A Torah scroll corset based on a pregnant woman’s shape; a coat of an aguna (a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, a Jewish divorce) sewn from dozens of paper squares printed with the words of ancient Jewish marriage contracts; two halla breads shaped like breasts to represent the commandment to have intercourse with one’s partner on the Sabbath; photographs of the view from behind the mehitza, the curtain separating men’s and women’s sections in Orthodox synagogues.
Disturbing, comical and thought-provoking, these are a few of the pieces being exhibited in “Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art” at the Museum of Art at Ein Harod, a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley. Named for the matrona, a Talmudic term that refers to a woman who engages in discussions with the rabbinic sages, it was an image that curator Dvora Liss felt connected to, despite the fact that the matronita of yore wasn’t generally Jewish.
Liss, the curator of the museum’s Judaica collection, was initially aiming to create an “interesting Jewish” exhibit that would get people into the Judaica rooms of the museum’s permanent exhibit.
The museum’s collection of European Judaica is “huge,” says Liss, but has often been ignored in favor of the more cutting-edge general exhibits. When asked by museum director Galia Bar Or to do something she felt passionate about, Liss found herself pondering a collection of Jewish feminist art, something she knew little about but was curious to explore.
Liss worked with fellow curator David Sperber, an art historian who directed her toward possible artists. Five years and some 50 artists’ studios later, Liss now sees the final exhibit of 20 artists’ works as focusing on the dissonance between Jewish law and modern life. Spread throughout half the museum, and including installations and works of paper, textiles, ultrasound technology, photography and video, it is a rich visual history of Jewish feminism, with the artists taking an often-critical look at the most troubling issues for religious Jewish women.
The 15 artists are all women, religious or from religious backgrounds and from a collection of countries, including Israel, the US and Europe. They’ve taken on the issues of nidda, family ritual purity and the marital bed; of separation of the sexes in Judaism; of a woman who is accused of adultery, the sotah.
The texts describing the works are in Hebrew, but a recently launched iPhone app available for $2.99 at the App store — “Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art – Museum of Art, Ein Harod – Acoustiguide Smartour” — will help explain the more puzzling pieces.
Be sure to meander through all 14 exhibition spaces of the museum, a Bauhaus-styled structure of simple materials and diffuse natural light with a startling series of artwork, from the aforementioned Judaica and current Israeli imagery to the Matronita pieces. Interspersed among the galleries are outdoor sculpture gardens that are part of the original museum plan.
The museum is open every day of the week and on holiday eves and the exhibit will be on display through Passover.