A Transcript of our Conversation with Evelyn “Evi” Torton Beck

Posted on: April 9th, 2023 by
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Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Our guest today is our esteemed colleague, Dr. Evelyn Torton Beck, who is a scholar, a teacher, a healer, a feminist, a child Holocaust survivor. She’s a Sacred Circle dance leader and long-time advocate against antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and other oppression. Welcome, Evi.

Michael: So, we’d like to start at the beginning, and that’s quite literally like your childhood. All right, so what are some of your earliest memories of creativity, either as a witness or as a participant?

Evi: Well, actually, my parents in this sense were models for creativity. Long before the Nazis came to Vienna when we lived there, my parents would take me with them to the cafes in Vienna where people danced freely all afternoon and evening and I watched them dance and perhaps sometimes I got up and could dance with them. So that was one thing.

And then after we came to this [00:01:00] country, although my father was totally untaught, he had a fabulous singing voice. And after working at the factory all day, he would come home and sit at the piano and with two fingers, play opera music and sing the most beautiful opera arias and so I was—

Michael: Is that right?

Elizabeth: Wow.

Evi: Yeah, that was just a wonderful experience for me.

Michael: So obviously your parents were some of your earliest mentors, but did you have other mentors, people that sort of opened the doors of creativity for you?

Evi: Well, truthfully, I don’t remember because I think the Nazis blotted out a lot of my early childhood. I went to a kindergarten—from which I was thrown out when the Nazis came to power—so I don’t really remember early mentors before I came to the United States.

Michael: All right, and then and another question we like to ask our interviewees has to deal with how creativity has influenced their lives. And so what are some [00:02:00] of the aspects of your life that you would say creativity has had the greatest impact?

Evi: Well, I have to say that I think creativity has influenced everything I have ever done. Teaching requires incredible creativity. It’s really, each class is an improvisation, whether it’s academic or dance. It’s also true for scholarship. So—painting requires creativity—so I’d be hard put to choose one area. I feel like creativity has been something that just has been part of everything I’ve ever done.

Michael: Sure. So, you’re immersed in it, it sounds like.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of this immersion, let’s talk about how you understand creativity itself. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books on creativity, which we’ve discussed, the, for example, Flow and Creativity, the focus is on acts that advance a particular field of endeavor, like engineering or chess or dance or scholarship. Conversely, in his book Human Motivation, the author Robert Franken [00:03:00] focuses on creativity in relationship to problem solving and communication. How do you, Evi, personally view creativity or the creative act?

Evi: To me, creativity is what flows through me. Whatever I’m trying to do or make something happen. I don’t think of creativity as an act itself. I see it as a process that happens. I often have no idea where that flow comes from, and I can’t force it and I can’t make it happen. But it either comes or doesn’t, but I can show up, I can ask for it, I can be ready, I can want it to happen. And that’s how I view creativity.

Elizabeth: Wow. So that reminds me of, oh, was it Lillian Hellman or someone who said they have to just sit down at the page and wait for it to happen? Yeah.

Evi: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So, to—you mentioned a moment ago, your early childhood in Europe and in Austria, and I want to talk a little bit more about that, [00:04:00] this remarkable life you’ve had. On your Wikipedia page and in other writings you speak of your childhood and your family’s experiences as Holocaust survivors. You were born in Vienna, as you said, the year Hitler came to power and were living there when the Nazis occupied Austria and imprisoned your father in concentration camps. He was released and after that, you and your brother and your parents fled to Italy and eventually to the USA on the last emigre boat allowed to leave for the US. Beloved family members were killed in the camps. It is impossible for most comfortable people today to fathom the terror and the horror your family and millions of others experienced.

Now, from my limited experience of you and your work as a scholar and a professor and an advocate and sacred dance leader, et cetera, my sense is that you have always been a healer, connecting others to paths of peace and [00:05:00] reconciliation. So, Evi, can you speak about how the deeply creative work of surviving, of rebuilding, of healing from horror and trauma, can you speak about that and how creativity has intertwined with your life’s work as a healer across these many disciplines?

Evi: Wow. I really do think that everything I’ve ever done stems from this early trauma. I like that you speak of the creative work of surviving because without years of deep psychotherapy, which itself is a very creative process because the person who is getting this help from a professional needs to do most of the work. So, I think I would not have been able to access as much creativity as I have without that process. But then when I look at the different kinds of works that I have done, it’s clear to me that I’ve used my creativity to actually be part of the healing process, the things that I researched, [00:06:00] like Jewish themes, lesbian themes, women’s themes, painting, all of these themes were things that allowed me to heal. I used the scholarship and the writing and the teaching as part of the process of healing. It’s a little hard to explain, but it really, I, I could only see this of course in retrospect, that I used my life’s work in every way. In this part of my life I’m doing through the dance, the connection of mind, body, and spirit. That’s something that I need now and I help others to heal by doing that. So I hope this makes sense to you.

Elizabeth: It sounds like you were speaking just a moment ago about your father’s beautiful singing, and I’m wondering if other members of your family, when you finally got to the USA and you were hopefully no longer under a threat of persecution, were other family members able to use their creative powers and creative expertise to, to heal themselves ‘cause you were all traumatized?

Evi: [00:07:00] Well, unfortunately, we had a very, we only escaped the small nuclear family. My aunts and my grandmother and other family members all remained and were killed. So, the only other person left is my brother who in fact did use his creativity. He became an artist and a photographer and was in, in many ways he played the guitar, and he taught me the guitar. So, I think together, we definitely used each other’s burgeoning creativity to heal. My mother herself went back to school, tried at least to do that because as a Austrian, as a Jewish, as a woman, she was not able to go to school past 16. So she, my parents were both extremely involved in the arts and creativity from a very lay person’s perspective.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Michael: Now I’ve read that when you were in Brooklyn, you joined a secular [00:08:00] socialist Zionist Jewish youth movement. And in this movement, there was a stress on sort of equality between men and women. They both did the same work. Could you maybe talk a little bit about how engaging in that kind of political resistance and a newfound sort of experience of equity or equality filled your imagination?

