Interview

Reclaiming Aspects of the Jewish Past and Remixing Them: An Interview with Performance Artist Julie Weitz

A. C. Weaver and Julie Weitz

INTRODUCTION

Julie Weitz is a per­for­mance and visu­al artist, devel­op­ing site-spe­cif­ic instal­la­tions based on Yid­dish folk­lore which explore the wounds and resilience of dias­poric culture. 

Weaver inter­viewed Julie Weitz about her ongo­ing Doikayt project: A series of rit­u­al­is­tic, impro­vi­sa­tion­al per­for­mances at Jew­ish sites across East­ern Europe, the first of which, enti­tled Sev­en Beg­gars, pre­miered at the Krakow Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Fes­ti­val in 2023.

What has your artistic trajectory been, and what led you to begin exploring Yiddish themes in your work?

I originally trained as a painter and started experimenting with video art in 2010. There was always a performative aspect to my early videos, but I was too scared to take on the weight of becoming a performance artist. Two things motivated me to rethink the trajectory of my practice: One was the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, and the other was my curiosity about the golem. With the rise of Trump’s presidency, I began to think differently about my identity as a white American Jew. After the blatant display of antisemitism and racism in Charlottesville, I sensed it was time to bring a golem to life who would fight for justice not only for the Jews, but also for other groups targeted by white supremacy. So, I started posting these absurdist videos on Instagram of myself performing as a golem, seeking revenge on the white supremacists. The project took off from there.

My Golem as a Wild­land Fire­fight­er” fol­lows Weitz’s golem as she trains to be a wild­land fire­fight­er in Tahoe Nation­al For­est (Washoe), and dis­cov­ers the gen­er­a­tive nature of fire. As she under­goes her train­ing, Golem becomes an advo­cate for con­trolled burns, a method long used by California’s Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, and seeks to edu­cate the pub­lic about their effi­ca­cy in man­ag­ing megafires, an increas­ing­ly dev­as­tat­ing aspect of life in California.

In hindsight, I realize that the cultural context in which I was raised, and my family’s idiosyncrasies, influenced how I perform in a stereotypically Yiddish way. I grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in the suburbs of Chicago where musical theater, comedy, and improv were popular art forms, more valued than visual art. I was exposed to improvisational theater techniques as a child, but I eventually stopped taking classes because I was not as outgoing or competitive as other kids. Decades later, when I started studying clowning in Los Angeles in 2018, I began to realize that I come from a family of Jewish clowns. Growing up, the family would host annual talent shows and perform for each other. Since my grandparents’ generation we have documentation of repeated amateur performances that included stripteases, drag shows, and comedy skits. In fact, the most famous Jewish clown in my family is my great-aunt Clara who said, “Where’s the beef” in the 1980’s Wendy’s commercial. She was a real character, and full of yiddishkayt!

I want to come back to, as you put it, “the weight of being a performance artist”. Was the Golem your first embodied character -- the first character you stepped into as a performer? How did you get from the Golem to the Doikayt Project?

I started researching the golem in 2017, and the most contemporary material I could find about it was an exhibition catalog from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Then I met the musician Lisa Gamble whose great-great-grandfather was Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg. He popularized the golem legend in his original stories of the Golem of Prague, which he attributed to the Maharal. I was amazed that this historical lineage felt so close. Then, I watched the German expressionist film Der Golem and it reminded me of when I saw the Yiddish film Der Dybbuk, while enrolled in a Jewish women’s writing class in college. It felt like I was witnessing something from another world, and yet somehow the film also felt strangely familiar. There was the ghostly presence of the language, the dybbuk, the other characters, and the film set. I was mystified, but also a little scared.

It took me twenty years to return to that film. The delay was partly due to some internalized antisemitism that I had to work through. At the time, I had almost no understanding of Yiddish culture, I felt ashamed about where I came from, and I was afraid to see what Eastern-European Jewry looked like before the Shoah. I tended to hide my Jewishness in non-Jewish contexts when I was younger, which I later realized was a privilege of my whiteness. That said, performing as My Golem completely liberated me from these fears and contradictions. Embodying her felt like an affront to white supremacy.

How I got from My Golem to Doikayt was through my time as a Helix Fellow at Yiddishkayt. The program helped me ground in a community of artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians immersed in Yiddish culture, and revitalizing it for the present moment. I had been questioning my project’s relevancy in the U.S., and it felt powerful to imagine performing these characters in Eastern Europe where the folktales originated, and where my ancestors are from. I was inspired by the idea of doikayt, of rooting in the presence and hereness of time and place. From a somatic perspective, this idea was already deeply ingrained in my performance practice. So, everything fell into place and I decided to “return” to Poland.

