Artwork for podcast Disloyal
Are You Jewish?: Marisa Baggett And Justin Fair
Episode 429th April 2022 • Disloyal • Jewish Museum of Maryland
00:00:00 00:34:36

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We talk about physical and emotional safety in Jewish spaces, experiences of Black Jews in predominantly white Jewish institutions, the nourishing power of Shabbat, and the creative possibilities of kosher cooking with an artist and a curator who contributed to A Fence Around The Torah.

Marisa Baggett, a multi-discipline creative who, as she puts it, combines contemporary sensibilities with beloved Jewish traditions via kosher food, paintings, and writing

Justin Fair, lay leader with the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project and curatorial panelist for A Fence Around the Torah


Marisa Baggett: I'm breathing deeply because this painting caused me a lot of anguish. I painted it, then I painted over it because I thought there's no way, I just can't put this out to the world. I have some pretty thick skin. You have to be, as a Black female sushi chef. Over the years, people have said a lot of inappropriate things to me and I've just brushed it off. And my form of activism is to just stand up and just continue to be positive and move forward. So when I decided to repaint and put this out into the world, I thought, "No, this is something that needs to be said."

Mark Gunnery: Welcome to Disloyal, a podcast from the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I'm your host, Mark Gunnery. Today on the show, we're continuing our series on, A Fence Around the Torah, the Jewish Museum of Maryland's latest contemporary art exhibit. It explores how Jewish communities navigate the concepts of safety and unsafety in traditional, contemporary and futuristic ways. I'm speaking with the artist and curators who made the exhibit possible. You can experience the art from this exhibit at

Mark Gunnery: Today I'm joined by Marisa Baggett. Marisa Baggett is a multi-discipline creative who, as she puts it, combines contemporary sensibilities with beloved Jewish traditions via kosher food, paintings and writing. She contributed two paintings to, A Fence Around the Torah. One called, Are You Jewish?, Reflects her experiences as a Black Jewish woman in Jewish institutional spaces and the other, Talmud Shinui, reflects on Jewish communal care. Marisa Baggett, thank you for joining us today.

Marisa Baggett: Oh, thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

Mark Gunnery: I'm also joined by Justin Fair. Justin Fair is a lay leader with the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project and he was on the curatorial panel for, A Fence Around the Torah. Justin Fair, thanks for joining us.

Justin Fair: Happy to be here. Thank you.

Mark Gunnery: And just a note, we had some issues with the sound early on for the first few minutes of the show but we worked it out, so don't touch that dial. Marisa Baggett, I want to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your art?

Marisa Baggett: Sure. So I think like most people, the pandemic and thinking about what that means for my everyday life has changed everything. I've had a lot of time to focus and think and I realize that I have a lot of pent up thoughts about issues and just what's happening in the world, what has happened in the world, where things look like they might be going in the world. And I think that for me, expressing my thought through art, especially painting and writing, has been something that I put on the back burner. And I've made a big switch because most of my career has been in the food industry. I've actually been in food since I was 19. That has been my focus and people don't necessarily look to a chef and say, "Hey, what do you think about what's happening right now?" And art is definitely a way to express that. Moving into the future, I'm really looking forward to continuing to explore the themes and just all of these thoughts that I've had built up and put them out creatively into the world.

Mark Gunnery: Like I said when I introduced you, your art combines the contemporary with the traditional. Can you speak a little bit more about that and especially how it relates to creating explicitly Jewish art and culture?

Marisa Baggett: Sure. I think the most important thing to realize is that at some point in time, everything that we hold as a beloved tradition was contemporary for the time. I think that while there are traditions that we certainly adore and really just feel so central to Jewish life, there are things that we wish existed that don't. For me, creating things that are explicitly Jewish based on tradition is more of a necessity. It's a way to express and update some of the things in Jewish life that we haven't addressed in our times and it's also a way to represent people and communities that aren't represented as often.

Mark Gunnery: So you, of course, are a painter but you also cook and write about kosher food. And you used to own a kosher deli and catering company. And I was especially intrigued to learn that you're interested in kosher sushi because I used to work at a kosher fish counter. How do you relate to Jewish food traditions and how do you put your own spin on them?

