A Walk in the Haredi Street

Two artists' portrayals of the world of the ultra-Orthodox make very different statements

Nechama Golan placed the little ceramic sculptures she made for the Ein Hod Sculpture Biennial in 1997 in a big clay jar. After an exhibit, she is careful about how she disposes of any object that has biblical or midrashic texts on it. To do it properly, she has made a point of studying the geniza ("storing") laws in the Shulhan Arukh.

Golan sent a photographer to Ein Hod to document her work before the exhibit was dismantled. He came back with some pictures that shocked her: A black snake could be seen slithering out of the large geniza jar where she put her sculptures.

These days, Nechama Golan and Pesi Girsch are showing their work at the Uri and Rami Nechushtan Museum at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad. The exhibit is called "Where I Stand." In the middle of the main hall is a surface imprinted with a recurring image: the snake that crawled out from between Golan's sculptures. Next to it are photos of sacks labeled "afar" ("soil") and several large rocks.

On this "carpet" of computer-enhanced photographs is an altar-like structure with inverted screws supporting a strange scroll. It looks like a Torah scroll, but it is made of clear plastic and has no words on it. It is a transparent Torah: Those who are familiar with its teachings do not need ink to plumb its depths, while those who are ignorant will never make any sense of it.

Mounted on the walls are two photographic series by Pesi Girsch taken in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem since 1997: One documents the goings-on at a randomly chosen spot in Geula, and the other documents life in the Batei Ungarin neighborhood.

According to Girsch, her photographs record the Haredi world from the outside, whereas Golan's installation probes its essence. This idea of a division between "exterior" and "interior" is reinforced by the biography of these two women: Girsch, who lives in Tel Aviv today, immigrated from Germany in 1968, aged 14. She comes from a traditional home, but is not a religious woman. Golan, born in Tel Aviv in 1947, became religious in the 1980s and moved with her husband and two daughters to Bnei Brak. One daughter is religious and the other is not. Walking through the museum, the voice of the secular daughter can be heard singing "Eshet khayil mi yimtza" ("A woman of valor who can find") from the Book of Proverbs.

The power of the exhibit lies in the momentary illusion it provides of cracking the code and unraveling the secrets of the ultra-Orthodox world. But the glimpse of the Haredi street offered by Girsch the outsider, and the testimony of Golan from the street itself, only serve to heighten the sense of alienation between the religious and secular worlds.

There is nothing like a visit to Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad to accentuate the gulf between increasingly Orthodox Jerusalem and the scions of the kibbutz movement. "The focus of this museum is Israeli culture, and there's no question that the Haredim are part of it," says Ruth Shadmon, the museum director, making no attempt to conceal her sorrow. "This exhibit illustrates how gravely Zionism has been hurt by the rise of the Haredi sector. But one can still find something encouraging here: The Haredim started out from a position of weakness and went far. So maybe there's hope for Zionism, too. Today it's going backward. Look at Jerusalem: The Haredim have taken over the city and no one has even challenged them."

Ashdot Yaakov, like other kibbutzim, went through a traumatic split back in 1952. Members who expressed uncompromising support for Comrade Stalin packed their bags and founded a new kibbutz just a few hundred meters northward. Ashdot Yaakov Ihud and Ashdot Yaakov Meuhad sit one beside the other - two parts that do not add up to a whole. The years have gone by and the arguments have subsided. There is no fence separating the kibbutzim, but the only thing they share is a swimming pool. Shadmon confesses that sometimes she does her shopping at the Ihud grocery.

Ashdot Yaakov, located a few kilometers south of Lake Kinneret, gave up on celestial Jerusalem long ago. It was too holy a city, too Orthodox. Here, the battle is being fought over the character of the valley, over keeping it Zionist in the spirit of the founding fathers. Haredi society, even if it only peers out from the walls of an air-conditioned museum, is strange and frightening.

Golan's fascinating installations do not help to dispel the fog. They are ambiguous and frustrating, and make use of materials that are largely incomprehensible to the secular viewer. Girsch's photographs only increase the mystery. Many people know Haredim chiefly from pictures in the newspaper, which show them engaging in typical "Haredi" activities: Haredi MKs, Haredim praying, masses of Haredim at political rallies supporting Shas or Agudat Yisrael. Sometimes, a Haredi will appear in "ordinary" pictures: There's nothing like a bearded man in black gabardine to add special interest to a shot of people on the beach.

Girsch visited Geula on Passover six years ago. She stood in an alleyway overlooking one of the local streets and began to take pictures. Since then, she has gone back many times, on different holidays. Sometimes she is approached by children and adults who shout at her, spit in her direction or pelt her with stones. Sometimes they ignore her. She documents what is happening in the street below, in the area between three manholes and a rain-pipe dangling from the roof. It is a cramped little space, but she finds a whole world in it.

"In Germany, the ultra-Orthodox were always perceived as an ideal, pure society," says Girsch, repeating a view held by many secular people. "But while I was working in Geula, I saw a different face - one that was less ideal. I tried to record everyday moments that are not so familiar to the public. I discovered a society that never lazes around. Haredim don't walk down the street just for the sake of it. They're always on the way to doing something concrete. Even their manner of walking is different. They have this purposeful walk, full of concentration."

In one photograph, a man with a white beard is walking toward three women standing at the end of the street. Separating between him and the women are a prayer shawl and a white sheet, hung out to dry on a makeshift clothesline. To the non-religious, the partition, and the gaping hole in the center of the sheet, are visual reminders of the "bedsheet with the hole in it" that gets the secular brain so fired up - which goes to show, yet again, how constricted we are by the meager sack of stereotypes we bring to the task of interpreting these photos.