In your embodiment of the Golem and the Dybbuk characters, and in some of the images from your Rebbe Nachman-inspired performance piece, Seven Beggars, I see the grotesque. I use grotesquerie as a mirror, as a mode of exploration. It’s a way to free the body through distortion and self parody, ambiguity and refusal of respectability. But of course, there’s responsibility when representing a minority culture, especially in a majority non-Jewish setting. So how do you slip out from under the weight of respectability? How do you explore the grotesque unapologetically? And what are some of the reactions towards that caricature, towards that grotesquerie?


It’s hard for me to separate out my intention to be grotesque or absurd from the ways I see those qualities already embedded in my references. The Yiddish imagination often gives shape to something ugly as a response to something much uglier: antisemitism and genocide. Take for example, the golem, a figure that evolved from a Kabbalist practice of meditation into a Yiddish folktale about protection. It is a contextual response to the violence experienced by Jews in Eastern Europe, while also warning against the destructive powers of creation.

In a new project, I am thinking about the dybbuk in a similar way; as a creative response to an unknown threat, in this case, a wandering spirit. What does it mean to be possessed by a persistent, ever-present, and uncontrollable sense of fear? Absurdity and self-parody are integral to reframing these myths, and embodying them is one way for me to address the experience of intergenerational trauma.

As for the “refusal of respectability”, I don’t concern myself too much with how my work could be misinterpreted. The audience is just as responsible in educating themselves as is the artist, and I am always eager to learn more. When I look at photos of the Yiddish theater, for example, Marc Chagall’s sets and costumes for the Moscow Yiddish theater, I am amazed by how these artists used exaggeration and caricature to create a new Jewish art form. Similarly, in the work of the Vilna Troupe, I see a defiance in how they represented Yiddish culture for non-Yiddish speaking audiences. There is no apology, the art speaks for itself, and the audience’s reception of the work is a reflection of their own biases and misidentifications.

There’s an impulse within Yiddishism to emphasize the high culture at the expense of the mass culture — serious Yiddish literature over shund, art theater over lowbrow cabaret. An impulse to tell the world: “Yiddish is not ‘ugly’. Not ‘grotesque’. Not ‘disfigured’. It’s a beautiful, literary culture.” There’s merit to that impulse — I understand it as a logical reaction to antisemitism and Western chauvinism. But your work asks: “what’s possible if we sink into this disfigured Yiddish, this grotesque Yiddish, caricatured Yiddish? Is it possible to redeem the sparks from the kitsch, the lowbrow? There’s a reflection of high art in the lowbrow, and vice versa, calling into question the dichotomy between the polished and the crass.

There were so many images of Seven Beggars that crash those worlds together. One of them is the dukhenen foam fingers. I thought that was a crazy image — transforming a sports fandom foam finger into the hand of the high priest. I felt very compelled by that.

For the record, I never set out to disfigure Yiddish! It was a natural progression of my process to borrow heavily from drag and clowning, art forms that celebrate the absurd. If there are sparks to be redeemed in the lowly places, I certainly think they can be found in the rawest versions of ourselves. Performing these characters takes me there. I sink low to jump high.

Rebbe Nachman’s The Seven Beggars is laden with potent imagery, prompting me to freely associate and reimagine the beggars as individual performances. I organized the Seven Beggars project into seven distinct performances, each focused on a different beggar and body part. For the beggar with the withered hands, I was thinking about the Kohanim blessing, which commonly appears on Jewish gravestones across Poland. I was trying to figure out how to make the performance participatory, specifically how to activate people’s hands. I started calling pep rally companies asking if they would produce foam hand mitts from original designs. They all said no. I was unsure how to proceed, and then I found a company that made foam hand mitts in the shape of the vulcan salute with the printed text “Beam me up, Scotty”. The Kohanim hand mitts already existed!

From Star Trek to Seven Beggars in Poland, I converted them back into hands for a blessing. I printed new text on the mitts: on one hand Doikayt/Hereness/דאָיִקייט and on the other, the four-letter Hebrew name for God. During the performance, we chanted “Doikayt, doikayt, hereness, hereness!” to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Then, we split into pairs and mirrored each other’s hand movements without speaking. Afterwards, we marched through the field behind the Old Synagogue in Krakow with our hands raised in the Kohanim blessing. We blessed each other, the site, and ourselves.

