A new exhibit at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale aims to explore what it means to be culturally Jewish in contemporary America.
“T-Shirt Talk: The Art of Reimagining Cultural Jewish Identity,” a collection of approximately 40 T-shirts and other paraphernalia that express differing messages about Jewish identity, opened in the Center’s Sylvia Slifka Chapel on Tuesday. The exhibit opened with a conversation between Anne Grant, a Vanderbilt University graduate student who collected the items, and Lucy Partman ’14, the Slifka Arts Curator, who discussed the way the exhibit addresses the meaning of cultural Judaism. Partman explained that the role of clothing in expressing cultural Judaism is especially relevant on a college campus, where T-Shirts play a big part in expressing identity of all kinds.
“A shirt which we wear — it’s such a staple, a simple T-Shirt — could mean so much,” Partman said. “Looking at [T-Shirts] as art will give us a new way of seeing them.”
Grant explained that there has been increased debate within the Jewish community about Jews with “thin” identity, who some claim focus too much on cultural and social aspects of Judaism and not enough on religious texts and Israel advocacy — characteristics of a “thick” Jewish identity. She noted that the concept of cultural Judaism is vague and lacks a universally accepted definition, adding that clothing is the medium through which many people choose to express it.
The exhibit features three sections, and each includes a different category of T-Shirts. One section consists of Hillel T-Shirts from colleges across the country, including Yale, Stanford and Northwestern. The other two sections delve into cultural appropriation and self-awareness, respectively.
“The artist raises an important issue which although presented in a playful way through the medium of T-Shirts is ironically a much deeper question,” said Rabbi Leah Cohen, Slifka’s Executive Director and Senior Jewish Chaplain, in an email.
Grant said that wearing a provocative shirt with a joke about sex or drugs may be the way some choose to manage the possible stigma of being Jewish. Wearing shirts that appropriate from fraternity and sorority culture may also help students take pride in their Jewish identity, as taking part in Greek culture is a sign of a high social rank at many universities.
Another section of the exhibit features T-Shirts that deal with self-awareness and positionality. Many of the shirts in this section are self-reflective and express an awareness of Judaism in relation to other groups, Grant said. For example, the section includes an entire subgroup of T-Shirts that pokes fun at Christianity, Grant explained, which explore the notion of the minority Jewish identity within a largely Christian American culture.
In an effort to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions from the exhibit, the wall text is minimal, Partman explained. Grant said the sparse wall text and captions help preserve the integrity of the project, adding that she hopes viewers will come up with and discuss their own interpretations. Partman noted that each T-Shirt has a caption and brief description, but that these are purely explanatory — for example, a translation of a Hebrew letter — and not interpretational. A supplementary packet of information that includes a more in-depth, scholarly approach to the collection is also available, but none of the information provided is intended to influence viewers’ opinions, Partman said.
“I think it’s about presenting all sides, not about taking a side,” Partman explained. “It’s a very important component of the show that people can interpret for themselves.”
Viewers are encouraged to share their interpretations on an interactive board with the prompt, “What does your shirt say?” The board includes T-shirt templates that attendees can decorate themselves.
After the exhibit closes, Grant said she hopes that her collection — which is self-financed — will continue to travel to other Hillels on college campuses around the country and ultimately end up in a museum or a progressive Jewish center.
T-Shirt Talk will remain on display until the end of March.