Judaism and feminism

In the first of our series on faith and feminism, the ultra orthodox Jewish artist shares her experi

For thus says the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah 57:15)

It was some twenty years ago, when I was summoned to meet the principal of the local ultra religious girls school attended by my four daughters. I left the meeting shell shocked by the unexpected rebuke I was given. Across the other side of the desk from me, the deadly serious young man castigated the immodest cut of the neckline of my dress.

This experience switched me on to the subversive agenda to keep us religious women in our place; from asking any questions about the disproportionate sacrifices we were compelled to make for our ancient way of life. We were denied all academic and literary stimuli. We were expected to endure the often devastating physical toll of multiple pregnancies and child births. So it dawned on me that our communal religious ethos may represent some issues other than teaching the fear and love of the Lord.

It is left for us, individual women, to find our own spiritual anchor. We must apply judgement to differentiate man’s agenda from the precious, eternal values, in the name of which these, often unkind and unfair enterprises of regimentation prosper. But our fundamentalist community would not survive, if it had not perfected its methods to neutralise and, when necessary, ostracise allegedly troublesome families like my own.

My husband, who is an outstanding rabbinical scholar, could always laugh off the artificial storm. I was more vulnerable. As a busy mother of eight children, and a full-time carer of my elderly mother-in-law, a survivor of Auschwitz, I could not get used to the community. Neighbours, for decades, just gazed through me, as if I were made of thin air. There was no way or where to return. I realised that just to keep my thoughts positive, I must learn English and pursue education to make something of myself. Thus, I was lucky to find my way to the wonderful world of contemporary art.

I was in my early fifties when I became a mature student at Central St Martin’s. I spent the subsequent five years immersed in the no nonsense hub of technical and conceptual experimentations it offered. Always, I would ask myself; what is most true to me? Who really am I?

I became absorbed in the multi ethnic experience of life of the art school and outgrew my lifelong preoccupation with ethnicity. I addressed my issues with motherhood, through an outsize enlargement of a day old baby’s head, which told of the one sided affair which is governed by our blind mothering instincts.

It was towards the very end of the course, when I found myself praying silent, endless prayers with discarded pieces of plain fabrics. I sculpt these white scraps into abstract, pleading, feminine forms. I work too with discarded prayer books and religious objects. I am still in constant pursuit of rubbish heap delights, investing my acquired skills to recapture the past life they represent, and bring them back to relevance and the centre of our attention. This is my rebuke.

Gitl Wallerstein-Braun is an ultra orthodox Jewish artist who broke traditions to study contemporary art and went on to claim international fame for her work.