There’s this photograph of your Tsadik Character holding up a torah scroll with “doikayt” painted on it. I was shocked by that, I found it quite provocative. You’re throwing together two worlds that hated each other: Doikayt, the secular analytical framework of the Bundists, presented by the image of religious orthodoxy.

You may be the only person who saw that image as provocative! Also, did you notice the misspelling of doikayt in Yiddish? Anyhow, this tension between secular Yiddish culture and Jewish spiritual tradition interests me. I see them as interconnected; I’m reclaiming aspects of the Jewish past and remixing them in the present to imagine a new Jewish future.

For most people, it looks like a Jew holding up a Jewish symbol, and the fact that these worlds are in tension internally is lost on most people.

It’s definitely an insider conversation. But, you know, Hasidic communities were historically anti-Zionist, and though their reasoning was different than the Bund’s, I’m interested in how these ideas overlap. I’m excited by Daniel Boyarin’s manifesto, The No State Solution, which calls for a diaspora nation grounded in Jewish kinship, without borders and territory, and in solidarity with local struggles for liberation, including Palestinian liberation. I’m working with these two influences — the Yiddish spiritual imagination and the critical framework of diasporism — which I see as dynamically interrelated. Rebbe Nakhman told stories from the perspective of exile, interweaving vivid imagery to represent the ineffability of God and complexity of Kabbalah. Doikayt grounds me in time and space as a performance artist, expanding my awareness of the world around me. By merging these aspects of Yiddish storytelling and a diasporic worldview, I am free to imagine something beyond this world, while also being firmly grounded in it. So, perhaps, it’s a Judeo-Futurist perspective.

Now, more so than in our great-grandparents’ generation, we have the language to use spirituality as a source of energy for activism. In these images of the crowd in the streets of Poland with both the four-letter name and the word doikayt on their fingers — what could that be saying, spiritually and politically? What does it mean to implicate the crowd in that image? And in that ideology?

Before I answer that question, I want to concur that it is because of the freedoms afforded younger generations that this integration between Jewish religious and secular ideas can easily occur in my work. More than ever before, women and queers have access to Jewish spiritual practices that were conventionally restricted by patriarchy.

We performed Seven Beggars in the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow, during the height of summer tourism and the Jewish Culture Festival, so it was not only Poles who participated, but also people from all over the world. And even though the performances were improvisational, they were not totally surprising given the context of the festival. That said, I’m not sure we implicated people in an ideology per se. If anything, I think we disrupted conventional notions of Jewish culture within the context of the Holocaust tourist industry of Krakow.

I’ll give you an example. For one performance, my collaborators Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Anna Lublina, and I led a procession carrying a large chuppah made of old tallesim while two musicians followed us, Ira Khonen Temple on accordion and Zoe Aqua on violin. We stopped at the site of Schindler’s List Passage, where Moriel recited an original poem inspired by the stammering beggar. The site was made famous by Spielberg’s film, but it doesn’t have much significance other than being a building in the old Jewish district. In fact, Spielberg misrepresented the building as located in the Krakow ghetto, which is actually across the river from Kazimierz. The performance repurposed the site, where tourists go to sip coffee and snap selfies — even photos of themselves reenacting the scene from Schlinder’s List when a small boy hides under the stairs during the ghetto’s liquidation. Moriel recited his poem from the top of the stairs. He invited spectators to participate in a call and response, and hum along in certain sections of his poem. We engaged audiences in active listening, celebrated Yiddish-inspired poetry and storytelling, and then led them in a procession down a main street with our large chuppah.

What do we as American-Jewish artists have to learn from collaborating with Jewish and non-Jewish memory workers who live and work in ancestral Yiddish homelands?

The stories of memory workers in Poland are fascinating, particularly in contrast to the relative safety and comfort experienced by the majority of Jews in America. Poles who identify as Jewish often discovered they were Jewish later in life, when a grandparent revealed it on their deathbed. Even Poles who don’t identify as Jews sometimes have Jewish ancestry. I’m currently collaborating with Polish choreographer Magdalena Przybysz on a new performance and during our first meeting, she revealed that her paternal grandmother was Jewish. It’s a common story in Poland, because Jews who survived the Shoah and stayed in Poland often did so by hiding their Jewishness.

I think the American Jewish perspective on Poland is mostly focused on Jewish death, which overshadows the rich Yiddish culture that flourished here before the war. As a teenager, I declined the opportunity to go on a summer camp trip to the concentration camps because somehow I knew that I was not ready to experience that. It was only at the age of forty-two that I ventured to Poland, and visited the towns where my ancestors were from. The experience led me to apply for a Fulbright, and now I’m living here.

