by Cynthia Freeland
Galveston Arts Center
in conjunction with FotoFest 2002
February 23-March 31, 2002
subsequently traveling to venues
in San Antonio, San Diego, Denver,
Los Angeles, and New York.
In The Mikvah Project, photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax have collaborated to depict women's experiences and interpretations of the Jewish ritual of women's immersion or mikvah. For observant Jewish women the mikvah ritual must occur exactly seven days after their menses have ceased to flow; it is also practiced by brides before a wedding.
Rubin and Lax traveled widely and conducted interviews to explore many women's views of this ancient ritual. For some women, the mikvah represents important ties to their heritage and they observe it with prayerful respect. Others have reinvented it as an individual ceremony of psychological healing and spiritual renewal. The exhibit, accompanied by a beautifully designed catalog by Charles Wiese, is divided into two sections, an "immersion" series and a "portrait" series. The immersion prints are 16" x 24" pigmented giclee prints; they are black-and-white images, except for a few with digitally added color toning. The portraits, accompanied by text, are exhibited in 24" x 36" panels designed by Charles Wiese.
The portraits do not depict recognizable faces and figures but portray each person's unique situation and story. The images resonate with brief texts of quotes culled from the interviews. For the immersion series, Rubin worked with models to evoke the experience itself. Here there is no text, just women's bodies dappled with reflections in water, most taken in a specially built and approved tiled mikvah, a few done outdoors in a river. I will begin by discussing the immersion pictures, because these raise especially interesting issues.
An image of a woman in a bath, especially a mikvah, makes a daunting subject for many reasons. There is the technical challenge of shooting underwater (the petite Rubin had to have a friend hold her down while she was shooting). Furthermore, mikvah is a ritual loaded with taboos. Referring both to menstruation and to sexuality within marriage, it is a very private affair and easily misunderstood. The subject might be unsavory for today's liberal audiences, even those used to tackling issues of sexuality and blood in contemporary art. For feminists and/or non-Jewish viewers like myself, the picture of woman's nature behind the mikvah ritual appears outmoded and even repellent, suggesting that women's natural processes make them "unclean," as the relevant passages in Leviticus are usually translated. Ancient Jewish law regulated behavior in relation to a multitude of phenomena of bodily emissions and discharges. The regulations were (and still are, in certain Orthodox communities today) interpreted as strictly prohibiting not just intercourse but all physical contact during menstruation and seven days afterward: passing dishes, touching hands, sleeping in the same bed. Thus the mikvah ritual seems to reflect sexist and patriarchal values — hardly something for modern women to explore and celebrate!
However, Rubin and Lax explain that they became fascinated with revisiting this obscured part of their heritage so as to improve their own understanding and clarify it for others. They found in mikvah a way both of reclaiming a tradition and connecting with other women. Through one-on-one discussions they gradually uncovered a kind of grassroots movement among Jewish women, including some Orthodox women, feminists, single and divorced women, battered and abused women, lesbians, all attempting to forge a respectful revision of this ancient ritual. Instead of interpreting the relevant term ("tameh") from Leviticus as signifying that women on their periods are "unclean," Rubin argues in her artist's statement that it can indicate a time when one is "spiritually vulnerable" — something worth periodic acknowledgment. This brings me to the deepest difficulty of such material, the challenge of using either photographs or writings to convey something as elusive as a spiritual experience. Again, while modern viewers are comfortable with many images of sex in art, when we encounter religion it is more common for artists to be taking potshots rather than celebrating or affirming it. The focus here on spirituality combined with the subject matter of menstruation might make some viewers squirm.
They need not worry, however, because the work itself is delicate and subtle. One clear aim of the immersion series is to 'subjectify' the female body in the context of a private and intimate experience. I found this better done in some of the photographs than others. To depict a woman bathing or reborn in water has been a passion of artists for centuries. Everyone has seen paintings of Susannah and the Elders or Aphrodite emerging from the waves. A woman being immersed in water and emerging fresh is an ancient theme in art that has its own tradition — one these photos work against, which is to their credit. Historically, male artists injected a strong erotic element into such scenes that is problematic for its voyeurism and the way it objectifies women's bodies. For example, in the Susannah paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Ludovico Carracci, Guercino and many others, we see a beautiful naked maiden exposed before spying old lechers. Though they gaze at her from the side or back of the frame, the woman's body is turned front and center, toward us, the viewers. This scene stems from a story in the Biblical apocrypha (Susannah 15-24) of a modest and chaste married woman spied upon by lustful neighbors. After rejecting their advances, Susannah was put on trial for adultery when they retaliated with false accusations; she was saved by the young prophet Daniel. The Susannah theme was undoubtedly popular because it gave male painters the chance to show off a tasty female nude while at the same time assuming a moralistic stance that condemned lustful gazing.
