Life moves quickly and painting enables me to slow down and hold onto my most precious moments and make them last. Drawing inspiration from personal photos, I channel my deepest memories and feelings into my artwork. My paintings are autobiographical in nature and they reveal much about who and what I value.
Growing Up Jewish—Art & Storytelling is a series of contemporary artwork I created to tell my family’s Jewish story and perhaps shine a fresh new light on what American Judaic art could look like. I spent many hours digging up and studying old family photos. Creating these paintings and writing the accompanying narratives required a fair amount of introspection and a lot of empathy. Through this series I reflect on the intoxicating lure of American-style freedom and the cost of trading in tradition for assimilation; I honour my relatives, the Holocaust survivors who had numbers tattooed on their arms and wore flower-printed sundresses, socks, and sandals. I warmly recall summers spent at Jewish overnight camp. I look at the Jewish traditions we altered and the ones we kept. I recreate the holiday celebrations we observed—remembering cooking smells from Rosh Hashanah meals and the sound of singing around Passover tables.
The series provides a visual observation and an honest account of how a religion and culture was transmitted through five generations of one family.
These are select works from Growing Up Jewish—Art & Storytelling. Visit here for the full series.
Purim was the holiday that made me love being Jewish. It had all the elements: costumes, hamantaschen cookies, candy, a good story, a seriously fun carnival and lots of noise. I remember my father always opted out of the megillah reading because he couldn’t take the clattering sound of the groggers (noisemakers) cancelling out Haman’s name. But this was the one time in the Jewish calendar year when I fully opted in. I even won the best Queen Esther costume in the ‘under three with a bottle category’.
If time travel was possible and I had to make a list of my top ten places to visit I’d have to say I’d choose any one of the Jewish resorts in the heyday of the Catskills. This is an experience that exists only in my imagination from movies like Dirty Dancing and more recently from the hit Amazon Prime series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. After my friend Brad’s mom passed away he gave me the privilege of going through their family photos and I came across this gem. He told me that growing up this was how his older siblings and parents spent the better part of the summer. In my research I discovered that within the last five years there was a photographer who travelled to the Catskills to take pictures of the now abandoned and decaying resorts. It was heartbreaking to see the condition of the Pines. I have a feeling someone will revive the concept and when they do, I’ll be the first one to sign up for tango lessons!
This is a painting I made at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like everyone, I was at home in strict lockdown, anxious about the danger of being exposed to a virus that we were only just beginning to understand and fearful of the destruction it would bring. There were no vaccines on the horizon and we were just getting acquainted with the idea of wearing masks when we went out in public. Schools were shut down, families were being kept apart, weddings and graduations were being postponed. I needed something to do to keep me calm and a distraction from my phone (where I kept close track of the daily infection rates).
This was my quarantine project and it is lofty one, with 31 faces painted. I was drawn to this image because this was the group in my family who started their lives together in Krakow before the Holocaust. They survived a war, immigrated to Canada, and built a new life. Every single person in this image was touched by the Holocaust in one way or another (my older sisters in the front row are all named after great-grandparents who perished).
When I see these people together in their pink and purple dresses celebrating a good occasion at a simcha, after everything they’d been through, it reminds me that dark times do pass. The quarantine and this virus will eventually end and life will return. It always does.
One of the things I love most about being Jewish is probably the very thing that I have always taken for granted: the organized Jewish community and the infrastructure that supports it.
At any stage of my life, whether I was a new mom searching for camaraderie through Tot Shabbat classes, or finding a kosher caterer for my wedding, or joining the JCC to take an aerobics class, I have always been able to connect to the right organization and seamlessly have my Jewish needs met. The organized Jewish community has never let me down.
Having worked as a professional in Jewish communal service for many years I know that the Jewish community is there to step in and support its most vulnerable members with high quality assistance that is culturally sensitive in every way. “From the cradle to the grave,” the Jewish community is there when you need it.
I have this theory that you are not officially a grown up until it is your turn to start hosting the family for holiday observances. As the youngest in my family, I got away with never having to host a holiday meal until I was well into my adult life. But then the Toronto synagogue where my husband’s parents belonged had shut down and they weren’t sure where they would go to services for the High Holidays. Naturally, I invited them to travel to our synagogue and be our guests. I saw this as a significant moment in my adult life. The torch had been passed to me—it was time to finally grow up and make Rosh Hashanah dinner at my house. I was thrilled that bubbie Sara, at 95, was willing and able to travel to Chicago to be with us. I love this image—four generations together bringing in the Jewish new year of 5771. The best part was when we cooked the meal. Bubbie was in charge of the gefilte fish and the apples and honey, my mother-in-law made the chicken soup and matzo balls. I was reasonably confident that my brisket would be tasty enough to serve to these two women who had hosted countless delicious holiday meals around their dining room tables. It was a priceless experience and we never had the opportunity to do it together like that again. Bubbie became too frail to travel after that year.
To my mind no conversation about Jewish identity can take place without acknowledging the power of the Jewish mother in shaping who we are as people and as Jews. The woman in this painting is not my mother. This is Shirley. I love this image of her, soaking up the sun. I can taste the soft rye bread with seeds on the plate next to her. A nirvana day for just about anyone. Shirley passed away in December 2018. The thing that struck me most at her funeral was the sheer force of her will. Shirley’s children described her as a woman who existed to raise a close-knit family that fully embraced both the American dream and their Judaism. Women like Shirley got involved in community work, hosting Hadassah meetings, giving time and funds to Federation and building Temple sisterhoods. Shirley, like so many matriarchs made important decisions like joining synagogues, sending kids to Jewish camp and Hebrew school, celebrating memorable Passover seders and inviting children and their mates to weekly Shabbat dinner tables. Shirley encouraged her children to achieve in extracurricular activities, get part-time jobs and attend the best colleges to become all they could be. She kept her family together by arranging annual cruises and Fourth of July BBQ’s. Shirley’s price was definitely far above rubies. I can say the same about my own mother and mother-in-law who continue to play this role in my family. Who were the matriarchs in yours?
