I always tell people I met Elana Mann by stalking her. Monkey-swinging from link to link to link one day, I encountered her website and developed a hardcore girlcrush.
She had the same odd, seemingly insatiable appetite as I do for putting on events. She sort of looked like Miranda July, but one who was as yet undiscovered and could actually be my friend. I emailed her and she ignored me, which really is the best thing for keeping a stalker all foamy and excited.
A year or so later, a shadowy intermediary e-mailed to arrange a lunch. It said something like, “Miss Mann is ready to meet you now.” If an email could have had an English accent, this one would have. Over a delightful lunch, I told her about this nascent organization I was co-founding, East Side Jews, and harangued her about coming up with ideas for events. We got super excited about Jewish German Game Night but never really settled on a date. She introduced me to her production designer husband, Jean Paul Leonard, with the simple statement, “He really loves collaborating.” I hurriedly switched my affections from Elana to Jean Paul and we quickly made a music video for Michelle Tea’s Valencia, a sizzle reel for a TV show about a biracial debutante, and a short comedic film that got into Sundance. I forgot that all I ever wanted was for Elana Mann to do Jewish shit with me. Then one day, my luck changed. Elana Mann emailed me and said, “I wanna do this film screening with East Side Jews.” I ran over to her apartment with a tape recorder to find out more.
The Rumpus: So how did the film Between Two Worlds catch your attention and what made you want to screen it in L.A.?
Elana Mann: I saw the trailer for the film and immediately knew I wanted to organize a screening of it. My experience as a Jewish American has often been as a spectator of one-sided conversations, or more like monologues, about Israel, Jewish History, Jewish identity, etc. Although there are profound divisions amongst Jews on all of these topics there are not many opportunities for deep and thoughtful dialogue about them- even in my own family conversations around Israel, identity, and politics have quickly become shouting matches. I was thrilled to see a film portraying the schisms separating the Jewish American community so bitterly.
Rumpus: One of the reasons I’m so glad you’re bringing the conversation to East Side Jews is that I want to have a space for real dialogue. I’m excited that you come to it as an artist. Judaism asks people to unpack ideas, the same way art asks the viewer to have an experience around it. Yet Israel’s this thing at the center of Judaism that refuses to be unpacked. Sometimes it reminds me of the way feminism simply cannot have conversations about pro-life vs. pro-choice. There’s just this giant void. It seems the same with Judaism and Israel. Did this film feel more resonant to you than, say, screening a film illuminating the Palestinian struggle, which would probably be more acceptable and politically correct in your circles as an artist?
Mann: Yes, I would never feel comfortable screening only one side or another. The film seemed to be able to mediate a conversation between opposite ends of the political spectrum. In my own work I am invested in art as a way to break through impasses, whether those impasses are personal, social, or political. I almost didn’t put the film screening on my art mailing list I send out. I’m glad I did. But it feels a bit more risky, I guess, for me to host this. I have never wanted to claim I know what is best for Israel
Rumpus: Do you make art about Israel or about being Jewish?
Mann: I haven’t made art about Israel. There’s a covert subtext of Jewish identity in my artwork. For example, I did a piece where I was talking about torture at Abu Ghraib, and I embroidered my hand with the image of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoners who’d been tortured using a needle and thread. I know that meeting a Holocaust survivor when I was eight and seeing the tattoo on her arm from her time in the camps influenced my piece about Abu Ghraib.
Rumpus: Maybe identifying with vulnerability is Jewish? There’s something about a specialness. That we were chosen—
Mann: –to suffer.
Rumpus: Right. Like we’re so special we needed to be killed in huge numbers. This vulnerability that people fetishize in a way.
Mann: There is a real comfort with the position of the victim, which can either result in true empathy or deep paranoia.
Rumpus: My mom, before she’s getting ready to go to the airport, she’ll put on like this placard, this plastic thing, and put her ticket and driver’s license inside. Then she’ll just have her luggage and she’ll be walking through the airport with this label around her neck. And to me she just looks like she’s going to the Holocaust train. Like, Here’s my name, here’s my information. Tell me what train to get on.
Mann: My family gets incredibly tense and stressed out around traveling. There’s something really beautiful in that vulnerability, right? Because by recognizing your own vulnerability you can recognize and identify with the vulnerability in others.