Evi: Absolutely. It was a really heady time. First of all, we had—and I was very young, remember, it was very impressionable, but also very open to new experiences. And so trying to figure out how that equality would look in the real world was an extremely creative act. We shared all of our resources, including our clothing. When we went to summer camps, they gave us cigarettes ‘cause each person should have, even though we were young teens. So there was a way of trying to understand how to create a community that really was equal, [00:09:00] that was extremely heady and important to me.

Michael: Yeah, that sounds like such a powerful experience of creativity, sort of shaping human relations.

Evi: Absolutely. I really credit my feminism as an adult to those early years, that utopian vision of a new world that would in fact be equal, including men and women. And that was in this country not a very common thing for people to have.

Michael: Sure. I bet you have a lot of stories to tell from those early days and this, sort of, working through that sort of new dynamic.

Evi: I also was an athlete in those early days. They had women running in these athletic competitions and that was very opening. I believe that the more we encourage people to do new things, that keeps opening creativity, builds confidence within the person, and I think you need a certain amount of confidence in yourself to access your creativity.

Elizabeth: You know, it’s interesting that you were an athlete, Evi, because you’ve, you speak—and we’ll talk about your sacred [00:10:00] dance leading in a moment—but this integration of mind and body is itself something that now in the present is quite well documented as being an incredibly powerful opening to greater creative thoughts and creative activities. But as a young woman of the era, women were not encouraged to be athletes, we were not encouraged to be physically active. So can you speak a little bit about just the, that kind of physical process of being physically active as well as artistically and intellectually active.

Evi: Yeah, that was encouraged. The girls, there was no difference between the boys and girls. I was a long jump runner, I think, and I can still, I can remember that both in my mind and physically the elation of being able to do that.

But we were also taught to milk cows and to fix machines and to do the hay because we were preparing to go to a different country where Jews would be safe and, you know, in our naivety [00:11:00] thinking that would work. But it, it was a very power– empowering experience and I think the more empowered we each feel in mind, body, and spirit, the greater our creativity comes forth.

Michael: So, in either this sort of early sort of political work or in other sort of situations where there were sort of moments of empowerment, can you give maybe some examples of times you used creativity to solve problems in a community setting or maybe examples of using creativity when communicating, sort of, in this new sort of relational dynamic that’s occurring?

Evi: Well, I think you’re asking me about how I did that when I grew up, as an adult.

Michael: Right.

Evi: So the first thing that come to my mind is, of course, since most of my life I was a professor and a teacher, and so, as I’ve said, teaching is an improvisation and whatever, and as, especially in later years when women’s studies and all the different studies came up, there was lots more conflict in the classroom. And I think that [00:12:00] creativity of solving problems, both of people who disagree, and young people often are very hotheaded about the way they express themselves, so I would have to find ways of in some ways dissolving that conflict without making any side right or wrong. I would use poetry, I would do small group discussions, even one-on-one discussions. In my later time, after I came in touch with the Sacred Circle dance, I would even use the dance to diffuse issues because when people are in a circle and hold hands, there’s a way in which conflict dissolves or it gets metabolized. And since some of these conflicts could not actually be resolved as such, the best you could do is hope that people could acknowledge them and live with them and respect them in each other. I would have people act out ideas and feelings. So, there was a lot of [00:13:00] creativity.

Michael: And did some of the sort of your early experiences feed into those teaching strategies?

Evi: Absolutely. I think, as I’ve said, I really do think that everything I’ve ever done comes along with me into the next thing, right? It’s just one of the ways that I have used my creativity.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of your teaching and, and your methodology of reaching students, there is a staggering depth and breadth to your studies and your scholarship. You have a BA in comparative literature from Brooklyn College, which was followed by an MA from Yale and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, also in comparative literature. And that was followed some years later by a second doctorate in clinical psychology from the Fielding Graduate University. So can you speak about how knowledge acquisition shaped your creative self? In other words, how does this deep study inform the landscape of your imagination?

Evi: Oh, that’s a great question.

Yes, I think I have a [00:14:00] hunger for knowledge and curiosity and delving into subjects deeply and extensively is a, it’s a spark that feeds creativity. The more new ideas I get, the more I learn about the way the world works, the way I don’t want it to work, the way I can make things different, the more my creativity is sparked. So one thing always leads me to another. And so, and I never get rid of anything, whatever I’ve studied before finds its way into the next thing that I do. It’s kind of astonishing when I think about it, but that just seems to be the way that, that I work.

Elizabeth: Well, I’m not a scholar myself, but I understand a lot of academia gets very siloed into very niche sections of expertise. So I commend and applaud you for crossing boundaries within the field of scholarship.

Evi: Yeah, and it’s gotten me into trouble in the early years in the academy, [00:15:00] interdisciplinary work was not respected. It was like, where does it fit? It doesn’t.

The other thing I thought about what new learning does, it helps me connect things that are not always obvious. My study of Franz Kafka and Frida Kahlo, people say, “What? What do they have to do with each other?” I have found parallels in their work that make me see each of them differently. I think the other aspect of my creativity that flows through everything is seeing the world with new eyes. To quote Bertolt Brecht. That’s, that’s really what it does. So the more you know, the deeper you go, the fresher the world can look and you can see things differently.

Michael: And it’s a shame that the Academy force– pressures professors and students into these silos because I think you’re right that it is the sort of the cross fertilization of disciplines that inspires creativity, new perspectives, et cetera.

So, yeah. So, shifting this slightly, and this goes to, again, research, but there’s been considerable [00:16:00] research recently on fiction and its power to sort of… increase our empathy for people unlike ourselves. And so, if you could maybe talk about what you’ve discovered about the power of literature and narrative in that, in their ability to sort of connect us with other people, particularly those that are different than we are?