After October 7th, many American Jews asked me, “How does it feel to be in Poland now?” with the assumption that I must feel unsafe. My response is a bit ironic because I actually feel incredibly safe here. No doubt there’s antisemitism in Poland, but I have yet to experience it. The Poles that I’ve encountered feel the loss of Jewish life, and carry with them their own family stories of trauma from the Nazi occupation and Soviet era. Ten percent of Poland was Jewish before the war. A thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, and then suddenly we’re gone. The void is vast and visceral. I’ve heard it described as a “Jewish phantom limb”.

When I moved to Poland in September 2023, I came with the intention to ground myself in what I consider to be my ancestral homelands. But living in close proximity to the memory of the Holocaust, while witnessing the horrors of the Hamas attack, and the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza, has pushed me to re-examine my positionality more critically. The fact that my ancestors fled these lands for America before World War I is an historical stroke of luck. Whatever drove them to leave—poverty, antisemitism, conscription—I am grateful that they did. But in America, they were forced to shed their mother tongue and assimilate into whiteness. Meanwhile, the feeling of otherness never left them.

This is what interests me about returning to Poland: How do I process intergenerational Jewish trauma in the lands of my ancestors while re-engaging with the Yiddish culture that was so integral to who they were? And this might be what I have to offer my Polish collaborators: a contemporary version of Yiddishkayt and Ashkenazi spiritual traditions that counter nostalgic and singular representations of Jewishness in Poland. There’s a common stereotype here of a Jew as an ultra-orthodox man. This archetype is fetishized by Polish photographers like Agnieszka Traczewska, who do important work documenting the religious community here, but at the same time flatten the image of Jewishness in the Polish imagination.

Hearing you discuss this I can’t help but think of Yael Bertana and her installation, “And Europe Will Be Stunned”: Polish-Jewish futurism rooted in the interwar past. I see the installations that you do in the context of Jewish/Polish futurist-oriented collaborations -- doikayt not just a present statement, but a futurist statement as well.

Yael Bertana complicates Polish-Jewish history so powerfully. Of course, she does so from a distinctly Israeli perspective. I come to Poland as an American Jew, proudly rooted in Yiddishkayt. While the ghosts of history still haunt me, my orientation as a Jew is not as deeply entrenched in nationalism. The idea of Judeo-futurism is increasingly more important to my work, particularly now when it feels like our collective Jewish moral compass is broken. That’s why Boyarin’s vision for a Jewish cultural and spiritual life, ethically aligned with global struggles for freedom, resonates so deeply with my understanding of what it means to be a Jew. I’m looking to figures like Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares, the early twentieth century Polish-Jewish pacifist who warned against the violence of nationalism and the falsehoods of political ideologies. I am in the early stages of developing a new project inspired by Tamares’ memory that will take place in the small town in Eastern Poland where he was a rabbi, near Europe’s oldest primeval forest, which plays an important role in Tamares’ imagination.

Returning to the stereotype that Jew=Orthodox man, and how that plays out in some of Traczewska’s work: You have this tsadik drag character who reflects that very assumption that orthodoxy is the iconic representative of Real Judaism, which could only be so codified in the vacuum left by the annihilation of myriad ways of being “authentically” Jewish. It’s the same assumption that gives Neturei Karta a visible gravitas that is not afforded to equally articulate secular antizionist Jews. Or when a group of Jews with varied expressions of observance defer to the most traditionally observant looking person in the room to take the lead on a ritual. Flourishing Jewish diversity gets flattened once it’s in the context of performance.

Embodying the tsadik figure gives me permission to speak more openly about my views; he’s also my first character to actually have a voice. It’s a permission I grant myself, and a technique I learned from clowning. The mask (a beard, in this case) allows me to behave more freely, without censoring myself. I see the tsadik as a trickster, or “a sacred meshugge”, a phrase my Hasidic teacher coined. I am intentionally perverting the expectations of who you think this figure is, and what he has to say. People sometimes ask me why the character is masculine. For me, it’s obvious: performing in drag is inherently transgressive even while I retain the stereotype of Jewish patriarchy.

The examples you cite speak to an insecurity of Jewish identity. Part of why I find the character so joyful to perform is because it releases me from my natural tendency to code-switch when speaking to non-Jewish audiences. I can fully embody my Jewishness without having to explain it; people are accustomed to taking the rabbinical figure more seriously. When I lecture about my art practice as the tsadik character, and speak in third person about my work, non-Jewish audiences often respond with enthusiasm. They mirror the playfulness of the character and in doing so, the spirit of the work comes alive.

