These NYC college students want to kickstart a Jewish arts renaissance


(New York Jewish Week) – On a mild Thursday evening in late March, some 100 people gathered at Kistuné, a hip café and bar in the West Village that’s associated with the French-Japanese “lifestyle brand” of the same name. 

Sipping on custom-designed cocktails — like the Refusenik, a Moscow mule with a “resilient mix of vodka, ginger beer and lime” or the Tamar Collinsky, a Tom Collins reimagined and given “very possibly the name of someone you went to summer camp with” — guests mingled, discussing topics as varied as college classes, career choices and their favorite poetry.

Nearly everyone in the room was a Jewish artist or writer; the gathering was to celebrate the launch of “Verklempt!”, a new quarterly print magazine that bills itself as “The Magazine of Jewish Art and Literature.” The 75-page first issue is filled with paintings, photographs, drawings, poetry and fiction solicited from more than 30 Jewish artists around the country. 

“We see the Jewish community as a place where people want to engage with fiction and poetry more seriously,” editor-in-chief Yoni Gutenmacher, a 24-year-old creative writing MFA candidate at Brooklyn College, told the crowd, which included two of his brothers and his parents. “This is a personal dream of mine so I’m very happy that it’s real.”

Specialty cocktails were on offer at the launch party of “Verklempt!” (David Gutenmacher)

The aim of “Verklempt!” (Yiddish-English slang for “overcome with emotion”) is to publish and amplify art and literature with a specifically Jewish lens — hopefully in a way that encourages pursuing art as part of a spiritual journey, Gutenmacher explained. A painting of a man praying with tefillin and tallit; a poem about Leopold Bloom, the Jewish anti-hero of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and a collage of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a drawing of a half-drunk bottle of Kedem grape juice all grace the pages of the first issue, whose theme is, fittingly, “On Creation.”

“I write fiction and I have a whole friend group and community in New York who aren’t Jewish, and if they are, they’re not really interested in religious or communal Jewish life,” Gutenmacher told the New York Jewish Week. “Then I have my Jewish life on the Upper West Side and all my friends from summer camp and school and everything else who are not really interested in engaging with high quality literature and art. At certain points in my life, I felt like I kind of have to choose.”

By working on “Verklempt!” he’s come to understand that those choices shouldn’t have to be so mutually exclusive, he said.

The journal is a project of Havurah (Hebrew for “fellowship”), an organization founded by two Modern Orthodox sophomores at NYU whose lofty but determined vision is to be the “bearer of a new Jewish renaissance” for young Jews in New York, according to their impressively designed website. 

Founded by Daniella Messer and Eitan Gutenmacher (Yoni’s younger brother), Havurah aims to create a gathering place, a “kehila (community) of frum Jewish creatives” — both virtual and IRL — where Jewish artists can meet and mingle, make art, perform and share ideas about how all of those endeavors connect them to religious life. One of their goals, according to the “manifesto” on their website, is to “invigorate a generation of young Jews and restore the Jewish artistic impulse.” 

While “Verklempt!” has wide-reaching aspirations — the artists they hope to publish can come from anywhere and be of any age — Havurah was founded to appeal to a hyper-specific community: young New York artists who are dedicated to being Jewish and Jews who are dedicated to being artists.

The idea arose during Gutenmacher and Messer’s freshman year of college in the winter of 2022. “I remember going to Israel over winter break, experiencing such an obvious realization that art and creativity is so integral to religious lifestyles,” Eitan Gutemacher, who is studying studio art at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, told the New York Jewish Week. “But [at NYU] for example, in a lot of the artistic programs, if you’re a religious Jew, you are usually the only religious Jew in the classroom, and, more often than not, the only one in the department.”

“Daniella and I wanted to create a community of lively Judaism expressed in any artistic and creative way,” he added.

With funding from the Next Gen Inc., “a start-up style incubator” that’s a project of the World Jewish Congress and World Union of Jewish Students, Havurah pursues their vision through a variety of avenues, including real-life events and performances, such as art fairs, concerts and Torah study conversations held at bars, cafés, apartments and synagogues. 

In addition to the physical journal, the organization’s high-design web site publishes essays, interviews, criticism, reviews and Torah commentaries, as well as “Sessions” for musicians, which are professionally mixed video tapings of live music performances similar to NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts.” 

“When Eitan and Daniella approached us and told us about Havurah, we knew instantly they would be a great fit for our incubator,” Yoni Hammerman, senior manager of the NextGen, told the New York Jewish Week via email. “Their work, to build a university student-run art community, perfectly aligns with NextGen’s mission of amplifying and supporting the voice and the work of Jewish student leaders.”

The Havurah staff — all eight of them are volunteers — believe that their offerings are the first time people who are both deeply involved in their Jewish communities and in their artistic pursuits have had a definable place to gather and collaborate that celebrate both.

“It’s so simple that you’d think it would already exist,” said Yosef Itzkowitz, a 24-year-old artist and poet who has three drawings in the first edition of “Verklempt!” “Jews love writing and art, and love talking about writing and art,” so why not make it happen?” Itzkowitz got involved, he said, after Eitan Gutenmacher reached out via Instagram. 

Of course, similar initiatives have and do exist — for example, the fiction journal publishes original and in translation work from Jewish writers around the globe, while CANVAS matches emerging Jewish multimedia artists with funders and grants. The Jewish Book Council puts out their literary journal “Paper Brigade” with art, interviews, essays and fiction, once a year.

On Tuesday, the inaugural Jewish Writers’ Initiative Digital Storytellers Lab showcased works by creators taking part in an eight-month fellowship supported by the Maimonides Fund. The work shown at Manhattan’s Rubin Museum included animation for Jewish kids, pop songs about women in the Bible and a podcast about the gay Jewish dating scene in Los Angeles.

According to Yona Verwer, founder of the Jewish Arts Salon — “a global network for Jewish visual art” that does regular programming in New York — while what the group is doing may not be “new,” one of the most exciting things about Havurah is how young its members are and how dedicated they are to the cause. 

“Being geared specifically towards people in their 20s” attracts people who have to be “very enthusiastic and very into it,” Verwer said.

“It’s interesting to see this immense interest in Jewish arts” from younger generations, added Verwer, who started the salon in 2008 and now serves as an advisor for Havurah. “When I started the salon, it was something that a lot of people were not interested in. Things have really changed over the years and it’s great to see people so dedicated.” 

Yoni Gutenmacher reads a poem at the launch party of “Verklempt!”, March 30, 2023. (David Gutenmacher)

As of now, contributors are unpaid, though there are hopes that the cover price of “Verklempt!” ($10) may help change that. “There’s a lot of places I see where you submit completely unpaid and it is completely not worth my time,” said Kim Kyne, a 32-year-old painter and sculptor from Los Angeles whose painting was in the first edition of the journal.

“What felt different about this is it feels like everyone’s all in it together,” she added. “Yoni and his brother are super humble and super young. What was really attractive to me about it is being connected with all these other Jewish artists in a way that I haven’t been before.”

Messer and the Gutenmacher brothers understand that the media and literary magazine worlds are very crowded spaces, especially in New York. But for now, they are embracing the heimish vibe and say they’ve seen, first-hand, just how many Jewish artists were looking for a space exactly like this. Submissions are already arriving for the next edition of “Verklempt!”, which is set to be published this summer, and according to Gutenmacher, he doesn’t recognize any of the names — meaning no repeats of last time, and no friends submitting as a favor. 

“Of course, there are Jewish artists all over the world. But it feels different because it has more of a modern take and the younger feel,” Kyne said. “It feels like the beginning of a movement.”