Evi: Well, it—that’s such a wonderful question. Literature immerses us, obviously, into worlds different from our own. And if it’s good literature, maybe even if it’s not, it really sucks you in and you are no longer just in your own bounded world. It’s really a parallel to new knowledge. It’s a different kind of knowledge. It’s a knowledge of different, the way people live in different times, in different ethnicities, in ways that are totally different from yourself.

And I think the power of fiction and non-fiction really is both very strong. That, and it, it burgeoned for me, I mean I’ve been a reader ever—that was the first thing I did when I came to this country, was learn [00:17:00] to read, reading, say, I have an essay that is called “I Lived Through It All by Reading.” I survived it all by reading.

Michael: Sure.

Evi: That was first published in German, but I think there’s an English translation. So, I think that immersing yourself into other worlds, really, you become that person. It’s like the theater. You become the actors, you become the people, that’s why I don’t like to watch what I’ve read on TV, ‘cause I have my own image.

Elizabeth: Oh sure.

Michael: Sure.

Evi: What the people are of, who they are. And I have to say that through feminism and then through other studies of ethnicity, worlds opened up to me that I knew nothing about, and it continues to this day. I recently read Tammy Duckworth’s autobiography and even though I had done a lot of work about disability, I just had no idea, and also had no idea what it was like to be in the Army. !nd I’d always had a kind of a negative feeling, even though of course we need the army to protect us, but being a [00:18:00] lefty, it was not, but then I read her book and, oh my God, you know, a whole different way of looking at this, in terms of who she was. Or reading more, again, more recently, Viola Davis’s work, Finding Me. I know about poverty, but the way she described the shame of poverty had never ever occurred to me in that deep way, and it connected it to the shame of being a survivor. Many people have no idea that being a survivor creates shame.

Elizabeth: Right, right.

Evi: They say, “Oh, but you survived!” The truth is there, you carry deep shame survive for having been the target. So, yes, I think that literature can create deep empathy and is one of the reasons why we want our children to continue to be able to read.

Michael: It seems for me it suggests that there’s an intimate connection between the imagination and empathy. That the more we engage our imagination in imagining the other, [00:19:00] the more likely we are to empathize with the other.

Evi: Absolutely. It’s so interesting you should bring this up because one of my newest works is on the philosopher Edith Stein, who was a phenomenologist and who wrote her dissertation on, on empathy. So I’ve been teaching about empathy and how she talks really much about entering the other, not just having feeling for, but entering the experience of the other. And when you come out of that, you yourself are changed. You see yourself differently. So, empathy is something that is now a big important subject. And I’m writing it about it. 

Michael: I personally see empathy as the real revolutionary act.

Evi: I’m gonna be talking about it in a few days.

Elizabeth: Just to throw in here, as a former character actor and now as a literary fiction writer, the, the capacity to enter or to strive to enter the consciousness of a character is an extraordinarily humbling experience because you have to [00:20:00] shed so much of what shapes you in your present life and so I agree with you about that.

Michael: And then just shifting to your, I guess, your own work or your, you personally, I mean, how has narrative informed your own creative life?

Evi: I don’t know if I have a specific answer to that. I’ve been with narrative, as I said, I’m a deep reader, I read and listen now to books. Many, many, many. So, perhaps I could say that narrative has helped me create my own writings. I don’t write fiction, but I do love to write and I’ve written, actually, when I’ve looked at all my papers, quite a lot. And I think that reading, being a reader and having narratives helps you create your own narratives about yourself and about others. Because I’ve done interviews with, especially through my Sacred Circle dance, that was a new kind of work for me and I think having had that narrative in me allowed me to create narratives with others. [00:21:00]

Michael: All right. Now you’re, as a university professor and a scholar for most of your adult life, first in comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, then at Hamilton College and the University of Maryland. Now, importantly, you were also one of the pioneers of women’s and gender studies as disciplines unto themselves, specifically at the University of Maryland. What are some of the most creative dimensions of teaching for you?

Evi: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is creating the syllabi. Because whatever topic you choose, there is such a wealth of information that trying to pare it down to make it usable for one semester is really, feels like an insane project. And then secondly, over time, it was even hard to do when we were just teaching in the, when I started my career, the great books, because even then there were more great books than could [00:22:00] be chosen. And even as a young scholar and teacher before feminism and other isms changed the curriculum, I would choose books that were not as usual. Like I included a Yiddish book, I included Sholem Aleichem which other people would not have considered great. Yeah, that was, I did a lot of activism now I think about it in the university, bringing Yiddish into the curriculum. But choosing—and then when women’s studies came and we had this wealth of ethnicities and diversities and working class. I mean, it was all the different differences and the crossing over of them, so choosing a syllabus is extremely creative. And difficult. And you always feel frustrated when you’re done with it. And some of the times I’ve done is have students have 10 books for one topic, and they could choose, each one could choose one or two, and they would share with each other. So I found creative [00:23:00] ways to extend what is really possible for everyone to read, juxta– then of course, when you’re teaching, how to juxtapose them, what order you put them in. Do you do it historically? Do you do it thematically? Do you put like to like? Do you create, juxtapose differences? So, all of those dimensions—what assignments do you give? Do you just give paper writing like, you know, you did when you were young? Or do you can you open it up? And then certainly through women’s studies, we were able to have, even in courses that were not about art, have people do autobiographies through visual means, through music, through video, and then find ways to make it into disciplinary. So, the kinds of ways that you want people to learn and then how you evaluate all require a great deal of creativity. And risk.

Elizabeth: Right.

Michael: And then in terms of just, sort of the interactions between yourself and [00:24:00] students or between students and students, could you talk a little bit about the role that creativity plays in shaping those kinds of interactions within the classroom?

Evi: Oh yes. Well, the students, of course, they all, at least in women’s studies, they all wanna become your best friend. Because, because it opens, these themes, open up them, and that was the whole point of it, that the academic is political and the personal is political and the personal is academic and the academic is personal. So we really, what we wanted to do, and what I have done even before then was always—the reason I wanted to teach is, I wanted to help, as you said, I was the healer wanting people to get in touch with their own lives. And so, everything they learned that I was able to teach would be a connection between themselves and what they were studying. And that to me felt like a very enlarging and healing process in many ways.