Marisa Baggett: Well, first, I have to say that's so cool that you worked at a kosher fish counter. I wish we had one of those here in Memphis. So actually, my blending of the kosher food and my journey to Judaism are actually highly entwined. I actually was in the process of studying Judaism when I went to sushi school in LA. And sushi school in LA was probably one of the most transformative things that's ever happened in my life. It took me out of everything that I knew. I was definitely a fish out of water. Here I am, a girl from Mississippi, going out to Los Angeles. The culture is so different and I really immersed myself in this whole sushi school experience.

Marisa Baggett: And the one thing that I held onto, while I was going through sushi school, was crafting my own Jewish identity. And one of the easiest ways for me to do that, while I was in LA in a whole different culture that I was unfamiliar with, was to really focus on what I ate. So I actually kept kosher while in sushi school. My senseis did not love that but that's a whole other story. It really has informed everything that I've done, food-wise, since. Just this idea of keeping kosher. And people ask me, "Well, isn't that so restrictive? And what about all the things you can't use?" And for me, it's not about what you can't use. It's about what amazing things are available that you can. I don't know. I think I find that having a certain pool of things that are wonderful and available to use really sparks my creativity. And it actually makes it quite easy for me really to say, "Oh, we can take this set of things and create this wonderful thing."

Mark Gunnery: Justin Fair, I want to turn to you. Like I said earlier, you were on the curatorial panel for, A Fence Around the Torah. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you were drawn to participate in this project?

Justin Fair: Of course. I'm very grateful to be asked to be on the panel. I grew up here in Baltimore County. My family, my dad's side is from Sandtown-Winchester area, Harlem Park. So after the highway to nowhere and all that, all my dad's family moved out to various sections of the west side of the city. So I grew up going to Beth Israel, a congregation in [inaudible] Liberty Road. And then the Jews continued to migrate towards Owings Mills, Reisterstown area. And I had to learn the Jewish world beyond Liberty Road. Went to high school in Towson. Went to University of Maryland and then came back. My family has always been in the Baltimore area. My husband and I just bought a house here in East Baltimore. And it's been really nice reconnecting with the city.

Justin Fair: I joined Beth Am Synagogue, maybe six, seven years ago now. It's funny how time flies. And I joined because when I had left college, I graduated and I was in between that I-95 corridor. I wanted to find a synagogue that reflected my interest, reflected me, that I didn't have to change anything. I could just enjoy it for what it was. And I was so grateful that Beth Am had a body of Jews of color already in the congregation. It was a diverse group of people. Not a lot of people but the ones that were there were diverse. And it was a congregation where you could be just at a normal everyday service on a Saturday morning and before you know it, the rabbi is talking about social justice and bringing a speaker from the interfaith dialogue [inaudible] or speaking about Elijah Cummings' work. Various things like that.

Justin Fair: So I've been painting ever since. I had a background at art and I was a nosy, busy body running around town trying to find my way. And I reached out to the Jewish Museum a while back when there was a LGBTQ transgender comedian who came and performed. And that was my introduction to the museum. And I thought, oh, how fabulous that there's this Jewish space that is interested in doing modern work, that wants to be eclectic and wants to be fully seeing all of the Jewish world. I feel like, I came around right when there was this interest and there were more people knocking on the door saying that the museum needed a collection that really reflected all of the city. I am really glad because this exhibition has really spoken to me and I feel like it helped to show my artistic side to my Jewish spiritual side. And I'm just so with smitten with everybody.

Mark Gunnery: You're a lay leader with the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project. Can you tell us more about that project and what you all do?

Justin Fair: Yeah. The Jews of Color Mishpacha Project is relatively new. Got started just, actually, at the start of the pandemic. We are a group of lay leaders from different backgrounds across the Baltimore Metro region that are interested in creating a stimulating environment for Jews of various diverse backgrounds, who identify as people of color, to meet and to have a Havruta. So that is a place to study. And to create a space for people of color to see one another with a Jewish context. Right now that means an online Facebook group but hopefully with Omicron coming and going, we will be resuming Shabbat dinners.

