Being Jewish is a central part of my identity. It is my past, my present and my future. It is the 11 litre chicken soup I cook every fortnight, the time it takes me to leave a gathering after I’ve said my goodbyes 45 minutes earlier, the understanding and commitment of tikkun olam (reparation of the world) and the deep internal pull I have to always be an upstander for myself, my community and others.
The transition from a Jewish day school to a performing arts degree at university was a bit of a culture shock for me. Most students hadn’t met a Jew before and I was hit with many racist and discriminatory jokes including but not limited to, jokes about the size of my nose, about money and wealth, about Israel and about the Holocaust. It is both fortunate and unfortunate that others cannot tell I am Jewish by way I look, and because of this I tried to withhold some information about myself and my Jewish identity. I do wonder how much I actually achieved this as I keep a kosher home, don’t go out on Friday nights and celebrate most chaggim (Jewish Festivals). So it would’ve been quite hard to not realise my differences, if anyone actually took an interest in me or my life.
Throughout both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I continued to experience anti-semitism. I was told that I needed to choose between being Jewish and my career (by a teacher nonetheless), and that I thought I was better than my peers because I am Jewish, amongst many other micro-aggressions that I experienced throughout the 6 years of performing arts study.
When I was finishing VCE and applying to go to university I was told by both my family and my school that I couldn’t study performing arts. I got a lot of concerns and disapproval for a creative career due to finances, career pathways and lifestyle. It made me feel insufficient and rejected. I watched my friends be supported to pursue what they wanted to but I was told the opposite. I saw my peers go to uni together, have intern opportunities through family members or family friends whilst I studied two years of a BA with no direction, purpose or fulfilment. I am now a working artist who receives multiple grants and opportunities and frustratingly, I often still find myself in community contexts having to justify why I chose a career in performing arts. It was two years into my arts degree at 23 when I mustered up the courage to transfer to a performing arts course. I revelled in being somewhere that supported my passion and my dreams. I feel incredibly grateful for the outstanding teachers, mentors, friendships, colleagues and organisations who have supported me throughout my artistic career whilst studying and later on. It is these wonderful people in my life who have helped me navigate some of the trickier times.
Even with this support the reality is that I still find myself in spaces that are not inclusive of my cultural background and I know many others that feel the same. I am consistently having conversations with other artists about what it means to hold a truly inclusive space and the changes that need to be made to ensure that all artists are being supported. As Jewish artists, it is essential that we are able to have a voice, both within our community and within the creative industries.
I am thrilled to share that the Centre of Jewish Artists (COJA) has launched our first official program the ‘COJA Youth Collective’ and a brand new website for public and member access. COJA’s mission is to support emerging and established Jewish artists across Australia, to pursue and maintain sustainable artistic careers. We support, connect and advocate for professional Jewish artists.
At COJA, we offer workshops, skill building, mentorships, grants, residencies, advocacy and networking opportunities. We understand the cultural diversity of what it means to be Jewish in the current Australian artistic landscape. We are a place that can advocate for and promote cultural understanding and safety within all the spaces. A place that is inclusive and welcoming for all Jewish artists and supports future generations in pursuing artistic careers whilst being able to celebrate their Jewish identity. Because, we are all at our best when we can be ourselves.
By Romi Kupfer