A local artist is offering up a unique perspective on the complexities of identifying as Jewish in her latest collection of work.
Lindsey Tyne Johnson recently sat down with The Wren to discuss her exhibit, “Hebrew Spelled Backwards,” which is currently on display at the Kamloops Art Gallery (KAG).
Johnson’s work invites Kamloopsians to consider what it means to be ethnically Jewish in what she considers a small, conservative town where there are few examples of contemporary Judaism or other Jewish people.
Johnson grew up in Prince George, where her peers were often unaware of what it meant to be Jewish or what an ethnically Jewish person was.
Although Judaism is a religion, being Jewish can also be an ethnicity. Those descended from long lines of Jewish people, such as Ashkenazi Jews descended from Jewish settlements in parts of Europe during the middle ages, may not practice Judaism as a religion but may still identify as Jewish either culturally or ethnically.
Johnson says most people she knew at the time only knew about Jewish people through jokes and characters in shows like South Park, a popular animated television series. She says this resulted in her peers making a lot of insensitive antisemitic jokes about her.
The bullying, coupled with the lack of a synagogue or shul in Prince George, meant Johnson had little connection to her identity as an ethnically Jewish person.
“I didn’t even understand what it meant to be ethnically Jewish until I was in fourth grade and learned about the Holocaust … I remember going home and asking my mom if she knew that people were flagged for being Jewish during World War II and were ultimately killed because of it,” she says.
“My mom responded by saying she did know, and I would have been flagged too. I remember it being strange to comprehend at the time.”
Johnson says it wasn’t until her Birthright trip — a free trip to Israel for young adults — that she realized she didn’t have to look or act a certain way to be Jewish.
“Up until then, I never felt Jewish enough to fit into Jewish circles, but I could never deny that I was Jewish anywhere else. [Birthright] definitely made me feel more confident in telling people, ‘No, you know, what, I am Jewish.’”
After returning home from Israel, Johnson felt inspired to represent aspects of her self-discovery in her artwork. At the time, she ran a business in which she created and sold spirit boards, or “talking boards,” similar to the trademarked Ouija boards used by spiritualists to communicate with the dead.
As a reflection of her travels and recent experience, Johnson had the idea to make a Hebrew spirit board.
Johnson says she wanted to use the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, or script, in the piece.
“Because I am a westerner and speak English, I wrote the Aleph-Bet from left to right when it’s supposed to be written from right to left,” Johnson admits. “I showed all of my Jewish friends, who at the time said nothing and didn’t even notice the mistake.”
She says this mistake inspired the entirety of her work exhibited at the KAG. The spirit board is displayed front and center, bookended by her other works.
Johnson says she loves the piece because it represents failure and the opportunity to grow from mistakes.
A QR code accompanies each piece in the exhibition, where onlookers are encouraged to use their smartphones to scan and find out more.
The exhibit’s themes touch on self-discovery, cultural exploration, the dismantling of stereotypes and contemporary representations of antisemitism.
In the face of antisemitism, Johnson encourages others to speak up. Further, she suggests we all “reflect on the biases that [we] might have and actively work to dismantle them.”
“When we work to deconstruct the prejudices and biases we have, we become stronger, smarter people,” she says.
“Hebrew Spelled Backwards” is open to the public at the Kamloops Art Gallery from now until April 1, 2023. Admission is free. Those interested in visiting can learn more by visiting lindseytynejohnson.com.