Interview Series Episode 2: Tonia Chazanow
When did you first get into learning Tanya?
Tanya was always my first and constant love throughout my learning. When I was in middle school, I had a chavrusa with my counselor. I must have been the most annoying camper because we learned almost every night and if we didn’t I would call her multiple times until we did. There were definitely things that I did not understand and that I didn’t necessarily have a deep appreciation for, but I was always drawn to it. Then, when I learned it in high school, the life was kind of sucked out of it. It seemed very technical and it wasn’t inspiring. Then, when I went to seminary and Rabbi Friedman (from Tzfat) was my teacher, he once again reignited my love for Tanya. I started taking my Tanya learning much more seriously and wanted to have a handle on the whole Tanya, not just on specific topics.
When and how did you start the “The Tanya Project”?
It happened very organically. I was listening to R. Paltiel’s Tanya shiur one day and I was doodling. When I doodle, I often write words and I kind of wrote a poem while I was listening. When I finished, I felt like I had so much more clarity on the Tanya than I usually did. The Tanya of that day was Perek 36 which is a very inspiring and easy chapter to start with. I finished writing the poem and I was so excited. I thought “I need to do this more often!” I called my mother a couple minutes later and told her that I was going to start a Tanya project and she told me to go for it. I was very excited by the idea and decided to challenge myself. I told myself: if I can do this for seven days, I’m opening an Instagram account to hold myself accountable. So that’s what I did. Within seven days, I had done it every day and I started the account. Some people understandably doubted the project, asking, “What are you going to write about Shaar Hayichud and what are you going to write about Kuntres Acharon? It’s all fun and games when you’re in Likkutei Amarim, but what’s going to happen next?”
Honestly, thank G-d I started in then because it was easier to write poetry on the beginning chapters and there definitely have been days since when I read the Tanya and thought “I’m supposed to write a poem about this?! There’s no way.” But writing the poem was actually how I ended up understanding the Tanya in a much deeper and more cohesive way, in a way that I don't when I’m just learning for the sake of learning. Every person has their own unique form of self expression and for me personally, there’s nothing like forcing myself to learn and then angling what I've learnt through my own perspective to make it part of my bloodstream.
The moment that I started filtering my learning through my specific form of expression was the moment that my learning completely changed for me because it became much more personal and digestible. People often say that it’s complicated to write poetry or make art based on Chassidus because Chassidus is lofty and complicated, but for me, that is the best process through which I understand it.
I’ve been learning Tanya all my life but forcing myself to do the Tanya Project - and when I say ‘forcing’, on many days I really did force myself - has really changed my life. It was engaging with Chassidus in a way that was really personal and I had to think “What does this actually mean to me and how can I say this in my own words?” It had to be honest and truthful and resonate with who I am.
How did you first get into poetry and how has your poetry evolved?
I started writing spoken word poetry when I was in 10th grade and of course, discovered it through secular poetry. I really tried to stay away from unclean poetry, since a lot of spoken word poetry is very dark. At the same time, my mother would tell me ‘Tonia, as a frum girl, don’t just write about sunsets. You have to elevate your talent.’ And that really stuck with me. Whenever something resonated with me spiritually, I would write a poem about it. I was also writing poetry about things I learned in school.
Then there was a point when it shifted because at the beginning stages of any hobby or interest, the beginning is really exciting and inspiration comes easily. Many times when I was in high school or seminary, I questioned whether I still had the words to express myself. It wasn’t the case anymore that something inspired me so much that I couldn’t help but write a poem about it, but rather that I would write a poem about it and then realize how much it inspired me. Once I actually forced myself to sit down and make quiet space for how what I learned was sitting with me, that’s when the Chassidus actually made an impact.
