Two Artists and a Painter
The Exhibition A Tale of a Woman and a Robe focuses on the motif of the tevilah (immersion) of female converts. The tevilah in the mikveh (ritual bath) is the final stage in the long and intensive conversion process. The convert immerses in the water and emerges from it a new person, officially transformed into a Jew. The tevilah is performed in the presence of three dayanim whose role is to verify the conversion. Female converts immerse naked in front of a balanit (mikveh attendant) after which they immerse again in front of three dayanim (rabbinic judges) while wearing a robe that enables the penetration of water but which maintains their modesty. This occasion brims with feelings of elation mixed with humiliation. The moments of the tevilah ceremony may be simultaneously both embarrassing and exciting.
The tevilah is a central motif in Jewish tradition. It symbolizes life and growth and embodies symbolic imageries of health and birth. David Sperber writes thus on the place of the mikveh in the worlds of Judaism and art:
Two types of tevilah can be found in the Jewish tradition. The first is for the purpose of taharah (purification), which transforms the halakhic (Jewish religious law) legal status of the person immersing in the mikveh from one of impure to that of pure. The second is a symbolic tevilah for the purpose of kedushah (sanctity)… The occupation with the mikveh has been dominant in Torah discussions as well as religious-feminist discourse over the last decade. Its presence in the realm of Jewish feminist art is striking in light of the fact that it is usually absent from museum exhibitions of Judaica even though this field and the customs connected to it are a central and important topic in the Jewish world. (Mesirot Chatzitzot, Erev Rav, 4.6.2011)
The exhibition deals with tevilah of female converts not only from its spiritual aspect but also from the physical and feminist aspects. The tevilah also involves occupation with the private and intimate, not from a starting point of social immobility or of weakness but rather from one of strength, prerogative and choice.
Three artists have joined together for this exhibition, all religiously observant and all members of the orthodox community. Each of them creates in a different medium. Shimon Pinto creates in the traditional medium of oil on canvas, Hila Karabelnikov-Paz 'creates' via a modern and unique technique, and Nurit Jacobs-Yinon comes from the world of cinema, film directing and production. The different fields of art combine to form a personal and collective statement on the fundamental conflict inherent in the tevilah of the female convert.
Hila Karabelnikov-Paz's series of works, created especially for this exhibition, presents before us the various stages of the convert's tevilah. The series is based on photographs which documented the preparations before the tevilah, the actual tevilah procedure, the dayanim, the balanit and others. The series of drawings dismantles the scene and the mikveh chamber, and depicts them from different angles: from above and below (the view of the dayanim and the woman immersing); a view of the balanit together with the dayanim and others. The drawings are made of endless pieces of masking tape and wallpaper patiently and laboriously stuck next to each other. This technique creates a detailed 'picture' characterized by intense colorfulness. Karabelnikov-Paz's style is figurative, unsophisticated and folk.
The tevilah is described in the paintings as a micro-cosmos of religious communal life. This series thereby continues the artist's occupation with the segregated beach – a series of pictures of religious women at the Sheraton Beach that was displayed at the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv. In both series – of the tevilah in the mikveh and bathing at the beach – Karabelnikov-Paz connects to the theme of the bathers, a central theme in classical and contemporary painting. The link between femininity and a water source is common to all cultures throughout the ages, as a kind of archetype or symbolism of the womb also related to purity and birth. The main aspect of this link is that connecting the various ceremonies surrounding female intimacy and the voyeuristic view. Karabelnikov-Paz is not afraid of dealing with the issue of the mikveh, one of the more exposed areas of the woman's soul, the female convert, the religious society, of the body and of the spirit.
The women's mikveh is an intimate women's institution, the only one of the religious services devoted to women. Nevertheless, it is men who determine its regulations and halakhot (Jewish religious laws). It is a place used by women however no woman is among those making the significant decisions in its regard. This situation is reflected in Karabelnikov-Paz's paintings:
Karabelnikov-Paz chooses to begin the series with the work A Woman is Obligated (2010), which shows the possessions of the woman immersing in the changing room. The 'heroes' of the picture are the hat, bra, bag, plastic chair and towel, and the woman who has gone to perform the tevilah is represented by them as an 'absent presence'. In another picture, the female convert is seen going up or down the steps of the mikveh dressed in the colorful robe. She looks directly at the dayanim and the observers transforming them into partners in the occasion. We then see her immersing in the water while the three dayanim watch her from the side. In another work, her face is invisible and the dayanim check that all her hair is submerged in the water of the mikveh.
The culmination of the ceremony is portrayed in the work Legs of the Dayanim (2012) in which we see the immersing woman from the side with the legs of the dayanim visible from beyond the rail, and in the picture Between the Dayanim (2012) in which the woman's wet head can be seen, with the upper half of one of the dayanim's body in the background adorned with his white tzitzit – not merely as a formative model but as an element of religious and male power. She is below, she's wet, and they are above watching, peering, and examining.
