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(photo credit: LESLIE WEISENBAUM )
Rachel and Joseph Connelly say they are the only religious performance art couple working in Israel. Joseph is a conceptual artist and lecturer in media arts; Rachel is a photographer and massage therapist. Together, they create large collaborative installations and artistic happenings on subjects close to their hearts. When asked if art is the glue that brought them together, they answer "No!"
"What brought us together," says Rachel, "is an amazing connection, it just seemed that we had to be together."
The connection seems to have been inscribed from birth. Rachel and Joseph were both born in Cleveland, Ohio - Rachel to an Ashkenazi, Reform family which "celebrated Shabbat on Friday night but didn't know it also translated into Saturday" and Joseph to an Irish-German Catholic family.
The two went to the same high school and even had one date together before pursuing separate paths. After studying biology and psychology at Oberlin College and spending one year as a volunteer at Jerusalem's Alyn Hospital, Rachel moved to Madison to study for an MA in social work. Unbeknown to her, Joseph, too, had moved to Madison to study inter-arts and was living one block away.
When Joseph realized Rachel was living close by, he felt a "warning shot," he says, but it was only three years later that he looked Rachel up and the two began to date seriously. As they dated, Joseph learned Yiddish and read everything he could get hold of on Judaism.
A year and a half later the couple married and went on to marry three more times.
"We had four weddings in all," says Rachel, laughing. "The first was a lovely pot luck wedding in a park where we married ourselves, the second was the civil ceremony, the third was a Conservative wedding a few years later and the last was an Orthodox huppa."
The weddings were a reflection of the couple's religious trajectory, with Joseph undergoing an Orthodox conversion and the couple becoming more observant together. Both their families took these developments in stride.
"Mid-Westerners are very accepting," notes Joseph. "Their attitude is: Do whatever you want, just make sure you call!"
The couple moved into a large Victorian house, and while Joseph lectured in media arts at the University of Madison, Rachel completed her MA and went on to study massage and photography. Israel came into the picture in 2000, when the couple took a belated honeymoon and visited the Holy Land as part of a round-the-world trip. Joseph was smitten right away and upon returning to the US, he and Rachel began to consider aliya.
"We were tired of driving three hours to buy kosher meat," says Joseph.
"And we felt we had hit our growth limit in Madison," says Rachel, "so if we were going to move, we thought, why not to Israel?" Thus it was that the couple left their large house and stocks of art and photographic equipment to board a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight carrying just two bags and a backpack each.
The Connellys arrived in Israel in September 2005.
"It was a bit of a shock," recalls Rachel. "Suddenly we felt, hey, it's just the two of us. The next shock was when we arrived at the absorption center in Jerusalem. We were shown into a room containing just two dorm beds. No one had said we needed to bring sheets and pillows. We were given a canister of coffee, a kilo of sugar and some cookies but there was nothing with which to warm the water. We looked at each other and thought... what have we done!"
As part of the community aliya program, the Connellys had to find their own accommodation within two weeks. Fortunately, they quickly found a furnished apartment in Ma'aleh Adumim.
"People brought us a dining table, pots to cook with. They went out of their way to make us welcome," Rachel says.
Barely settled in Israel, the Connellys launched their first Israeli art project - an interactive photographic piece on the feline population of Jerusalem.
"We got the idea in the absorption center," explains Joseph. "Coming home one day, we saw the tail and foot of a cat sticking out of a garbage can - it was a striking image and since there were so many cats around, we decided to photograph them, post them up on our Web site and then distribute the pictures around the city... the idea being to get people to notice and talk about the cats."
Rachel and Joseph proceeded to take some 1,500 pictures of Jerusalem cats, 248 of which can be seen on their Web site "Famous Cats of Jerusalem." Last Hanukka, the Connellys lit up the Ma'aleh Adumim highway by laying out a vast hanukkia on the hillside made up of 350 felafel bags filled with sand and topped with memorial candles.
"It took four hours to light and looked like a huge bed of stars," recalls Rachel.
The Connellys live in a simple two-bedroom apartment where their only possessions are their books.
"We pared ourselves down to the essentials," says Joseph, "and shipped only what was really important - our books."
Joseph prays every morning in a Sephardi synagogue, after which the couple eat breakfast together, then set about their work. While Joseph is on the computer, Rachel studies Hebrew and when Rachel is on the computer, Joseph studies Torah or works on his art installations. They may be jobless, they joke, but they are always busy.
The Connellys are slowly making friends, mainly among longstanding US and UK immigrants who invite them to their homes for Shabbat and help them grapple with the challenge of aliya.
The couple describe themselves as observant.
"Judaism is a fundamental part of who we are," says Rachel.
"It just fits, like shoes and shirts," adds Joseph, noting no contradiction between being artists and being observant. "The nature of performance art is about time and materials and the nature of Judaism is also about time and material things, like meat and milk, so the two are complementary."
"We feel somewhat in limbo, no longer American but not yet fully Israeli, though we eat humous and Israeli salad every day," says Rachel.
"Our heart and our feet are here, we are not just passing through," says Joseph.
Rachel and Joseph knew very little Hebrew when they arrived but are slowly bridging the language barrier. "We understand much more than we speak and somehow manage with the help of a lot of hand gestures!"
The couple say they are grateful to the State for the subsidies they received and survive by living very simply.
"We are very frugal in our lifestyle and in our artwork," says Joseph. "We use inexpensive materials and look for the simplest ways of making things."
Joseph hopes to find a position as a university lecturer and Rachel wants to develop her massage practice. Meanwhile, the Connellys are already working on their next art project, which will focus on the issue of garbage. They see their art as fulfilling a social function and helping to make the world a more beautiful and interesting place.
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