Upcoming JCC Exhibit Aims to Heal Black and Jewish Communities

Rain Pryor
Rain Pryor (Courtesy of Rain Pryor)

Rain Pryor, the renowned actor, writer and director, is doing her life’s work. It’s fitting that she’s 54 — 3 times 18, or triple chai, the Hebrew word for life.

The bicultural star of the autobiographical show “Fried Chicken and Latkes” is seeking to foster connection between the Black and Jewish communities through “Healing Bridges Across the Divide: Baltimore,” an upcoming visual-literary art exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s Gordon Center for Performing Arts.

The gallery will be open on Mondays, from 4 to 8 p.m., from Oct. 30 through Dec. 11. There will also be an opening reception on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m., which will include a poetry reading and storytelling and discussion with DC Playback Theater, as well as a short concert with Y-Love, in addition to the exhibit.

Sara Shalva, the JCC’s chief arts officer, described the exhibit as an exploration of identity and experience — a “love letter to Baltimore” that represents how Black and Jewish communities can “recognize our complicated past” and forge a shared sense of hope.

“The Jewish community needs to stretch itself and ask itself deep questions about how to create belonging,” she said. “If we are to stay as a people, we need to figure out how to do that.”

For Pryor, the founder and co-curator of the exhibit, it’s a way of blending her Judaism with her practice of Ifá, a Yoruba divination system, and a way of envisioning and designing a better world.

“I was like, ‘I need to bring people together. That’s what I need to do,’” said Pryor, who is the daughter of the late comedian Richard Pryor. “It has totally healed and is healing my inner child.”

Such an exhibit would not have been realistic when she was growing up as a young Jew of color. Now, she’s “picking away at the yuck in my soul,” including the discrimination and racism many fellow Jews of color often experience.

The idea for the Healing Bridges exhibit, which will feature a diverse array of artwork and poetry, came out of a conversation held between Black and Jewish communities by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore around the beginning of this year.

Pryor, who was in attendance, noticed upset from Black participants stemming from a key moment in history: white Jews’ inclusion in, and Black people’s exclusion from, the GI Bill, legislation that provides World War II veterans with a range of benefits. This propelled white Jews’ upward social mobility and allowed them to move out of the neighborhoods where they and Black people were united by exclusionary housing policies and practices like redlining.

“The Black community felt very hurt,” Pryor said. “There was a ‘What about us? We were neighbors, we were friends, we went to each other’s stores, we helped each other — and all of a sudden ‘you’ve forgotten us’ kind of feeling.”

Pryor was personally disappointed by “a lack of color” in the room. “I thought we could do better,” she said.

And so she called up fellow attendee Harriette Wimms — founder of the JOC Mishpacha Project, a space for Jews of color and allies to learn and grow — and said, “Let’s build together, let’s create.” Both Wimms and Pryor are part of the Schusterman Fellowship, a leadership development program for Jewish leaders.

Pryor also called her former mother-in-law, the Baltimore artist and poet Nefertiti Myrick (better known as “Mama Nef”), and said, “Hey, Mom, here’s an idea I have. Do you think you’d want to help me put it together?”

Then she looped in Barak Hermann, CEO of the JCC of Greater Baltimore, who’d also participated in the Associated conversation. And thus “Healing Bridges” was born.

According to Shalva, one might not expect a JCC to do an innovative exhibit like this. She said that the JCC was inspired by risks the Jewish Museum of Maryland took with its “A Fence Around the Torah: Safety and Unsafety in Jewish Life” exhibit nearly two years ago, which examined, among other phenomena, marginalized community members and neighbors’ experiences with Jewish institutions.

Shalva hopes that the Healing Bridges exhibit will move across Baltimore and even wider.

“This is going to be the first touch,” Pryor added.

“What we’re doing is pretty innovative,” Shalva said. She said that Jews are obligated to remember we were once strangers in Egypt and obligated to “build empathy across communities.” “That can be something that comes out through art and language.”

One entry, for example, pays homage to the Black and Jewish hip-hop artist Y-Love, who will perform as part of the exhibit’s launch on Oct. 26.

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