Interview

FENTSTER: A Window Gallery Exploring the Jewish Experience through Artists’ Eyes

Avia Moore

INTRODUCTION

Eve­lyn Tauben is Toron­to-based pro­duc­er, cura­tor and writer who was raised in Mon­tréal in a Yid­dish-infused fam­i­ly, school and com­mu­ni­ty. She is a rec­og­nized leader in the field of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish arts and cul­ture. Over the last 20 years, she has worked at Smith­son­ian Muse­ums, the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art and the Kof­fler Cen­tre of the Arts. Eve­lyn also pro­duces the­atre, con­certs and cul­tur­al con­ver­sa­tions fea­tur­ing local and inter­na­tion­al lumi­nar­ies, and has curat­ed con­tent for fes­ti­vals such as KlezKana­da and the Ashke­naz Fes­ti­val. In 2016, she found­ed FENTSTER – a win­dow gallery that explores the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. Since then, FENTSTER has fea­tured the work of over 50 artists through more than 20 exhi­bi­tions and many pub­lic pro­grams both in-per­son and online, which can be viewed any­time. FENTSTER has been referred to as the small store­front win­dow dis­rupt­ing the Jew­ish art world” (The For­ward, Sep­tem­ber 2021) and as a trea­sure in Toron­to’s his­toric Jew­ish neigh­bour­hood” (not­ed inter­na­tion­al schol­ar and cura­tor, Bar­bara Kir­shen­blatt Gim­blett). Exhi­bi­tions can be seen day and night from the sidewalk.

The following is an edited transcript from an interview conducted via Zoom on December 22, 2022.


Avia Moore: Can you can you start by telling me a bit about your vision in starting FENTSTER and how that vision has changed in the years that you’ve been curating the window?

Evelyn Tauben: I inherited the window in the sense that it was a window gallery for about seven years run by a Jewish artist named Rochelle Rubinstein whose art studio was there in the storefront. Then she moved her studio and the independent Jewish community Makom moved into the space. In addition to having a background in art history, museums, and curating, I’ve also always had an interest in public art and in-between spaces. It was a sub-focus I made for myself in grad school – looking at liminal spaces in art. I liked the idea of how the window gallery inserts itself into the life of the street. It’s kind of like a stage onto the street, this little jewel box to play and experiment with. It was a way for me to keep developing innovative Jewish arts projects with local artists and especially to be able to hone in on visual arts, which don’t get a lot of attentionI in the landscape of Jewish arts, culture, and heritage.

As you know, with Jewish arts, it’s kind of like a chicken or the egg scenario. If you create a container, people will make work that responds to that context, making work that would have never existed before. Certainly, I’ve worked with artists that are deeply engaged in exploring Jewish themes, modes, narratives, motifs, but in other cases, I’ve worked with artists who hadn’t addressed their Jewishness at all in their practice and FENTSTER offers them that opportunity. I think that over time, I’m increasingly aware of taking on the stories that haven’t been told, highlighting narratives in the Jewish world that are lesser known, continuing to seek out artists who aren’t usually approached by traditional gallery spaces. It’s very exciting to work with established artists who show in mainstream spaces like Bernice Eisenstein, who had a solo show at the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum]. That she wanted to show at FENTSTER was amazing. But also I like bucking the elitism of the arts community and the gallery scene. So I’ve worked with artists who would be kind of boxed into the craft world, or print media, and so forth. And I think that the whole world is now having an overdue awakening to creating more space for Jewish artists of Color and Indigenous Jews. So I’m thinking more and more in that direction. In the meantime, I keep on meeting people and seeing what they want to say and how that space sparks ideas for them.

AM: Why do you think it’s important to have a “window onto Jewish life” in downtown Toronto?

