BEACON, New York — Everyone has a horror story of dealing with bureaucracy — the missing notary stamp, the signature in the wrong place, the photocopy when only an original will do. For Israeli-American artist Ori Alon, the Kafkaesque travails of applications and forms were the inspiration for his latest endeavor, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays.
Through his Center for Supportive Bureaucracy and the Empowering Clerks Network, Alon puts a spin on the drudgery of modern paperwork by offering a slew of official-looking documents that embody the spirit of the season. This includes the “joy permit,” valid for a specific duration and geographic validity, as well as apology declarations that can formalize one’s feelings of regret.
“Forgiver’s licenses,” bona fide hard plastic photo IDs reminiscent of driver’s licenses, are especially popular in the run-up to Yom Kippur. But make sure you’ve filled out the required “601(c)” form, aka the Compassion Exam, which comes in both Class A (forgive self only) and Class B (forgive others as well) versions.
“It’s obviously not a legal document, but the fun and lightness of it bring people to a spiritual world,” says Alon who works with his network of “clerks” out of a makeshift office on Main Street in Beacon, New York, some 60 miles north of Manhattan.
For the forgiver’s license in particular, he was inspired by the story of Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor who publicly forgave the Nazis in the belief that forgiveness was the most powerful weapon she had against her tormenters. He also cites the 2007 short film “Validation,” in which a parking attendant gives compliments to people as he validates their parking stubs.
As part of his performance art, Alon plays the role of “bureaucrat,” with a positive twist. “I’m telling people ‘you’re awesome, you’re great’” he says. “And when I interview someone, let’s say for a certificate of recognition, I ask the person, ‘What is the recognition for?’”
Alon’s prompts, at turns humorous and probing, can thus lead to serious self-reflection. The weekend before Rosh Hashanah he partnered with Beacon Hebrew Alliance, a local synagogue, to offer a Selichot workshop and brought in his forgiver’s license applications and apology declaration forms.
“What was terrific about the forms that Ori prepared is that they were funny and accessible and allowed people to get to the essence or purpose of the holidays – teshuva – without being tripped up by the unwieldy tool of the liturgy,” says the synagogue’s rabbi, Brent Spodek.
Thus far, Alon has issued 150 forgiver’s licenses and trained 15 empowering clerks, who have the full faith and credit of the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy to sign off on documents. He has also set up shop at festivals in the Hudson Valley region north of New York City and will be at the New Shul in Manhattan later this month.
This endeavor isn’t Alon’s first foray into tinkering with the written word. The Center for Supportive Bureaucracy falls under the aegis of his larger project, Alfassi Books, a community publishing house that operates under the “gift economy” model, whereby his wares – typewritten letters, short story pamphlets, comic dialogues told by historical figures on stamps – are given as a gift with no expectation of compensation (though donations – both financial and philatelic – are welcome).
Thus far, Alon has issued 150 forgiver’s licenses and trained 15 empowering clerks, who have the full faith and credit of the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy to sign off on documents
The publishing house is named for Alfassi Street in Jerusalem, where Alon lived in a decaying but bohemian apartment building for five years before it was developed into a luxury condo. In 2008, he moved to Brooklyn and later settled in Beacon to raise his family. He became a naturalized US citizen this year, and dealing with that process in part inspired the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy.
To acquire US citizenship, he says, “I had to fill out a lot of paperwork, more than I’ve ever done in my life.” Still, he adds, “While people in the US complain, you have no idea; Israeli bureaucracy is horrible.”
Between the two countries, he had plenty of material, complete with arcane names of forms, to riff on.
While filling out forms is a universal experience, the Days of Awe are particular to Judaism. His High Holiday order forms, with rows for the name and quantity of what one wants in the new year, are, according to Alon “a literal interpretation of cheshbon ha’nefesh [accounting of the soul].” (Even if, as Spodek said at Beacon Hebrew Alliance’s Rosh Hashanah service when directing congregants to the forms wedged into prayer books, “it looks like you could order an egg sandwich with cheese on it.”)
Alon has also been happy to share his innovative approach to self-reflection with a wider audience.
“Jews don’t have a monopoly on concepts like joy and forgiveness,” he says.
Rabbi Spodek agrees: “There are particular insights of Judaism that are universally true, such as the idea that there is no point in trying to get right with the Divine if you haven’t gotten right with people.”
He adds, “I’m excited for ways, like Ori’s forms, that allow us to express the universal truths which Judaism articulates – to everyone, whether they are Jewish or not and whether they are literate in the tradition or not.”
Alon thinks the product’s broad applicability speaks for itself.
“I’m not selling tefillin or yarmulkes, everyone can relate to it,” he says.