Is time running out?

Jerusalem’s Artists’ House provides aesthetic food for religious thought, for Tisha Be’av and beyond.

Art by Andi Arnovitz (photo credit: ANDI ARNOVITZ/AVSHALOM AVITAL)
Art by Andi Arnovitz
Andi Arnovitz has got a bee in her bonnet, and the bee is buzzing loudly and defiantly.
“Technology has marched way ahead of the ethics,” says the fiftysomething American-born artist. “I have great doubts about our ability to keep things straight and to not be greedy as a result of technology.”
A modern Orthodox woman who made aliya in 1999, Arnovitz has exhibited works at a number of important venues around the country, as well as in Canada, China, the United States and Eastern Europe, and has several items in the US Library of Congress. She doesn’t seem like the reactionary type, but in addition to what she sees as technological mayhem, she is also up in arms about some of the actions taken by the state-sanctioned rabbinical authorities over the years. The title of what she classifies as an installation, “The Black List,” one of several exhibitions currently running at the Artists’ House in Jerusalem and curated by Tamar Gispan- Greenberg, spells that out in no uncertain terms.
“This piece, specifically, is called Counting Your Eggs,” she notes, indicating a large work that seems to have a multitude of numbered tags with long strings tied to them. “It’s about the limited number of eggs that a woman has.
My original idea was to have them in order and to have them sit in beautiful lines. But when I pulled the supports out, it all started to get tangled up, and I nearly had a nervous breakdown.” Suddenly a 200-watt light bulb sprang into life in Arnovitz’s troubled head. “I realized that was the problem. That, with these hundreds of thousands of sperm donors and egg donors, I think how are we going to keep track? Basically, what I am collecting now is stories of overuse.”
That is apparent from the thousands of tags in Counting Your Eggs, and becomes even more palpable when you move on to Commerce of Infertility. The work comprises hundreds of transparent polyester resin cubes, each of which contains a tiny baby figure – each of which, in turn, has a stamped numbered brass tag connected to it.
Arnovitz cites a story she read about two students at Tulane University in Louisiana, who met, felt an immediate affinity with each other and later discovered they had been fathered by the same sperm donor.
“These girls got on very well, but what happens when two people fall in love, and discover they have the same father? That’s kind of inevitable.”
There’s more in the way of genetic intervention.
“The demand, in Israel, for the sperm of combat soldiers is higher. I read an article that in Finland they’re turning away red-haired donors because nobody wants red hair.”
Now to the artist’s religious beef.
“I think we have a lot of work to do religiously about how you view these things,” she posits. “These things” can cover a range of what Arnovitz considers to be “murky” matters. For instance, what happens when an egg donor is not Jewish? Is the child produced following such medical intervention considered Jewish, even though they may have been brought up as an observant Jew? “Generally, there are a bunch of rabbis who say that if the egg donor isn’t Jewish the babies need to be converted.” Arnovitz terms such a ruling as “offensive” and hurtful to the egg recipient.
“Just think who this woman is. She’s generally someone who has tried to get pregnant for years. She’s somebody who’s used all her money to deal with this. She’s finally pregnant and it’s her blood going back and forth to the baby inside her, and you’re telling her you have to convert the baby. There are rabbis who say that if the woman carrying the baby is Jewish, the baby is also Jewish, but there are more rabbis who say no, we have to convert the baby. I find that incredibly offensive, but I also wonder what that means. Does that mean that Jewish DNA is different?” Arnovitz also rails against rabbinical instruction to meddle with natural bodily functioning.
“There is something called halachic infertility,” she explains. “That’s when a woman basically ovulates the day after she finishes her period. So, if she waits those seven days to go to the mikve [ritual bath], she won’t ever get pregnant.”
Rabbinical opinion as to how to obviate childlessness in such a situation is split between officialdom and the more liberal- thinking camp.
“Behind closed doors today the more modern rabbis are saying that [the biblical commandment] pru u’revu [go forth and multiply] trumps everything, don’t wait. They say that pru u’revu is from Hashem [God] and takes precedence over everything. But the more religious rabbis say, “No, no, we don’t touch Halacha.
Take hormones and change your [menstrual] cycle so that you can have babies.’ So you take a perfectly healthy woman who could get pregnant like that and you’re tampering with everything, increasing the chances of all kinds of terrible [health-related] things.”