ET: Well, I think that Canada writ large, and Toronto especially, loves to celebrate our multiculturalism. You know, we love to talk about ourselves as the most multicultural city in the world. But in truth, it’s a very siloed community and there is not necessarily a lot of cross pollination. So sometimes I feel cynical about that celebratory discourse in Canadian culture. And, within that, I feel like the specificity of the Jewish experience, including acknowledging the diversity of the Jewish experience, often gets lost in the mix as we talk about Canadian diversity. I think the publicness of FENTSTER is really exciting in that mix, we’re around the corner from Kensington Market, which I describe for Americans as Toronto’s Lower East Side. A lot of people today don’t know that the market started as one of Toronto’s first Jewish neighborhoods. It’s a way to kind of keep that conversation alive in the historic Jewish part of the city and to invite people to be part of the Jewish conversations we’re having through art. One thing that’s unique about a window gallery is that there’s no barrier to entry. JCCs are very important, as are Jewish concerts and synagogues naturally, but I know from firsthand experience that people often wonder if those spaces are for them, if they’re not Jewish, or even if they’re a certain kind of Jew. FENTSTER is for everybody. There are kids walking by on their way to school, there are people going on their coffee run, there’s a German church next door. That kind of democratic art experience is very exciting to me.

AM: Has the response to the window changed since you’ve started curating that space?

ET: People are generally very excited about it. When I’m there installing, and I’m cleaning the window or we’re on the sidewalk discussing placement, people will come up to me and say, “Oh, I live over there, I live three blocks away. It’s so great that you’re doing this.” The response sometimes bubbles up differently, depending on the show. We did a very exciting project with Shellie Zhang who was born in Beijing and has lived in Toronto for most of her life. She looked at how the Chinese newcomer experience and the Jewish newcomer experience to Toronto literally traverse the same geography with Spadina Avenue as the backbone of both immigrant communities at different times, although there was some overlap before the Jewish community really moved to the suburbs. Even though there’s a shared narrative, it’s underexplored in conversations about the city’s history. So there was a lot of excitement about our collaboration. It led to a whole new community connecting to FENTSTER, and FENTSTER connecting to that community. We did joint walking tours with the Ontario Jewish archives and Arlene Chan, who’s a leading historian about Chinatown. They have been doing walking tours separately for years and they knew of each other but had never come together. The tours were sold out every time.

During the pandemic, FENTSTER really became an idea beyond the physical window itself, and I’m excited about that and what’s possible. I worked with Ella Cooper during the pandemic. She’s a photographer and filmmaker and the founder of Black Women Film! Canada. It created an opportunity to have a bigger conversation about artists in North America who are Black and Jewish. She wanted to embed her work in a larger conversation so we had an online event with artists and co-presenters across North America. I think that was very eye opening for the larger Jewish world and our online roundtable seemed to generate a lot of discussion and interest. It was so much bigger than the window and the local Toronto community.

I’m focused more and more on how to develop sustained relationships with creatives in different communities - the pandemic got me thinking less like a producer trying to mount that next great event and more like a community organizer concerned with the potential of changemaking through the arts.

AM: That really speaks to this idea of a window onto something.

ET: Yes, an artist friend named Mindy Stricke who’s on the FENTSTER advisory committee said: a window onto Jewish life through art can be anything you do, it doesn’t have to be the actual window. That was eye-opening for me. Sometimes, even when you’re the one who came up with the idea to begin with, you can get stuck in your own way of thinking about it. Now, I think of FENTSTER as an umbrella for many ways of engaging and not all of them are even public facing. Together with a group of Jewish colleagues, I’ve been thinking about coalition building between the Jewish community and other marginalized groups in Toronto - and that’s another way of offering a window onto Jewish life.

AM: You and I have often spoken about the Yiddish cultural scene as an ecosystem. I’m wondering how you understand the role of FENTSTER in this ecosystem.

ET: You’ll see that there’s a lot of Yiddish culture permeating many of the projects. Evan Tapper’s installation was named after a well known Yiddish immigrant song called Grine Kuzine, Jess Riva Cooper’s installation was a feminist response to An-sky’s The Dybbuk, and Lynne Heller’s piece was a reflection on growing up at a local Yiddishist, socialist family camp, Naivelt. Shellie Zhang’s project was about the history of the first purpose-built Yiddish theatre in Canada, which later became a Chinese cinema. Daniel Toretsky’s FENTSTER exhibition that we did with KlezKanada invited voices from the KlezKanada community and beyond to think about a post-apocalyptic Jewish future.

