The Workshop - JOCISM Artists and Culturemakers Exploring Jewish Identity

LENOX – On Sunday, July 9 at 4:30 p.m., join JOCISM (Jews of Color, Jewish-Indigenous, Sephardi & Mizrahi) members of The Workshop for "Probing Collective Memory and Hybridity," a salon presentation showcasing 3 cutting-edge artistic works-in-progress that explore the intersections of race, religion, identity, and sacred text through music, storytelling, and film. This performance will be presented at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. Co-sponsors of this event are Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and Shakespeare & Company. 

“Identity in and of itself, including Jewish identity in and of itself, is not necessarily enough to create community,” says Rabbi Kendell Pinckney, the founding artistic director of The Workshop. “There always needs to be a second and or third thing.”

Explaining why he thinks the early iterations of The Workshop, which began presenting salons in New York City in 2022, have clicked, Pinkney adds: “The identity of being a Jew of color is a constructed identity. There are so many differences between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds that the term ‘Jew of color,’ while it can serve as a point of connection for people, won’t necessarily [be enough], which is part of the reason why I think there always has to be a second thing. For me, the second thing that's really important is being an artist. So if you are able to take that constructed identity and the identity of being an artist and really foreground the arts, then suddenly people have something to galvanize and organize around.”

Unlike many people who possess an artistic bent, Rabbi Pinkney also seems to be a born organizer. As he recounted the personal and professional development that led him to this point in his career, what became clear is that he possesses a talent for being able to recognize and then access the resources that might be available through established institutions to further his goals. His adeptness at building and sustaining relationships is a big part of the story of why and how The Workshop will be hosted by Federation and Shakespeare & Company in July, the first time this innovative salon will be presented outside New York City.

But before we get to that story, a little backstory on Rabbi Pinkney’s Jewish journey. “I did not grow up Jewish,” he says. “Rather, I grew up in a Black church in Dallas and found my way to Judaism once I got to Oberlin College and Conservatory. Once I became interested in Judaism, there were a lot of really wonderful people at my alma mater who were really generous and patient with me, especially as I became more interested and started asking more questions. I visited my first Kabbalat Shabbat when I was at Oberlin not really even knowing what to expect; but I became intrigued and I kept coming back. From there, I found that I kept being drawn into Jewish spaces.”

After graduation, he moved to New York City to study for a master’s degree in Fine Arts and Musical Theater Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In New York, he says he began to “daven-hop, getting to know different communities.” He became “more established, taking on more responsibility” with Kolot Chayeinu, a congregation in Brooklyn he describes as “unaffiliated, what I often think of as a crunchy granola synagogue that might have been started by Oberlin students who grew up a couple of generations ago.” Later, he became involved with Altshul, a more traditional congregation also in Park Slope.

“By this time, I had finished converting, and kept meeting different rabbis and friends who were telling me, ‘You know what? You might be interested in being a rabbi’ because they saw that I was involved. and interested in study. I had already studied abroad in Jerusalem for a couple of years at that time and had some Hebrew under my belt. So it was one of those things where I was interested and the people around me kept noticing an interest and then encouraged me. That's when I decided, in 2017, that I would take the plunge and study to become a rabbi.”

Pinkney enrolled at Jewish Theological Seminary. Upon completing his studies, he became the first Black person to whom JTS conferred smicha. “But I knew, even going into study at JTS, that I did not want to work at a synagogue,” he adds. “I didn't want to be a pulpit rabbi. I knew I wanted it to be something else and if possible, something that combined my study of Judaism and love of it with the arts.”

He says he felt pulled in two directions by his interests and his training. “One of the challenges of being in rabbinical school was that I have often felt like a person who's kind of in the margins – not so much because of my race or ethnic background or anything like that. I actually felt pretty welcomed from that perspective. Rather it was my identity as an artist, as someone who had written several full-length musicals, had finished an MFA program and had gone through that whole system and had a lot of friends who were still part of that system. Deciding that rabbinical school was my path was out of left field for some friends (and to some extent some family). So I was enjoying being at JTS, the one thing that felt like it was kind of always at the side was my creativity and my creative community.

“ So I reached out to a number of friends from NYU Tisch with, several of whom happened to be Jewish and happened to be Jews of color or Sephardic. And I told them, hey, let's get together. Let's create some stuff and just see what comes out. We ended up creating a very short piece that was written by one of my very dear friends about the challenge around staying kaddish for her father who wasn't Jewish – what it was she was having to negotiate in thinking about and remembering this moment of grief. It was so strong, with all these wonderful themes that felt very Jewishly relevant. I said to her, ‘What you've written here is Torah.’”

His friend responded that she hadn’t thought about Torah since her bat mitzvah and asked that he explain what he meant. “And so I took her through what it was that she had written, kind of showing her some of the thematic and structural things that she had done that reminded me of different parts of the Bible or Talmud.” Together, they developed the piece into a monologue that was presented in various Jewish settings where it resonated with audiences. Pinkney wondered if he couldn’t involve more people in the process, and approached people he knew at JTS and in the Jewish nonprofit world. “We were able to raise a bit more funds to be able to give our first seven fellows a stipend and provide them with a bit of space to do their work,” he recalls, “And from there, The Workshop was born.”

