The Sublime and Surreal Internet World of Maya Ben David

Get to know the Iranian-Jewish performance artist who describes herself as an "anthropomorphic airplane."

You hear a siren wailing from afar. A creature, one half human and one half vintage air raid siren, walks into view cranking the wailing noise out of itself. Everything goes dark. You wake up in a Holocaust museum only to meet that same creature, uncanny, rusted and unsettling. It talks to you as it brandishes a Holocaust victim’s shoe, explaining how it ended up there: old, forgotten and committed to that museum.

No, you’ve not had a feverish Jewish nightmare — you’ve stumbled across one of the many mesmerizing, incisive pieces of video art created by performance artist Maya Ben David. Who is Maya Ben David? Well, according to her website, “Maya Ben David (MBD) is a Toronto-based Jewish-Iranian Anthropomorphic Airplane,” but this description only scratches the surface.

You continue watching to find Ben David (who portrays the aforementioned anthropomorphic air raid siren) tell the story of Snake Girl. The story that follows is mediated with equal parts mockumentary, religious myth, pro-wrestling and musical theater. It all pays homage to the victims of Bullenhuser Damm, 20 Jewish children who were experimented on and murdered by Nazi doctors during the Holocaust. One of these children, Marek James, is a cousin of Ben David’s.

Among many interests and qualities that make up Maya Ben David, she has a strong connection to her Jewish identity and touches on Jewish topics in many of her videos. I got the opportunity to talk to Ben David over Discord as she described to me her Jewish upbringing and artistic craft.

In Maya Ben David’s oeuvre of work, the aforementioned video titled “Snake Girl’s Hyperbolic Time Chamber,” is just one of many pieces she’s produced over the years. Among Ben David’s other content touching on Jewish topics, there is a video problematizing how we tell Jewish jokes among gentiles where Ben David cosplays as a schmatta as well as an artful breakdown of the online discourse surrounding Abby Shapiro and its antisemitic discontents.

Abby Shapiro had this strange curse, being Ben Shapiro’s sister but also the elevated status of like, ‘hot internet girl,’ and of course she’s Jewish. I was interested in how she was being sexualized for her Jewishness, and I realized that she made YouTube videos about modesty, which is another interest of mine. Everyone’s reaction was like ‘why are you keeping your hot sister from us?’ and I’m very interested in people or women online who are thrust into the spotlight,” said Ben David. “I have always been influenced by hot girls online and how they perform and how they figure out sexiness and how it changes over time.”

Her most recent video is a breakdown of what it means to be “edgy.” Past her Jewish content, a favorite of this author is Ben David’s video on the song “Wavin’ Flag,” by K’naan.

Looking from the outside in, a lazy passerby might discount Ben David’s work as just absurd or random — just some videos by a quirky screwball. Her most popular YouTube video is about “mpreg” Harry Potter and her YouTube banner is a rather goofy image of Ben David cosplaying as a Charizard from Pokémon.

Ben David’s videos are certainly performance-centric, with her cast of fandom-inspired and anthropomorphic characters, but don’t let that convince you it’s all purely “performative” or played for laughs. There is silliness and playfulness here, no doubt, but below the inscrutable surreal surface there is also wisdom, cleverness, intense commitment to artistic practice and undeniably original expressions of Jewish identity. The unabashed and thoughtfully skilled nature of Ben David’s peculiar, uncanny performances endow her with an unexpectedly strong air of authority on whatever topic she speaks on.

Speaking on her Jewish background, Ben David described her upbringing attending an alternative Jewish elementary school. At her elementary school, there were six different rooms modeled after different styles of Jewish prayer for the students to experience. This was everything from one room which was strictly Orthodox to one that emphasized music, and all the students would rotate between them.

Reflecting on her pluralistic Jewish experience, Ben David also emphasized the idea of rabbinic debate as something that’s influenced her art in particular. “I like the sassy rabbis and reading about their different interpretations. I think that’s reflected in how I think about things in my life and about my art — I’m heavily influenced by the bickering rabbis,” said Ben David.

Along with her relation to Marek James, Ben David was also raised with grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. “It’s omnipresent and in every little crack of how they lived, which was later reflected in how I was raised. My mom will sometimes be talking to me, and then she’ll just casually slip some like, very intense Holocaust lore to me… we talk about it very lightly and heavily at the same time,” said Ben David.

Past a Jewish upbringing with telling idiosyncrasies, Ben David’s imagination often ran wild, with the internet central to her development. She recounts her obsession with drawing “hot fairies” and playing house with Pokémon figurines. Online, she would play Neopets and flash games. The whimsical would brush up on the profane and morbid in her teen years as she dabbled in 9gag and even briefly disturbingly easy-to-access “shock sites.”

Ben David started creating content with a friend just out of a fairly typical youthfully deranged quest for relevance. “We would just sit around and strategize how we could maximize our Instagram posts or steal Instagram followers. It was a fun, little maniacal environment to be part of,” said Ben David.

Eventually Ben David found herself in a community of performance artists, many of whom were also localized in Toronto. At the time when Ben David was getting started, the creative interactions with the Internet felt much different than they do today where seemingly everyone is trying to shock and awe you, sucking you into algorithms and the attention economy. She recounts the creative freedom of trying things just to try them, whether it was a new cosplay character or a performative feud with other artists. “Now everybody is kind of a performance artist online, but back then social media just wasn’t as enormous. So it felt like you were kind of doing something novel,” said Ben David.

Today, she sees her artistic origins in what has been termed the “Post-Internet” movement which is a broad swath of creative practice defined by a social and artistic dialogue with the internet. Now armed with a small but passionate following on Patreon and YouTube, Ben David is looking to get into more live performances in the coming year. Speaking on her goals broadly, however, she was jarringly straightforward. “Keep making art and paying rent,” she said, with an almost sardonic sense of realism.

Miri Verona

Miri Verona is a journalist and the founder and editor of Oyer, a publication dedicated to Jewish music. Her work has appeared in The Forward, JTA, Times of Israel and Jerusalem Post. She is also a klezbian with her band, The Klezmommies, and mutters to herself in Italian.

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