Many years ago, in what seems now like another life, I held an opinion that I suspect many Gen X American Jews did: Anti-Semitism may still emerge on occasion, promoted by fringe wackos, but it’s no longer a force to be reckoned with. I felt and thought this way because I hadn’t, to my knowledge, been the target of anti-Semitism during my privileged, sheltered life.
The time for such notions, sadly, is far behind us.
Today, anti-Semitism comes to find us where we live. Spokane has seen incidents of hateful graffiti and flyers in the last couple of months. Jewish Community Centers may be threatened and Jewish cemeteries desecrated only in other cities, but our region’s anti-Semites have no intention of sparing us.
The worrisome time we live in makes the work of local Jewish artist Melanie Lieb tremendously relevant. I recently exchanged emails with Lieb to learn about her upcoming exhibition, “Echo: A Visual History of Anti-Semitism,” which opens June 2 at the Saranac Art Projects gallery.
Born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Lieb had an artistic bent from the start. “My mother was an account executive for AT&T … and my father was a cartoonist,” she told me. “From a young age, it was clear that I was an artist, always drawing and sketching.” During her childhood her family’s interest in art and their Jewish identity were already interconnected. “A great memory I have of my father was when he published his coloring book called ‘Color me Jewish,’ ” Lieb recalled. “It was being sold at my Hebrew school gift shop and I thought it was so cool.”
In the sixth grade, Lieb began taking private art lessons. The next year she started oil painting. “I never stopped painting and drawing,” she said. “In high school I spent most of my days in the art room, to my dean’s dismay.” In the mid- to late 1990s, Lieb attended art school, first at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and later at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As a relative newcomer to the city myself, I was curious to know what it’s been like for Lieb to be Jewish, and an artist, in Spokane. Like many local Jews, myself included, Lieb has became aware that Judaism isn’t widely understood in the Inland Northwest. “I find that a lot of my friends and acquaintances here have never experienced having a Jewish friend and have very little knowledge of the traditions and history of Jews,” she said. “I get, ‘Wow! You’re Jewish? Are you from Israel?’ a lot.”
Lieb acknowledged that the local art scene has its pluses and minuses. “I find that the community is much smaller than in a larger city so it is easier to navigate the ‘scene,’ ” she said. “Because it is so small I feel that there are more opportunities to show and teach locally but, on the flip-side, I have noticed that there are not as many art appreciators, so it can start to feel like you always have the same audience.”
If all goes well, “Echo” will expand that audience substantially. Lieb notes that, generally speaking, Spokane’s art scene is on the rise. “I have noticed that even in the 2½ years I have been here that the city is really beginning to blossom and become more progressive and cultured, which I love,” she said.
For many Jews, their first trip to Israel elevates and transforms their interest in Judaism. Lieb has a similar story; Israel occupies a special place in her mind and heart. “In general I would say I became much more interested in my Jewishness while I was in Israel,” she said. “The moment I got off the plane I felt like I was home and everything was familiar even though I had never been there. It is the powerful experience of knowing that your roots and your people belong in this place.” Though not religious, Lieb identifies strongly as Jewish and considers Judaism a significant influence on her work as an artist.
When I asked Lieb what inspired “Echo,” it became apparent that she had put a lot of thought into the project. “ ‘Echo’ was inspired by the perfect storm of events,” she explained. “One was the current political climate and rise in anti-Semitism. It woke me up and made me really feel like I am not immune to hate.”
Lieb also mentioned the decision on the part of local Women’s March organizers to remove Rabbi Tamar Malino, of Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Emanu-El, from the list of speakers at the rally that accompanied the march. “I know this was not intentional by any means, but to me and other members of the Jewish community it was just another embedded symptom of the unconscious layers of ignorance towards Jews,” she said. “I felt that we are not an important enough minority so it wouldn’t matter if we got cut from a long list of community leaders and others representing the diversity of Spokane.”
Ultimately, Lieb was motivated by something that spurs many Jewish artists to action: a desire to convey something essential about the Jewish experience. “I feel that I need to bring this topic [of anti-Semitism] into the spotlight and let those who are not conscious of what it means to be a Jew learn of the history of struggle and persecution,” she said.
Like many Jews, Lieb has recently contemplated the pros and cons of staying where she is geographically as opposed to moving somewhere that feels safer. “For the first time, I debate about leaving the country and at the same time realize that anti-Semitism is everywhere, so I had better stick with what I know and hope that this upswing will pass without any major issues,” she told me. “In general I feel supported and safe, but I feel that the more people learn, the more accepting they could become.”
To that end, Lieb hopes “Echo” will provoke thought and help those who experience it understand the existential fear that underlies being Jewish in a world where hatred of Jews is far from extinct. “I want this exhibition to move people, make them ask questions and honestly feel a little freaked out,” she said. “This show will be the uncensored take on anti-Semitism — no sugarcoating, just my interpretation of centuries of persecution, blood, and extreme will to survive.”
Though “Echo” is specifically about anti-Semitism, Lieb said it also touches on more universal issues: “This show tells a powerful story and should remind us all that history can and will repeat itself if we cannot find common ground with our fellow humans.” One thing is clear: “Echo” has the potential to contribute meaningfully to some very important, very current conversations about the nature of tolerance and intolerance. And that kind of dialogue is something our city and region can truly never get enough of.
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