Arts & Culture

Artist Sara Erenthal Reflects on Her Ultra-Orthodox Upbringing, And Life Beyond

She fled an arranged marriage at 17, joined the Israeli army, then backpacked through India. Her new exhibit in Brooklyn touches on her religious childhood and secular present. Read More

By / September 9, 2014

Walking into the current installation at Soapbox Gallery in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn is like walking into an alternate reality.

At the gallery’s entrance sits a twin bed made up with worn, floral linens. On the wall, the outfit of an ultra-Orthodox girl hangs unassumingly. A sign indicates that this piece is called Gut Nacht Hindy (“Good Night Hindy”). The bed is flanked by two aged bedside tables. On the left-hand side, a tattered book of tehillim (psalms) lies unopened. To the right, dying flowers sit in a mason jar, atop an open drawer exposing a collection of old family pictures.

The exhibit—emphatically titled “BE!“—is a personal memoir of sorts, inspired by artist Sara Erenthal‘s upbringing as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and subsequent departure from that world.

Erenthal, 33, resides in New York, and has been showing her work publicly for the last two-and-a-half years. “I was challenged to bring my life story into this gallery,” she says, and indeed she has: while I was there, one of her cousins—who also “broke free” from Orthodoxy (his words)—visited the gallery to show his support, and recognized himself and his parents in a few of the family photos.

Erenthal was raised by Neturei Karta parents in ultra-Orthodox communities in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Borough Park in Brooklyn, and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York. She ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage at 17, and her entire community rejected her.

The community, she remembers, is a strict one. A large-scale sculpture that stands out as the centerpiece of the show, Eidele Meidele, channels this very memory. The giant papier-mâché sculpture depicts a girl’s face, eyes turned down, with long, thick braids made of coarse rope. Braids were the singular hairstyle permitted to the artist as a child; here they are secured to the floor, representing the community’s expectations and limitations.

In Erenthal’s world, “everything is imperfect, it’s flawed in some way.” Her portrait series of an ultra-Orthodox mother, father, and son are deliberately imperfect. The portraits, which hang prominently around the gallery, are made of different materials, including burlap, like the sacks Neturei Karta members wear to anti-Zionist protests. Their clothing is frayed, with strands still sticking up from the final product. “It’s imperfect,” Erenthal reiterates, “but it’s intentional.” It tells her story.

“My family didn’t really fit in anywhere,” she recalls. There is no Neturei Karta community in New York, so even though Erenthal grew up among other ultra-Orthodox Jews, she was never really fully one of them. Furthermore, she revels, “my mother’s a little bit of a hippie and artsy,” which is not mainstream within those communities. When asked more specifically about her family, she looked visibly uncomfortable. “I’d rather not talk about them,” she said.

In addition to telling her story, Erenthal’s exhibit also considers what her life would have looked like had she not fled her community and marital expectations. Taking up a prominent section of the gallery, 22 Styrofoam wig heads manipulated with papier-mâché sit in near-perfect lines on the cement floor. The installation, she explains, depicts “what would have happened if I stayed in the community and got pregnant and then kept getting pregnant.” She chose the number 22, she explains, “because it is visually powerful.” Above the heads, speakers provide a soundtrack of ultra-Orthodox Israeli children playing in Hebrew and Yiddish, courtesy of Matan Dorembus, a film student in Be’er Sheva.

Directly parallel to this hypothetical reality, Erenthal depicts her actual reality. She did not remain in her community, nor get pregnant. Instead she forged a new path for herself, enlisting in the Israeli army and then backpacking through India. A video installation dramatically depicts this process of emancipation. In the video, she stands naked, bound in tefillin, at first looking dejected and passive, and then trying with growing intensity to break free of the religious bonds.

The show is open at Soapbox Gallery this Thursday, Friday and Saturday through September 13, with a special concert this Friday night from 7-10pm.

(Image by the author)