The woman’s place in the synagogue

‘I truly wonder whether the fact that there is a women’s section as an integral part of the synagogue is actually designed to welcome women in rather than to ostracize them.’

The ornate interior of a Tunisian synagogue in Acre boasts upholstered seating and ample space in the women’s section. (photo credit: ADVA NAAMA BARAM)
The ornate interior of a Tunisian synagogue in Acre boasts upholstered seating and ample space in the women’s section.
(photo credit: ADVA NAAMA BARAM)
If you are Jewish, male and religiously Orthodox, the following may not appear to be relevant for you. Then again, given the fact that you generally don’t get a glimpse of the part of the synagogue in question, perhaps your curiosity may be doubly piqued.
Adva Naama Baram certainly took a keen interest in the women’s sections of synagogues, and the result of her forays into female prayer areas up and down the country – and even abroad – are there for all to observe and enjoy on the walls of the Architect’s House Gallery in Jaffa, in the “In the Women’s Section” photographic exhibition.
Truth be told, Baram has a professional head start on the subject matter at hand. For starters she is, of course, a highly experienced photographer. But there is also the not inconsiderable slot in her professional résumé which refers to her other day job, that of architect.
Baram traveled all over the country in her photographic quest, and the exhibits display all manner of women’s sections – from the rather grand to the cubbyhole variety, and even the nonexistent kind.
The artist takes a definitively sunny approach towards the theme, though some may argue that particularly in Orthodox houses of prayer, women tend to be shunted to one side and, at best, are able to get a clear overview of the service in progress; in the worst case, they can only just about hear what their menfolk are doing and reciting.
All told, there are around 30 pictures in the exhibition, and you can tell Baram has done her homework – and footwork. There are shots from Tel Aviv, Petah Tikva, Ramat Hasharon, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Yavne, Acre and Peki’in in the Upper Galilee, and as far South as the environs of Mitzpe Ramon. There are also a couple of frames of a fetching synagogue in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which add a slightly more cosmopolitan flavor to the show.
“As an architect, I have a great interest in public buildings that serve as centers of social, financial, cultural and public life in general,” says Baram. “When I was a student I also took pictures of churches and mosques. So, when I got together with the curators of this exhibition [architects Rivka Guttman and Eran Tamir-Tawil] and we came up with the idea of synagogues, I thought what is unique about them, and I realized it was the women’s section.”
Baram says she was driven by several avenues of thought and perspective.
“I addressed the topic as a woman, an architect, a photographer and as someone who has an interest in the spiritual side of life.”
And she didn’t exactly reel off a few snaps and have done with the thing. “I spent around two years working on this project,” says Baram, adding that she had no clear agenda at the outset, or during the course of her travels. “I wanted to present what I saw and to allow people to arrive at their own conclusions, or to bring their own thoughts and feelings to the project.”
Baram has her own thoughts and feelings about the treatment of women in synagogues, but says she wants to leave the matter as open as possible. She applauds the existence of special synagogue areas for women. “If there’s a women’s section in a synagogue, this means women are invited to attend the services,” she says simply.
There is undeniable logic to that. “I know that women tend to go straight for the discrimination angle. But I truly wonder whether, as I said, the fact that there is a women’s section as an integral part of the synagogue is actually designed to welcome women in – rather than ostracize them.”
The architect-photographer admits to grand ideas. “I would like to open up the whole issue to public debate and to consider what the synagogue of the future will look like. I propose we start the planning from the women’s section and then move on from there.”
There are several edifices in her shots that look like they could have done with the latter mind-set, at least as far as the female members of the community are concerned. The synagogue in Peki’in, for example, offers its women attendees the unenviable comfort of a couple of exterior stonework benches, while the Beit Zvul house of prayer on Agrippas Street, just down the road from Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, hardly has room for a minyan of menfolk inside – so, possibly, the six folding chairs set out outside for the women make more sense.
Then there’s the highly ornate Or Torah synagogue of the Tunisian community in Acre, where the women appear to not only have a good view of the men conducting and participating in the service downstairs, but the upholstered seating looks suitably comfy, too.
Then again, the seating arrangements for the women at the Hechal Yehuda synagogue in Tel Aviv appear to be pretty austere, while the women’s section at the Beit El synagogue in Petah Tikva appears to offer good visibility, although the ceiling looks pretty close.
In terms of visual aesthetics – after all, this is a photographic exhibition rather than an academic session about the pros and cons of synagogue architectural design – the In the Women’s Section exhibition offers plenty to keep the eyes and the mind of the observer engaged.
While keen to open the subject to the floor, Baram naturally has her own ideas on what she encountered on her photographic odyssey. “In terms of my own utopia, and what I saw myself, I saw some kind of space [in the synagogues] which comprises some kind of detachment between female praying and male praying, whereby the women’s prayers are a sort of backdrop to what the men do.”
Even so, Baram says she is not looking to upset the apple cart. “I am not saying the men and women should sit together; I am in favor of segregation. The question is how you go about it.”
The artist looks to her main line of work in the latter regard. “I think you have to take the architecture into account here; architecture has the power to get this done in the correct way. In the exhibition I have tried to show both sides of this coin. If you look at the photography of the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, you can see the women’s section looks like something from a prison, with bars. But if you take a look at the Karaite Synagogue in Ashdod, suddenly as a woman you get a completely different feeling.”
The Ashdod design is airy and open, and the women appear to have plenty of room for maneuver as well as a clear view of the downstairs goings-on.
An important element in all of this, Baram notes, is the partition – the existence or nonexistence thereof and, if there is one, how much visibility of the men’s section it offers.
In the Karaite synagogue, there is no screen or curtain.
“I don’t have to know anything else about this synagogue to realize what the men in the Karaite community think of their womenfolk, and their participation in synagogue services.
There is an unbroken reciprocal view of both sections which, to me, conveys a sense of togetherness.”
The Mekor Baruch Synagogue of the local Moroccan community, also in Ashdod, offers the women a very different view – or in fact, almost none at all. “You see there is a chair for one woman right up near the partition so she could see downstairs, but the benches themselves are set right back.”
Notwithstanding her seeming disapproval of the seating arrangements for women at the latter synagogue, and elsewhere around the country, Baram says she is keeping an open mind on the matter. “As a woman, I refuse to be offended by such women’s sections. I just want to how we make progress.”
The “In the Women’s Section” photographic exhibition closes on October 30. For more information: (03) 518-8234