Mark Gunnery: So Marisa, I want to talk to you about the two paintings that you contributed to, A Fence Around the Torah. Let's start with the one titled, Are You Jewish? What can you tell us about this painting?

Marisa Baggett: [Sighs] I'm breathing deeply because this painting caused me a lot of anguish. I painted it, then I painted over it because I thought, there's no way, I can't put this out into the world. And my thought behind that was, the challenge with history is that it involves other people. It involves other people. It often implicates other people. When I think about being an activist and being someone who says that representation matters, I always like to come at it from a positive standpoint. I have some pretty thick skin. You have to be, as a Black female sushi chef. Over the years, people have said a lot of inappropriate things to me and I've just brushed it off. And my form of activism is to just stand up and just continue to be positive and move forward.

Marisa Baggett: So when I decided to repaint and put this out into the world, I thought, no, this is something that needs to be said. I think that living here in Memphis, in the south, it's a different challenge for Jews of color in Jewish spaces because on the one hand, you have plenty of people who understand that our Jewish world is diverse. And when you're in those Jewish spaces, there's a different thought process that goes around. And it's like, "Oh, yes. Yeah, you belong here. You're Jewish. We know you."

Marisa Baggett: That doesn't necessarily apply when you're outside of that Jewish space. So I decided to tell the story of belonging to a Jewish space and actually the security guard being the one who, with their southern sensibility, saw me as a threat, even though I actually had a key to the building. It was a very eye opening experience in so many different ways. But yeah, I felt like this was something that needed to be said and something that people need to think about, even if it implicates them questioning whether or not someone is Jewish. Which is, of course, very against our own Jewish principles to ask.

Mark Gunnery: In your artist statement for the piece, you describe the experience of being denied entry into a Jewish space. You have the key to enter, as you said. You wrote, we are challenged to ask ourselves how split second threat assessments obscure the sense of community for those that belong. Can you explain more about that tension between belonging and exclusion that you've seen in Jewish spaces?

Marisa Baggett: Sure. This all comes from me being a Jew in the south. So that's the lens that I'm looking through. There's a big tension. Like I said earlier, you have a group of people that... Within the context of a Jewish space, they come to understand or recognize that you obviously belong but it also challenges them to think about what that means outside of the Jewish space. It's almost as if sometimes as southerners, we have two sets of values. We have our Jewish values and we have our southern values. It's not that I'm saying that southern values are... We other people but I think that there is a deep rooted southern mentality that says, "We are who we are. You are who you are." And everybody's so compartmentalized. And the merging and blending of cultures, it's relatively new and foreign to the South, I would say.

Mark Gunnery: Justin, the section of A Fence Around the Torah that Marisa's paintings are in is called security. Can you tell us about the questions that the security section is seeking to provoke and where you see Marisa's art responding to them?

Justin Fair: Yeah. I think Marisa's art is very, actually, quite reflective of that question of what does safety really mean? The Curator-in-Residence, Liora Ostroff, really did a fantastic job combining so many elements but for me, security relates to being proactive and being a bit honest with yourself and a bit militant. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's birthday just passed and his family was calling for people to not observe, if they weren't going to rally behind the need to increase voting rights. It's not enough just to say you support something, if you're not willing to actually write a letter, get up and go do something. I think Marisa's pieces really speak to that feeling of, I'm not just going to reflect on myself but I'm going to challenge and I'm going make a space where people, like myself, can feel welcome.

Mark Gunnery: And Justin, the security section of this exhibit asks the question, how does the issue of safety in Jewish spaces connect to broader conversations about safety, justice and policing in the greater community? In this moment that we're recording, we are a little bit less than a week removed from the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. And this question feels especially vital. I'm curious if your thoughts about safety and Jewish spaces have changed at all over the years?

