Making Art is Very Therapeutic and Very Jewish

News flash: The news these days is really depressing. For me, making art is one of the few accessible escapes left. In times like ours, it’s at least a pinprick of light in our Giant Box of Global Darkness that we can make art, make things that are pretty, and make things that are meaningful and pretty. It’s also a Very Jewish Thing™, you see. And I’m not just saying that because my grad school focus is Jewish Arts Education (that doesn’t hurt, though).

To be highly scientific, there’s a Thing in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah. To break it down quick and dirty, it’s when you have a mitzvah, but you make it an even better mitzvah by making it pretty. Of course, the definition of pretty is subjective, but it’s the thought and effort that counts. I emphasize that last part to preschoolers I’ve taught. Especially when they try eating the supplies and I have to explain that no one can see the beauty of glitter glue if it’s in their esophagus.

Now, traditional text talks about hiddur mitzvah in the sense of glorifying ritual objects, like building gorgeous sukkahs or a decked out shofar. But I have no issue with expanding that definition to include all purposeful things, whether it’s an ark for a new Temple or a bullet journal venting your anger at this stupid state of geopolitics, because damnit, I’m going to glue some dried flowers on this stupid crap. Where was I? Ah, right.

Art is therapy.

It can be a really direct kind of therapy, like what I mentioned above. You can rant and rave and put glitter on it. No joke. It feels fabulous to make your feelings material. It can also be much less literal. Sometimes I have a terrible day, and my brain begins to wallow in the worst parts of my life. So I sit down. I look up 1920s portrait photography on Pinterest. And I draw it. And paint it. And make it mine. Making my sadness and anger into something pretty and different from the dark vignette of my reality is cathartic.

It’s okay to cry (or scream, curse, make random noises, etc. in the name of expressing that which is locked up inside you). Expression is central, not just to humankind, but to Judaism — we have High Holidays all about confessing sin and apologizing and being forgiven.

Well, making art is crying, screaming, and confessing, just in a different format. You’re taking your feelings and making them beautiful. If self-expression and confession is a mitzvah, then making art out of your feelings is a direct definition of hiddur mitzvah. It’s taking a commandment and making it into something beautiful. Drawings are confessions, admissions, screams, tears, and conversations that our souls and brains translate into the language of images. You know that saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? It’s no joke. Art is simply another language that we speak in different dialects.

There’s an exercise I developed in one of my Jewish education courses, and I’ve actually found it to be weirdly therapeutic in a Jewish way: I doodle something. Anything. Whatever I feel like. Then I take photos (ones I’ve printed, taken out of magazines, etc.), and I rip it up and reassemble it in all the wrong order, to make a new background for the picture I drew. It’s like creating a universe, ripping it up, and putting it back together into something new and beautiful. The feeling of ripping paper with my hands is cleansing and fun, and yet the care of placing the shapes into a new space to make something new is meaningful. Try it. Get your feels out. Rip things. Glue random bits of your world to paper. Trust me.

art therapeutic and jewish

You may just find that it makes you feel better while also making the world a little brighter for everyone that sees it.

Sarah Elizabeth Hartman

Sarah Elizabeth Hartman was born and raised in San Francisco, and has since been gentrified out to the edges of the Bay Area. She is someday going to finish her dual MA in Jewish studies and Arts Education; she lives with six cats, has a great mom, and a heckin’ cool partner.

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