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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit