What Is Jewish Feminist Art?

Art may have deep roots in Jewish ritual and tradition, but that doesn't mean it should be labeled.

Lanny Shereck

Don’t call Rochelle Rubinstein a “Jewish” - or a “Jewish feminist” - artist. Like many artists and writers who reject those sorts of labels - for instance, Saul Bellow, who refused to define himself as a “Jewish writer” - Rubinstein bristles at being labeled in this way. This gifted and accomplished artist, recently appointed artist-in-residence at the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto, sees her work as transcending labels, and thinks of herself just as “an artist.”

I interviewed her last week, curious to find out what inspires her work and whether, in her view, art created by Jewish feminists should necessarily be defined as "Jewish feminist art." Rubinstein, despite her dislike of this (or any) label, was forthcoming about her work’s Jewish – and feminist – roots.

First and foremost, she said, both her parents are Holocaust survivors, and, in a way, nothing in her work can be separated from that. Her parents' Holocaust experience seeps into her art and is a primary motivator for her in terms of her search for meaning and clarity. Her art, as she put it, is "an attempt to process unacceptable information."


'Marginalia' (detail) by Rochelle Rubinstein. Photo by Lanny Shereck

The other Jewish source for her work was growing up in an Orthodox family and community and, drawing on this background, she uses a lot of Jewish and Hebrew text in her work. In one example, when her father died and shiva (seven-day period of mourning) was over, she took the Hebrew text of the Kaddish Yatom (Orphan mourner’s prayer) - which, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to recite in the men's minyan held in her parents' house during shiva - and repeatedly printed this Kaddish on a block of wood. She thought about her father while she did this, and this artwork felt to her like “an act of devotion, as well as an act of mourning.” This, she said, was her equivalent of saying Kaddish for her father, and it felt to her “a bit like prayer.”

There’s something else about this particular piece of work that seems to Rubinstein almost magical. After she’d worked on it a long time, carving into it over and over, the text of the Kaddish started dissolving into a muddy, dark mess. So she carved many thin lines into the wood, and somehow this brought the light back in. Once she’d carved through all the letters of the Kaddish down to the original wood, she sensed that her year of mourning was about to end. She hadn’t been going to shul or tracking the year on a calendar, but somehow “her body knew” the year of mourning was almost up. And when she checked on a calendar, she found she was right.

This work, called “End of Mourning,” is now in the Yeshiva University Museum collection. Rubinstein said to me about the feminist aspect of this piece: “I could have been very mad and pouted about not being allowed to say Kaddish just because I’m a woman. But I didn’t want to disrespect my father by breaking into the men’s section and saying, ‘I want to say Kaddish.’ Yet we crave these rituals in some form.”


'End of Mourning' by Rochelle Rubinstein. Photo by Lanny Shereck

Rubinstein is right that we crave rituals in some form - including through art - and maybe this is one reason that her work affects me so powerfully. On the one hand, her art has deep roots in Jewish ritual and tradition, yet on the other, it is highly individualistic, even rebellious. I find her rebelliousness very appealing - personally, and also politically. As a Jewish feminist in a loving but struggle-filled relationship with our tradition, I experience Rubinstein’s art as speaking to me directly about my own life, in a visual language that is new yet somehow also familiar.

One of Rubinstein’s works hangs in my dining room. "Eye Village" faces me every week when I sit at the dining room table for Shabbat family meals, and along with my food I slowly digest this extraordinary work. It is full of life and, like “End of Mourning,” carved and painted, and sometimes it looks to me like the visual equivalent of my own fiction writing, with its process of deep-down digging into the raw material, and the wild joy and freedom that come from making art.


'Eye Village' by Rochelle Rubinstein. Photo by Lanny Shereck

This process, as Rubinstein points out, has nothing to do with consciously imposing one’s ideology (Jewish, feminist, or any other) onto one’s art. Yet for writers like me or artists like her, our roots in Judaism and feminism inevitably find expression in the works we create.


'Marginalia' by Rochelle Rubinstein. Photo by Lanny Shereck

The museum at Hebrew Union College describes Rubinstein’s latest project, “Marginalia,” as “a gentle assault on fundamentalism. While appreciating the ritual and beauty within diverse historical religious texts and images, Rubinstein also challenges their dogma and rigidity.”

How Jewish. How feminist. And how typical of great, true art.

Dr. Nora Gold is a fiction writer, an activist, a board member of the Dafna Izraeli Fund, and the creator and editor of the online journal Jewish Fiction .net. Her forthcoming book, Fields of Exile, is the first novel about anti-Israelism in the academe, and will be published this May. www.noragold.com

Lanny Shereck