In the picture The Balanit (2012), we see the figure of the balanit holding a floor mop and attempting to listen to the words of the three dayanim behind her. The balanit is the hero of the scene. She works at the mikveh and it is her job to assist the women and prepare them for tevilah, it is she who mediates between the dayanim and the woman immersing in the mikveh. Her role as a weakened figure, serving as the mouthpiece of strong people supervising her, should not be ignored. Even if they are not physically present, their presence is strongly felt. It is sufficient to glance at the notices written according to the rabbis' instructions, and which are hung on the lockers at the mikveh. The balanit is the one who is present and works at the mikveh throughout all the hours of operation; however, she is not fitting to serve as a religious authority and verify the tevilah of the female convert.
The two video works of Nurit Jacobs-Yinon focus on the female convert's tevilah in the mikveh. The works are the result of a study on the subject and were also created especially for the exhibition. The works are positioned at two ends of the gallery so that the observer directly experiences the dramatic tevilah scene and is exposed to the complexity of the situation both via the viewpoint of the immersing woman and also the intruding male view.
In the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe work (2013), the process of the tevilah with all its significances is seen in a story-documentary manner. The film opens with the balanit's call to the woman, continues with the tevilah in front of the dayanim and concludes with their blessing of 'Mazal Tov'. This work raises awareness of the story of the female convert's tevilah and shows, despite the covering robe, how this occasion places the immersing woman in an exposed position. This exposure may cause the woman to focus on the technical and emotional difficulty instead of the spiritual experience. Via video work, Jacobs-Yinon seeks to again raise the questions raging through the space of her world, and to create a new plot by means of imagery composed of sound and picture.
The video installation Female Converts Midrash (2013) includes five components: A close-up shot of the immersing woman repeatedly entering her head into the water is screened on the floor, on one wall are three television screens on each of which the figure of a rabbi can be seen (Rabbi Haim Drukman, Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Benny Lau) each bringing his viewpoint on the issue of tevilah of female converts before the Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court). The positioning of the three screens imitates the three dayanim standing above the mikveh during the convert's tevilah. The sound accompanying the work is the text of The Female Converts' Midrash by Rabbinic Pleader Rivkah Lubitch (appearing in full in this anthology). This text is screened on the second wall as typographical design element. The entire installation creates an atmosphere full of contrasts of above/below, male/female, physical/spiritual, and word and text versus sound. The video installation relates directly to the status of women in the context of the tevilah but also raises questions regarding the status of women in general, and thereby constitutes a micro-cosmos of both the religious and secular society.
The painting Mikveh (2010) by Shimon Pinto opens and closes the exhibition. This painting is different in its character from the story-documentary content of the exhibition. In a flat, aesthetic and minimalistic style, Pinto succeeds, in three surfaces of color to create the mikveh as a concrete and physical space but also a spiritual and even lofty one. Pinto's mikveh, in contrast to that of Karabelnikov-Paz and of Jacobs-Yinon, is empty – empty of person and detail. We see only its depth and its edge is but hinted at. "The mikveh cannot be seen, nor the immersing figures, only a pair of thongs, the type worn by secular women, and an empty silence. This silence is the heart of the work", writes Hila Skolnik-Brenner (from a review in Achbar Hair, 12.6.2012). Dr. Ketzia Alon expounds:
The empty thongs serve as figurative icons which suppress within it both the 'symbol of Israeliness' and as a visual subject for the concept of absent-present, God's vague, invisible, mysterious presence. These are the same Eilat thongs which are simultaneously a symbol of an Israeli holiday and of cheap clothing. In Pinto's paintings the simple thongs receive heartbreaking simplicity.
(From a text of the There is no Distant Place Exhibition, 2012, Florentin45 Gallery, Tel Aviv).
Vered Mor in her book Megilat Gerut (Reuven Mas Publications, 2010) relates to the complexity of the experience of women's conversion and states that the majority of them report of negative experiences from the Beit Din ceremony. Pinto's painting completes the spiritual and sacred side which exists in the tevilah in the mikveh and presents it with humor and warmth so lacking in the tevilah of female converts. The painting does not easily surrender itself to the viewer and a degree of lingering and observation is necessary in order to 'penetrate' it.
As a woman born a Jew who feels that her Jewishness is an important component of her identity even if she is not religiously observant, I believe that there is a need to lead a process of change regarding the issue of the tevilah of female converts. I believe that such a move will serve not only women, but also men and naturally the world of halakhah. Conversion is the only way for a non-Jew to join the Jewish People – Am Yisrael (the people of Israel). This is a personal process, and the convert undergoes it alone against the system. We must create a positive and constructive experience for the converts, one which enables continuity. The solution whereby the female convert immerses in the mikveh dressed in a robe in front of the Beit Din is not an optimal one and smacks of immodesty. Rivkah Lubitch asks in her essay: "The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Uziel, already wrote that the tevilah of a woman convert can be performed without the presence of the Beit Din. Is it not time to trust women?" (Women's Tevilah – Before Women!, Ynet, 19.2.2009). The exhibition, a pioneer in this field in Israeli art, calls on Israeli society and the Chief Rabbinate to awaken and understand the dilemma facing us.
Raz Samira is an independent curator who has curated many exhibitions of a social-community theme.