Peri Smilow, best known locally for being the current artist-in-residence at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, is also executive director of the Shards of Light Foundation, an organization with a mission to “support…capacity building in non-profit organizations and transformational work in progressive Jewish life.” Smilow says, “One of the prime areas of our funding is to find start-up programs and organizations run by Jews of color who are looking to establish new opportunities for Jews of color to both be able to bring their full identities to their Jewish lives.” The Workshop is one of those start-ups the organization invested in, providing those stipends that allowed the first fellows to develop their work.

The way The Workshop operates is that the fellows meet monthly to study Jewish texts around a specific theme. Says Pinkney: “Our first year's theme was ‘Collective Memory.’ So how is it that societies and peoples remember? Who can enforce remembering? Who can enforce forgetting? Why does it matter? The hope was that studying together in this kind of affinity-based community would inflect people's creativity and that it would show up in their work.” He says this process is not unique to The Workshop, that he had engaged in this creative process while participating in LABA: A Laboratory For Jewish Culture, a study circle with an international profile. Two of the fellows appearing at Shakespeare & Company will present work based on the collective memory theme, while the third will present work about ‘Hybridity,’ the theme of this year’s Workshop study.

Fellows for The Workshop are chosen, in part, because they have demonstrated accomplishment in their respective fields of artistic endeavor. Although the July 19 salon will feature works-in-progress, “there's every reason to believe that a number of these pieces are going to have a life of their own beyond the year of the fellowship,” says Peri Smilow. “What that means is that we will have the opportunity potentially to see a new TV show, a new piece of art, a new piece of choreography that will be seen by thousands of people, that will reflect this question of Jewish identity through the lens of color and race.”

This is part of the reason that Smilow says she was involved behind the scenes “in making the shidduch” between The Workshop and key people in the Berkshires to make performance possible. She approached Amy Handelsman, managing director of Shakespeare & Company – and this is where the professional networks in which Rabbi Pinkney has participated began to pay dividends.

Handelsman first met Pinkney through her own participation in LABA, where she was exploring her fascination with boxing (as a spectator and participant) through the lens of ‘War and Peace.’ Although the two were in different LABA cohorts, she had been a teacher at NYU Tisch while Pinkney was at JTS and, she says, “we were talking about setting up a salon then.” The pandemic prevented that from happening, and Handelsman moved to the Berkshires to take the job in Shakespeare & Company. While here, she got involved with Hevreh. “Then, Peri, the artist-in-residence, said to me, ‘You really should meet this guy who runs this thing called The Workshop.’ And I said, ‘Kendell.’ So it all kind of came full circle.”

Looking for additional funding for the event, Handelsman approached Federation, which soon signed on as a partner in presenting the salon. “We have a large Jewish constituency and we're also very involved in diversity work,” she says. “So this will be wonderful to bring to our theater in a kind of partnership, because we've worked with the Federation before and I wanted to work with Kendell, and the artists seemed really fascinating to me.”

Says Smilow: “Collaboration among nonprofits just doesn't happen a lot, for understandable reasons. People don't have a lot of money, and there are all kinds of reasons that folks tend to stick with what they know. And what is unusual about this is that each of these entities is successful in their area of operation. Federation does a tremendous job of supporting all kinds of amazing Jewish life activities in the Berkshires. And we know that Shakespeare & Company is one of the jewels of the. Berkshires from an arts organization point of view. They have a magnificent campus. They have magnificent productions. And The Workshop is a startup that’s a new experimental and experiential program based in New York City. By inviting this small and growing and impactful organization founded by a person of color who is Jewish to plug into a major regional theater space and be supported by an important Federation, it means The Workshop is going to reach all kinds of people in the Berkshires.” Our audience on July 19, she adds, may then take their experience of The Workshop back home to other places, thus increasing the profile of its innovative work.

Says Rabbi Daveen Litwin, Federation’s director of programming and community engagement, “We are excited to partner with Shakespeare & Company and The Workshop to explore ‘being Jewish’ beyond the traditional narrative associated with Judaism and to embrace broader, multi-racial, and multi-cultural perspectives.”

Although The Workshop is just emerging as a platform for the work of JOCISM (Jews of Color, Jewish-Indigenous, Sephardi & Mizrahi) artists and culture-makers, Pinkney says he is in it for the long haul. For some of the fellows, artistically expressing their identities as people of color has often seemed easier than expressing themselves as Jews. The Workshop is an opportunity for these artists to explore their Jewishness in new and unexpected ways.

“The Workshop is built around providing an intensive fellowship, experience, and community for these fellows. I've figured from being an artistic director and from being an artist myself, it can take 5 or 10 or 15 years in order to see a full-blown product in the world. And so, our hope is to stick with our fellows through the duration of their careers and the duration of their creating these projects. And we also know that audiences are incredibly curious as to what we've been doing.”

Join Federation and Shakespeare & Company on July 19 to find out.