So, but I did in fact, especially with the graduate students, I became the students during the [00:25:00] time that women’s studies was developing and it was after the student movement, we were all very close. We called each other by our first name and we really shared to some extent, obviously you had to be very careful and not cross boundaries, but there was a very strong—and I learned a lot from my students because you create an atmosphere in which they can find things to teach you that you didn’t even know about, both about their own lives if they were very different from yours.

But especially in the graduate students sphere, I work very closely with, and some of my best friends now are both, had been graduate students, they’re now professors. Some of them are now already retired. But we not only, they started out teaching with me as graduate students, but and there was a lot of cross-disciplinary. When I was, I started studying my PhD in clinical psychology while I was still teaching so I had a graduate student [Shanee Stepakoff] who, she taught me the [00:26:00] Rorschach ‘cause I was having a lot of trouble, and with some of the numerical things that you have to learn in clinical psychology. And I was able to introduce her to feminist theory and to, you know, so it was a real exchange. I’ve been, it continues to this day. One of my students [Angelika Bammer] and I had been teaching courses at Politics and Prose. She herself wrote a narrative about having been born German and what that has meant to her. So, she’s not Jewish, I’m Jewish and we’ve taught this course together about the aftereffects of the Holocaust on, through her book. But we exchanged ideas and learned so much from each other. And in fact, we’re going to be teaching a course next month on gendering the Holocaust and we’ll be talking about that. So, it, it continues in in multiple ways, this interaction between student and teacher.

Elizabeth: Let’s talk some more about, particularly to give our readers a sense of the early [00:27:00] days of second wave feminism and as you say, the burgeoning fields of women’s and gender studies. So can you talk some more about the creative energy that was generated by feminism’s profound disruption of the, quote, “established order” or the, quote, “dominant culture.” In other words, how did validating the unique perspectives of women and LGBTQ+ non-binary people and others propel this, these new creative leaps and these works of art and culture? Just—and remind our listeners what years we’re talking about here.

Evi: Well, fem—women’s studies actually began in the mid- to late sixties, so it was in, in part of the, all of the upheaval of the time, the student movement and the Black Power movement, I mean it was not in, it did not come just in and of itself. It grew out of all of these other movements that were trying to transform society at the time. But the way—and I [00:28:00] always said my work was in the academy, the upheaval.

So, first of all, it was a very heady time because first of all, we discovered that in fact, there had been women, right? I had a PhD. I had taken, I can’t tell you how many literary courses. I don’t think we ever included one woman in any of the curriculum that I had in comparative literature. So, discovering that in fact, hey, there had been women writers, yes, and they were even very successful and they were very widely read. Now, Virginia Woolf did then say women’s—maybe it was Keats who first said it, but poet’s names are written in water. But I think Virginia Woolf echoed that. So, we discovered.

Then we not only had to discover, we had to transform. Because it’s not that there were no women ever talked about, but the idea of what a woman was, of what a woman should be, many books [00:29:00] were not only—so we had to look at the texts that were read. First of all, some of them really were very sexist, very stereotypes. But other texts, like The Yellow Wallpaper was completely misread when it was published. It’s a book about a woman who has postpartum depression and she is put into a child’s room because in those days, they believed if a woman has a childbirth, the thing she should do is be locked into quiet, no stimulation. Whereas in fact, she wanted to be a writer. So she ends up going crazy. She rips the wallpaper off the wall. And that was read as a—it was put under the mystery stories. And it was rediscovered in the early part of the women’s movement, it’s a late 19th century book, and it was like, became the Bible of how things can be misread because there’s no perspective. There are many, many texts like that.

So it [00:30:00] was, so the job was of uncovering, recovering, transforming leading, and then of course the creation of new works of fiction because then women wanted to write about what it was really like, the Diary of a Mad Housewife, or what it’s like to be a working-class woman or to be a woman of color. I mean, all of these things, it was like a burgeoning, a bursting forward, because none of these things had, or had been very minimally, described in fiction or non-fiction. And to the extent that it was, it had been buried. And then of course during the women’s movement, lesbian and other forms of sexuality became validated. And all lesbian literature to that point had been, they all die at the end, because you can’t live.

Elizabeth: It’s like Bonanza.

Evi: No, that’s serious—it was, that was the lesbian fiction. The trajectory was that even if you found a lover then ultimately you had to die. And the, and most of the lesbian fiction was under [00:31:00] pulp fiction or pornography. So there was this burgeoning of lesbian literature. We, those of us with, lesbian or not, whatever our sexuality was, we gobbled it up. But many women came out during this time because when things are opened up, people then can shed some of the ways in which they have been hiding or not even telling themselves that they are. So there was an incredible burgeoning of visual art, narrative plays, street drama. I mean, it was an amazing, amazing time.

Michael: Now you’ve mentioned your work with Franz Kafka and Frida Kahlo. I wanted to focus first on Franz Kafka because he’s one of my favorites. All right, so can you maybe speak briefly about what Franz Kafka has to teach today?

Evi: Well, yeah, ‘cause—it’s interesting, I saw your play that you did with, on Kafka.

Michael: Oh, okay.

Evi: Well, I would say that Kafka teaches us, [00:32:00] first of all to read against the grain. That’s how I used to teach him. If you read him—and that was the work that I did, discovering his, the roots, the Jewish roots of some of his very enigmatic structures. What he did, and that was important because he creates things unto which people can project meaning, but it didn’t come from nowhere. He actually took plays from the Yiddish theater that had to do with plays about authority, about the relationship between Jew and king, between king and God, between father and son, mostly. That was what he focused on, the male. So, and then he took away all the recognizable features and created these structures, and that was an important recognition because then you could read him and not—to know that he had some origination of where his ideas came from [00:33:00] helps you to see, not to get trapped. Because he traps the reader. If you enter his world and give up your own perspective the way Joseph K. does, for instance, you are lost at the end. So it’s really important to read him against the grain, to see the humor in him, and to understand that he actually exposed patriarchy. He did expose patriarchal structures.