There’s much Yiddish in the story of FENTSTER. I think part of that is my own sensibility and my Jewish background; my interests and relationships in the Yiddish world. But some of it is the way that a new generation of Jewish artists think about themselves and their Jewishness and the way that they’re making work – responding to Jewish history, to tradition, narratives, culture. For them, Yiddish – the world of Yiddish – is a really fertile ground to mine. It’s accessible, textured, and doesn’t come with the same kind of baggage (maybe) as religion. It offers a palimpsest. For example, even naming the exhibition Grine Kuzine brings all these layers to the work that I find interesting. For another example, we called Rob Davidovitz’s show “What Will Remain.” Those three words are compelling even if you don’t know where they come from. But when you do know that they are from one of Sutzkever’s most famous poems and that Davidvitz’s show was informed by the story of Jewish Vilna and that Sutskever’s own story is so enmeshed with that of Jewish Vilna, it adds so much texture and intrigue and story.

AM: How does FENTSTER intervene in the popular understanding of Jewish art?

ET: Recognizing this is a broad and sweeping statement, my experience has been that the Jewish community today often doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about art – art of any kind – and has a very narrow and unfortunate conception of Jewish art that they perpetuate. The worst, most schlocky images inexplicably get a platform in JCC galleries and Hillel hallways, and synagogues, and so forth. That’s partially because those places often don’t have curators and perhaps because the role of the visual in Jewish life is complicated due to strictures in Jewish tradition. I need to think more about why we have largely lost a connection to a rich visual tradition that existed in different times and places in Jewish history (thinking of ornate Moroccan synagogues, elaborate carved tombstones in Jewish cemeteries across Poland or even mosaics from ancient Israel). I don’t have a strong hypothesis on why this has come to pass.

With FENTSTER, I’m trying to take a different approach than in other Jewish spaces. The exhibitions, for the most part, grow out of extensive conversations I am engaged in with the artists about what is essential to their artistic practice and what they want to say in connection to something Jewish. FENTSTER presents work connected to the Jewish experience; I like to think it’s a very big container. In my conversations with the artist we drill down until we arrive at an idea that’s true to their artistic language but also true to what FENTSTER is about. It’s not a platform to showcase the work of artists who happen to be Jewish. It’s a context for mining Jewish history, heritage, thought, culture, personal narrative and more to express something new through the artist’s lens. And this approach has also allowed for wonderful collaborations with artists who aren’t Jewish. In addition to this Jewish dimension, FENTSTER is not a typical gallery because there are no walls. It’s a space for installation art, so the artists have to think of their work in an installation-based way, even if they haven’t been working in that manner before. And, the work has to make sense for a passerby, for the general public. We have to arrive at an idea that will be simple, visually captivating, and nuanced at the same time with layers of meaning. Always layers!

I don’t want to make too big of a statement, but I think we’re creating a vocabulary for Jewish art through FENTSTER installations.

In recent years projects have increasingly involved the community. For example, Rachel Miller collected the drippings from people’s Shabes candles, melted them down, and included them in her wax installation. Daniel Toretsky collected people’s stories and wove them into his drawings. Rob Shostack collected the parchment papers that people used to bake their challah and transformed them into a very intricate installation. We’re informing an approach how community can be involved in the art making process, filtered through the lens of each individual artist.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of FENTSTER is creating a sustained, thoughtful space for new commissions of public-facing Jewish art. The default in the Jewish community is that if you want to engage people, music is the way to go. I have nothing against music, but it’s important to access different modalities. It seems to me that Jewish visual art is either reduced to generic shlock or there is an assumption that visual arts is highfalutin and alienating. I’m operating somewhere in between these poles - maintaining artistic excellence and accessibility at the same time.

AM: Part of the conversation we’ve had about this in the past touched on how Judaica often comes to stand for Jewish art in popular understanding.