Rumpus: Hm. Yeah. So in discussing Israel, we always get right to the Holocaust, it’s immediately: Israel must exist because they were trying to murder us in the Holocaust, or, We’re murdering the Palestinians the exact same way the Nazis tried to murder us. Straight to murder. Do you think the conversation about Israeli power or borders is code for something else?
Mann: Yeah, well, the obvious answer is that the wish to protect Israel concentrates around fear of anti-Semitism. I think generational trauma also plays a big part in the reactions to Israeli politics.
Mann: Totally. I get that feeling all the time. And there are other coded moments when I begin to question latent anti-semitism in people. There are times when folks will point out certain characteristics I have, like me being an interruptor, and attribute them to my Jewish identity. Someone will say to me, Oh that’s so Jewish to interrupt. I say to myself, okay, is that code for you hate Jews? Or am I just being paranoid?
Rumpus: I interrupt! Years ago this guy sat me down once said, Here’s what I don’t like about you. You interrupt and I don’t like interrupters. I felt like he was saying, I don’t like Jewish people.
Mann: Fear of anti-Semitism almost is part of our religion. Throughout time Jewish people have experienced traumas that we relive in a lot of the things we celebrate. Many of our holidays revolve around traumas that happened to our people and how we must remember them in specific ways. The way these stories are told and what we take away from them can change, and do in certain contexts, but overall I am not sure whether Jews want to let go of the narrative of the victim. I remember learning about the Holocaust when I was in kindergarten and being terrified. I think we even watched a graphic video about it in Jewish day school. Although I was quite young, I remember making these vows to myself such as, I’m never going to love my country so much that I can’t leave in a moment’s notice. I’m glad that Jewish kids are taught about the Holocaust and other stories in our history, but I wonder if there are ways that this information and narrative can be transmitted differently. I was talking to my friend who’s Israeli and she said that from the moment you’re born, you’re taught to hate the Palestinians. That’s it. That’s your life. That’s what you learn from day one. How do you undo that? You have to totally change the way that society’s structured in order to being to heal.
Rumpus: I was talking to an Israeli person today about that. I don’t know if you’ve ever met a Christian person who loves Israel and loves Jewish people?
Rumpus: Sometimes it seems like America is the Christian and Israel is the little Jew they love in this fetishistic way. Like, you’re my little sister and I’ll kick anyone’s ass that messes with you. But when we’re alone and no one’s looking I’ll harass you. It’s this marriage that Muslims ended up on the other side of. Like the only thing that Christians hate more than Jews are Muslims. I’m interested in our shared history, the Sarah-Hagar story, about Hagar being Abraham’s mistress. Somebody told me that Muslims teach it the other way, so that Sarah was the mistress and that Hagar was the wife. That weird triangle between the three so-called Abrahamic religions is fascinating. I’m more interested in the symbolic than the political, in what it means for America to protect Israel from Muslim countries.
Mann: So much of the United State’s political relationship with Israel is also based on culture. Israel is the only Westernized culture in the region and the Middle Eastern countries bordering Israel are Arab, which is a totally different society. Even though Israel doesn’t exactly feel like the United States, by comparison to its neighbors it’s very Western.
Rumpus: I was traveling by myself in Israel and met this Israeli guy who was like, It’s dangerous, you need to be careful. And I was like, Why? He just said, Arabs are different. Implying that Muslims don’t have souls the same way people imply that Jews don’t have souls. He told me to listen to their music that was wafting in on the radio from across the street, he pointed out the way their it got really crazy and violent, and how there are only men out on the street. I was suddenly awakened to a maleness– the fact that the way fundamentalist Muslims would prefer it would be that there are no women out, that the women are all hidden. I wondered if the Fundamentalist Islamic division of genders positions it as something for Christians and Jews—who are in some ways in their own heterosexual marriage— as something to hate like homosexuality. But I guess it’s more like unisexuality, a heavily male=skewing culture.
Mann: I’ve always wondered what it means to the Republican Party to be pro-Israel. Newt Gingrich’s biggest supporter is this Las Vegas casino owner who’s Jewish. My husband says that is is because certain sects of Christianity need Jews in Israel for the second coming.