How did you find your collaborators for Seven Beggars, and for your current work in Poland post-Seven Beggars? What did that collaborative relationship bring to the process? I mean collaborators broadly defined — living or dead, human or non-human.

Collaboration is a liberating process of letting go, welcoming the influence of others, and diminishing the dominance of the ego. When I began My Golem project, the interdisciplinary aspect of performance became more central to my practice. I designed the project to be shaped by others knowing that I would eventually relinquish control over the golem’s destiny. My collaborators for Seven Beggars were all fellows at Yiddishkayt; I am grateful to the organization for bringing us together and nourishing creative partnerships. My experience as a fellow made clear that to revive Yiddishkayt in Poland, I would need a troupe of performers, each contributing their particular expertise and creative voice. Now that I am working closely with Polish collaborators, I realize how integral these partnerships are to not only cultivating cross-cultural understanding, but to also embodying the healing that we wish to see in the world.

Regarding the non-human collaborators—the trees, sites, and lingering spirits within the lands—they also significantly influence my artistic decisions. Prior to staging a photograph or performance, I invest time at the location, revisiting it at various times of the day and throughout different seasons. I immerse myself in the environment, attuning to whatever arises within me or between myself and my collaborators while we are present there. It’s subtle and ethereal, obviously. But I believe these places harbor wisdom accessible solely through sensory awareness, even as that awareness is informed by the site’s history. I can firmly state that I engage in a continuous dialogue with my ancestors within my mind, and I also experience this connection to them viscerally in my dreams and during psychedelic journeys.

Where do you see your work going? And in terms of where you are now in your process, what questions are further complicated?

I’m curious to see what unfolds with my forthcoming project, titled Holy Names for Our Dybbuk premiering at the 8th annual FestivALT in Krakow, Poland on June 30, 2024. The performance reimagines a dybbuk exorcism as a movement-based ritual at the site of a former concentration camp. As I mentioned earlier, I am working closely with a Polish choreographer, and we are casting Polish dancers in the role of the healers. We are also initiating a series of workshops inspired by Yiddish dance, song, and storytelling that will activate participants’ awareness of where trauma is stored in their bodies and the ways that it can be released through creative movement.

The overarching question of my work is how to transform the cultural memories of genocide and displacement into reparative tools for healing in the present. Since October 7th, this question haunts me daily. Recently, I read a 2011 interview with the Polish-Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Zygmunt Bauman in which he warns against the myth that “suffering ennobles, that the victims come out of it pure as a tear, sublime and generally bright.” He goes on to say, “here it turns out how things really are: leaving the persecution, the victims only wait for an opportunity to pay back the persecutors in kind; and if taking revenge on yesterday’s persecutors or their descendants is for some reason unavailable or inconvenient, they at least hasten to erase the shame of their yesterday’s weakness to prove that they themselves are not beaten in the head and can also afford to swing a club and crack a whip - using for this purpose, those who come to hand.”

I don’t know what to say to this except that it appears to be devastatingly prescient. And I hope that in some microcosmic way, the work that I am pursuing here in Poland— reclaiming Yiddish culture through embodied and creative collaboration—resists the political instrumentalization of Holocaust memory and models a pathway for navigating and recovering from ethno-nationalist violence.

MLA STYLE
A. C. Weaver, and Julie Weitz. “Reclaiming Aspects of the Jewish Past and Remixing Them: An Interview with Performance Artist Julie Weitz.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/interview-with-julie-weitz.
CHICAGO STYLE
A. C. Weaver, and Julie Weitz. “Reclaiming Aspects of the Jewish Past and Remixing Them: An Interview with Performance Artist Julie Weitz.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 21, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

A. C. Weaver

Weaver is a playwright, actor, director, oral storyteller, Yiddish translator and union stagehand who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. They are the co-artistic director of The People's Puppet Parade (a Yiddish processional theatre collective) and are currently translating and adapting Sholem Asch's drama "Shabbtai Tsvi" for immersive performance.

Julie Weitz

Julie Weitz (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, film, installation, and photography. She probes the potential for embodiment and performance art to activate concepts of diaspora and doikayt, or “hereness”, a Yiddish concept that flourished in prewar Eastern Europe. Doikayt has re-emerged in the 21st century as a cultural and political framework for Jewish kinship and solidarity with movements for liberation.