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Making Dignity My Art

Making Dignity My Art

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Everyone’s eyes shot up towards me. “She’ll do it” was their first thought, often trailed by a bit of a chuckle. “Raise the bar, it’s your job,” my drama teachers would say to me. “Strong and Wrong” was a common expression tossed around by my actor friends. It may sound silly and somewhat reckless, but it is the only way we got around spitting out some of those sticky words of Shakespeare. To say it and act it with full confidence—even if you may be completely off-target and the audience thinks you are the worst shtick since their grandmother.

I pushed a lot of envelopes, personal and socialI wasn’t born like that. I was a very shy child growing up, a bit of a teacher’s pet, but the sweet kind. I wouldn’t get up on a stage to sweep it. Then, several years later, I found myself spending twelve hours days, six times a week, in the unbounded confines of a studio, working on my craft, or should I say, beating it to death.

It was rough: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I pushed a lot of envelopes, personal and social. I challenged the rules, the rules of life. I became addicted. Each day, I knocked down another fence and another. I allowed that choked-up, restrained and all-too-polite Canadian girl to break free, break loose, take the world by storm and with a vengeance. I was flying on such a high. Until I crashed. And cried.

I remember the melancholic Yom Kippur prayer of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) spilling from my lips during an expressive movement class in theatre school . . . No one understood or even noticed. But I did. Oh boy, did I ever.

This is not a story about my return to my Judaism. We’ve heard plenty of those, and they are beautiful. But this is what happens after you ’ve gone through that transformation: welcome to the beginning of the rest of your life, now what do I do with my two hands?

As an actor, hands are a big challenge. What to do with them when you are performing: to cross them, rest them on your hips, let them down by your sides . . . but then you feel like a giant human dummy . . . it’s a reoccurring dilemma. The whole idea is that you are not supposed to notice your hands at all. You should be so natural and completely present in the moment of the scene that you don’t even give your hands a first thought. This is an ideal state. But unfortunately, most of us are self-conscious, ego-centered beings, and have a hard time living outside of ourselves for even a few fleeting moments.

What I mean when I pose the question of my two hands, I am subtly begging to ask, “Now that I’m with you, G‑d, what do you want me do to with all this stuff that you have led me through, that you’ve given me?” But even more so, “As a Jewish woman, how do I express myself? What is right, appropriate, are there places in the cavities of my soul that I will never touch, never inhale and exhale again? If so, how can I live with that? I would feel like I am limiting myself, my existence!”

This is a terrifying thought to me. The non-ability to express—I am clamming up just pondering such a possibility. This is who I am, the air I breathe, the ground on which I walk! There has got to be a way . . . unless there is something I am missing.

Tzniut, best defined as dignity, modesty or privacy, is the essence of a Jewish woman. It is a quality inherent in us, one of our core characteristics. It is written in Micah (6:8), “Walk modestly with your G‑d.” It is commanded to us by G‑d to live, dress and behave in a way that is tzniut. It is a beautiful thing. In this manner, we are offering others the ability to see our essential selves—the essence of ours souls instead of the clothes or the masks we wear.

There are huge misconceptions over this in our modern world. Most women are unaware of the power of their feminine energy and of how desperately it pleads with us to be sacredly guarded. I don’t blame these women. It is not really public news, not yet at least. As for me, I am working on application. I know the laws, I know the legal boundaries with regards to tzniut. As an actor, I only perform in front of female audiences. In life, I dress modestly, and behave in a more refined way.

But there yonder the real question lies. When I am alone, how am I? Is there a difference in my tzniut? Isn’t G‑d everywhere, so why should there be a difference?

When I began my journey back to G‑d, I stopped acting. I didn’t know what to do with it. I literally left it at the side of the road and waited patiently for someone to pick it up. I had other important priorities at hand. Like G‑d and me, and our broken-down, scuffed-up relationship. But that is not the only reason why I put my acting on pause. I thought to myself: there are two ways to go about this now. Either to make my art tzniut, or to make tzniut my art.

This reminds me of when people wonder why I am so careful about the types of music I listen to. At first, I delicately explain to them that I am concerned with the health of my soul and what I put into my body, whether it be food I eat or music I hear. Just think about all the things that enter us unwillingly and sometimes unknowingly . . . from the often polluted air we breathe, to someone speaking badly about someone else right in front of us. Sometimes, there is nothing we can do. But if we can be in control, why wouldn’t we want to make the best choice for our souls? I mean, we should have some pity on them; it’s hard for them being cooped up in these clumsy bodies, when all they desire is to leave this world behind and cleave unto G‑d.