Justin Fair: I feel like the sense of safety, it definitely has grown. In congregations across the country now, we see membership budgets being used to pay for armed security just to come and go from the building. Beth Am, my synagogue, where I belong, is in a mixed race neighborhood. Historically Black, historically Jewish neighborhood, right beside Druid Hill Park. Baltimore as a whole has this terrible history of redlining and of racist, segregationist neighborhoods. So that feeling of security for me extends the building itself because I'm willing to go hang out in the neighborhood before and after Shul.

Justin Fair: And I think a lot of congregants are in my case but how many people aren't, how many people only come and go from the parking lot to the building and back. I think that Jewish populace is really moving and changing in our country, towards realizing that to live with the moral high ground doesn't just mean to feel like you're doing the right thing. It means to really challenge that sense of, am I making the place comfortable? Am I making the place secure? I wish that everyone could stay, it's beyond just how I feel. It's more about how you feel.

Mark Gunnery: Marisa, same question to you, has your thinking about Jewish community safety changed over the years? And if so, how?

Baggett: Definitely. Back in:

Marisa Baggett: Sometimes people, they make a mis-hire here and there but for the most part, we feel pretty secure in our institutions here. But I have to agree with Justin also, where he talks about how that feels when you're not in the Jewish space. It's an internal thing and it brings up broader questions about, well, who doesn't belong and who gets to make those decisions about who doesn't belong and how are those decisions vetted? I think that it continues to change this whole idea of security in Jewish spaces. And while we maybe figured out some of the logistics very well like, having metal detectors or having bulletproof glass and making sure that people have the active shooter training and that sort of thing, it raises so many more questions about belonging and the essential question of are you Jewish and or why are you here?

Justin Fair: Marisa, I feel like there's some emotional harm involved in that question of who belongs and who doesn't.

Marisa Baggett: Yes.

that everyone realizes now in:

Marisa Baggett: Oh. Yes. Yes, absolutely. It would be incredible if there was a way to start having some of these deeper conversations and real conversations with congregational leadership and... And not just in synagogue spaces. Of course, in all spaces where Jews interact and come together. But yes, I think you're right. I think that there's definitely some generational aspects to that.

Mark Gunnery: Marisa, you have another painting in this exhibit called Talmud Shinui that starts with a quote from the Talmud that says, "All Israel is responsible for each other." Can you tell us about this painting and what you were trying to say with it?

Marisa Baggett: Yeah. So I think that speaking a little bit more about, Are You Jewish, and how uncomfortable I felt with that piece exploring the negative side. I wanted to also explore the more positive side because every experience that I've had as a Jew of color in Jewish spaces has not been negative and has not been so emotionally damaging. There's been a lot of good. And when I think about what those good things are, I think about the different places that I've gotten them. I like to say that I'm a dabbler. My husband and I have a synagogue home here in the Memphis but we also visit and daven at other synagogues. So any given time, we could be in an orthodox space or we could be in a reform space or a conservative space. And all of these traditions have so much to offer as far welcoming and just contributing to the overall Jewish tapestry.

Marisa Baggett: When you start pulling in even more like, this idea from the Talmud that all Israel is responsible, if you look back at what some of those things are that rabbis in Talmud really focused on, they're interesting. Some of the things like, how much you can pay for a kidnapping ransom. And it seems weird and out of place but if you think about it, that was a contemporary issue of their time that it was really important. And if it was important enough for them to write it down and for it to continue to be studied in Talmud today, then I think that we have to listen to other people who are bringing up our contemporary issues. We have to listen to every community. We have to draw from our traditions of, of course, all the branches of Judaism but we have to draw from the kaballists and maybe what they have to say.

Marisa Baggett: We have to draw from secular Jews. We have to draw from the LBGTQ community. We have to draw from everyone in order to really weave a strong tapestry that is strong for our future and the future generations. And that to me, is what a safe Jewish space and a safe Jewish community looks like.

Mark Gunnery: So Justin, Marisa is talking about drawing on our traditions, both ancient and contemporary to seek solutions for a hopeful future, the vitality of the Jewish people. That's from her artist statement for this piece. I'm curious for both of you, as we're starting to wrap up, first Justin, how do you draw upon both Black and Jewish traditions and both ancient and contemporary ones in your communal life?

