Joel Tauber, “SHARE” (photo direction: Joel Tauber, shot by Kristi Chan) from the art installation and movie, “The Sharing Project”
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Boston that felt both nurturing and stifling. If anyone in the community struggled financially, they knew that tzedeka (or charity) would be raised to sustain them. If they needed emotional support during a crisis – or even if they didn’t – they knew that people would gather around them to comfort them with meals and conversation.
Yet, all of this support had a cost, which I felt in quite a pronounced way during my Bar Mitzvah. One person after another gave me a volume of Talmudic text and encouraged me to follow its many laws. The mountain of Talmudic tomes that I received that day and the expectations that they embodied felt overwhelmingly oppressive to me.
Years later, I live a secular life with my family in Winston-Salem in a house that was built by a Moravian couple whose heritage seems similar – in a number of ways – to my own.
As historian Michele Gillespie explained to me, Moravians migrated to what they called Wachovia from Central Europe – via Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – in the 18th century in order to escape persecution and to establish communities for their pietistic, Protestant sect.
The Moravians were communitarian. They shared property, work, and responsibilities. Everyone was educated at the same schools, and no one had to fear going hungry. They were defined by their status as single brothers, single sisters, or married couples; and they were treated similarly within those groupings.
The Church was paramount, while individual choice was somewhat limited. The Moravians were expected to dress similarly and to leave certain decisions – like who to marry – to God.
Over the course of the 19th century, the Moravians’ communitarianism faded, and they became more individualistic. They stopped speaking German, grew more similar to other Protestants in the American South, and even adopted the abominable practice of slavery.
Then, in 1913, Salem, which was the largest Moravian community in Wachovia, was asked to merge with its neighbor, and new economic powerhouse, Winston. Even though the Moravians in Salem had long been successful artisans and merchants, they didn’t identify with the textile and tobacco entrepreneurs, like R.J. Reynolds, that had settled in Winston. They felt that these businessmen were too greedy and individualistic and that their ethos threatened whatever remained of their communitarian culture.
Nevertheless, the merger occurred, and the communitarian lifestyle of the Moravians continued to fade away. What they had built in Salem became a relic of the past, frequented by tourists.
I was thinking about all of this, when we went to Wachovia Bank to open an account. I knew that the bank had Moravian roots, but I couldn’t see them anywhere other than in the name. As I glanced around the shiny walls, I wondered what the communitarians who had settled here in the 1740s would have thought of the powerful instrument of Capitalism that their descendants helped create.
My mind continued to wander, as a banker offered me bottled water. I thought about how the Moravians had come to this fertile spot with abundant creeks and rivers with the intention of sharing those resources collectively. Could they have imagined that anyone would offer water from across the globe as a gift when there was such wonderful water right here?
As I watched Zeke and Ozzie chase bubbles one day in our backyard on Robinhood Road, I wondered what it would be like if we shared more of our resources with each other, like the Moravians once did. The possibility felt beautiful to me; and I prayed that we could achieve it, while restraining ourselves from imposing the types of shared expectations that I experienced in my childhood.
Joel Tauber is an artist and filmmaker who teaches experimental film and orchestrates the video art program at Wake Forest University. His current undertaking – “The Sharing Project” – will be presented as both a sculptural video installation (Adamski Gallery For Contemporary Art, Berlin, April 2 – 29; The University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, June 12 – July 12) and a feature film. http://thesharingproject.net