Myriam Eli

Myriam Eli (Randi Sidman-Moore / July 5, 2011)

How does Jewish art work?

For graphic designer Randy Burman of Miami, it only took reading the Song of Songs in the Bible. "If I let my hand do the drawing, the letters started dancing -- they took on a life of their own."

How does Jewish art feel?

Even amid a Sephardic-style dance, Myriam Eli of Margate can't tell you. "I can't tell if I'm happy or sad. It's more ethereal. It goes beyond music and dance to a movement of energy."

Jewish cultural arts, once relegated to books and Torah mantles, have blossomed in recent years into music, dance, theater, sculpture, painting, drawing, even handicrafts. In so doing, it is starting to change the way some Jews practice their religion.

In South Florida, they find an outlet in Next@19th, housed at Temple Israel of Miami. The organization, which takes its name from the temple at 137 NE 19th St., is an experiment in using art to reach the 85 percent of Jews who don't attend synagogue services.

"We're not trying to do what temples do," says Jenni Person, founder and director of Next@19th, which is not an outreach of the synagogue. "We're trying to bring together Jewish thought and Jewish culture. And we want to engage Jews and non-Jews alike."

Artists' workshop

One example: a recent workshop on the biblical Song of Songs, bringing artists together to compare notes on how they interpret the book in their work.

Burman tells of "total immersion" and how the Song of Songs inspired him to pick out chords on a guitar.

Dina Knapp talks about making a long coat decorated with pomegranate designs, saying that the Song of Songs is "the ultimate love poem of God for his people, and of people for people."

Sculptor Nicole Soden speaks of her art as "almost a meditative act, integrating the scriptures into my work. The Song of Songs tells of the deep connection of all people, a desire to connect with something greater than ourselves."

The artists plan to finish their works by late fall, in time for a full showcase. But the listeners don't just listen: They break up into small knots for scripture study, then try some papercut art under Soden's coaching.

Rabbi Judy Cohen of the temple looks on approvingly at the non-traditional goings-on. "So much of what we do is about creating community," she says. "There is an aesthetic about it that enhances spirituality."

Part of the art community

Next@19th could hardly be better placed for cultivating creativity. Temple Israel is just south of Miami's Design District and north of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Westward is the Wynwood Arts District, home to numerous galleries and private studios. On the east are cafes, high-rises and Biscayne Boulevard.

The temple complex itself -- a traditional Moorish Mediterranean sanctuary plus a cavelike chapel that could have been designed by Fred Flintstone -- suggests a congregation willing to try different things.

"Temple Israel has always had a reputation as a progressive place," Person says. "It's not afraid of curiosity. It values inquiry and experimentation."

Her biggest success story is the Guava Rugelach Festival, touting what she calls tropical Jewish culture. The festival has featured singers and musicians in Sephardic songs, Mizrachi rock and klezmer-Latino music. The first festival in 2007 drew 800 people in two days, and Person had to turn away 200 at the gate.

Next@19th last January started a monthly concert in a café setting, using Temple Israel's palm-shaded patio. Called the Guava Rugelach Lounge, it's thus far hosted a Yiddish-Spanish singer, an a cappela group, a flamenco guitarist and a ballet troupe.