By Jan Lee
The pandemic has transformed expectations for how we celebrate Jewish holidays and how we acknowledge the life cycle events that are cornerstones of the Jewish faith.
As part of that, for the first time in Jewish history, most shivas are being held online.
But the pandemic has impacted Baltimore communities in other ways as well, said artist Tal Beery, whose exhibit, “in the absence of a proper mourning” opened at the Jewish Museum of Maryland on March 26. The multimedia outdoor presentation explores the profound impact that the pandemic has had on individuals of all faiths and backgrounds who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
Visitors can view the rotating exhibit both in person and by logging on to the museum’s website. Due to the pandemic, the museum is currently closed to the public, but visitors can still experience the outdoor installations. Two different installations can be experienced in person at a time. Visitors can also listen to the stories and view pictures of the installations online; “in the absence of a proper mourning” runs from March 26 to May 18, 2021.
Being able to say goodbye to a family member, whether at a bedside or at an in-person gathering of friends and family, is more than a cultural tradition, said Beery. It’s a crucial step to grieving and being able to move on with life.
“The primary challenge is that we have experienced a profound disruption to the rituals that we have relied on for generations to mourn. And mourning is such an important process,” said Beery, who is Jewish and lives in the Catskills. “It’s just absolutely critical.”
Mourning rituals — such as a shiva following a Jewish burial, a wake prior to a Christian funeral or being able to simply gather and grieve with others — require us to connect with community, but they are also a vital means to processing the impact of a loss, Beery said. And those public rituals as we have come to know them have largely been out of reach during this pandemic.
“in the absence of a proper mourning” is a collaboration of LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture and JMM.
The exhibit is part of an international exhibition, “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues,” which explores the human condition through the impact of six modern-day plagues: the global pandemic, institutional racism, xenophobia, ageism, forced isolation and the climate crisis. The exhibition includes performances and installations in Boston, New York, Charlotte, Detroit and Toronto, in addition to Baltimore, and is meant to inspire reflection on personal relationships with a world that is being progressively transformed by pandemics. (More information about “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues” can be found at bycanvas.org/dwelling-passover/exhibitions-passover.)
“This notion of ‘dwelling’ is really important,” Beery said. “I’ve been thinking for a long time about architecture and, particularly, how the built environment can be a space of care, or the opposite, depending on how we build it and use it.”
Beery’s participation in a Zoom shiva early in the pandemic was an eye-opening experience that helped him to conceptualize the project, he said.
“I was really struck by how different [the online shiva] was from the in-person version of the same event,” Beery said. “And it left me with a lot of questions about what it means to care for each other and embrace each other when our ways of connecting, or primary ways of connecting, are through a screen.”
To capture a snapshot of what it has been like for community members to cope with loss in these unusual times, Beery interviewed eight Baltimore residents who had recently lost a loved one to COVID-19. “It was important to us to get a diverse group of people involved in the project,” he said. The project includes participants from a cross-section of Baltimore’s broader community. “I sat with them, and I listened to them, and my questions for them were very simple, very open ended.”
Beery said he asked two questions of the participants: What was it like to say goodbye, and how are you feeling now?
“Then I just muted myself and allowed them [to] talk.”
After the interview, he asked them to step back and allow him to take a photograph of the space where they had been sitting. The snapshot of that incidental setting — a spot on a living room sofa, an office chair in front of a computer, a sitting room bathed in sunlight — were then paired with the stories so they could be exhibited on the facade of the museum.
Beery said he wanted viewers who saw the installation to be able to imagine themselves sitting in that chair and in that conversation, and to be able to feel that they were a part of the dialogue.
The selected photographs were then installed inside the brick arches that decorate the front of the museum, recreating the appearance of windows peering into a private space. An audio speaker was installed just below each of the two arches so that viewers could hear the accompanying stories.
The sheer size of the photograph, Beery observed, forces the viewer to step away from the image in order to get a complete view. At the same time, the interview, much like an intimate, private conversation, can only be heard when standing close to the installation. The result, he said, is deliberate tension that forces viewers to interact with the exhibit.
“All of these tensions and contradictions were important to me because they were very much present for the people in their moment of grief,” Beery explained.
As part of this project, Beery was also connected with Rebecca Soffer, the author of “Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Loss and Grief.” Soffer, who runs an online forum for people healing from personal loss, served as a professional resource and mentor during Beery’s research. He said she made a point of reminding him that loss during this pandemic has taken many different forms: For every person who has died from COVID-19, there are, on average, nine more individuals who are suffering from that grief.
JMM Executive Director Sol Davis said that Beery’s installation complements many of the current goals of the Baltimore museum. Davis, who assumed leadership of the JMM in January, sees the museum’s role as one that works hand in hand with the greater community to develop exhibits and programming that resonate with its visitors.
“I bring a vision of a participatory museum,” Davis said. “That is, a museum that purposely invites community to participate in all aspects of the work as much as possible, including exhibition development, content development, public programming.”
Davis said Beery’s vision also helped to elucidate new ways that it may be able to support the needs of community. His concept of collective mourning and communal care — a place where personal stories of loss and isolation can be heard and validated — offers a valuable support system for mourners still looking for closure from unexpected loss from the pandemic. But it also opens the door for organizations like JMM to support the community at a time of unprecedented need.
“One possible outcome is [to develop] a kind of micro support system for the participants in this project,” Davis said. He pointed out that all of the individuals who allowed their stories to be represented in the museum exhibit have, in turn, gained a support system. In the process, they have also helped spawn a growing network of support for other mourners looking for closure. “We want to see if we can cultivate that,” Davis said.
He hopes this exhibit will help encourage even more community involvement. “We are going to look for other ways to promote dialogue and care for each other in other programmatic ways while we collect and present these stories,” Davis said.
Asked what he hoped viewers would gain from the exhibit, Beery said, “just a quiet moment. A quiet moment with the voices of their neighbors who are dealing with such incredible loss during such incredibly isolated times. And even just that moment, if they were to just take that moment and feel it and recognize it and think about them, I think that will make a difference in people’s perception of what their community is facing right now and what kind of support we will need to offer our neighbors in the years to come.”
So far, Beery has interviewed eight mourners. But he is hoping to interview more.
“I have a very inter-generational, interracial and interreligious group of participants,” he said. “We hope that we will continue to have that kind of diversity among the people that we are interviewing, considering how this pandemic has affected people from all communities.”
Jan Lee is an independent journalist living in Canada who writes on Jewish culture, history, business and the environment.