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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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