Justin Fair: I feel like Shabbat. Keeping the Sabbath is so important because whatever that term means to you, it's a matter of setting this day aside in some way and learning to rest, to be still to try to separate from your normal being, so you can be mindful. I was actually, earlier today, looking up my brother. David, did his thesis on being Black and Jewish and looking into the (indistinct) and all that. And there was a terrific quote that I wanted to bring from the singer, Joshua Nelson. He wrote that in reference to being Black and being Jewish. He sings gospel. Kosher gospel is the term he uses. And there was this question where it's like, isn't that conflicting? And he said, "There is no conflict." I told him, "You already know that Black people were not Christians coming off the slave ship."

Justin Fair: He says, "You have to remember that memory that comes from identifying with the text, with the story, with the symbolism and then you keep those symbols with you. And you..." I think music is a great way to do that because it allows you to remember what your ancestors cared about and the passion that they had. And then you choose to repeat that passion. You bring it with you and you rejoice in the present. The Sabbath is about rejoicing in that regard. We turn and we say, "Hello.", to the bride, on the Sabbath night and we all bow because we are looking to connect our bodies with our voice. I also feel like... Another great quote that I'll use is also from Mr. Nelson, it's about remembering. He says, "We're all about Yizkor and we're all about moving forward by embracing the past and understanding of our presence so we know where to go." So I think the Sabbath is absolutely a great tradition that does that because it's relatable. I don't think anyone can pretend like it's not. And it allows everyone to interpret it in their own special way.

Marisa Baggett: Wow. Yeah. You talk about the Sabbath bride and I think of Joshua Nelson's version of Lekha Dodi. It's so joyful and so upbeat and it's like... Sometimes I just... On a Friday morning as I'm getting ready for Shabbat, I'm like, "Lekha dodi." Oh, it's so wonderful but I will agree with him on Shabbat. Here in our house, we get pretty excited about Shabbat. As someone who didn't grow up Jewish, I actually grew up in a heavily steeped Christian tradition. On one side of my family, my grandfather was a Baptist minister who had a church of his own and his wife, my grandmother was a mother in the COGIC church. And then on the other side of my family, you had elders and deacons and more mothers of churches.

Marisa Baggett: And one of our big things growing up as a kid, of course, Sunday was our Sabbath, was the food. Everyone connected through community with food. So it was this big deal to have a Sunday dinner. So for me having this special Shabbat dinner on Friday nights and then maybe having a luncheon or something on Saturday is my way of bringing in traditions from my Black culture of gathering with food. Food is the big cultural binder. Like Justin said, just rejoicing in this day that we have however you decide to celebrate it or rest on it. That's one of the biggest things for us, as well as the holidays. The holidays, we really go nuts because again, most holidays are so food based. And I think that being Black and Jewish, that's one of the places where it really intersects. It's through the food

Mark Gunnery: That's Marisa Baggett. Marisa Baggett is a multi-disciplined creative who, as she puts it, combines contemporary sensibilities with beloved Jewish traditions via kosher food, paintings and writing. Thank you so much, Marisa.

Marisa Baggett: Thank you.

Mark Gunnery: I've also been joined by Justin Fair. Justin fair is a lay leader with the Jews of Color Mishpacha Project and he was on the curatorial panel for, A fence Around the Torah. Justin, thanks for joining us too.

Justin Fair: Thank you so much.

Mark Gunnery: Thank you so much for listening to Disloyal. We hope you enjoyed the podcast and we'd love to hear your feedback. Our email address is You can follow us on Twitter @jewishmuseummd or on Instagram at jewishmuseum_md. And if you're in Baltimore, come visit. Go to for more information and to become a member, if you're interested in supporting content like this podcast. Visit to check out our latest art exhibit. Disloyal is a production of the Jewish Museum of Maryland and is produced and hosted by me, Mark Gunnery with production assistants from Naomi Weintraub, the Jewish Museum of Maryland's community, artist and residents. Our executive director is Sol Davis. You can subscribe to Disloyal wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes each Friday. Until next time, take care.




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