We are offering others the ability to see our essential selvesBut things aren’t so simple. We don’t always know what is best for our souls. Ultimately, the more in touch we get with our souls, the more we will know how to nurture and provide for them in a way that enables growth and a closer connection with G‑d. But for us beginners it’s a slow process, and we learn as we take baby steps towards character and soul refinement.

After I’ve said all that, and I am certain they are not going to call me a crazy zealous tribal emissary, I even more delicately explain to them that I really love G‑d, and I want to connect with Him in every way possible and at every moment of every day. I would rather not have distractions come in the way of that relationship. They may never speak to me again, or they may think about it for a few months or years until their soul yearns for more truth and they feel equipped to receive some real answers.

As artists, for example, we can arrange our art—the passionate expressions of our personalities and souls—within the boundaries of tzniut. We can set rules and standards, avoid certain expressions or movements, and edit out material that might make some women blush. We can close the door to the room and say “what goes on in here, stays in here.” We can do that. We can make an attempt at being safe and just making the cutoff. We can also float through life doing commandments just because G‑d says.

Or we can take a different route, the one less traveled by, the one whose leaves no step has trodden black, the one that will make all the difference. And you know what they say about hard work, it always pays off. Why settle for being average, getting by, or for just being good and okay? We are not part-time employees who escape our jobs the moment the clock strikes, and are only reminded once again of our indebted responsibility to our boss the next grueling early morning or late-night shift. Life would be like moving through three-year-old molasses. It would be painful and the focus would be totally off target. And you can’t balance in a headstand unless your core is strong and solid. Meaning, we can only see the ultimate results once we have done the hard work of building.

We are given talents in order to serve G‑d in a heightened and more beautified way. Not to figure out how to make our expressions kosher, but to glorify and vivify G‑dliness through our expressions. Judaism is not an outfit we wear, it is who we are. We are Jews, and that should be avidly expressed in everything we do.

The art that I create now is of a whole new realm. My purpose is not to create an escape, but to create expression that grounds me and the audience into our true existence, one that is rooted in the earth, and consequently, in our purpose here. We need to get out of ourselves, but not into someone or something else. We need to see the beauty of this world, the beauty of challenge and hardship and the Divine Providence that is happening every moment. It’s all blessing. We are living the good life. Now that deserves an applause.

You can’t balance in a headstand unless your core is strong and solidSo when I get on stage, I don’t just put on a skirt and make sure the doors are locked. I have bigger fish to fry. I don’t try to pull off a script that makes the tzniut cut. I am revealing the secrets of my soul to your soul, and our souls are rooted in tzniut and made in the image of G‑d. This tzniut is providing us a way to truly get to the meat and potatoes of the matter, the deep stuff.

And I don’t need to worry about showing the parts of my body that should be covered. It is simply not an issue. We have checked that off long ago. My job, if I have the tools, is to remind your soul what it feels like to feel, and why we need to feel. For these few minutes, let it be my responsibility to connect us to G‑d. And I promise you I’m not doing it for the glory or paycheck; those are of the rare species in the art world. Besides, I’d rather be a starving artist and make my point. And it is for you, and me and all of us.

Judy Ammar is a performer, creator and an artistic and Jewish educator living in Thornhill, Ontario. She is a graduate of York University in Toronto and Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
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Anonymous beverly hills, california October 29, 2012

incredible! wow! this is an incredible article! thnkyou! Reply

Rebecca Manasher jerusalem February 10, 2011

amazing! Reply

Anonymous February 5, 2011

Merci! Thank you. Danke! "We need to get out of ourselves, but not into someone or something else. " WOW. Thank you for writing this. You gave me direction in my art show that is in 20 months-- I have stopped creating delightful compositions with pleasing color palettes to having a statement to make with every work.

"As artists, for example, we can arrange our art—the passionate expressions of our personalities and souls—within the boundaries of tzniut."