As we continue to the next space, which is dominated by an enormous work, Arnovitz notes, “This room is about oppression and about the politics of the rabbanut [Chief Rabbinate].”
Wading ever further into the “murky waters,” Arnovitz came across the existence of a blacklist compiled by the rabbinate of people whom they view as being psulei hitun (not marriageable). The Blacklist is a stunning creation which, at first, seems to be a mass of corrugated black, or blackish, substance. As you home in on it you note that the surface, in fact, comprises lots and lots of small paper rolls, all with threads distended from them. The piece measures three meters by four meters, so there’s absolutely no missing it.
“In 2016 the rabbinate listed 6,386 people who are prohibited from marrying – bastards, converts, kohanim who have divorced and others,” she explains.
“This list has been in existence for decades, and doubts about its legality were raised already in the 1970s, when Israel’s [then] attorney-general Meir Shamgar ruled that everyone on the list must be informed of the fact. But the list continues to exist without many of the citizens included on it being aware of the fact and without their having the opportunity to dispute their status.”
The installation comprises 6,360 black scrolls, each of them rolled up and tied with a thin thread – a recurrent motif in her work. The scrolls represent people, the vast majority of them women, whose fate has been sealed by the rabbinical powers that be. The dense arrangement of the scrolls on the wall adds an abstract dimension that evokes a sense of a solid wall, a barrier, an obstacle.
CHAYA ESTER’S work also has a religious undercurrent to it, but with a very different line of emotional and aesthetic attack. While Arnovitz takes a strident approach, the 76-year-old Ester’s Nothing Is Running Out installation, etchings and video work, curated by Ilan Wizgan, exudes mystique and sensuality.
The exhibition comprises works that employ various print techniques on paper and wood – including ferally applied etching – and a video piece created especially for the exhibition. Ester is also a poet and engages in kabbalistic study, so it is not surprising to find that chaos, or “formlessness” as she calls it, is clearly conveyed in her abstract works.
“A person who enters chaos and stays there, that’s nothing. But someone who enters chaos and exits it, that’s something great and powerful,” she notes somewhat enigmatically.
Ester’s output ebbs and flows across different areas of creative endeavor, in both aesthetic and disciplinary terms.
Her engaging video work incorporates transient amorphous elements but also features a mass of swirling Hebrew lettering. The letters do not seem to be arranged in any particular order, and the spectator is free to play around with them in his/her mind. There is no discernible preset letter order here and no recognizable intelligible words, hence, no narrative baggage. “I am a person of words but, with this work, I had a miracle, I came across a pre-word stage. That is much better. It is more natural, more animal-like.”
A couple of works do, however, contain a single word each: adonai, my God.
“That’s what a woman shouts out when she orgasms,” states Ester, who hails from a haredi family. “There is something hypnotic about all this. My work comes from a place that I cannot define. There is a lot of movement in my work, a lot of power and a strong connection with the human body.”
BEN SIMON’S Meeting in Painting, curated by Sagi Refael, stretches the aesthetic, stylistic and conceptual spread further.
Forty-two-year-old Long Island-born Simon’s figurative oil and acrylic works come across as both direct and quirky.
Color – largely of the bright variety – is a central component of his work, as are perspectives and boundaries.
Red Chair Blue Chair, for example, features two characters with very different demeanors and positions. While the man in the blue seat appears to be sturdily proportioned and crammed into a confined space, his female counterpart is more diminutive. However, the latter’s freer arrangement is conveyed by the woman’s open left hand, which appears to be pushing against the surface of the painting, while her left leg stretches out, unnaturally, at a 90º angle, once again in the direction of the spectator. Any sense of claustrophobia is offset by the landscape painting hanging on the back wall of the picture.
There is a strong dynamic to Red Chair Blue Chair, as there is to most of Simon’s work. That certainly applies to the frieze-like Merge and To the Beach. They are brightly colored busy works, peppered with wry elements. Anyone familiar with Mad magazine will probably discern the cheeky smiling face of the iconic American comedy publication’s mascot Alfred E. Newman.
You cannot help but be engaged by Simon’s offerings, which are intriguing, captivating, puzzling – and often entertaining.
The exhibitions close August 26. For more information: