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A conspicuous absence

Exhibit opens in Red Bank on the invisibility of charedi women

Ultra-Orthodox women can feel invisible in their communities. Their photos don’t appear in newspapers or in public announcements, and men make the rules on how they should act, dress, and live.

Artists have responded to this communal silencing in a new exhibit opening at Detour Gallery in Red Bank on June 24. The exhibit — “The Invisible Jew: The Lack of Representation of Women in Ultra-Orthodox Media, the Circumstances that Allowed it, and Its Consequences” — includes works from Jewish artists from around the globe.  

“Every piece is very different,” said Goldie Gross, co-curator with Yona Verwer. Faigie Roth is the curatorial advisor.

The exhibit includes a collection of stories from Orthodox women put on a Pinterest board by Ann Koffsky that will be shown on an iPad. For example, New Haven-based artist Leah Caroline’s sketches depict blurry female figures, signifying how men would view women in a magazine as “someone they can’t really see,” said Gross. 

Israeli artist Andi Arnovitz’s “Laryngitis of Jewish Women” is an unfolded book with a poem of the same name, written by Chaya Lester, “a Jerusalem-based spiritual teacher & guide, psychotherapist, and performance artist,” according to Lester’s website, printed inside. When opened, the book looks like a miniature mechitzah, the divider separating the men’s and women’s sections in an Orthodox synagogue. 

Gross described Lester’s poem as “a work of pain of not being able to be with her child at his bris, but having to sit behind the mechitzah as the bris happens.”

“The primary purpose of this exhibition is to educate, bring awareness, and start a conversation,” she said. Gross is part of the Manhattan-based Jewish Art Salon, the largest Jewish visual arts organization in the world, its mission to promote understanding and appreciation of contemporary Jewish visual art. 

“Right before the #MeToo Movement, we started to see a lot of articles in the media about women not being represented in these communities,” she told NJJN. 

In fact, the show was inspired by a 2017 article, “The Invisible Jew,” written by Merri Ukraincik for Hevria.com, in which she outlined her despair upon learning that a friend of Ukraincik and her husband were to be honored at a gala but only her husband’s photo appeared on the invitation. Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, is a regular columnist for NJJN.

Gross said the Art Salon chose to launch the exhibition at Detour because its owner, Ken Schwartz, was “open to our cause.” She said the Art Salon hopes to bring the exhibition to Manhattan or Brooklyn later this year, but this is its only planned New Jersey showing.  

In an e-mail to NJJN, Schwartz said he found its premise to be “intriguing, thought-provoking, timely, and anything but safe.”

“Anyone who lives under any kind of oppression has a story to share that can free others,” he wrote. 

He acknowledged that, as a secular Jew, he knew little about the ultra-Orthodox. Still, “I’m a live and let live kind of person so I make no judgments about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community,” he wrote. “This exhibition points out the chinks in the armor of this Orthodoxy in the context of the 21st-century modern female who arguably is living an 18th-century existence, notwithstanding modern conveniences. How brave they must be to stand up to 400 years of dogma.”

Schwartz pointed out that strict religious observance has preserved Judaism for centuries, but adherence to Jewish law does not “excuse them for the marginalizing of any of their women members, even if the majority of that feminine group accepts and promotes this female Jewish extreme ultra-Orthodox model.”

It was just these paradoxes, Schwartz explained, that prompted him to agree to host the exhibition, which he said will be “a cool art show.”   

Opening night will feature a dance performance, “HOLY/OBJECT,” choreographed by Florence Nasar, who grew up in Deal and now lives in New York, where she works in an art gallery and teaches dance at Manhattan Youth.

“Originally, I called the piece ‘Women’s Section,’” Nasar told NJJN in a phone interview after she wrapped up a rehearsal at Hunter College, which as an alumna, allows her to use its facilities. 

Nasar, who grew up in the Orthodox Syrian community, composed the piece four years ago as a solo performance exploring what it’s like to be in the women’s section behind the mechitzah. When she expanded it from a solo piece she added 10 dancers, “like a minyan,” she said.

“I use movements taken from prayer rituals I observed women making,” explained Nasar. “The piece as written explores the concept of prayer spaces, and the mechitzah I observed in that section. The way [women] stood up or sat down and prayed. The way they blew kisses toward the Torah because they weren’t allowed to touch it.”

While the piece has been performed in New York City, this will mark its debut in New Jersey, a move which makes her both excited and nervous.

“I never felt this piece had the correct audience that could understand and appreciate its ideas and themes,” said Nasar. “I’m happy people from my community will get to experience the piece.”

She added, however, “I’m also a little nervous because I’ve gotten some pushback from that community.”

She said she has been called “blasphemous” by community members who have called out her and her dancers as immodest and compared them to the biblical “harlots of Babylon” on social media — and to her parents’ faces. 

“This dance and all my performances are never meant to insult or bash Orthodoxy,” said Nasar. “They’re just always an exploration of my experiences and observations and my way of processing them through artwork. I’m always searching for a way to make things better for all women and a way of listening and creating an awareness of women’s experiences within their communities.”

Nasar said she is also interested in “building bridges” between various cultures and as such traveled to Germany last year to teach dance to Syrian children in refugee camps and will include Muslim and Jewish performers for her opening night piece.

“I feel dance is a great way to connect people across boundaries,” she said.

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