Mistaken Identity

Do we have to be what people expect us to be as Jews? As Israelis? What happens if we are different, what happens if we don't want to mark ourselves out and what happens if we do?

Art has the power to move us. It can make us laugh and bring us to tears. As someone once said with great power comes great responsibility and when you're creating work that often means trying to understand and challenge your audience and imagine how they'll feel when faced with what is created for them. What inspires the creation of new work is different for each of us but it's often about challenging questions of who we are, where we come from and what we want to make of all of that.

As a 12-year-old North London Jewish girl I probably had a somewhat unnatural obsession with Anne Frank and her diary. I was aware that I was connected with Anne in some way that if I'd been born in a different place at a different time perhaps her life would have been mine. That said, this link to the past, to the holocaust, wasn't how I wanted to define myself or my identity as I grew up. I wanted to be a different kind of Jewish - someone who asked questions, and searched to create ways to look at the beautiful traditions and rituals in my life through a twenty first century lens.

Last week the New York Times published an article about how a handful of children and grandchildren of Auschwitz survivors in Israel have taken the step of memorializing the darkest days of history by having the same numbers that their relatives had tattooed on them placed on their own bodies. The story stayed with me. This was how a generation of young Israelis had chosen to identify with the holocaust, with their Jewishness. This was how they wanted to be identified as Jews.

Of course I understand the argument that this is showing how proud they are of their families, that they don't want the stories to be forgotten. Perhaps they might even have said that they were holding up their own twenty first century lens to memory and traditions. That said, as someone who's spends time creating work which questions identity it felt a bit negative. It was as if they were defining themselves and their Jewish identities through suffering and victimhood. As a girl that was never allowed to write anything on her hands because of the holocaust connotations I found the whole thing disturbing.

This week the first UK exhibition of the work of Israeli artist Adi Nes opens at the Jewish Museum in London. In his stunningly beautiful large photographs our eyes are opened to how another Israeli perceives himself and his land. Again the central questions are about belonging, being an outsider and the reactions to that. Do we have to be what people expect us to be as Jews? As Israelis? What happens if we are different, what happens if we don't want to mark ourselves out and what happens if we do? The questions centre around if and how difference can be celebrated and how Israeli and broader society responds to that - does that difference need to be couched in the familiar to make it palatable?

Nes doesn't use obvious differences to ask his questions - he makes you look more than once and question what you see before you. The answers - well they are in the photographs and it's for their audiences to make up their own minds. One thing is for certain; many will be challenged and faced with much that they did not expect to find there.

Identity is complicated. It's complex and it's sometimes confusing too. There are always questions to be asked and even though the answers are never straightforward it doesn't mean that we should stop asking them. Ultimately perhaps we're all trying to find balance in an unstable world - a world where all of our identities are comprised of different pieces of people and stories patched together like a quilt. As I sat in Sadler's Wells Theatre recently and experienced the dancer Akram Khan's latest work, DESH, myth, memory and experience were woven together to create something moving and magical. I was moved to tears - of a good kind. That's the power art has. Long may it continue.


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