I remember complaining to my brother when I was in high school that I didn’t have kavana when I davened. He told me: “You can only have kavana if you daven every day. Some days, you’ll have kavana and some days you won't. If you’re showing up for it, you’re making it possible.” The same is true for inspiration. Many days I’ve learned the Tanya and not been inspired by it and thought “How am I going to write a poem about this?” and once I sat down, put away my phone, opened my laptop and actually forced myself to write a poem, some of my most personally meaningful poems came about because I had to access a place that wasn’t as easily touched and inspired.
I think what you’re saying is really profound because this is the approach many of us often take to learning. We feel that if we’re going to learn something, we want to go to a shiur that’s really dynamic and engaging and will immediately draw us in. But are we willing to put effort into making this our own? To find inspiration through engaging with the text and discovering our own meaning in it?
Yes, and inspirational speakers are great and they can have a lot of meaning to share but we can’t rely on that for our sole inspiration. There’s a lot of discipline involved in being an inspired Jew. Discipline does not come easily to me. The Tanya project really challenged me on a personal level - can I stick to this and show up every single day even though that's not how I usually do projects? Discipline was a personal struggle, but it also made me realize how important discipline is to the process of inspiration. If you actually discipline yourself to learn consistently from the text, you will be inspired consistently. There’s something to be said for engaging on your own, not having someone else learn the maamar and then explain it to you in a way that they’ve packaged and that resonates with them, but actually learning it on your own. It’s the difference between reading nice think pieces about nutrition versus actually studying the in-depth science behind nutrition. One might be more inspiring but the other gives you the opportunity to actually have a say on what nutrition really means. To be able to say to yourself ‘I have a relationship with Chassidus’, it can’t just be a ‘pick me up’. It's not just “I read the news and I read an article on chabad.org”, it has to be a commitment to exploring the ideas from the source.
We live in a world of instant gratification and we often do the exact same thing with inspiration. When we want to be inspired, we think “I’ll go to a shiur” or “I'll listen to a podcast” or we’ll read an article. It's not that these things aren’t inspiring and I know there are women for whom this is the only thing they can access because of time constraints or life circumstances. But when you do have the opportunity and the time and the mental energy to do more, there is no greater gift you can give yourself. Being an inspired Jew has a lot to do with showing up and doing work yourself. It takes hard work and it takes discipline.
I think this is true with any artistic talent - if you just pick a guitar once in a while when you’re in the mood, you’ll never become a professional guitarist. There’s a lot of discipline involved in making something a part of who you are. And the same thing is true of Torah - if you just drop into the shiur once in a while when you need inspiration, it’s nice, but it's never going to really form who you are. Making it a discipline is a really important thing.
Yes, it’s definitely true of any art form. When it comes to writing, people pay a lot of attention to writer’s block. I don't really believe in writer's block. When I’m undisciplined, I’m uncreative. If I don't make time for my art or writing, I don't create. But it’s not really because there's an inherent block. I mean, technology can be a block, but that’s just because you’re not creating any silence or space for the art to happen. And if there's no silence and there's no space for it to be born in, it's not going to be born. You need to pay attention to it for it to happen. The same is definitely true of learning. Very often the reason we are not inspired, and of course I can only speak for myself, is because I haven't been showing up. You have to show up. Paintings don’t paint themselves while you're walking to the grocery store. They just don't. You have to open up your paints. Connection to foundational Chassidic ideas doesn’t happen without putting in the effort.
What would you respond to someone who told you that they don’t find the Tanya relevant or meaningful to them?
When I first started teaching Tanya (in Bnos Chomesh High School), some of my students complained to me that the Tanya wasn’t relevant or practical or interesting. I totally understood them; I remember feeling so frustrated in high school that I wasn’t connecting to the Tanya in the way that people promised me I could. The first thing to do was to tell my students to give the Tanya a chance: to approach it in a new and more personal way and see if they could find the practical guidance they were looking for.
I tried to encourage them (and myself) that when you aren’t finding Chassidus to be practical or relevant to your life, you need to engage with it in a way that’s more personal. And for each person that’s different.