Girsch's pictures are clean and precise - mesmerizing, in fact. Packed with detail, they require careful scrutiny. There is a sense of an "upper world" and a "lower world." It has to do with the angle chosen by Girsch, but also with the feeling that the manhole covers are covering up what is going on underground, below the neighborhood.

In Batei Ungarin, Girsch captured on film scenes that look like something from another century. In the exhibition catalog, she describes the neighborhood as a theater set with the backdrop already in place. Discussing her photographs, Girsch sounds at times like an overwrought stage director: It's easy to say that the woman crossing a path stands for someone who has crossed a forbidden line, but in doing so, we impose on the people in these pictures a whole set of expectations brought from home.

More interesting are the subtler images. "For the residents of this neighborhood, a full clothesline is a sign that the woman who lives there is a good housekeeper. She takes proper care of her family's clothes," says Girsch. Paradoxically, in this closed and puritanical society, underwear flapping in the wind is the norm, whereas people in Tel Aviv would think twice before hanging their bras and boxer shorts out to dry for all the world to see.

Girsch refers to the residents of Geula as "dossim" (slang for ultra-Orthodox), and feels very much a stranger in their midst. Yet when she visits Haredi neighborhoods, she also feels something mystical, and that comes out in the final product: in the drainpipe that appears to emit a flash of light, in the human forms created by the laundry, in the shadow she casts on the ground next to a Haredi man who turns away from her. Pesi Girsch tried not to disturb the daily routine of these people, but there is no question that she attracted attention.

Even if she is "one of them," Nechama Golan is not your average Bnei Brak matron. From time to time, she goes into the shops where they sell photographs of festive events attended by important Hasidic rabbis. For those who were not invited, these photographs are a way of getting close to great Torah scholars. On one wall of the museum in Ashdot Yaakov, Golan has hung letters of the alphabet snipped from the captions of these pictures. Above each letter is a number. Golan says that some of those visiting the exhibit were sure the numbers were linked to gematria (numerology) and represented the numerical equivalent of the letter. They didn't let the fact that the number over "aleph" (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) is 47, get in their way. Even religious viewers could not guess Golan's motives.

In fact, the numbers are related to a midrash (homiletic commentary) from Bereshit Raba on the creation of Eve. According to this midrash, Eve "was not created from Adam's heart lest she be prone to jealousy; not from his hand, lest she be a fondler; not from his foot, lest she be a gadabout; but from his rib, a hidden part of the body. As he fashioned each limb, the Creator would say to her: Be a modest woman!"

Golan says that counting the letters in this midrash, she found that "aleph" appeared 47 times, "samekh" appeared 4 times, and so on. This is the secret of her number pairs. Only the letter "het" (the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but also the word for "sin") does not appear at all, so she put a zero above it.

One is tempted to see Golan's work as criticizing the status of women in the society of which she is part. She seems to be expressing this point of view through her inclusion of a photograph in which the admor (Hasidic rabbi) is dancing with a bride at her wedding. Actually, the rabbi is dancing by himself. A cardboard box sits on the floor between them, and we don't even see the bride's head: The nameless photographer didn't take the trouble to include that part of her in the frame.

Golan is not thrilled by this assessment. "All I'm doing is presenting things as they are," she says. By way of example, she points to a high-heeled shoe onto which she has glued a religious text. "My work deals with the plight of women - not necessarily religious women," she explains. "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. But I don't see religion as something that only imposes restrictions on women. My work has two sides to it: I put these `binding' texts from the religious world on show, but I really wish I could accept them and make them part of me."

Using sacred texts to create art is problematic, and Golan knows it. "You're not even allowed to shade your face with a Torah, because that would be using it as a tool," she says. "Art, for me, is a kind of compulsion; I realize that. But as a sign of respect, I put these objects in a geniza and don't offer them for sale."

In one of the inside rooms of the museum hangs a photograph of a bound chicken, taken by Girsch in Mea Shearim. "After the idyllic pictures of Batei Ungarin, I was looking for a strong finale," she says. "Like the crash of the cymbals that wakes up everyone who has dozed off at the concert. A dead chicken can't atone for anyone's sins. There's something low and voodooistic about swinging a chicken around your head [a ritual performed on the eve of Yom Kippur]. In my eyes, it symbolizes narrow-mindedness."

Brothers' legacy

The museum at Ashdot Ya'akov Meuhad is named after two brothers from the kibbutz who died tragic deaths. Uri Nechushtan was killed in the War of Independence, in the battle for the liberation of Lod. Six years later, in 1954, his brother, Rami, died from a snake-bite. Their father, Meir, who wanted to commemorate his sons' artistic talents, fought to establish a museum on the kibbutz. It opened in 1958.

Nechushtan succeeded in rallying the Jewish Sculptors' and Painters' Association in Paris to his cause. The association donated artworks that were shipped to Israel on the Hakibbutz Hameuhad shipping line, Tarshish, via Marseilles. Today, the museum has a permanent collection of 3,000 artworks. Over the years, the building has been enlarged and renovated. Ruth Shadmon, the museum director, curates about six shows of contemporary art a year. "In the early 1990s, the Nechushtans energy ran out," says Shadmon. "They lived in a kind of tragic twilight zone for a few years, and then they passed away." (D.R.)