Women of the Wall Heroine Now Fights the Patriarchy One Painting at a Time

With her first exhibition underway, Lesley Sachs tells Haaretz how she translated her battles with the ultra-Orthodox into art – even if she doesn’t depict any violence

Lesley Sachs, the former Women of the Wall leader who's now a painter, September 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

A few minutes into our conversation, Lesley Sachs, a former executive director of Women of the Wall, said she had been arrested five times. When you meet her, it’s hard to believe that such a refined woman could end up in a jail cell.

For 12 years now Sachs has also had another vocation, painting, especially since leaving her job at Women of the Wall earlier this year. For 10 years she headed the group that strives to improve women’s rights at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“In 2009 they started arresting us, due to orders from the Western Wall rabbi that we weren’t allowed to wear prayer shawls in the women’s section,” Sachs says. “In 2013, they indicted me.”

As Sachs puts it, a magistrate’s court judge ruled that “it wasn’t us who disturbed the peace but the people who cursed and shouted at us. The police appealed to the district court, arguing that we had violated the Protection of Holy Places Law because ‘we didn’t behave according to the custom of the place.’"

But their argument was rejected, and a judge ruled that in 2013, “after 24 years, our prayers, too, should be considered the custom of the place. He noted that the Declaration of Independence promises freedom of religion and gender equality, so we could pray in our own way at the Western Wall.”

Since then, the members of Women of the Wall have been allowed to pray in the women’s section, but their presence there has often sparked friction, in part because Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz has forbidden them to bring a Torah into the main plaza. Sachs was last arrested in 2016, for trying to bring a Torah into the women’s section.

Lesley Sachs amid some of her works, September 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Now that she has completed the transition from social activism to artistic activism, she is staging her first exhibition, “Let Me Hear Thy Voice,” which opened late last month at Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel, the headquarters of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Sachs was born in 1958 in South Africa and came to Israel at age 5, when she and her family settled in Haifa. “My mother wasn’t at all maternal,” Sachs says. “She didn’t like to cook. My parents were atheists and there wasn’t anything connected to religion at home. My mother wasn’t a feminist either. She just lived her life.”

How did you become an avowed feminist?

“It was because of the sexual harassment in the army. I was drafted 43 years ago, and back then everyone expected the girls to be mattresses. It was really awful. In the end, my brigade commander stood trial for sexual harassment. I left the army and said it couldn’t be that way. It couldn’t be that the women would be on the bottom, and all the men on top, with all that implies.”

Were you assaulted in the army?

I remember that someone who was responsible for me grabbed me forcefully in a corner. I told the women’s corps officer, and she said that nothing could be done. I wanted to be part of a change in this perception, so in Haifa I joined a center called Kol Ha’isha [A Woman’s Voice]. In those days, if I said I was a feminist they literally spat in my face. They told us we were garbage.”

Lesley Sachs' 2016 work “Alona the Tank Instructor.”

Dream job

In 1988, Sachs began volunteering with the group the Israel Women’s Network. She got married, had her only daughter, Yahel, and later divorced. At some point the founder of the Israel Women’s Network, Alice Shalvi, suggested the she turn her volunteer work into a paid job.

“It was a dream for me, to do something I loved and get paid for it,” Sachs says. “I was their public relations person and spokeswoman; I organized demonstrations.” She headed that group from 1992 to 1997.

It was a period of policy changes in the military regarding sexual harassment, and the group helped with Alice Miller’s High Court petition that forced the military to let women train to be pilots. From there Sachs began addressing freedom-of-religion issues; she served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center and of Beit Shmuel.

How did you come to deal with religious issues?

“My ex-husband came from a religious home. It was important to him that our daughter would grow up with traditions, but to me it was clear that I wouldn’t go to an Orthodox synagogue, where they treat women like crap. Through the Israel Women’s Network I met women rabbis, and in a Reform synagogue I felt like I had come home; it was a spiritual home with gender equality and the possibility of respectful and free belief.”

Lesley Sachs' 2018 work "The Torah Is in Our Hands."

The real Judaism?

“No. I think that faith is personal. You can’t tell someone how to live a religious lifestyle.”