Rumpus: Then there’s the stereotype of the Israeli, the macho people, zero vulnerability. The unspoken idea that Israelis never would’ve found themselves in the Holocaust.
Mann: There was an Israeli artist who was in grad school with me. I remember trying to get to know him on a more personal level. He had moved to the Fairfax area, not realizing that it’s a super Jewish part of L.A. He told me, I don’t understand why American Jews feel this connection with me. I was embarrassed because I was feeling that connection with him, too! It kind of made me feel really—
Rumpus: He resented being a totem to American Jews? People feeling like they’re his brother or something because he’s from Israel?
Mann: I think he didn’t like that there was a presumed relationship, he thought it was offensive. It just wasn’t what I expected. Because in the little travel I’ve done to other countries, the Jews there embraced me saying, Come to our house, come and have Shabbat with us. Jews in the Diaspora. I didn’t imagine an Israeli traveling to the U.S. would feel this intensity of a forced relationship.
Rumpus: When you think about how hard it is for people to figure out what to do about Israel, you realize that it’s such a young country. In thousands of years, no one’s figured out what to do with the way they feel about Jews, why would anyone figure out what do with Israel?
Mann: I learned in grade-school that after WWII European politicians considered sending Jews to Madagascar instead of Palestine. At the time I thought: Madagascar would’ve been so great.
Rumpus: Why didn’t we pick Madagascar?!
Mann: But then, when you think about it, there were people living in Madagascar, too. It’s interesting to think about the history of Israel in relation to the history of the U.S.. There were Native Americans living here that U.S. settlers totally displaced, and that narrative is not connected with the Isreal-Palestinian struggle at all. One of the things that feels so challenging is how questioning Israel and the idea of a Jewish state somehow opens the door for other sorts of questions – and wounds. I said recently to my parents that I don’t even know if there should be an Israel. And they were just so upset and hurt.
Rumpus: Oh my god, this daughter that we raised, how did this happen?
Mann: Exactly! She went to Solomon Schecter Day School! Why is she saying this to us?! So what are you looking forward to about the screening?
Rumpus: I like the idea that East Side Jews can provide a place for conversation, for questioning, for opening things. I think of questioning in and of itself as Jewish– that the Talmud is a conversation about the Torah. And the conversation insists on community. It doesn’t really matter what the answers are. There’s this mystery— that the messiah who hasn’t arrived is a symbol for the answers that have yet to arrive. I remember an East Side Jews event, a Passover teaching, where a guy came who was Jewish but Republican and very pro-Israel, pro-US military. He really wanted to get into a debate.
Mann: That seems so exciting that the Republican guy came and wanted to debate.
Rumpus: That’s what I think East Side Jews is good for — a forum for the unlikely and unpopular, the unsayable. For example, my unsayable is that I’m secretly glad that people like Newt Gingrich are willing to stand up for Israel.
Mann: That sounds wonderful to me that this screening could be a space where Republican Israel lovers could come, and Israel haters, super-leftist artist-radicals come, and then the secret Israel lovers come.
Rumpus: A place where you can see the debate done well. Not just go on Fox News and see one side, then listen to KPCC and hear the other side. But instead some other conversation you don’t normally get to hear and participate in. I think that’d be a really cool thing to happen after the film. If people are able to say things and ask things they normally wouldn’t.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS will be screened on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at Atwater Crossing near Silver Lake. Afterwards, Elana Mann will lead a Q & A with filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman. More info about the film is at http://btwthemovie.org/. More info about the screening or to purchase advance tickets: www.eastsidejews.com or http://between2worlds.eventbrite.com/.
ELANA MANN is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. She has presented her work in national and international museums, galleries, buses, senior centers, empty lots, and convention halls. Mann is a recipient of California Community Foundation’s 2009 Visual Arts Fellowship and has published five books, including: We are the Art (2010) and Exchange Rate: 2008 (2009). Four of Mann’s books are in the collection of the Getty Research Institute. In February 2012 Mann is co-organiznig (with Audrey Chan) a day of Feminist dialog entitled “Shares and Stakeholders” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She currently is a visiting lecturer at Scripps College, Claremont, CA. For more information visit: www.elanamann.com.