It’s a woman’s world

The annual Jerusalem arts fest Manofim's exhibition “Women’s Section” takes in political and social issues.

Sara Cutler follows her own road to self-fulfillment. (photo credit: HODAYA TOLEDANO)
Sara Cutler follows her own road to self-fulfillment.
(photo credit: HODAYA TOLEDANO)
Last week the annual Jerusalem arts fest Manofim kicked off, with rich pickings on offer around the city and across a broad spectrum of disciplines and styles. Art, naturally, conveys messages of various kinds. Some are simply personal takes on some topic or area of life, while others indicate a broader standpoint on events – taking in, for example, political and social issues. The “Women’s Section” exhibition, which opened at the Shelter Gallery in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood on October 24 and will run until November 27, clearly pertains to the more variegated ethos.
The show, which is curated by Noa Lea Cohn, features several dozen works by young British-born painter Sara Cutler and seasoned Israeli-born counterpart Nomi Tannhauser. They are two very different artists from very different backgrounds. Cutler hails from an Orthodox family from London, while Tannhauser follows a non-observant lifestyle, at least according to the strict delineating religious-secular Jewish divide.
Even so, they have a lot in common. For starters, they both offer a highly personal perspective of what life is, or may be, for religious women, and contrasting personal backgrounds notwithstanding, to a great extent they both look into the world of Jewish Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy, from something of an outside vantage point.
When you descend into the shelter/display area, you get a sense of entering, yes, the women’s section of a synagogue. There is no partition there, designed to keep the sexes apart, but there is a powerful feminine feel to the space. That may have been connected to the fact that during my two-hour visit to the subterranean venue, the vast majority of visitors were women, but the paintings also exude a definitively womanly viewpoint.
Both artists look in on their subjects from the outside, but again, from varying positions. Cutler explains her penchant for portraits by saying she is intrigued by the inner machinations of the people she sees around her.
“I look at a person’s eyes and, yes, I am painting how the person looks, but I am trying to paint the inside.” For the twenty-something artist, that’s a two-way street. “I am trying to paint the inside. I am trying to paint my inside. The face is the most expressive. If you want to see how someone feels, you don’t look at their body, you look at their face. It’s true that body language says a lot, but it is really about the eyes. The first thing a baby does, after it is born, it looks into its mother’s eyes. That’s the way they connect.”
Cutler’s headshot spread takes in a motley cross section of characters, all of whom tend towards the religious sector of the community and, judging by their headwear, the vast majority are married. One portrait that immediately grabs your attention is that of a woman who appears to be bareheaded, that is until you assume she is wearing a wig. “That’s Ruchie Freier,” says Cutler. She could have said “the Honorable Ruchie Freier,” the first ultra-Orthodox woman to be elected to public office as a judge in the United States. It was an inspired, and inspiring, choice on several grounds. Among her many achievements to date, Freier founded Ezras Nashim (Women’s Section) the first all-female EMT volunteer ambulance corps. Freier started her law studies when she was already a mother of three and had doubled the number of her offspring by the time she became a full-time advocate.
Freier is said to have defied the odds, and the stereotypes, which, in a nutshell, is what the exhibition is all about. It is very much about introducing the outside world to the way things really are, and have been, for women who, from the an outsiders’ point of view, appear to be exclusively consumed by the need to get married, have children – lots of them – care for them and, eventually, get them married off to, hopefully, someone from “good stock.”
Cutler is aware of that line of thought. “Yes, that’s often the way it is in the [haredi] community. There are certain standards – things that are considered acceptable and things that are looked down on.” Her decision to make aliyah and become an artist flies in the face of mainstream ultra-Orthodox thought. She is aware of that, but is determined to have her say. She also draws comfort from some her subjects.
“There are women here who are religious and who I look up to. It is a kind of balance of walking the path of being in the world – making a difference to the world and contributing to society and being the best person they can be. I don’t shy away from things and topics, and taboos. These women keep their standards, where their values are.”
TANNHAUSER OFFERS a left-field perspective on women from sectors of the public that are considered by many to be off-limits. Her contribution to the Women’s Section is fueled by her observations of haredi women and girls from more than two decades ago.
“Back then no one was doing this,” she observes. “No one was interested in the ultra-Orthodox community.” That was in the early- to mid-1990s. “I took these photographs between 1992 and 1995, and I exhibited the paintings at the Jerusalem Artists House. People looked at the works, and they wondered what drew me to the haredi community.”
Tannhauser’s interest was piqued by her own maternal experiences.
“I had two children and I had a difficult time as a mother,” she recalls. “And then I’d see a haredi woman with seven children, and she’d seem so serene. That annoyed me,” she says. She felt she just had to do something with that emotional baggage. “I just wanted to survive. I had all this anger inside me. That would have killed me if that I kept that inside me. It was my survival, my therapy.”
While the seeds for all Tannhauser’s works on display were sown almost quarter of a century ago, her part of the show also includes much more recent paintings. The contrast between the two temporal slots is pretty stark. The earlier scenes portray haredi women walking through streets, presumably of their own patch of Jerusalem. They are realistic-leaning everyday scenes. There are women, clearly mothers, who appear both observant and a little weary, and there are infants, still insouciant and as yet untouched by expectations of what they should be.
Secular Israelis may not be aware of the changes taking place within haredi society, but that evolution led Tannhauser to venture even further into seemingly impenetrable domains of the community.
“Ultra-Orthodox women have changed. They are not like the ones in the older paintings anymore. They are more open and express themselves more.”
With that in mind, Tannhauser’s more recent oils portray burka-wearing women, and in a more stylized way. Considering the generally held view that the peripheries of religious lifestyles should be best avoided, she may have been treading on thin ice here. “People say I am very brave,” she observes. “I don’t think so. I don’t know any other way.”
The newer works feature decorative elements around the feminine figures, which, says Tannhauser, allude to quotidian tasks performed by haredi women and, once again, remedial practice.
“This started out from women quilting, and meditation – it is very meditative to do things that are repetitive. I was thinking about women’s chores, and giving birth again and again. It is about women’s life and how we are.”
“The Women’s Section,” offers the public an opportunity to see some intriguing artworks and is also a rare chance for the secular majority to get a handle on some of the inner nuances of a broad community – the members of which, for many, may all appear to be of the same aesthetic, social and religious stripe. Few secular Jewish Israelis venture into Jerusalem’s religious neighborhoods, unless, for instance, they happen to need the services of the Clalit Health Services medical center a stone’s throw away from the Shelter Gallery, or drive through the narrow main thoroughfare of Mea She’arim en route to the environs of the Old City or the eastern neighborhoods of Jewish Jerusalem.
“You always have this dialogue between tradition and modernity,” Cohn observes. “I think here we have a combination of those two voices.”
The curator also feels the divide between “us” and “them” is not, in fact, that wide.
“Nomi says she made these paintings because inside every secular woman there’s a haredi woman, and inside every haredi there’s a secular person,” she laughs. “There is a moving dialogue going on here.”
The Shelter Gallery is located next to the playground at 7 Yehuda Hamaccabi Street, Mekor Baruch.
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