Creativity is the heartbeat that brings Judaism to life for Gavi Weitzman.
The 24-year-old Philadelphia Moishe House resident has found Jewish community through music, art and adding levity to tradition.
“Jewish text, I think, is so rich, and ritual itself is also such a vast expanse of things … Doing art about it makes me feel more connected to it and makes me want to understand it more and to engage with it,” Weitzman said.
Nestled near Rittenhouse Square, Moishe House is committed to bringing together young Jews and connecting them to an ancient religion and culture through programming rooted in modern sensibilities.
Since moving into the house in September, Weitzman has helped organize a musical havdalah with Philadelphia Jewish music educator Marni Loffman. In December, she planned a prom-themed Chanukah party, dubbed Promukkah. Hosted at Congregation Mikveh Israel, the event had gelt, a photo booth and homemade hors d’oeuvres catered by Weitzman and her friends. About 120 people showed up.
“That event was probably the biggest thing we’ve ever done and exemplifies, I think, our approach to events, which is very playful and fun,” she said. “And everyone wants an excuse to put on a fancy dress.”
Weitzman attends the South Philadelphia Shtiebel for Shabbat services, a community that mixes Orthodox Jewish traditions with progressive practices, such as having a woman spiritual leader in Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter.
“I am interested in exploring the fringes of Jewish spaces, if that makes sense, the more progressive, more open and more questioning spaces,” Weitzman said.
Though originally from San Diego, Weitzman spent her teenage years in Bala Cynwyd, growing up in a Modern Orthodox household. She left the city for college and studied studio art at Washington University in St. Louis’ Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts before returning to Philadelphia.
As she looked for Jewish community outside of her immediate Orthodox upbringing, Weitzman attended a Passover seder at the Philadelphia Moishe House. Within six months, she moved in with her Jewish roommates-turned-best friends.
“I thought I would give myself a lot of agency in my own life,” she said. “And I am someone who really thrives when they’re put in a leadership position.”
“Moishe House was the perfect fit for me and was a great way to meet people outside of the traditional Orthodox world,” she added.
As a visual artist, Weitzman continues to play with her Judaism and Orthodox upbringing. She’s particularly interested in hair in the Jewish context and the relationship between hair, femininity and Jewish tradition, which sometimes treats hair as beautiful and something to be covered to maintain modesty.
Hair, because of the random and infinite configurations in which it can fall, makes it an exciting medium. From sculptures to prints and collages, Weitzman features the material by adding disembodied curls and locks to her pieces. She wants to press her viewers to question when hair goes from beautiful and flowing to something gross or undesirable, like clumps clogging a shower drain.
Weitzman has explored themes of femininity, beauty and Jewish ritual by adding hair extensions to kippot and crocheting a bikini in the shape of kippot and adding accompanying tzitzit to the garment.
Most recently, Weitzman participated in an apprenticeship at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, where she created “Hair Paths.” The piece is a large-scale series of screenprints where curly locks of hair are stamped in red on a blank canvas. Weitzman toyed with turning these prints into hair coverings.
“Once you get married, there’s a custom for covering your hair,” Weitzman said. “And I was thinking about, what does that feel like? What does that do to you, when you look in the mirror and you don’t look at your own hair, or you look at someone else’s hair, or your hair is covered, how does that feel?”
Weitzman’s pieces may be subversive, but they’re hardly sacrilegious. Like her other creative pursuits, Weitzman’s art is a way to engage with her Judaism and dig deep into rituals and culture, finding a way to make being Jewish meaningful and relevant to her and other young Jews.
“That, I feel like, is a prime example of being playful, but also starting a serious conversation about gender and gender roles in Judaism,” she said.