“Queer People Anywhere Are Responsible for Queer People E... Read More
Revisit writer and community organizer Adam Eli’s recent gallery talk featuring LGBTQ+ works in the Jewish Museum collection
Two years ago, in honor of Pride Month, the Jewish Museum invited writer and community-organizer Adam Eli to contribute to a Medium series exploring LGBTQ+ works in the Jewish Museum collection. His thesis revolved around the shared space between his dual identities of being both Jewish and Queer; two non-mutually exclusive communities with a profound history of persecution and oppression. Empathy, Eli surmised, acts as the foundational bedrock of this shared space.
Eli is the founder of Voices 4, a nonviolent activist group committed to advancing global queer liberation, with a mission inspired by a line from the Talmud: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh (All of the people of Israel are responsible for each other).” And Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
As a blend of the two, he believes:
“Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.”
This year, again in celebration of Pride month, Eli returned to the Jewish Museum to lead a gallery talk on his favorite pieces in the collection that shed light on the notion of empathy. We sat down with him before the program to discuss some of these topics at Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum.
Do you want to start us off by speaking about your personal connection to the Jewish Museum?
Sometimes, being Queer and Jewish means you have to compromise. While growing up, I had to do that a lot — I had to compromise who I was in order to fit in. The Jewish Museum and Russ & Daughters were some of the few places where I felt like I could be completely Jewish and completely queer without having to compromise on either of those identities.
You must obviously feel a lot of frustration when it comes to intolerance. Do you find that frustration to be productive when it comes to your activism?
I firmly believe that people want to participate. They want to show up for themselves and for their communities to unite against intolerance. I believe that as an activist, it’s my job to find accessible ways for people to fulfill this potential. So when it comes to my own frustrations, I do my absolute best to not even think about it.
Do you also try to harness those negative emotions to build something constructive? I find that for many people, the foundation for their activism is often built upon those negative emotions, to then take that to create something completely opposite.
I try to separate anger and sadness as much as I can because there is work to be done. I come from the history of Jews murdered by the Nazis, Queer people murdered by the Nazis, gay men who died from the AIDS crisis, and Jewish immigrants who came from nothing, like the Russ family. That is the history I am made of: being a Queer and Jewish man. But despite all that, we have to do what we have to do.
I’m curious as to whether your activism is largely influenced by history and earlier writers, or more by the present and by your contemporaries?
The answer is both. The best thing about being an activist is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is always a mentor to go to, to seek advice from. Voices4 is inspired directly by the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), the Soviet Jewry Movement, and Gays against Guns. It’s a distinct blend of all those. I studied the activism tools used by the Soviet Jewry Movement — which my mother was an active member of — and I’ve applied them to contemporary queer settings.
One of the first stops on the tour was the painting Alios Itzhak by Kehinde Wiley. It portrays a young Ethiopian Jewish man against a background inspired by a ceremonial papercut in the Jewish Museum collection. The papercut is a mizrah, a decorative plaque placed in a home or synagogue to indicate the direction of prayer towards Jerusalem. Standing in front of the portrait, Eli posed the question, “What is Queer art?”
“Some people have misconstrued ideas about the word ‘queer.’ But ‘queer’ just means ‘other’ or ‘different,’” Eli prefaced. “If there are three blue chairs and one pink chair, the pink chair would be queer. (It’s always the pink one.) Today you are getting a queer tour because you are getting my tour. This tour is personal to me. It’s about how I see my two identities of being gay and Jewish reflected within the collection.”
The group then moved onto a discussion of Guillermo Kuitca’s untitled painting, a haunting exploration of the artist’s Jewish experience in an overwhelmingly Catholic Argentina. The grandson of Russian immigrants who fled the pogroms of the early twentieth century, Kuitca’s work explores the “disappearance” of political dissidents in Argentina — among whom Jews figure disproportionately — and that of Jews and others in Europe during the Holocaust. Eli addressed the fact that Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities have often been the most vulnerable under brutal political regimes.
Nicole Eisenman’s Seder, meanwhile, became an invitation to meditate on how the Passover holiday’s narrative of freedom from oppression can extend into a conversation about queer liberation. The painting depicts a group seated at a table for Passover. It is a common scene for many, but the subtle addition of an orange on the Seder plate alludes to the historic struggle of marginalized groups among the Jewish people, like women and the Queer community. This conversation is a familiar one to Eli.
Eli described himself as a child feeling his queerness–especially in a Jewish community–as his “cross to bear.” But now as an activist against anti-Semitism and homophobia, these two identities serve as a source of empowerment:
“My Jewish background enables me to be a part of something larger than myself and my queerness does the same.”
The gallery talk came to an inspiring conclusion, with Eli inviting members of the audience to share any moments that evoked a similar source of pride. One visitor quickly chimed in: “I feel it right now.”
— Jinny Choi, Visitor Experience Assistant
“Queer People Anywhere Are Responsible for Queer People Everywhere” was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.