Going against this weighty art-historical tradition, Rubin has sought to show naked women in a way that blocks voyeurism and inspires respect. Religious restrictions and respect for modesty led the artist not to include any shots showing women's breasts or genitals. These women turn away from us with eyes closed; resisting a relation to the watcher, they interact only with their own reflections on the water surface above. Although we are observers at their intimate moments of immersing, we are not spying like the lewd elders upon Susannah. In some images we witness moments of beauty and grace. One large side view of a woman with gently relaxed limbs recalls familiar images of fetuses floating silently in the womb. The tinting here that shades from ultramarine in the depths of water to sepia from a glowing light above is unusual and effective. I like several images that show a woman in an indeterminate spatial position, apparently resting her feet against the side of the mikvah, hair adrift. With her body oriented along the horizontal, or even tilted upside-down, this woman is at home in her weightless, immaculate environment. Several photographs convey vibrant energy and dynamism as the woman dives or erupts from the water — this is particularly true of one image shot from above that shows a woman emerging amid bright ripples. Some of the best images capitalize on the unusual lighting effects created by water. One shows a woman radiating waves of light off the top of her head (which is rather star-tlingly shaved). The reflected light in these pictures connotes a divine presence, or at least a more-than-material one. A few other images are less effective because they are either too literal or slightly clicked; the former is true of some renderings of the physical interior of the mikvah, the latter of a close-up of hands trailing through bubbles of water. Given that the immersion series was done with models simulating the ritual and not with actual participants, I am tempted to wish that Rubin had been more daring in her depictions of nudity. After all, naked women do typically have female body parts in all the usual places, and it becomes noticeable and even distracting that one is not seeing those parts here. This choice may reflect a too rigid self-imposed editing restriction. When breasts and genitalia are deleted, I worry that women's reproductive parts are still somehow taboo. To be sure, it would be a challenge to include full nudity — remember my point about all those Susannah paintings—and to do so would have made the material problematic for some of the anticipated exhibition venues. But the photographs could venture more to explore the eroticism that some interviewees referred to in speaking of the mikvah experience. As these women expose their naked physical selves before God, they are also prepar-ing to resume the intimacy of sexual relations after a period of enforced separation that has intensified desire.
Historically, much spiritual experience has been tinged with erotic intensity (think of Bernini's famous sculpture of the mystical ecstasies of St. Teresa). Because the women's awareness of their bodies in mikvah includes the feeling of being specially potent, the images could strive to depict the state that French feminists have called jouissance, a woman's joyous pleasure in her own physicality. It might seem offensive to call an experience associated with reverence and prayer "erotic," but Rubin and Lax emphasize that Judaism does not assume the standard Christian dualism of soul and body. Instead, it revels in the spirituality of everyday physical activities, including marital intercourse as well the eating of the Seder meal. Perhaps more evidently than the immersion series, the portraits convey a reconceptualization of the mikvah ritual that clearly rejects the view that menstruation and sexuality in general "pollute" a woman. Some of the women quoted here speak as if the mikvah enables them to feel God's presence within themselves — a feeling that extends to the men around them, as when one husband commented to his wife upon her return from mikvah "you are so, so holy." The deep significance of retaining tradition is especially moving in cases where older women recount their struggles to observe the ritual despite fierce state persecution:
Later, the Soviets did close the Leningrad mikvah, but I found an old man with a secret mikvah he'd dug under his kitchen floor. It was winter, and the mikvah was completely dark, with icy, wooden steps and freezing water. Immersing in that was the hardest thing I've ever done, and we both knew that if either of us told anyone, we'd be sent to Siberia.
The text from interviews has been culled here to a haiku-like brevity, both poignant and matter-of-fact, effectively capturing spoken rhythms to reveal a diversity of women's experiences. We see, for example, the image of a woman outdoors in sunshine and breezes, holding a prayer shawl, conveying exhilaration as she tells how the mikvah helped her realize she was now free after the end of a marriage:
We had a Jewish divorce, but there was an emotional piece that I just couldn't let go of. I thought mikvah could create a way to help me bridge this difficult period. Mikvah immersion left me feeling washed free of this overlay of guilt and "what if." From that night I could look forward instead of backward.
Another eloquent shot of a woman doing her toenails describes her surprisingly complex self-scrutiny as she seeks to inventory the moral acts and omissions of each bodily part since her last immersion:
And my eyes (and I might be removing my makeup), what did I see in people? What did I fail to see? And my feet (and I'd be doing a pedicure), where have my feet been? What did they run to do? It's a sort of private Yom Kippur.
The Mikvah Project is definitely "serious issue" photography with a "theme" attached. Because many of the women fit into an agenda of celebrating this unique ritual, the work runs the risk of being annoyingly affirming. And some of the photos edge toward sentimentality (particularly ones featuring women with children or infants). But the sweetness and seriousness of some image-text pairs is more than balanced out by the buoyancy and humor of some other images, like the photo of a 76-year-old woman excited about the mikvah party before her wedding. In Rubin's deliberately out-of-focus shot, this lady's eyes glow as she exuberantly squeezes her elderly husband's face (incidentally flashing a huge diamond ring in the foreground). It is also bracing to hear from women who seem more cynical, like the one who says, "At this point, my emotional connection to mikvah is that it's a chore. I look forward to menopause;" or another who bluntly states that although she hoped mikvah would confirm her as a new woman before marriage, it didn't. The mikvah attendant punctured her fantasies by commenting tartly, "You're not such a young bride, are you?"
In the end, a clear enticement to the pleasures of mikvah is strongly conveyed in both the images and text. One woman uses mikvah to heal from a sense of loss about infertility, another to celebrate psychic release from a history of abuse, a third to confirm her coming out as a lesbian to her family. Attracted by such creative and revisionist conceptions of mikvah, my students who heard the artists lecture at the University of Houston began to wonder whether they too could join in this ritual and gain its alleged benefits — even the non-Jewish women and some men. I didn't know enough to answer their question, but I wanted to tell them that mikvah should not be regarded as just an exotic variant on the "rejuvenating" day-spa experience. We live in troubled times: the art world has undergone vicious attacks, gender issues remain controversial in many societies, religion is blamed for wars and violence around the world, and sexuality is still commodified in advertisements for numerous products. Given all this, it is risky but commendable to tackle deep issues about religious heritage, sexuality, and spiritual commitment in the serious way that Leah Lax and Janice Rubin have done in this work.
CYNTHIA FREELAND IS PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AND FORMER DIRECTOR OF WOMEN'S STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON. HER LATEST BOOK, BUT Is IT ART?, WAS PUBLISHED BY OXFORD IN 2001.