The problem is he also preserved them. So it’s like very, you have to have a very, be able to hold a both-end perspective to read Kafka. Because he also showed the way in which women are entrapped in roles, the way the patriarchy needs women to continue, but the women don’t count as. quote, “real people.” So it, he’s a very strange character.

And I think we can learn some things from him about certainly the craft of [00:34:00] writing. Although I used to tell my students when they read some of his longer works, like The Castle or The Trial, if you, if passages don’t really speak to you, skip over them, just keep going, because he can overwhelm you. And so I think he, he is really, and I wanna say a master of creating narratives that do pull you in, especially in the short fiction. And the, even The Trial is like short narratives, each one is a separate narrative, and they all hang together. But as you probably know, he never put them into an order. The ordering is completely Max Brod’s so we don’t even really know what ordering he would’ve wanted them in.

Elizabeth: Speaking of your scholarship I’m particularly interested in the connections between Kafka and Frid– and the artist Frida Kahlo. We’re sitting here in your beautiful home, and you have so much beautiful art from Mexico.

Can you talk a little bit about your scholarship and your research into the artist Frida Kahlo? [00:35:00] And then the connections between her and Franz Kafka in your, kind of, scholarly opinion?

Evi: Yeah. It came to—again, I did not set out to make this comparison. It really, I had been teaching Kafka as part of my, you know, more traditional teaching. And then through feminism I be– Frida—I was in, living in Madison and was able to run to Chicago when the first exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s work—she was totally, totally unknown—I was in Chicago and I ran there and looked at her work. And then as I went, and so I taught her work because she was really important in terms of documenting and painting a woman’s experience. And of course, as you know, she was both describing experiences of women that had never been really, barely showed before, like childbirth, like pain that she really suffered. And when I saw this picture of her, there’s one picture of her where she’s nude and she has lots of little nails in her where she’s split [00:36:00] in the middle and she’s really talking about the depth of her feeling. ‘Cause what she did is put her feeling in a very expressive way into her, using her body. Because she had this terrible accident and her body was already in pain, then she added the psychic pain.

I, when I looked at that painting, I thought of Franz Kafka, who very much actually described pain. And some of his less known work is very violent, very bloody, very gory about things sticking into people, people prodding things. So I began to say, oh, there’s some kinship there. And then, so they had sim– I’ll just give you the briefest overview, they had similarly traumatic childhoods. Really much so—both had children, babies die before them so that they were like a second there. The mother was quite depressed. I mean, I have whole chapters on that. And then the way they used the images [00:37:00] to, to speak of their pain was very, very similar and to have whole sets of ways in which the metaphors Kafka used become visual in her paintings. Both of them have a deep homoerotic—that was the other thing I wanted to say about Kafka. Reading him from a new angle. And now it’s, I think I was one of the first, but I didn’t publish in well-known magazines. I think the men took over that aspect, that he has a deep homoerotic dimension and she herself had a homoerotic dimension. She had experienced lesbian experiences, but it is the, that sense of, so that there was a, they also both—I call the lectures I give when I talk about their comparisons “Art Keeps Hope Alive.” They use their art to heal or to try to heal from their wounds. They were both suicidal very often. And Kafka wrote, “writing is a form of prayer.” And Kahlo said that painting for her [00:38:00] was her way of keeping herself alive. So the, they really, the art was both something that really was very important to them. So it was the art itself.

And then there was a very interesting aspect—they were, both had Jewish dimensions to their work—but what was interesting to me—and so I was able to show those parallels—but then I had a, almost a trauma, a trauma of epistemology because everyone in every biography writes that Kahlo’s father is, was Jewish, he was from Germany, and he was German Jewish. And there were even exhibits at the Jewish museum showing her history. Turns out some German scholars did some work and could find no trace of him being Jewish. No trace of having gone to the art schools that they said he went to. And they claimed to have found that he actually was in written into some Bible in [00:39:00] a church. So for me that was like, how do we know what we know? And that was really a shock. Even with all the studying and transformations I’ve done, I couldn’t believe that. Like, what do we do now? And then of course the question is, why did Kahlo allow people to believe? Because there’s actually no evidence anywhere that her father was Jewish, that she even ever said it, but she allowed people to believe it because of World War—the World War, because she died in ‘54. And so, in the World War, German was not a good thing. And so she wanted her father not to be associated with Germans. So, it’s all really very complicated. And I’ve never written, published that as a book.

I have one essay I published separately in which I called Frida’s, “Kahlo’s World Split Open” based on that Muriel Rukeyser poem, because I believe they were both sexually also abused. And Kafka [00:40:00] showed it in his narratives and she showed it in this one painting called What the Water Gave Me. And I published that in Feminist Studies some years ago. But so far, I, it’s been many years now and I have not published that book ‘cause once I sent it out to a publisher who thought it was too gory because it is pretty heavy. The imagery that binds them is pretty heavy stuff.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of heavy, you’ve also written and actually helped translate the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. And I’m interested if you could talk a little bit about his work and what he has to teach us today.

Evi: Well, his work, of course, is the reconstruction, mostly of a world that is no more. He brings to life all the world of Jewish life before World War II, before it was destroyed by Hitler and the war. So we learn a lot about lives that we would not know anything about. But we also learn about the [00:41:00] psychology of these small villages in which, and some in Warsaw, he has novels that deal with generations of people like Buddenbrooks, ‘cause he also actually translated many, many German writers in and other writers into Yiddish. So we can learn from him of lives that we wouldn’t know about and things about the inner life of those people that we would not think to go with village life. We tend to think of small life or Jewish life or Orthodox life is being all harmonious and people are holy. And the truth is he shows the underside of everything. He’s been deeply criticized for that because they say he’s a modernist who really is less interested in the old world than in showing the underside of things. But I think we can also learn from him storytelling. He is an incredibly powerful [00:42:00] storyteller. He does pull you in and him you don’t have to read against the grain. You just have to understand that he does stereotype women. I’ve written a little piece, one of the first feminist critiques of him because he stereotypes, he uses gender as a marker. He is both a brilliant writer and a limited writer in that sense, except most people read right over it. But he can teach us also about how not to overwrite because he kept writing and writing. Sometimes he wrote the same thing. Over and over.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of multiplicities of writing one of your best-known works isquote, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, which you edited and published in 1982. And this book has been described as chronicling the painful experiences of Jewish lesbians coming out, coming up against anti-Semitism in society, even among lesbian feminists who were also experiencing homophobia in [00:43:00] Jewish communities. So can you talk about how compiling this anthology was another dimension of your creative life as a healer?

