I write this column with profound humility and sadness. Last week, the Jewish world, and Canadian Jewry in particular, quite suddenly and entirely prematurely, lost a shining neshamah who was, among a great many other things, a tremendous advocate for Jewish arts and culture.
In fact, Rabbi Aigen (it was my own conservatism that never allowed me to called him Rabbi Ron as everyone else did) gave me my first real job in the sphere of Jewish arts, in an arena where such jobs are not plentiful. He had a long-held dream of establishing a contemporary art gallery embedded within his Reconstructionist community, Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal. I signed on as the first curator and together we created the Emet Gallery.
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The gallery’s name not only stood for emet (truth) as in the congregation’s moniker but it’s also a Hebrew acronym for emunah (spirituality), musar (ethics) and tarbut (culture) – tenets inherent in Rabbi Aigen’s conception of a multi-faceted, dynamic and flourishing Jewish future. He was equally invested in developing meditation and mindfulness practices within the shul community and fostering social justice as in establishing a space for contemporary art filtered through a Jewish lens. In the Emet Gallery, we exhibited video art and photography by established Canadian and Israeli artists.
In advancing his ideas, Rabbi Aigen had a gentle touch but a fiery heart. He was responsive to his congregation, highly creative and thoughtful in their own right, but also dared to be an agitator and to insist on risk-taking even when others did not fully appreciate the gallery concept. As with many forward-thinking cultural experiments, the Emet Gallery did not last long. But when it was running, it was an energetic addition to the Jewish cultural landscape of Montreal, sparking dialogue and collaborations. It is a reminder at this deeply sad time that longevity is not the only marker of a lasting impression.
As we laid the groundwork for the gallery, Rabbi Aigen wrote in the November 2006 synagogue bulletin of arts and culture. It is only fitting to draw attention here to his own words on the topic: “The arts and culture are an important gateway into Judaism, allowing more people to enter ‘our’ world. It’s a significant new gateway not just because it’s ‘fun’ and ‘easy,’ but because arts and culture engage people emotionally as well as intellectually, often creating an essential fusion of the two. However, in order to really attract people, especially the younger generation, we must get beyond the nostalgic kitsch that has passed for Jewish art and culture in the past. Jews today will no longer be satisfied with Jewish culture if it is not as emotionally and intellectually engaging as the culture available to them in the rest of the world. We must demand better if we want our Judaism to go beyond survival and to really thrive.”
I am inspired anew, revisiting his sentiments a decade later, by his charge to us to thrive as a people through creativity. Part of his greatness as a rabbi was in forging a voice of leadership in many arenas of Jewish experience vital to a thoughtful, holistic Jewish life.
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In another article, Rabbi Aigen referred to the teachings of the prophet Joel: “Your elders will dream dreams; your youth will see visions.” This text resonates with Rabbi Aigen’s impact on my life at a formative moment when I chose to leave the mainstream art world to help shape an “emotionally and intellectually engaging” Jewish arts scene in Canada.
Rabbi Aigen dreamed – he dreamed big and bold. Those of us “youth” who participated in his dream saw the vision realized and reverberating profoundly. If only he could have grown into the elder that the prophet speaks of, creating into the retirement he was to begin next month. Now that dream has died but the Rabbi’s vision lives on.
Originally from Montreal, Evelyn Tauben is a producer, curator and writer in Toronto.