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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 9.1 (2005) 170-183

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A Challenging Grittiness:

Spirituality in Jewish Women's Art

There are many parallels between spiritual work and creative process.

Hailing from a wide spectrum of artistic backgrounds and religious practice, each artist discussed here addresses spiritual themes that assume the existence of a divine presence accessible to human consciousness. For each, struggle with faith and desire for revelation intersect or collide with the challenges and enlightenment of creative work. Be cautioned: The challenging grittiness of many of these images is far from the soothing, faux-greeting-card holiness that one might expect of "religious art."

The spiritual component inherent in certain types of creative enterprise is often generated by (or embedded in) the tension between the restraint of religious law and the freedom of creative expression. This is particularly evident in the work of Nechama Golan, an Israeli artist who was raised in a secular home and educated in theater, dance, and visual art. In the 1980s, she became religiously observant and moved with her husband and two daughters to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Bnei Brak.

Like numerous feminist performance artists (Carolee Schneemann and Ana Mendieta come immediately to mind), Golan incorporates her own body into her installations and documents them photographically. Thus, she acts out her dialogue directly with Jewish texts. The resulting untitled images (the titles affixed here are my own) betray profound ambivalence and offer a sly suggestion of elegantly crafted violence.1

"Breathing" is a troubling image of the artist's face breathing (as in suffocating) in a text from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah: Sefer Nashim—"Hilkhot Ishut" (a codification of the laws governing sexual relations between spouses). Her face is pressed against the transparent page, once from the inside, showing the text reversed, and again with her face behind the readable text. [End Page 170]

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Figure 1
Nechama Golan, "Glass Letters"

In "Red Thread," Golan wears a starched white dress and white stockings. This detail of the full-figure photograph reveals a frail red thread "leaking" from under the hem of her skirt. As if simulating the common but disturbing dream of a menstrual accident, the image, seen from both front and back, references a protective red bendle ("ribbon" in Yiddish)2 while also suggesting the more obvious association of shameful blood.

Although her work appears to criticize the status of women in the Orthodox society in which she lives, Golan says she intends it to express the self that has chosen to be a part of "that world, that order." [End Page 171]

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Figure 2
Nechama Golan, Untitled photograph

In "Glass Letters," transparent globes hang from a thread and cast a shadow. The black Hebrew characters suspended in the clear resin seem to embody the artist's fascination with and deep reverence for the letter of the Law. [End Page 172]

Perhaps the most widely reproduced of Golan's works is an image of a high-heeled shoe, onto which she has glued the opening words of Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1—"The woman is acquired . . ."—along with a verse from "Eshet Hayil," the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs, sung as a paean to the "virtuous woman" in traditional Jewish homes on the eve of the Sabbath. Golan says,

My work deals with the plight of women—not necessarily religious women. In the West, shoes for women are designed by men, who view women as sex objects. These shoes are terribly uncomfortable, but women just sit there and accept their fate. The text I've stuck on is a page from the Talmud on laws of conjugality—written by men, of course. The tension existing in the gap between the sacred texts and a low-level image, "the touch of a dirty foot," creates more than a single interpretation. A text from halakhah3 embodied in footwear is saying: Halakhah should be comfortable to walk in. Walking and...


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pp. 170-183
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