A Jewish commune and lessons of sharing

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Joel Tauber and son Zeke 'fixing' Happyville. Photos courtesy of Joel Tauber

One of the hardest lessons to teach a young child is the value of sharing. How do you explain to your son or daughter that they should hand off their cherished teddy bear or toy truck to another child? The word “mine” is one of the first words to come out of a toddler’s mouth, and children see their toys as extensions of themselves.

Artist Joel Tauber, 43, ran into this dilemma while raising his 5-year-old son Zeke and 3-year-old son Ozzie. If Tauber wasn’t willing to let others borrow his expensive video equipment, why should Zeke have to share his prized toy guitar with a friend?

The challenge of teaching the value of sharing led to “The Sharing Project,” a 15-channel video installation at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, up now through July 19. Visitors will see a room full of screens, featuring 15 short films as well as 21 interviews with experts in fields ranging from evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and education. Through these experts, Tauber tries to get at the root of why humans choose to compete or cooperate.

“We applaud selfishness in so many ways. Probably the dominant narrative in our culture is, get as much stuff as you can. We’re bombarded by all this advertisement all the time, telling us to get more and more stuff,” Tauber said.

“It troubles me, seeing how we’ve become a really selfish culture. I don’t think that’s good for us as a whole. I try not to be that way. I’m conflicted just like everyone else though. There’s a part of me that wants good things for myself and for my kids and for my wife, and for us to live an easy life. But then I’m also really troubled by all this inequity.”

At the museum, Tauber encourages visitors to bring in toys to share and arrange in the space. When the project concludes, visitors are invited to take a toy with them and give it to whomever they’d like.

While investigating the idea of sharing, Tauber and his son Zeke turned to the forgotten Socialist Jewish commune of Happyville in South Carolina. Established in 1905 and disbanded in 1908, Tauber sought out the remains of the utopian community, hoping some of the mysteries of sharing would be buried in the ruins.

The central video in the installation tells the story of Happyville. The video features long shots of birds chirping, green leaves quivering and ripples spreading across a lake. Its tranquility seems to mask the incredible experiment that took place deep within its wooded folds.

In 1905, Jewish immigrant Charles Weintraub and other Eastern European families purchased a 2,200-acre plantation in Aiken County. They bought livestock, equipment and the buildings that were on the land. They cleared the sandy soil into pasture, and set about constructing a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin.

But the colonists were beset by troubles. First, the Russian and Polish immigrants had little knowledge and experience in farming. Heavy rains washed out the fields and the dam built to power the ginnery. And most significantly, they incurred a heavy debt and were unable to attract patrons. In 1908, the 50 settlers living in Happyville auctioned off their equipment and livestock and sold the farmland, and left town. All that remains are an ancient tractor, a horse carriage and some crumbling foundations.

When he discovered the story of Happyville, he felt a kinship with the socialist pioneers. In Tauber’s video, he and Zeke (who was then 3 years old) use the boy’s brightly-colored plastic tools to “fix” the rusted tractor and a decaying house, a poetic metaphor for the concept of “tikkun olam” and for the desire to repair whatever caused Happyville to disintegrate.

“You’re doing a really good job,” Tauber tells the boy, with his mop of curly brown hair and his rain boots, as he attacks the spokes of a wagon wheel with his yellow plastic wrench. “We’re fixing a special place,” Tauber tells Zeke, as the boy bangs against a rusted door.

Tauber's son, Zeke, 'fixing' the door with his plastic tools

Tauber left Los Angeles in 2011 to develop a video art program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was startled by the economic inequality he saw in his new home. Census data shows that 23 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty level.

“It turns out that Winston-Salem might have the most childhood poverty in the whole country, and that’s while there’s all these really wealthy people there,” Tauber said.

Tauber brought Zeke to protests in Winston-Salem against unemployment and funding cuts to social programs, and filmed their participation in the protests as yet another lesson in sharing.

Tauber was raised as an Oorthodox Jew in Boston and as a boy showed promise as a scholar of Talmud. But at 18, instead of continuing on to a yeshiva, he opted to spend a summer at Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz in Israel’s Beit She'an Valley, where he picked carrots and worked in a salami factory. That experience made him think a lot about communal living. He had planned to become a doctor, but decided to study art at Yale University and then at Art Center College of Design.

Another of Tauber’s projects is called “Sick-Amour,” in which he adopted and maintained a sycamore tree growing in the middle of a giant parking lot at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“It was getting hit by cars, starved for water and oxygen, and eventually asphalt was removed, boulders were placed around it, then that started happening for other trees,” Tauber said. “Taking care of that tree, which is really ongoing, taught me how to love, how to become a husband, how to be a father.”

Tauber and volunteers planted seeds from the sycamore around the region. He estimates there are about 200 “tree babies” now growing from those seeds. He and his wife, Alison, even got married at the tree. “I think of the tree as part of my family,” he said. “It’s part of our family.”

All of his art projects revolve around ethical issues, Tauber said, whether it’s saving a tree or uncovering the roots of altruism. He traces it back to his Jewish education.

“I’m a secular man. We live a secular life. I’m happy that I had an education that encouraged me to think about ethics,” he said. “I’ve made all of my work about ethics. That’s what I’ve devoted my career and my life to. So as a parent, also, I feel that my responsibility is to help my children struggle with the idea of how to be a good person.”

Joel Tauber’s “The Sharing Project” is on display at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, through July 19, 2015. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, June 20, 6-8 pm, with a performance by Earth Like Planets. More information at http://web.csulb.edu/org/uam/.

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