My grandfather was the hero of my dad’s family during the Holocaust. In 1949, after ensuring their survival, zaide brought his family to Canada at the age of 50 where he quickly grew to understand that his best years were probably behind him and real opportunity was reserved for the next generation. Nevertheless, hard work was expected and zaide and his brother Usher got into the schmatta (fabric) business. They opened Kot Textiles on Queen Street. It never took off. Jewish success stories are often peppered with tales of schmatta peddlers who turned their small operations into some of the biggest names in fashion today, but this was not in the cards for zaide and Usher. I grew up visiting that store on weekends with my parents and sisters. I remember zaide reading the Yiddish Forverts, now called The Forward, and always having a brown paper bag full of chocolate bars from the corner store Fir de Kinderlach. Zaide did not speak English well but I do remember the sense of importance I felt when he’d “test” the quality of the fabric of my clothes by rubbing a swatch between his fingers and then give a nod of approval. The store smelled like Pine-Sol, reams of material and cigarette smoke. I was certain that if he just had some good and colourful signage (which I’d hand draw) sales would go up.
The first bar mitzvah I ever attended was my cousin John’s. It was a big milestone because he was the only boy out of 10 cousins on my dad’s side. The celebration was pretty lavish with a catered banquet and a live band. When I saw my aunt, uncle and five cousins sitting at the head table they looked like “royalty” to me. In the 70’s there used to be this candle lighting ceremony for bar mitzvah boys (I have no idea when this ritual fell out of fashion). It was a way to honour 13 guests by inviting them to stand next to an awkward bar mitzvah boy and light a candle on his Torah shaped birthday cake. Every honouree marched across the dance floor to a theme song that the band or DJ played at high volume. The Kott sisters’ song was always (you guessed it!) “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. My cousin John, in his brown velvet tuxedo, did not look amused.
Have you ever wondered about the unsung heroes of your life—the people whose efforts and quiet sacrifices are at the heart of your success and maybe even responsible for your very existence? For me, that person is my Aunty Sylvia.
When my dad and his sister Sylvia were small children, she saved my father’s life by feeding him bits of ice to keep him alive when they were hiding in the forest during the Holocaust. Zaide and Usher had gone to get food from a righteous gentile and my dad and Sylvia, only nine and 10 years old respectively, were left alone for 24 hours as they waited patiently for their father and uncle to come back. Poor Auntie Sylvia. She was cold, hungry, and terrified as she watched her little brother grow weaker and weaker in her arms. Sylvia did all she could do to soothe him and make sure he had tiny drops of water in his body to sustain him. Luckily zaide and Usher returned before it was too late and they nursed my father back to health.
After the war, when the family arrived in Canada, zaide and Usher were pretty clear about the role teenaged Sylvia would have in the family. My grandfather and his brother weren’t exactly reading Betty Friedan when they immigrated. Nobody asked Sylvia if she would enjoy or benefit from higher education. That privilege (and all the generational opportunities it afforded) was reserved for my father. Sylvia was relegated to the kitchen to cook for the men and work in the garment factory to help pay for my dad’s tuition at Sir George William College while he and my mom read poetry and ate picnics on the campus quad.
I was lucky to grow up in a home with parents who were completely in love with each other. Their romance was the stuff of fairy tales . . . sort of. Two young survivors of the Holocaust, my parents met in Montreal.
When my father was accepted to law school, they decided to get married and the plan was simple—they’d move to Toronto and my mother would work as a legal secretary to support my father as he completed his education. My mother’s side of the family saw this as a hopeful and wonderful new chapter. The Holocaust and all the obstacles of adjusting to a new life in Canada were firmly behind them and they could look forward to a bright future.
My father’s side of the family saw this marriage as the “end of hope.” They were furious. So much so, that zaide and Usher refused to attend their wedding. Zaide and Usher put all their hopes on my father’s achievements. All the suffering during the Holocaust and the financial troubles they had in Canada would be worth it only if my dad became a “success” and graduated law school. They were certain my mother would get pregnant immediately and my dad would drop out of school and shatter their dreams for his future. Added to this anger was the audacity of their son getting married before his older sister, my aunt Sylvia. Such was the mindset of my grandfather and his brother. Somewhere in that stubbornness were good intentions.
My father was undeterred. He enlisted one of the seamstresses at the garment factory where he worked to copy a Dior gown for my mom; he rented a tuxedo and my parents had a humble wedding in my great Aunt Cecilia’s living room. Five days later they were hunting for apartments in Toronto just as classes were starting at Osgoode Hall Law School. My parents made peace with zaide and Usher. Their first priority was to find a husband for Sylvia (which they did—my mom introduced her to a cousin). My mom was able to support my dad throughout his education. He graduated four years later without missing a beat. Both Usher and zaide loved my mother. She cared for each of them in their final months when they came to live with us before they passed away.
Header image: Jacqueline Kott-Wolle painting. The Simcha (A Joyful Occasion). Oil on Canvas 24×36, painted in 2020. Original Image Taken: 1974.
Jacqueline Kott-Wolle (b.1969) lives in Highland Park, IL where she paints full time. In 2005, after moving to Chicago from Toronto with her family, Jacqueline fulfilled a long-time goal of developing her painting skills by studying at The Art Center of Highland Park. Using a fresh palette of color, Kott-Wolle currently paints in oils and focuses on capturing precious moments with her family and friends.
Jacqueline’s work has been exhibited in both group and solo exhibitions and her paintings are in private collections throughout the United States, Canada and Israel.