Epilogue for the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe Exhibition Catalogue
"Abraham would convert the men and Sarah would convert the women" (Breshit Rabbah, VaYeshev 84:4)
How simple and intuitive is this picture from the Midrash. It turns out however that reality in the modern day State of Israel is quite different, and certainly not simple.
I am the woman invalid to serve as a witness. It is not being a witness, but rather on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court), I am told by the rabbis I talk to during my documentary-artistic journey ahead of the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe Exhibition. If so, then it is not only as a witness that I am invalid as a woman, but the crown of dayanut (Rabbinic judgment) is also denied me. Again and again, each time in another context, my religious, gender-related, artistic and personal worlds are cast into each other and mixed in one solid edifice. They are one. The work of art is the only witness I am permitted to bear, from without and not within. To this work were added additional voices of women from all circles of my life, and they consolidated to a joint and clear statement calling simply: "The Emperor has no clothes."
The first time I was introduced to the phenomenon of the tevilah (immersion) of female converts before the Beit Din of three men was a number of years ago when I received a document bearing the stamp of the Prime Minister's Office, containing details of a tender intended for religious men to serve as a Beit Din in mikvaot (ritual baths) used for conversion. Only then was I exposed to the embarrassing reception accorded by Judaism to the women seeking to join its ranks: tevilah in a mikveh (ritual bath) wearing only a robe in front of scrutinizing male eyes. Like many Israelis, I was not closely acquainted with the world of the converts and all that is involved in the conversion process, and was not aware of the outrageous scene of the female converts immersing in the mikveh, in which the women's voices are mute, their viewpoint absent, and their presence among the religious authorities and policy makers lacking.
My journey began from this point and has continued for three years. During the journey I sought to make the cry of the female converts heard. Even though my professional world is mainly connected to film, the meeting with my partners, the artist Hila Karabelnikov-Paz, and the curator Raz Samira, led me to create with them the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe exhibition as an act of testimony, a mouthpiece for those same women whose voices are not heard.
During the time that has since elapsed, I have met many women converts and heard of their experiences, feelings and various opinions. Their very status as women who approach the Jewish world from outside and seek to enter its gates prevents many of them from criticizing those who represent that same world, and who stand as gatekeepers at its main entrance. There are those who shared with me difficulties that they never previously dared to talk about – whether about the theoretical test in front of the Beit Din, or the ceremony of the tevilah in the mikveh. The process of working on the exhibition and the anthology generated varied responses from men and women. Some said that 'Ruth the Moabite would never have passed the conversion process as conducted today' or that 'The tevilah in front of the Beit Din was embarrassing and humiliating.' There were those who said that 'This is an important subject but this is not the time to discuss it', and also that 'None of the female converts have complained' and 'There is no problem because the robe is modest and covers everything.' The differing reactions clarified to me that this is an emotive, controversial issue which should be raised for public discussion, and if this exhibition contributes to such a discussion – that will be my reward.
The exhibition touches on two issues, each worthy of discussion and courageous review: All aspects of conversion – its stages, difficulties and challenges; and the place of women – both in the modern Jewish world as partners in safeguarding and renewing the tradition, and as those required to accept upon themselves the civil law in issues of personal status. This case of the tevilah of female converts is therefore a private case through which the viewpoint on these two issues at the foundation of our identity as a society and a People can be expanded.
Dozens of women and men took part in the preparation, making and creating of the exhibition and the anthology, each in his or her personal time and field. I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to them all.
To the participants in the video installations: Dana Sapir, Roni Levinger, Armand Ben Naim and Zohar Yinon.
To Rabbi Haim Drukman and Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau for their willingness to take part in the exhibition and present their viewpoints; and to Rabbi David Stav, literally my Rabbi and teacher, who is always prepared to learn and teach, to voice his opinion and to listen, and is open to any honest and in depth dialogue, even when opinions are disputed.
To the actresses and actors who lent their voices to the 'Female Convert's Midrash' written by Rivkah Lubitch and who turned it into an emotional vocal exhibit: Yael Abecassis, actress and producer of 'Cassis Films'; to Gabriella Lev, director, actress and founder of Theater Company Jerusalem; to Rabbi Ohad Tahar-Lev, Head of Midreshet Lindenbaum, Israel; to Yossi Ariel, Director of Psik Theater; and last but not least to Matana Hindi, firstly a loyal balanit and also an actress in time of need.
I wish to extend a personal thanks to the professional team for their significant contribution, led by photographer Roni Catzenelson and editor Ayelet Ofarim who were the first to believe in the concept and who became true partners in its fulfilment; to the graphic artist Dorit Talpaz and soundtrack designer Rotem Dror who transformed The Female Converts' Midrash into a complete multi-sensory exhibit.
To the artist Hila Karabelnikov-Paz with whom I wove the dream realized by this exhibition.
To the curator Raz Samira, editor of the catalogue, colleague and friend – for the journey we have travelled and for what still lies ahead.
To my loving husband Zohar and my children Eitan, Shachar, Aluma and Adam – you are my safe harbor and the fire of my life – and to our parents Elchanan and Naomi Jacobs, Micha and Nili Yinon: this is all from and for you.
Nurit Jacobs-Yinon is a film director and producer, Aluma Films.