I never liked the Invisible Woman. Sue Storm—the Marvel comic book character’s name—may be a founding member of The Fantastic Four, but my comic-book loving former teenage self did not find her invisibility power to be…fantastic. She always seemed to be hiding, as emphasized by her classic look when using her ability—broken lines shaping a translucent female form.
The female hero that did spark my interest with an intensity that inspired me to produce multiple fanfics and pages of doodles was Kitty Pryde, also known as Shadowcat. Like Sue Storm, Kitty had a passive ability—she turned immaterial and could move through solid walls or floors. However, Kitty—who was Jewish—was never a barely-there shadow on the comic page. As she learned to use her abilities to save others, she took center stage, a hero in her own right despite the many male characters whose aggressive powers and physicality dominated the 80s comics world. Her presence served as a role model for me if only in fiction, and suggested that I, too, could learn to use my abilities and find my voice in what could often be a male-dominated Orthodox world.
It was Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik’s work Nevertheless She Persisted, at “The Invisible Jew,” an exhibit organized and sponsored by The Jewish Arts Salon which opened on Sunday at Detour Gallery in Redbank, NJ, that started me musing on comic books, disappearing heroes, visual signals and communal boundaries. The artist’s collage includes excerpts from comic book panels, and depicts a woman holding up a sword—shades of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Brynjegard-Bialik’s is among 38 artists from the United States, Israel and Europe, both men and women, exploring the demarcation lines of tradition, culture and Jewish law that shape the lives of Orthodox Jewish women.
The exhibition title was taken from an article by New Jersey writer Merri Ukraincik in which she described her reaction to receiving an invitation to a gala dinner. The invitation included a photo of the male honoree, but not of the female honoree, his wife.
Indeed, there is a growing trend both in the United States and Israel to erase women from haredi print media, in the name of hyper-modesty; a growing insistence among certain haredi groups that any printed image of a woman or girl, even those adhering to strict modesty standards, are inherently sexual and therefore a danger to the “pure” thoughts of men.
Consequently, there are no pictures of the many female contributors to popular Orthodox magazines such as Mishpacha, which reaches both haredi and non-haredi households in the United States—though male contributors’ pictures appear next to their bylines. Pictures of women are regularly omitted from haredi newspapers such as Hamodia, and they are pixelated or blurred in local advertisement supplements sent to communities in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. And, of course, there are those invitations to dinners and other communal events that somehow seem to be missing representation of half the population.
All of which seemed funny, and largely irrelevant, to me when I first heard about the trend several years ago. Like most in my comfortably Modern Orthodox community, I would laugh at a seemingly foreign Jewish world that made an advertisement for Purim costumes look like a horror movie poster as the costumed young girls shown had flesh colored blurs instead of faces. Yet the invitation that Ukraincik wrote about was also sent to my home; I live in a nearby community. And I have found books written for and about women featuring only pictures of men and boys in the teens and tweens section of my shul library. This trend is seeping into my world; through dinner invitations, children’s books and local communal advertisement, my gender is slowly being made to disappear from the Orthodox Jewish world.
Which brings me right back to the exhibit. It takes images to counter a lack of images. The visual to address the slow fade from the public eye of Jewish female icons, peers, even friends and relatives. And through sculptures, photography, paintings and prints, the artists are not just noting the missing women but also questioning the demarcation lines of minhag and society that are impacting women. “The exhibit’s purpose is to open up a dialogue about how women are viewed in the religious world,” says Goldie Gross, co-curator of the exhibit with Yona Verwer, director of the Jewish Art Salon.
Take, for example, Leah Raab’s photograph of an Israeli campaign poster with paint obscuring Israeli politician Tzipi Livni’s face, one of Gross’s favorite images from the exhibit. In Israel, vandals have been defacing the images of women on posters and billboards on Jerusalem’s bus stops and walls. The Hebrew word “Emet,” the title of the painting, appears in the corner of Raab’s image. For some, it is “truth” that images of women in public spaces in Israel’s capital are immodest.
Included in the exhibit are art pieces that examine mikvah, marriage and the laws of tzniut. A group of paintings investigates the enclosed women’s space whose boundaries are the mechitzah: Nechama Markowitz’s piece depicts the obscured view that women in Orthodox synagogues have of the hazzan, Ark and Torah. The painted lattice bars of the mechitzah on Jeanne Vogel’s artwork are even thicker. “Hidden from view, view is hidden,” the artist asks in a statement about her art piece. “What is the difference? How could a woman standing here not think that she was not wanted?” Since synagogue is the most central and public of contemporary Jewish religious spaces, these works ask, what does it mean that women are hidden away behind heavy barriers, or even placed, as in some synagogues, in a separate room? Do these women consider themselves fully part of the congregation? Though, Gross notes, the exhibit is not questioning the practice of mechitza but “asking for sympathy for women within halakha,” noting that in some communities mechitzas have become “higher and bigger.”
The vulnerability depicted in another striking work by Joyce Judith Polances’ a woman, or girl, with overlarge expressive eyes and no mouth reminds me of my teenage self. who could not quite ask for guidance in finding a path that would align my Jewish self, my intellectual self, my crazy comic loving fandom self. She reminds me of my teenage daughter who needs role models, as she grows into herself. And while, much like I did growing up, she has plenty of secular guidance, most of the Jewish books and media she might turn to are barren of any images of contemporary female religious role models.
The exhibit does provide glimmer of hope for the future–in that powerful woman with a sword depicted in Brynjegard-Bialik’s collage and in a photoessay by Ann Koffsky that collected images of women, from Tzipi Livni to Anne Frank, whose images should have appeared alongside stories in the haredi media. These women will not disappear, Koffsky insists, because she has placed them online, on her “small portion of the internet.”
And most of all, I find hope for myself and my daughter, my friends and all in the Orthodox community that there continue to be artists, writers and activists who question the erasure of women, and reject the notion that a women’s place within Orthodoxy is to slowly fade from the page.
Leah Finkelshteyn is an editor at Hadassah Magazine.
Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.