Evi: Well, first of all, just to bring these two pieces together, I think today it’s hard to remember how in the eighties, late seventies, eighties, when I started to put this together, the idea of bringing those different parts together was unthinkable. When I would tell people I’m doing this anthology on Jewish lesbian they’d say, “Oh, are there many?” Because lesbians were so invisible in so many places. So just, just the idea of bringing these two things together was a creative act and, again, a risky act.

But of course, in, you asked me how I put it, trying to figure out, again, it’s like building a syllabus. What do you include? How do you find diversity? Even in those years, we were already aware that we need, that we were not all the same. Even a small quote, “small group” like [00:44:00] Jewish lesbians were different through econ– knowledge of Jewish history, Jewish languages like Yiddish or Hebrew, through economics, through a degree of religiosity. We, and we, there were Jews of color that nobody really knew much about, let alone Jewish lesbian Jews of color.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Evi: So it was very creative to decide what to include. Again, how to bring the parts together and how to unmask, how to unmask the realities without… without making it so tough that people didn’t wanna read the book. And then actually the book was, opened up a lot of creative energy, not only for Jews and lesbians, I would get letters from men who said that I’m a Catholic and a gay guy, and this book really helps me come out and claim both those identities. So I was—and it’s also was a part, again, of the healing, of making [00:45:00] whole. Nobody should have to only be a part of themselves.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Evi: People should be able to bring themselves fully together and then I think from there, much follows.

Elizabeth: To expand upon this fullness of self, Evi, you are also a painter and a visual artist. Visual art is an important dimension of your creativity. In fact, you exhibited some of your evocative paintings for the first time, as I understand it, in the Women Artists/Women Healing:  Multicultural Artistic Narratives of Trauma and Survival gatherings that the late Timothea Howard and Alivia Tagliaferri and I organized several years ago at CentroNía.

So, can you talk about the synthesis that painting is for you? How is it different or freeing in ways that language-based expression is not?

Evi: Well, painting allows me to express things without having to articulate them and especially that’s both the color—color is extremely important to me, as you can tell from looking around.

Elizabeth: It’s beautiful. [00:46:00]

Evi: I really think color is a language and a way of understanding the world. And then there’s texture, because when—I like watercolors, my favorite one. And there’s also that… in watercolor, you can’t control so much, so that there’s a way that you can let creativity really, I use the word flow, but this is literal, I sometimes take a painting and then I play with the paint so that there is a way, and then of course the shapes that emerge. Sometimes I do things that are memetic, sometimes totally abstract, but the abstract ones always have a deep feeling behind them. So the painting allows me to ex– and it both allows me to express feelings and to release feelings I didn’t even know I have. And of all the things—I always get excited, you can see, when, if I talk, if I write, but when I paint, there’s an excitement that is physical. I think because the work is so physical, it’s so physical.

Elizabeth: So physical. Well your [00:47:00] home, as I’ve mentioned before, is filled with beautiful—much, much of it beautiful art, much of it is three-dimensional. That comes from, that come from cultures around the world. So I can personally attest to the integration of self that is one on display, not only in your beautiful artwork, but in your beautiful home.

Michael: Okay, now let’s, let’s turn to dance, which I recall, you mentioned that in Vienna early on you experienced dance in the cafes and, but lately you have been working and studying and leading sacred dance circle, or Sacred Circle dances. Now I know nothing about this form of dance, so maybe we could start off with you just describing what exactly is a Sacred Circle dance?

Evi: I will. But before I do that, I also wanna insert that, that movement that we talked earlier about—dancing was part of the glue that held us, the early movement when it was—

Michael: Oh, okay.

Evi: We danced long into the night and we danced [00:48:00] some of the same dances that we actually danced in Sacred Circle dance because many of those dances, they’re called Israeli, but they’re really dances that come from Eastern Europe that were, the Jews brought over.

Sacred Circle dancing is a form of dance that evolved in the early seventies, it evolved out of folk dancing, actually. There was a German ballet master who went around collecting folk dancing in villages where he thought the dance was dying out and he brought them to Findhorn.

I don’t know if you know anything about Findhorn. It was a place that was a kind of a community that was very artistic and they also grew plants that were larger than life. It became world famous. People came to Scotland, it was in Scotland, and it grew into a very large community. It’s now called the Findhorn Foundation. And this German ballet master who brought these dances to be [00:49:00] danced at Findhorn because he believed that community would preserve them. That community had that belief that art and dancing was really an important part of transformation of the world.

And so, he brought them there and they started as folk dancing. But then he began to embellish them. And then he began to create some of his own dances. So now our curriculum is made up of some folk dances, some dances that are—and it keeps increasing. People create dances. We use the, what I call the vocabulary of the traditional steps, even if we do to, to new music. For instance, we do a very traditional dance to, called the čoček, to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” It’s one of our favorite dances.

The point of our, this dancing is to bring together mind, body, and spirit. We choose dances from all over the world. [00:50:00] Music is very important as part of this because the music opens you up as you are moving. I believe it was, you said we mentioned that there are no mistakes. So even though I teach very simple steps, the steps are deliberately mostly simple, so that anyone really, if you can walk, you can do these dances. We hold hands so there’s an immediate connection between people. It’s, people really say, “Oh, I feel like I’m in a community just by holding hands.” And so those, that’s what Sacred Circle dance is. And it keeps evolving.