All I can say is thank you. Reply

Tsivy Bude Sao Paulo, Brasil February 4, 2011

Thank you Judy, this is such an incredible and deep article. its the very essence of the feminine soul written in such a down to earth and realistic way. Congratulations. May Hashem give you the tools to continue to inspire so many people around the world! Congratulations and a lot of luck. Reply

Anonymous los angles, ca February 2, 2011

incredible judy " I am revealing the secrets of my soul to your soul, and our souls are rooted in tzniut and made in the image of G‑d" that is so beautiful so emes. lets go! When is your next performance? Reply

Rosie Thornhill February 2, 2011

Thank You A passionate and powerful piece - thank you for sharing your experience. Reply

chaya yehudis dank melbourne, australia February 2, 2011

Judy's comment back to me Thank you so much for your profound comment. I think you are right. It is hard to take the sort of risks you are talking about. Often actors are more used to doing that sort of risktaking because of their training. Unfortunately my art teachers only tried to mold my art into what they thought it needed to be, instead of what I needed to become in order to create what I need to create. Also a pity they didn't teach about risktaking. Am having to learn it by myself. Think I might be heading in the right direction. So appreciate your replying to my questions, it really makes a difference. I would love to continue hearing about what you are doing and how you work. You could email me, if you like. Thanks again. Reply

Judy Ammar Thornhill February 1, 2011

In response to Chaya Yehudis It can get complicated, so I always go back to basics. People want truth. I like to offer them a raw kind of sincerity, kind of like, 'this is what the insides look like, whether you judge me or not.' This world is carrying a lot of masks, and people are realizing it. Reality TV?! People want and need truth.
It's not fancy or whimsical... it's actually as boring as our every day selves. From my experience, if you want to connect to your audience, you have to make yourself almost completely vulnerable to them. Vulnerability means taking a risk. What is a risk for you? Everyone has different risks.
We did an experiment in theatre school where we each took real-life risks. One girl when to a movie/dinner alone and another revealed to us that he was a painter in secret and never revealed his artwork to anyone.
Once audiences smell vulnerability, they jump all over it, regardless of whether they ‘get’ it or not. And chances are, that will evoke them to begin processing your message. Reply

Anonymous February 1, 2011

nice rythm to it like it just flew out out of your pen on to paper very true Reply

Rebecca Toronto February 1, 2011

Great Article! Congrats Judy!

Really well written article.

We are all proud. :) Reply

Tammy Ross (aunt) February 1, 2011

Having watched Judy grow up and become a lovely young woman and terrific performer, I now am proud to say that she is a thoughtful writer.
Thank you for sharing this with us. Reply

esther H miami February 1, 2011

Mamash Bichol derachecha dayehu. Our whole life is allll G-dliness Reply

Shalhevet Ashland February 1, 2011

WOW, is all I can say. What a deep, beautiful article. It is very well written. Thank you for taking the time to express this and share with us. Reply

Anonymous Toronto, On January 31, 2011

Dignity My Art Dear Judy,
I wish someone had written this when I was your age. Yasher Koach Well Done and Expressed Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY January 31, 2011

I would say too good to be true, but it's good, and it's true. Well said. Reply

JoWriter McMinnville, OR January 31, 2011

Beautiful article. Reply

Anonymous January 31, 2011

typo in Making Dignity My Art Thank you for an excellent article. Reply

Naomi brooklyn, ny January 31, 2011

Wonderful B"H
great job Diit! I'm so proud of you! Reply

Chana Israel January 31, 2011

I would love to see some of your art..can you provide information on what you are working on now and how we can see it?
Thanks Reply

Ms. Erin Hesapene January 31, 2011

Making Dignity My Art First I want to say thank you for your honest and heart felt words. I am a 44 almost 45 year young woman and I am currently going through a divorce. I have a nurological disease and I am in constant pain, yet I will be going back to college in August. As I sat here reading I began to cry and my heart was truly feeling what you said," What I mean when I pose the question of my two hands, I am subtly begging to ask, "Now that I'm with you, G‑d, what do you want me do to with all this stuff that you have led me through, that you've given me?" I know G-d will bring me through. I also am an artist I love to craft, paint and make cards. I taught preschool for 21 years, yet sadly my physical body won't let me do this any more. I have decided to go to college and get my degree in nutrtion. I am a bit scared, but I know as I walk these baby steps, G-d will lead me and I know I am on a beautiful journey to be the woman I was created to be. Thank you again and G-d bless you. Reply

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