NEW YORK – Inside the small book, portraits rendered in ink and coffee stains fill nearly every page. Two stand out. One is a portrait of the artist as a young girl – her long braids hanging straight down. The other is a portrait of the artist as a young woman – her hair bobbed and full of life.
Looking at Sara Erenthal’s art is like reading her diary. It tells the story of how walking away from one life opened the door to another, and as the 33-year-old tells it, another after that.
“I like to say I was born three times. Once when I was baby, once when I joined the army and once as an artist at 30,” said Erenthal over a cup of coffee at Sullivan Street Bakery in Chelsea.
Erenthal was born in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood into the Neturei Karta community, a small ultra-Orthodox group whose teachings call for the end of the State of Israel, and modesty and subservience for women. It shuns even the briefest of encounters with the outside world, whether it’s speaking with less observant Jews or flipping through a magazine.
“Ever since I was younger I was always curious about the outside, but I didn’t think it was possible to leave,” Erenthal said. “I was a good religious kid but I followed the rules more because I was afraid of being punished if I didn’t.”
Sometimes though, Erenthal broke the rules. Once she and some friends snuck out to a concert given by religious girls. And then there were the secret pair of sweat pants she occasionally slept in. In her house that was a decidedly rebellious act as females were not supposed to wear pants – ever.
Now clad in well-worn jeans covered with yellow, blue and white paint stains, the Sara of Mea Shearim seems like she came from another age.
The second of four children, Erenthal barely remembers her early childhood. She was just four when her parents decided to move to the United States. They settled in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
For a curious child, living in an apartment building with non-Jews and less observant Jews was a source of torment. Erenthal longed to ask the kids who hung out on the corner questions. But it was understood she was not to mingle with any of them.
Her life centered on family and religious day school. Now and then she would draw or paint.
‘I would go to art when I needed to express myself’
“I would go to art when I needed to express myself,” Erenthal said.
Art was a way for Erenthal to deal with an increasingly unhappy childhood. Not only did Erenthal find the Neturei Karta lifestyle suffocating, she was the prime target of her father’s violence, she said.
When Erenthal was 16 her parents returned to Israel and found her a job working in a Haredi orphanage. Soon after they announced it was time she marry and that in fact, they had found a suitable match.
Erenthal stalled. For her marriage would doom her to a life of observance and subservience. And so at 17, with the help of some distant relatives, Erenthal escaped.
In the years since, Erenthal has had limited contact with her mother, who has seen her daughter’s work on Facebook and sent her some family photos. However, she no longer has any contact with her father; the only photo she has of him is one taken of the two of them when she was still a little girl in braids. One of the first things she did after leaving was cut her long brown hair.
Several days after leaving home she went to the Israel Defense Forces recruitment center in Jerusalem.
“I figured if I’m in Israel I’ll do what Israelis do and enlist,” Erenthal said. “I knew no Hebrew, just English and Yiddish. I was dressed in religious clothing. They didn’t know what to do with me.”
Because Erenthal wasn’t yet 18 the IDF sent her to a kibbutz where she attended an intensive Hebrew language school or ulpan. Ultimately she served in the Nahal Brigade as a lone soldier.
She kept silent about her past.
After completing her service Erenthal returned to New York City. She worked in Manhattan’s diamond district for nearly nine years. Then she lost her job.
The lost job turned into an opportunity for the budding artist. She decided to travel, to see if art was more than a hobby.
Erenthal left New York and backpacked through India and Thailand. She made silk-screened t-shirts to sell to other travelers and a few small paintings and drawings. She started signing her name in Sanskrit on her work.
After India Erenthal stopped in Israel for a few months where she had her very first art show, in a bar. She took 200 photographs and arranged them to show the story of her life.
In 2011, after more than a year away, Erenthal returned to “the big brick city” determined to make it in one of the toughest art markets in the world.
This time Erenthal decided she needed some help. She contacted Footsteps, a nonprofit that helps those leaving ultra-Orthodox communities. There she met Michael Jenkins, a social worker who is also an artist. (Jenkins no longer works with Footsteps, but he’s stayed close with Erenthal.)
Jenkins and Erenthal often spoke about what it would mean for her to be an artist.
“She was exploring the whole idea of art and what it means to become an artist and whether that was something she really wanted to be,” Jenkins said.
Erenthal started attending the Art Students League on West 57 Street. With almost no money in her bank account, Erenthal knew she had to earn some income. So she sat as an artists’ model. For a young woman who grew up with the belief that the female body needed to be hidden, it was an experience that was both liberating and petrifying.
‘I had one woman come up to me later and say “you were the most covered naked person I ever saw”‘
“I had one woman come up to me later and say ‘you were the most covered naked person I ever saw,’” Erenthal said.
One day Erenthal decided to move from the modeling stand to sit behind one of the easels. Erenthal began with simple ink drawings and moved on to using all kinds of medium including acrylics, coffee, felt, burlap and rope.
Not long after Erenthal began classes at the Art Students League she attended her first “Chulent,” a weekly gathering for Orthodox Jews who either have left their communities or are considering leaving. No longer observant, Erenthal describes herself as more culturally connected to Judaism. She sometimes cooks or hosts Shabbat and holiday dinners, other times she goes to a friend’s home.
It was at Chulent that she met Elke Reva Sudin, the founder and executive director of Jewish Art Now. It was 2012 and Sudin was in the midst of curating a show and asked Erenthal to contribute a couple of works.
Erenthal contributed a self-portrait based on her experience as an artists’ model. Rendered in acrylics on canvas, “On the Model Stand” reveals Erenthal’s extreme discomfort.
“It was very raw and very honest,” Sudin said. “It was a real departure from what she had been doing. I was motivating her to get out of her comfort zone.”
Hye Yun Park, a performer and filmmaker, met Erenthal three years ago at a mutual friend’s Shabbat dinner.
Park has watched with pride as her friend’s talents developed.
“She sees beauty in things most people would not,” Park said. “She looks at the femininity and beauty of being a woman.”
Erenthal’s work was most recently on display at The SoapBox Gallery on Dean Street in Brooklyn. The show, called “Be!” concentrated on her past.
One piece, the size of a full-length mirror, depicts an ultra-orthodox Jewish mother who has staples where her mouth should be. On another, rope comprises the hair and beard of an Orthodox man’s face. He too has staples where his mouth should be and his face set against a burlap background.
Another work consisted of 22 heads fashioned out of paper mache covered Styrofoam wig heads. There was also a self-portrait of Erenthal nude, wrapped in Tefillin.
That one-woman show was a huge accomplishment, Jenkins said.
“There are a lot of things that are intimidating to other artists, but I just don’t see Sara getting intimidated by it,” he said. “As an artist, if you’re going to make it, you need to think of the market. She’s entered the art world and the art market.”
To be sure, it’s a daily struggle. Erenthal finds herself moving quite often, sometimes spending a few nights in friend’s apartments. But she is determined to give everything to her art, rather than squeeze it between a steady job.
That perseverance impresses Park.
“It’s so rare to come across a full time artist who is a real struggling artist,” Park said. “It was a great awakening for me to meet someone so devoted to her art and working so hard to make it despite the challenges.”
Not all of Erenthal’s art draws from her early years. Brightly colored acrylics, disassembled Barbie dolls and coffee and ink works dominate her recent work.
If art allows Erenthal to channel the pain of her past, it also allows her to imagine a future.
“Lately I’m doing work about my past, but my story is also now – it’s also my present,” Erenthal said. “For me art is about what I feel at the moment.”