UT Pop-Up Exhibit Sheds Light on Trends in Jewish Same-Sex Weddings

UT Pop-Up Exhibit Sheds Light on Trends in Jewish Same-Sex Weddings

BY ROBERT CULLICK
Special to the Jewish Outlook

For a brief moment in early December, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin was the site of a student-generated exhibition on the changing trends in same-sex weddings in Jewish life.

How brief?

About 90 minutes. It was a pop-up exhibit, meant to bring the academic and Greater Austin communities together around a topic to share ideas and experiences and then to disappear like the morning fog.

“This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the Schusterman Center has hosted an object-oriented exhibition on a Jewish topic for both the UT and the wider community,” said Suzanne Seriff. The longtime Austinite is a faculty member in the department of anthropology at UT, and instructor for the Schusterman this semester of an undergraduate seminar-style class titled “American Jewish Museums and Material Culture.”

Tackling as big a topic as same-sex Jewish weddings in a small space and with only one semester to prepare was a challenge the 10 students took on readily, Seriff said. It was a diverse group that was learning together: Jewish and non-Jewish students; Jewish studies, religious studies and anthropology majors, and even a business major who had never taken a liberal arts course in his entire college career.

Field trips, guest lectures and structured dialogues helped the group bond as a cohesive class. They explored ritual objects from their own lives and traveled to museums as well as the Dell Jewish Community Campus for guided tours of collections and exhibitions. Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Congregation Agudas Achim took them through an exploration of the historic ritual objects associated with the 100-year-old congregation—a trip that was especially meaningful for those students who had never stepped foot in a Jewish place of worship before.

When it came time to decide on the subject of their upcoming exhibit, the class unanimously decided to capitalize on the upcoming Jewish wedding of classmate Jason Miller-Goodman, who married his husband Arron Miller-Goodman in October. The couple readily agreed to be interviewed about the personal stories behind their ritual objects—everything from the hand-knit kippot lovingly crafted by Jason’s grandmother, to the wedding canopy, or chuppah, which was created from Jason’s grandfather’s tallit.

“The students hit on the idea of exploring changing traditions in Jewish rituals through a look at same-sex Jewish weddings and the objects that enhance their meaning,” Seriff said.

They interviewed Rabbi Blumofe in-depth about the meaning of Jewish ritual and the halakha, or Jewish religious law, behind each part of the wedding ceremony.

Seriff introduced them to Hillary Miller and Neena Husid, who had participated in a brit ahuvot (lovers’ covenant), a commitment ceremony, in 2004, long before same-sex marriage was legal in Texas. Their chuppah, hand embroidered and appliqued with a glove, a handkerchief and other treasures from the brides’ grandparents, was featured in the exhibition. Husid and other Austin Jews attended the Schusterman event. Many visitors came with their own wedding treasures and tales to share, which were included in the exhibition as well.

The Schusterman Center hosted the exhibit, and that sponsorship fostered a greater degree of professionalism. The Schusterman Center’s financial help allowed the students to create a professional design for the exhibition, including informative videos, banners, brochures, artifacts and label text.

Graphics focused on three topics: What Makes a Jewish Wedding Jewish? Hiddur Mitzvah: Adorning the Commandments, and Wrestling with Tradition.

The noontime event filled the Schusterman Center with guests from the Austin Jewish community as well as students and professors from UT. Like any good Jewish celebration, it was accompanied by good food, steeped with ritual meaning. A highlight was a three-tiered wedding cake, handmade by one of the student’s siblings and decorated with buttercream roses in Jason and Arron’s green and blue color scheme.

“We are very pleased to host this pop-up event and to be a place for meaningful interaction between the University and the Austin Jewish community,” said Schusterman Center director, Tatjana Lichtenstein. “The Schusterman Center exists to foster understanding of how Jewish traditions and Jewish experience change and adapt to new conditions.

Sometimes innovative research takes years and is recorded in theses and books.

Other times, it is the inspired work of undergraduates who have three months to bring their intellect and passion to bear on a topic. Although it is presented and disappears in a day, the understanding and relationships created can have a far greater impact.”

Students at the exhibit testified to its impact on them. “It was truly amazing to see how much this project meant to everyone in the class,” one student wrote.

“We all wanted it to be successful, not just because of the grade, but because it was our exhibit, and our opportunity to create something together.”

Another wrote, “This course taught me that everything has a story, and even the smallest, most insignificant object can mean something great to someone. Because of this class, I now notice how significant some objects are to me, solely because of the stories behind them, or where they came from. I learned that objects, especially in Jewish weddings, have the power to make people far away feel close, bring back a moment that has been lost in time, and even create its own significance for those that will come after us.”

The Schusterman Center, funded in part by a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, has since 2007 brought a rich and wide-ranging presence to the study and appreciation of Jewish culture, history and society. The Center has created a broad curriculum and major and reaches audiences beyond the classroom with lectures, conferences, exhibits, music, dance, and films displaying the full range of the Jewish experience.

Next fall, Seriff hopes to spearhead another innovative class for the Schusterman Center which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the important civil rights movement on college campuses throughout the United States. Students will conduct original oral historical and archival research to explore the experience of Jewish students, faculty and staff at the University of Texas in the Age of Aquarius. ■

For more information, call Dr. Suzanne Seriff at 512-459-3990.

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