Elizabeth: You have talked, Evi, about how—you just spoke about how Sacred Circle dance is based on folkloric dance traditions worldwide, and it seems that it’s another powerful example of the wisdom of the ancients that we modern folk, with our lofty perspective of the present, have shunned to the side. Talk a little bit more about how embracing this [00:51:00] ancient form, like Sacred Circle dance, untangle some of the hubris and disequilibrium of modernity.

Evi: Absolutely. First of all, even though there is a teacher, the teacher joins the circle. So there really is, it’s a, in some ways is leaderless once we start to do the dancing. And it’s interesting you should mention that because one of my teachers [Laura Shannon] has been doing a lot of research. She lives at Findhorn and she has found that in the steps of the dance—many of these dances are women’s dances, not all, we do both men and women’s—but the women’s dances, the steps are like embroidery, like they’re embroidery. And that they, she also believes she has found that the steps themselves have messages for us that the ancients have tried to embed in their dances. They’re, whether you, especially for women, whether you open your legs or close them, how you move your body, [00:52:00] there are ways in which these dances do embody wisdom. And sometimes we even write down at the end of a dance or speak out what has come to you while you’ve been dancing.

Elizabeth: Wow. Well, one of the things I’ve heard you say, just a moment ago and then in other settings, is that there are no mistakes only, quote, “variations.” And I love that. As you and I have talked about, this work I’ve done with pre-k children there’s no, the rule is that there is no, there are no wrong answers in my Theatrical Journey class. So, can you talk a little bit about the creative flourishing that happens when judgment and, quote, “right or wrongness” is removed from an endeavor?

Evi: Yes, you can, especially with new dancers but even reminding old ones, when I say that, you can feel their shoulders drop, like a weight goes off them. It’s like in a release of expectation, really, a release of rigidity really opens up the possibility. [00:53:00] People just feel so much freer that they can, whatever they do, I tell them, just keep moving to the music. It doesn’t matter if the, if you make variations, the important thing is to stay with the group, be part of the community, and keep moving. And the irony is that once you say that, they much more easily, actively, quote, “get the steps.” And research, we’ve talked a lot about, research has shown that when people actually dance in synchrony, there is a power that is released. It’s a healing power and a very very strong effect upon people who do that.

Elizabeth: Right.

Michael: Right. Yeah. I you’re, this is bringing back memories. I guess it must be about 35, 40 years ago and Mphela Makgoba, who’s a theater friend of ours in South Africa, he since has passed, but we were working on a production, and he would bring these dances to the rehearsal process and we would—they were African from his [00:54:00] traditional sort of South African community. And we would dance in circles around and, but we would dance for so long. But then eventually there was this sort of merging of all of our, of all of our beams. And then we would shift into sort of creative mode and we would start sort of just enacting various things. And it was truly a powerful experience. Now I don’t remember any of the steps, but, you know, ‘cause we were just, we were free to step as we please, I guess. I don’t, I just don’t remember. But in terms of the dancing, I mean I can attest to that power to create community. And maybe if you could this, the whole, talk more a little bit more about this sort of creation of community through dance.

Evi: The community, these dances, by the way, I teach once a week here in town every week. So you create a community just by people dancing together and then beginning to share feelings. We always start, we dance around a circle with a candle and with flowers sort of to remind us of the sacred fire that our [00:55:00] ancestors danced around. We start with giving, bringing intentions to the dance. What do we want to bring today to that dance? And then it really helps people. So it creates a sense of people knowing what other people are thinking and feeling.

Michael: Oh, and do people share their—

Evi: Yes, they do.

Michael: —what they’re bringing? They share—oh, I see.

Evi: Yes. They share. Yes. People, just one word, just their names and a sharing. But then with the community is really international because these dances are done in, even in countries where you wouldn’t expect them. Like South Africa, Australia, Korea, Japan, all over the United—well, more even in Europe, in particularly England and Scotland and Wales.

But, interesting, we also dance for holidays, we dance for the festivals of the harvest, and we do send intentions out beyond ourselves into the world. We really do believe that the energy we create, perhaps for peace, for healing, for hope. So, and there’s, so the [00:56:00] community is local and then international.

And while we’ve had COVID, I’ve been teaching on Zoom twice a week now for two and a half years. And now I still teach in person, but I still have many of the people from Zoom who came from foreign countries, from different states. So I’ve decided to do this hybrid model. So, knowing the same dances across the world and dancing together even through Zoom creates a sense of common humanity. I guess that’s the cliche, but it’s actually also true. You realize we are all human beings together.

Michael: And the more you do the dance, do you—

Evi: It goes in—

Michael: —it becomes more of a ritual that you—

Evi: Absolutely.

Michael: —step into it more quickly and—

Evi: And, first of all, the dances stay in your body. If you dance every week, you hear the music, your body begins to know which dance it is. And so it, yes, and many of the dances are rituals. I’ve created a ritual during COVID, especially a kind of a body prayer dance. [00:57:00] So our dances range from the joyful to the simple—I mean, they’re all simple except a few who are more complicated. As things evolve, some people like to make complicated. I actually prefer the simple dances. I find the simpler the dance, the more—it’s parallel, I don’t know if Taizé music from France, which is, takes these little bits of scripture and just repeats them, singing them over and over. And our dance is like that. The steps repeat and as they repeat, they go in your body, your body memory. So yes, and so our dances are the whole thing. Often some people say it is not only the high point of their week, but the spiritual—it is, this dance practice is my spiritual center, really.

Michael: Sure, sure. Wow. Okay, well. We like to conclude our interviews by just taking a meta view or looking at sort of a larger role that creativity [00:58:00] plays in the shaping of who we are as individuals, but ultimately as people, as a community. And… and in many ways, it’s looking at a person’s narrative arc and how they’ve transformed, how they’ve shifted and changed. And you’ve spoken a number of sort of moments in your life where you were, you realized things or you changed things and you understood things differently. So maybe if you could just speak about this, of this larger role, that creativity, which is, which you’re immersed in, but the larger role that creativity has played and continues to play in your arc as a person?

