Choking on Modesty (Extract)

Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Chana Goldberg's paintings challenge gender inequality in Orthodox Jewish society. The first impression of the white table- cloth hanging in Chana Goldberg's small Jerusalem studio is that it is elegant enough to grace any Sabbath table. From the front, it appears devoid of design, except for the embroidery on the edges, but stand a little off-center and you see, through the semi-transparent surface, individual table settings consisting of black and white scenes, mounted on thin cardboard rectangles, of Orthodox boys and girls engaging in various activities. The work is entitled "Shulhan Arukh" which means "set table" in Hebrew and is the name of the 16th-century code of Jewish law which has determined Orthodox Jewish practice ever since. Goldberg's images suggest that these table settings give the lion's share of privilege to the boys. For example, in one of the barely visible rectangles, a boy receives a blessing from his father while a girl stands to the side; in another, a group of male yeshiva students are deep in study under the kindly gaze of their teacher, and in a third girls are washing the floor and baking the challa. "Nowhere does it say in the Shulhan Arukh that a girl cleans the floor," says Goldberg. "It's all in the subtext." Consequently, the scenes are partially obscured, a visual parallel to the subtexts, all placed behind what she calls a "veil of conformity." "I chose children's book illustrations for my scenes of boys' and girls' activities because they look like playing cards. It is as if each child at birth is dealt a certain hand [of cards], which carries instructions on how to behave. And the boys, obviously, have the better cards," she says. Born into an ultra-Orthodox household 49 years ago, Chana Goldberg has moved toward the religious center and has been struggling through her art for close to two decades to point out the inequalities of the sexes in her native milieu. Being a woman makes her task all the more of an uphill struggle. "When a woman sounds off about important issues, the reaction is usually, 'Just be pretty and shut up,'" she says. "We are not supposed to rock the boat." One of her most daring paintings is a "Last Supper," a biting feminist parody of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece. Instead of the 12 apostles and Jesus seated behind the Passover table, Goldberg has substituted a single faceless figure with eight breasts, each of which is resting on the tabletop, either feeding an infant or lying inert. The red stripes on the tablecloth look like dripping blood. "It reflects how little control we have over our own bodies," she says. "We give birth until exhaustion." Goldberg and her modern-Orthodox husband Shmuel Goldberg, a pediatric pulmonlogist at Shaare Tzedek Hospital, live in the Katamonim, a mixed religious-secular Jerusalem neighborhood, with their four children. Her cramped studio in the Talpiot industrial area is choc-a-bloc with canvases, leaning against one another, side by side on narrow shelves or hanging on the walls. She receives visitors, comfortable in sweater and pants, with an uncovered head of brown hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bun. A lively woman, she sits down nimbly on the back of a chair and engages the visitor with a steady, friendly and trusting gaze. "I believe I am the only professional frum-from-birth female artist in the city," she says, using the Yiddish word for observant. Born in 1959 in Kibbutz Shaalvim, an ultra-Orthodox religious kibbutz, near Latrun on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Goldberg moved with her family to Jerusalem when she was 8, and received an ultra-Orthodox elementary and secondary education. Her art studies began with a private teacher in her teenage years. After graduation from high school and two years of national service, she enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she eventually received an MA in Hebrew Literature. Her mother had tried, to no avail, to steer Chana away from a secular university. Mindful of her daughter's artistic talent, she tried to enroll her in a graphic design course at a technical college, "where she thought I might learn something useful," says Goldberg with a smile, gesturing around her studio, filled to bursting with the "non-useful" works that she has produced ever since. Goldberg completed her degree at age 27. During her studies, she married Shmuel, who was then a medical student at Hadassah Hospital and had the first two of their four children. She continued painting while at university and, after graduating, she applied to Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, but was not accepted. "There were no religious women in Bezalel back then [1986]. They [the faculty who interviewed her] made fun of me, with my head covering, long skirts and children. It left a bitter taste," she remembers ruefully. Undaunted, she taught art at various Jerusalem-area high schools and raised her growing family. Then in 1993, her husband secured a position at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Chana taught Midrash, Talmud and rabbinical literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in nearby Wyncote and discovered Temple University's Tyler School of Art. "I could only afford to enroll in one course. I never got a degree from there, but I did receive a great education." At the end of the family's three-year stay in Philadelphia, she was allowed to stage a solo exhibition there, entitled "Motherhood." Returning to Jerusalem in 1996, Goldberg began to expand on the themes nurtured at Tyler, including controversial scenes of motherhood, like her "Last Supper," which was first shown in a 1999 group exhibition for new members at the Jerusalem's Artists House. Her multimedia "Shulhan Arukh" installation was exhibited at Jerusalem's Elul Institute, a pluralistic Jewish learning center, in 2003. Leonardo is not the only Old Master in the Artists House exhibition from whom Goldberg derives inspiration. Based on Rembrandt's "Flayed Ox" is "Cow Carcass," an image of a huge slab of meat hanging in slaughterhouse style in the middle of a modern kitchen. "Just as this beef is imprisoned in the kitchen, so is the woman who must prepare it," Goldberg explains. To playfully remind the spectator that this is women's work, she inserts the image of a yellow human breast peeking out from the animal's ribcage. ] A second reference to Rembrandt is a droll re-invention of "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Jan Deijman." Instead of a male on the autopsy table, there is a female cadaver; and from the hole cut in her abdomen, babies pour out, as well as a circular birth-control pill dispenser. In the background, suspended in air and on a larger scale than the doctor and his corpse, is a necklace with eight little baby medallions, trophies attesting to the fecundity of the wearer. Birth control pill dispensers fill the firmament of yet another Goldberg reference to the Renaissance, a parody of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." The artist's Venus is deprived of her feminine beauty and is immediately assigned to child-bearing activities. Goldberg rescues the mythological deity from premature motherhood through the pills, which give her control of her own destiny. "These [paintings] are protests against women being forced to be childbearing machines. Have kids regardless of the wear and tear on the human body," she says with unconcealed anger. At the time of the 1999 exhibition, Goldberg was teaching art at a religious high school in Jerusalem. When a supervisor from the Ministry of Education for the religious schools saw her paintings at the Artists House, she gave Goldberg an ultimatum: either remove her works from the exhibit or lose her job. Goldberg chose the latter and quit. Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.