Joyce Dallal and Aaron Glass


By Louisa Steinman

There is no part of my personal record that is not at the same time the record of a community, a society, a nation, an age.
--James Hillman

For most American Jews, what happened before Ellis Island is a blur. Most of us don't know the names of our great aunts and great uncles, or the names of the villages where they lived in Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine. We don't know the maiden names of our great-grandmothers or what our great-grandfathers ate for breakfast. Our first and second-generation parents, and their parents, wanted their children to "fit in," to "become American." Many Jews of the baby boom generation went through the obligatory rituals of Sunday school, bar mitzvahs, attendance at High Holiday services. Yet, few of us have an active link to our own religious/cultural tradition. Many of us have married non-Jews, embraced Eastern philosophies, put thousands of miles between ourselves and our families of origin.

Both of the Jewish artists-Joyce Dallal and Aaron Glass-exhibiting their work in finding family stories, have rich, complex family histories. Yet both of them report having passed through a long-term sense of disconnection from their heritage. Joyce Dallal, an Iraqi-American Jew, grew up in the Midwest and California in the 1950s. Until she began investigating her father's past as source material for her art, Joyce Dallal's family history remained vague to her. She knew little about her family's past in Baghdad, where the Jewish community dates back to the destruction of the First Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. Her father journeyed from Iraq to the United States on a student visa in 1945 and, after the state of Israel was established in 1948, Iraq declared him a persona non grata. Nor was he granted citizenship in the U.S. For decades, he was a man without a country. He rarely talked about his origins. "He would never speak Arabic," says his daughter. On the rare occasions when Dallal's father did mention his on-going battle to become a U.S. citizen, the stories made little impression on his children: "You know how it is with your parents' stories," says Dallal. "I don't know if anyone ever took him seriously."

Aaron Glass's father emigrated from Berlin in 1939, barely ahead of the Nazi juggernaut. His father, Glass reports, "never felt at home in California." His grandparents on both sides took extraordinary efforts to preserve and document the family's past. His father possessed a family tree tracing the Glass family back twenty-six generations of German Jews. As a teenager, Aaron Glass wanted none of it: "My father had all this family history but I didn't know what to do with it. He would impose it on me but I would reject it and I never really understood his connection to it," he says.

What caused these two artists to take interest in their family stories they had so long ignored? For Joyce Dallal, the readiness came partly from facing the challenges of mothering a daughter whose father was not Jewish. "I was going through a lot of conflicts with my divorce, my parents... I came face to face with expectations of what I was supposed to be as a daughter. All of a sudden I had this daughter and I wondered, how am I going to raise her? What am I going to pass on?" Dallal also came to realize that her cultural heritage was at risk of extinction: "I remembered the letters we used to get from my grandmother. I used to think they were beautiful. They were in Arabic, beautiful flowing letters. I asked my mother, "Do you have any of those letters from Grandma, the ones in Arabic?" and she said, 'Oh, that's not Arabic.' 'Then what is it?' Oh, it's this language they spoke.' That's when I found out they spoke a different language, they didn't even have a name for it. My mother said, 'Oh, we called it Rashi... it's what the doctors used, or the merchants in the market. People don't write that way any more.' I realized that once that generation dies, no one will speak it any more. Already, my mother can't write the script."

The other catalyst to Dallal's investigation of family stories was the distress she suffered during the Gulf War when her dual identities as Jew and Arab American were literally at war. During this time, her father began slipping back into using Arabic. "Arabic words I'd never heard him speak before," the artist says. "He was having dreams that he was back in Baghdad." This growing sense of panic and helplessness inspired her 1991 installation, Family Album, that contained a collaged prayer rug made from newspaper clippings, linoleum, and photocopies. Dallal also created a book for the audience to read which recounted the story of her uncle Sasson, executed by the Iraqi government as a Communist leader in 1949. She invited spectators into a viewing situation where they could contemplate the ironies and paradoxes of the artist's multiple cultural identities. Creating the installation changed Dallal from detached onlooker to active commentator.

In her most recent work, Dallal has opened up a dialogue with her father, interviewing him about his past and incorporating his epic tale of displacement into her latest installation project. In this work she contextualizes Immigration and Naturalization Service letters which document her father's Kafkaesque experience. In the last few years, she has begun to collect stories from the larger Los Angeles community as well and to incorporate them into her art projects. In so doing, Dallal enlarges the concepts of "family" and "tribe."

For Aaron Glass, a graduate student in anthropology, the desire to investigate family stories also came out of a search for identity and meaning, a search which had already led him to live with Kwakiutl Indians in British Columbia and to study the Kabbalah, the classic texts of Jewish mysticism. Equipped with the skills of both artist and ethnographer, and motivated by a growing curiosity about his origins, he was able to approach the formidable legacy assembled for him by his parents: the vast archives of documents, photographs, artifacts, and the imposing genealogical "family tree." Who were these ancestors, and what was his relationship to them?

Glass made plaster casts of his own face and projected photographs of his relatives onto his own features. The effects are jarring: a fusion of the generations. In Moses and Aaron, Glass's facial features merge with those of his ancestor Moshe Chanin, an eerie testament to how the past forms the present and vice versa. "My whole notion is that memory is constructive," says Glass, "and we have an active role in creating the image of our ancestors. With memory we give them a life back, and here I'm giving them 'back' three-dimensions. Representing Moshe Chanin helps to keep him alive." An important metaphor for Glass is the idea of the "generation"-playing on the photographic term-where each "generation" means one removed from the original.

One particularly remarkable family treasure made its appearance fifteen years ago-as if in a fairy tale-when Glass's father discovered a rolled up Torah curtain underneath his mother's bed. Aaron Glass's grandmother did not remember its provenance. When curators from the Skirball inspected the piece, it turned out to be one of the most well-preserved Baroque Torah curtains in the world. It is now included in the Skirball permanent collection. For finding family stories, Glass has constructed a scale model of the curtain, contained in a hand-made mahogany cabinet. Glass reinterprets the curtain for future generations. In place of the traditional imagery, he includes photographs of objects from his own family: a candlestick; a washing jug; his grandfather's phylacteries. All of these relate specifically to objects on the original curtain. In place of the image of the sacrificial altar, he introduces a photograph of his closest relative who died in a Nazi death camp.

Memory is the way that Jewish culture has survived for millennia, and the one sure way our ancestors gain immortality. In Judaism, there's little emphasis on the Afterlife. The ritual Passover seder requires not only that we remember the ancient Exodus from Egypt, but that we question, comment, and argue about the story. We must each remember this epic tale of our ancestors, "as if it happened to us." These two very original artists reinterpret Jewish artifacts and rituals, and their own family stories and, through their art, transform them into something altogether new-yet very much in the spirit of Jewish cultural tradition.

Louisa Steinman as an essayist, freelance journalist, and the author of The Knowing Body: The Artist as a Storyteller in Contemporary Performance (North Atlantic Books, 1996).

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