Evi: I think creativity, maybe this is repetitive, but com– propels me to do new things, to create new things, to make new things happen. For instances, I’m deeply, well I have been for a while but now that I’m gonna be turning 90, I realize I’m very interested in the process of aging.

Elizabeth: Right.

Evi: Of, what is this process and how does it affect us? And how can—I remember, I belong to Wise Aging at the temple where we [00:59:00] dance. But what does it mean to age? What is it—so all of these new questions—by the way dancing is discovered, one of the, there’s been quite a bit of research that shows that, of all the activities that they tell you that helps your brain from aging, dancing most because it goes, you use both sides of your brain, it goes across the corpus callosum. I, it’s really hard for me to, to—I’ll just be repeating what I said.

Michael: No, but I mean is there—

Evi: Creativity, I feel like I—

Michael: You’re in a continuous process of not just becoming, but of creating who you are and exploring new dimensions. Yeah, absolutely.

Evi: I would say I’m on, it just came to me, the wings of creativity. I do feel like I’m flying on those wings.

Michael: That’s a beautiful image.

Elizabeth: That is a beautiful image. That leads me to ask one of our final questions, which we’re asking of all our interviewees. One of the reasons that we’re doing this podcast clearly is because we see creativity [01:00:00] as you do, Evi, as a vital force and a necessary ingredient to a healthy emotional life. And I’m sure we all agree that the world needs more emotional health. So, can you distill a few nuggets of practical advice that you would give people about the creative impulse, about sustaining it, nurturing it, developing it? Just some real practical advice.

Evi: Well, first of all, find what you love to do.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Evi: And do it. Secondly, don’t judge yourself. I think a lot of people have the idea that, and even when I taught “Women in the Arts,” that was one of the courses I created, said, “Oh, I don’t really have an art. Only painting or writing or dancing are arts.” What about the art of cooking? The art of fishing? The art of learning how to build something or to change—so I think take away, try to get rid of all the ideas about what creativity is and really, [01:01:00] secondly, try to be whole. Get rid of the parts of yourself that you maybe don’t like so much. Try to—I think authenticity, we haven’t mentioned that word here, but I think it’s terribly important. That unless you are an, an authentic self, which is what I meant by a whole self in a way, that you really can’t—I think creativity is stunted by that. And also, if you’ve had trauma, I think it’s a good idea to try to acknowledge it, even if you don’t go to a therapist. To work with it, maybe use your creativity to metabolize it in some way.

Elizabeth: Sure. Oh, I like that.

Evi: So those are some of my thoughts.

Elizabeth: Well, the last thing we’d like to do is give you an opportunity to announce any upcoming events or publications. You have a website. Maybe you could share with our guests or our listeners what’s coming up for you, bearing in mind that this podcast won’t air until into 2023. Are you available for facilitation or coaching or what other—

Evi: [01:02:00] Oh yeah, I forgot, I actually became a coach during COVID.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Evi: I took a course in coaching. That’s probably my most recent career, but I’m not doing that for money. But I would be available if we can travel for people to come in. I could bring events, Sacred Circle dance to an event. I’ve done that at weddings, at conferences. It absolutely brings people together. If you, I think it should be at all academic conferences. I actually did bring it into the university, of, not just into my classes, but into when they did health and healing in the university.

But in terms of publications, I think the last things I wrote are about Sacred Circle dancing. In two things about dancing in a wheelchair, I did an interview with a friend of mine who’s been dancing, but that book is already out, it’s in the—and one about a phenomenological study of my own dancing and the transformation I believe that dancing creates in people. It’s called The Handbook of Transformative Phenomenology. [01:03:00]It’s a mouthful, but it might a really easy to read. But I, Nice Jewish Girls has gone out of print. It had three, the lesbian anthology, it had three different prints. And the last one was by Beacon Press, but it was so before its time, it was really an intersectional book before there was intersectionality by name and before there was gay studies and before lesbian studies, before Jewish studies would even consider putting, because you know, that in. So I’m actually doing it as an e-book myself.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Evi: And it’s going to be available sometime in 2023, so that’s Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. I don’t know what else I have forward. I, one of the things my creativity leads me to is not to plan but to let things emerge and they always do. So, my website is www.evibeck.com.

But my dance [01:04:00] things are really, it was an academic thing, and so I have to beef it up and really put all my dance stuff—oh, there’s a camp. If anyone wants to learn to dance in Maine in August, I think it’s the third week of August at Ferry Beach, f-e-r-r-y. It’s a warm—Ferry Beach is a wonderful place that is like a center for retreats and all kinds of art and spiritual things. And so we have a whole week of Sacred Circle dancing and I’ll be teaching and leading that.

Elizabeth: Fabulous.

Evi: So that’s something that people can do.

Elizabeth: We will include links to these various, various resources on the bottom part of our full transcript.

Evi: And if anyone who doesn’t live, if anyone lives in the Washington, DC area, I teach at Temple Micah. I hope to continue to teach there every Tuesday morning from 10 to 12. I have been doing this pro bono as my gift to the [01:05:00] sanity of our world.

So I’m, and also, and then you can also tune in on Zoom if you give them my email address, they could write me, and I don’t put the Zoom link out except if people wanna write it. And there are many other opportunities to do this form of dancing. So, if you wanna know about it, you can write me and I’ll try to—

Elizabeth: That sounds great.

Evi: —help you find a place.

Elizabeth: This has been fabulous, Evi. Thank you so much for giving us—

Michael: Yeah, thank you very much.

Evi: Well, thank you. It really made me see myself in a new way—

Elizabeth: There you go.

Evi: —so thank you for your creative questions and for your choosing me.

Elizabeth: All right. Thank you so much, Evelyn Torton Beck, who is, as you’ve just heard, a remarkable human being. So, thank you, Evi.

For more information about Creativists in Dialogue or our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com. This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

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