As you stroll along the north side of College Street between Spadina and Bathurst in downtown Toronto, you’ll notice one storefront doesn’t look like the others. Squeezed between a Domino’s Pizza on one side and a run-down diner on the other is a window filled with brightly colored, hand-painted scrolls hung from ceiling to floor.
Currently on display in the Fentster until May 24 is an exhibition titled, “Blood, Milk & Tears,” a collaboration among local Jewish and Muslim women. Inspired by classical Jewish and Islamic religious texts on menstruation, breast feeding and mourning, the women studied and discussed the texts together before recently creating their artworks.
Coming in the wake of the deadly attack on a Quebec mosque by a white nationalist in late January, participants said that the timing of the interfaith collaboration was fortuitously healing.
Hannah Mayne, 31-year-old University of Toronto anthropology, said she and other young Canadian Jews have been asking themselves what they can do to be supportive of Muslims.
At the same time, 22-year-old Somali-born Asma Ali, said she appreciated the solidarity from new Jewish friends and acquaintances.
“As Muslims, we are beginning to feel a sense of needing to unite, stand up and support one another. And having other communities — including ones we weren’t mindful of before — come support us is beautiful. It makes us feel we are not alone in this struggle,” said Ali, who is pursuing a Master of Pastoral Studies degree at U of T.
The impetus for “Blood, Milk & Tears” was Dr. Shari Golberg‘s interest in bringing Jewish and Muslim women together to dialogue about something other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She wanted to look at issues of gender and deal with difficult texts from both religious traditions.
“Muslim and Jewish women both have the challenge of dealing with texts that can marginalize them while they are part of their communities,” Golberg said.
Golberg, 42, earned a doctorate in religion focusing on issues of gender in Judaism and Islam from U of T. She has been convening groups of Muslims and Jews in Toronto since 2004 for the purposes of reading one another’s sacred scriptures, with the support of organizations such as the U of T Multi-faith Centre, the Noor Cultural Centre, and the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. Through an initiative called Shema & Iqra’: The Jewish-Muslim Text Project, she runs courses and workshops on three areas of mutual concern: gender and religious law, creative expression, and environmental ethics.
Toronto Jewish artists and Fentster advisory committee members Rochelle Rubinstein and Mindy Stricke studied with Golberg and suggested she expand her “Blood, Milk & Tears” course (originally for eight women) into a collaboration with Fentster that would include more participants. Fentster curator Evelyn Tauben got involved, and the project grew to include more than 20 Jewish and Muslim women between the ages of 18 and 65 — not all of whom had professional, or even amateur, art backgrounds.
“It was Rochelle who suggested the concept of working on long paper scrolls,” said Tauben.
Given the limited display space in the storefront window, measuring just 7ft wide by 8 ft high by 5 ft deep, it made sense for the women to work individually or in pairs on scrolls that were each 10 ft long but just 1 ft wide.
According to Tauben, many of the women used a teardrop motif in their work, with the shape representing rain, dew, blood, tears, or milk.
Sharon Ross and Siham Chowdhury worked together on a scroll, drawing on similar breast feeding experiences.
“Siham spoke about the heartbreak of not having enough breast milk and the gratitude she had for her close friend who shared her breast milk with her daughter. I then shared that I shipped my own breast milk to my friend in Montreal. Soon after, Siham and I decided to work on a scroll together for the art exhibit. I offered to write a poem about her birth and breast feeding story and she drew an image to go with it. The collaboration was moving and meaningful,” Ross said.
Mayne, who worked on a scroll with her mother, Ottawa-based artist Sharon Katz, chose to focus on the pomegranate as a subject. She used photographs she took over the past seven years of the fruit, a symbol for fertility, in various stages of its life cycle.
“Some of the photos were of dry, rotting pomegranates. They were reminiscent of sagging breasts. I wanted to go against the image of the beautiful, ripe, red pomegranate, which represents the ideal, healthy female body,” Mayne said.
Pastoral student Ali and Tiferet Nashman, the 22-year-old program coordinator for the Jewish environmental organization Shoresh, teamed up to create a scroll with an image of a woman-tree, showing how the feminine and nature are connected.
“I feel obligated to fight against the degradation of the planet, as an environmentalist and a feminist. To the extent that we think of land and nature as female, our disregard for the well-being of ‘Mother Earth’ is a reflection of our societies’ sexism,” Nashman said.
The Fentster exhibition is eye-catching, but all those interviewed agree that the most important aspect of “Blood, Milk & Tears” was the women coming together to dialogue about the religious texts.
“The conversations are more important than the texts themselves,” Golberg said.
The women discovered they shared similarities — and also significant differences. They also learned from hearing each other’s personal, family and community histories that within both faith communities, women’s lived experiences do not always match up with what is in their sacred texts.
Ali admitted that being so open, especially with the Jewish women she had just met, was hard at first. But she soon embraced the “Blood, Milk & Tears” sisterhood, finding it a safe space to discuss intimate issues regarding the female body.
“Both Jewish and Muslim women have to deal with our texts and our bodies. We have similar challenges in how to embrace and take ownership of texts about our bodies that have been interpreted over the centuries by men,” Ali said.
According to Tauben, a joint Jewish-Muslim exhibition is in line with Fentster’s mission.
“The Jewish experience is very wide-ranging. Contemporary conversations should include other narratives and touch points,” she said.
Scholar Golberg began bringing Muslims and Jews together more than a decade ago, before the recent headlines about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
“People thought I was crazy when I first started doing this, but now I don’t have to explain why this is important,” she said.