ET: Yes, objects, ritual objects. The first thing that came into mind when you asked the question are those drawings of khasidim dancing, with tsitsis and payes flying or landscapes of Jerusalem. But yes, in people’s imagination there’s not a lot that comes to mind when you say “Jewish art”. If Chagall comes to mind, I’m okay with that. That’s a pretty good reference point. But it’s not current. You know, the same way people haven’t updated their concept of Black and Jewish relations since Heschel and MLK. Either they haven’t updated the file on Jewish art since Chagall, or they only picture functional, rather ornate silver Judaica from another time. I don’t think people have a mental map even of innovative contemporary Judaica, other than the mass produced stuff (some of which is not that bad). Or they think of Israel. Part of working with local artists on FENTSTER projects is practical and logistical, but it’s also about creating opportunities for local artists and fostering a local discourse that doesn’t always look to other Jewish hubs for an infusion of substance. Some of the artists I’ve worked with have had their first show at FENTSTER, certainly their first public project, so we’re cultivating opportunities in our own community. Having said that, I’ve now worked with artists in the U.S. and Poland, so the project is starting to expand beyond only local artists and create opportunities for cross-pollination with the Toronto community

AM: In thinking about Judaica, I’m struck by how your exhibit “Parchment” interacts with Judaica. For example, challah covers are something you might buy in a museum art gallery and Parchment responds and subverts the expectation of the shabes ritual object.

ET: Daniel Toretsky’s project was a giant Havdalah spice box that was based on a classic model – the silver European tower spice box – and he created something totally new that I think only his brain could come up with. When you add that little flag on top, it’s a signifier. If you know, you know, if you don’t know, no harm is done. But for people who know, that little flag indicates a Havdalah spice box tower. But it’s entirely innovative, entirely an artist piece, and not functional. Something else that’s coming to me when you speak about Judaica is that there’s one way of engaging with Jewish life that is through the home, and then, for some people, the only other reference point they have is the synagogue. And that the gallery, even the sidewalk in the case of FENTSTER, can be another point of engagement is intriguing to me and opens possibilities.

Bernice Eisenstein’s project, for another example, in a way was like a personal library opened up for the public. And that in and of itself, felt very Jewish. She has made interventions into books by either redacting parts of pages, folding or cutting pages, painting onto them, inserting marginalia, and so forth. I thought this engagement with the text, this living conversation with books and texts, was a highly Jewish gesture, even before you got to the substance of the work.

When I talk about FENTSTER as being for projects connected to the Jewish experience, that has also left an opening to work with artists who aren’t Jewish, as I mentioned earlier. There has to be a substantive, meaningful connection. I don’t always use the words “Jewish art,” partly because some of the artists haven’t been comfortable with that label and partly because of what it evokes in popular imagination. I’m also not sure if that label is useful, or even matters at all, as long as we know this container is for a specific discourse. That’s the exciting thing that’s happening here, whether we label it Jewish art or not.

AM: I’ve come to the end of my questions. Is there anything you would like to underline about your experience with the project? Or where you see it going, perhaps?

ET: One thing I’ve been talking to people about, especially since we started to have international audiences during the pandemic, is that FENTSTER is such a replicable model. I’ve often thought of taking on different windows in Toronto, or having a window month where we reinstall previous shows along a corridor. I welcome people to reach out to me, if they could imagine taking over a window where they are - either for a short time or more permanently. There is something particular about doing it in a Jewish context. I’m a fan of window galleries in general, and I now seek them out and look at them in a different light. But because of what we spoke about before, because there’s both an invisibility of Jews, and popular misunderstanding of Jews (I think recent months have really highlighted that), I find it very meaningful and impactful to create this offering that is so public and beautiful, sophisticated and accessible. It’s about animating city life and taking over commercial spaces and democratizing the art experience. So I would love to see Jewish window galleries pop up all over the place. And I think the pandemic highlighted what is possible, useful, or essential about animating street life. I used to work at the Smithsonian and now I wash windows! But the Smithsonian was closed for many months and we never closed during lockdown…so there’s something to be said for moving out of rarified spaces and taking these conversations to the street - representing the Jewish experience publicly and building bridges between communities.

MLA STYLE
Moore, Avia. “FENTSTER: A Window Gallery Exploring the Jewish Experience through Artists' Eyes.” In geveb, April 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/in-geveb-interview-with-evelyn-tauben.
CHICAGO STYLE
Moore, Avia. “FENTSTER: A Window Gallery Exploring the Jewish Experience through Artists' Eyes.” In geveb (April 2023): Accessed Apr 15, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avia Moore