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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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