The Tanya often speaks in principles rather than with specific examples, and we are tasked with the responsibility of building the bridge between the principle and our personal life. I think a lot of it is dependent on actually cracking the text on your own or with a friend. Don’t just go to a shiur but actually try it for yourself. View it through your own perspective and if you have a specific form of expression, I think it's really vital that you engage it with Chassidus. I believe that creativity is connected to your neshama and if someone has any creative expression, it's very much linked to who they are and to their deepest core. If they are not engaging that part of themselves with their learning, there's going to be a bit of a gap between their deepest selves and the chassidic concepts. Merging that gap makes all the difference.
How do you see art as a tool to help people understand Chassidus and what vision do you have for how art can play a bigger role in the way people learn?
There are two perspectives: one is what Chassidic art does for the world, and one is what it does for the person making it. From the perspective of what it does for the world: everyone will have days that they aren’t up to learning anything or days that they are angry at G-d or topics in Yiddishkeit that don’t necessarily resonate with them. But when those same ideas can be presented in a creative way, or a concept can be made more palatable, or easy to digest, they can be inspired in ways they may not have been inspired before. I think we have a responsibility to the world to use our creativity to express the concepts of Chassidus as we experience them. Oftentimes, people don’t connect to an idea simply because they need to hear it said in a new way. If you can share your perspective on Chassidus, your words or artwork may be exactly what someone else needs to hear to finally connect to the concept.
Instagram is essentially a marketplace. People are selling things - their art, their dresses, their food, their lifestyles. People are tapping into their creativity daily as a means of selling you something. Influencers are curating a lifestyle or executing a certain vision of the world. Through sharing Chassidic artwork, you’re selling Chassidus! You’re using whatever talents Hashem gave you to sell Chassidus in a new way, in a creative way, in a way that people haven't necessarily experienced before and that’s really powerful. Especially in a world inundated with really creative marketing and a lot of high-quality literature and art, there’s really no reason there should be a lack in the realm of Jewish art. Moshiach’s coming is signified by every segment of the world becoming infused with Chassidus and that includes the creative world.
And then on a really personal level, from the perspective of the person creating: I think that Chassidus is the language of the soul and creativity is the language of the soul. Chassidus demands full engagement in your life, not just your intellect. It demands Daas, which is about incorporating G-dly awareness into every single part of your life. There’s no way you can learn Chassidus properly and leave any corner of your life untouched. If you suspect that there’s a part of your creative expression that's blocked, discovering that part of yourself is part of your spiritual journey. Because you need to show up to your relationship with Hashem with every single part of you.
I think all parts of a person are interconnected and they need to coexist harmoniously. And if something is out of balance in one area, it means something is off in all areas. Making Chassidus personal to you starts with being honest about who you are and engaging that part of yourself with your learning. Otherwise, it will always feel impractical or unreachable.
Lichsheyafutzah maayanosecha chutzah is about spreading Chassidus to every corner of the world that has not yet been touched by it. Shouldn’t that “chutzah” also include the deep and personal parts of ourselves that creativity stems from and reaches?
What’s next after this?
I've been slowing down a bit on Instagram because I've been focusing on refining the work as opposed to just creating more. There’s a lot of work we still want to do before hopefully compiling everything into a book. I haven't been writing poetry for that many years so there are definitely poems that I posted in the past that I want to change. To really do justice to Likutei Amarim, we really want to understand it better and have it edited properly. We want to put something out into the world that’s worthwhile of being read and free of as many mistakes as possible. I still have a long way to go in terms of actually understanding the depth of the Tanya’s meaning. I think it’s a lifelong journey. For now, I’m just sharing my creative work along the way.
After we finish Lekutei Amarim, we’d like to continue with Shaar Hayichud, etc. I would also love to get more into performance poetry, which is something I really love doing. And in general, I would love to help further other people’s creativity with Chassidus. I would really like to see people having a space to process the Chassidus they learn through their own creative lens. When I look around at artists and fellow Jews, I really see that shift happening already. It’s incredible.