of the way I work out ideas is through art making as research. The impetus is the pull to begin working in a specific direction, but the evolution of an idea through the act of making something over and over is also integral to how I work. So much of my studio practice is centered around the labor of completing objects, which can be kind of tough. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, I’m so thankful to be called to art making, and it can also be super exhausting, especially as the scale and scope of the project increases. All the more need for a mellow Shabbat!
RE: Shabbat has been a saving practice for me. How have you adapted your work to address this inevitable exhaustion?
NG: I’m really bad at managing the exhaustion, the studio feels like a sacred place for me, but I don’t take nearly as good care of my body while I’m working as I’d like. I’m so drawn to large scale work and immersive space, and I often get stuck finishing work that is really huge and taxing on my body. When I first decided to explore mikveh, I was like “Okay, I’ll just build a few mikva’ot.” Hah! I still think I’d like to do this work, but at the time I was working in an eight-foot-by-eight-foot nook of a pottery studio, and just couldn’t go there scale wise. Realizing this limitation, I came to the idea of fermentation and the culinary crock as a sort of stand-in for the mikveh. Both of these spaces are being used for transformative immersive ritual and the crock is a smaller form I could play with. I had already been doing all of this surface painting on different ceramic vessels, so the adoption of the crock into this language seemed right.
Nicki Green. Three States of Gender Alchemy (three views), 2015. Glazed Earthenware. 23” x 16” x 16”
RE: I love these pieces. They feel like containers to use for a journey to encounter the divine, like bring them along in your satchel, awkwardly.
NG: Thanks, friend! They are definitely cumbersome, but ceramics was never really an easily transportable material. The crock as a stand-in for mikveh is this dually interesting concept for me because it’s this small, durable, at least slightly more transportable (diasporic!) culinary tool, but it also contains magical material. Inside the walls of that unassuming cylindrical vessel is the bacteria necessary to break down organic matter and create new life – the brine is life and death together, I’m so inspired by this idea of circularity inhabiting a single space! Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Victor Turner who describes liminality as this necessary space for transformation, and under the surface of the brine and mikveh water is very much liminal, but is there a way we can think about liminality as less of a temporary space and more of an identity? Could one live in liminality? Turner talks about Liminal Personae, or Threshold People, which sounds pretty queer to me…
RE: I agree, queer is the Liminal Personae. I’m half freaked out and half intrigued when I think about being in constant liminality. But I also chose a name, Erev, that essentially means the liminal time. I’m captivated by twilight, evening, when it’s not day and it’s not night yet.
NG: Have you seen Rabbi Rueben Zellman’s work on Twilight People? This was my inspiration in writing “Blessing for Fermentation” for our big group pride mikveh! (http://transtorah.org/PDFs/Holiness_of_Twilight.pdf)
RE: Thank you for introducing it to me! I love this framing of Judaism being rooted in the ‘in between’ and people always having been in between in terms of gender. That Sarah and Abraham’s gender couldn’t be determined. I hope that our contemporary projects with queerness and mikveh can integrate these ideas again into modern Judaism, creating an opportunity to transform.
NG: You mentioned earlier the spark of creation, I like to imagine that fermentation is the spark of life. I wonder if the more recent cultural interest in fermentation is in part related to its’ basic, elemental qualities – it’s like the most analog of the analog technologies, which is such a need in our digital world.
RE: Yea, it’s something that we can see and smell happening. When we ferment food we have a direct hand in making the very visceral magic happen. I think that’s the spark we’re charmed by, that we could so directly create transformation. I think that’s one reason why I loved the Eclipse Mikveh you, Lukaza (Branfman Verissimo) and I did this summer at Baker Beach (historic San Francisco gay beach). We were working with this natural event happening and further alchemizing the moment. The footage I took of the water for me was like bottling up an essence. But it was an essence of light. When I projected the footage at my show and people walked in front of it, they received the transmission of water and light from the eclipse mikveh.
Rebekah Erev, Eclipse Mikveh, Rock/Home, 2017. Papier-mâché, plastic, light, ocean, eclipse
NG: That ritual was so magical, I feel so lucky to have gotten to share that space with you both!
RE: Me too! It’s exciting to be building from it.