Do you see a difference between separation in synagogue and separation at the Western Wall?

“You have to distinguish between the private and public space. The public space isn’t a place for separation. The Western Wall is a public space, a national holy place. There had never been separation in the past. Separation in the public space is a modern thing.”

In 2013, Sachs was diagnosed with ovarian cancer but recovered after a year of treatment. The illness pushed her to devote her life to painting. She had always done art and decided to study it. She took lessons in Jerusalem with artist Dalia Segev, and in Givatayim near Tel Aviv she’s studying with Alexander Cherkov.

“When I started to paint in parallel with my work as executive director, I didn’t produce more than four works a year,” she says. “In 2015 I started to come back to myself physically and emotionally; my hair grew back and I decided to devote myself to art. I would paint things that made a spiritual and ethical statement.”

Lesley Sachs' 2019 work "Abigail the Poet."

Battling the ultra-Orthodox

In fact, one of the three topics addressed in the exhibition is Women of the Wall; its members are usually shown praying. Sachs chose not to depict violent situations such as clashes the group has had with ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“There is still horrendous violence,” she says. “They organize very violent high school girls against us, and I want to show our women who, despite the difficulties, pray faithfully. This is an enormous thing to me. Every time I get excited about it once again. I don’t want to paint our opponents because I won’t enjoy it. It’s pure evil and I don’t want to paint pure evil.”

Another group of paintings deals with poverty. The exhibit displays paintings of poor people’s shoes that are tattered, torn or made out of recycled materials like plastic bottles.

“I don’t know how many pairs of shoes I have in my closet, but it’s something basic,” Sachs says. “When someone is hungry you can’t always see it, but when he walks in torn shoes, you understand. The paintings are based mainly on photographs I found online.”

The third topic is gender; it includes “religionization” in the military. “When you see gender equality in the army today, it reflects a different future than when I was a soldier,” she says. “But when I read that religious soldiers turned their backs on a female instructor or that they aren’t willing to be in a course given by a female tank instructor, I get scared.”

Lesley Sachs' 2018 work on 'the RDF' – the Religious Defense Forces.

Among her paintings is “Alona the Tank Instructor,” a painting of joyful soldiers in their combat uniforms based on a photograph by her niece in the army. Alongside it is a picture of soldiers donning tefillin called “The RDF” – the Religious Defense Forces, a takeoff on the Israel Defense Forces.

Another painting is called “The Feminist Dilemma” – a group of Arab women are sitting fully clothed at the beach as a young woman in a bikini walks by.

Aren’t you a little naive?

“Very. When the naiveté is accompanied by activism and a desire to repair the world, it’s good. You can’t lead a social struggle without naiveté. I see people without a drop of naiveté saying that there will always be rape and there will always be poverty. The world won’t change without vision.”

You got into the art world late. Are you concerned about being taken seriously?

“No, I think that people at a later age provide a more complex and interesting inner world. I’ve been studying for 10 years now. The people who come to see the work can judge for themselves.”

Lesley Sachs' 2017 work "The Feminist Dilemma."

Do you paint mostly on the basis of photographs?

“Mainly, but that’s really just the basis. I make changes. I don’t have the option of painting in the field and I don’t like staged situations.”

Do you aim to earn a living from painting?

“The exhibition is also a sale. I have a website for anyone who wants to buy, and I’ve sold some paintings already. I’d certainly like to live off of this.”

Whom would you like to be influenced by your art?

“The influence won’t be on those at the extreme. I want people who are passive to shift in a more active direction.”

Sex segregation in Israel has made headlines recently; some secular people supported such segregation at a concert.

“They don’t realize the implications. There’s a book by Ephraim Sidon about an imaginary island where some people walk around with onions in their noses and carrots in their ears. This small minority gradually manages to take over, and you want to be so okay with how you deal with the minority … and ultimately it’s damaging.”

Sachs says politicians like Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem must understand that such an approach will hurt them in the long run.

“She won’t be able to get elected, because radio stations won’t want to put her on the air and she’ll be removed from billboards,” Sachs says. “There’s a lack of understanding about this future. I think liberal women and liberal men don’t understand where this will take us. It’s blindness, and it scares me.”