The Bushwick basement, filled with the chatter of young artists and performers in silver tube tops and floral skirts, fell silent as a woman with a long black braid sat down on a large chair. To signal the beginning of her performance piece, she leaned over a prayer book, and began to sway.
"I was raised to be an aideleh maideleh—a good, submissive, modest Jewish woman," said a voice in monotone, projected from a loudspeaker as the woman rocked back and forth over her book. "My name is Sara Erenthal. I am an artist."
Erenthal's performance was intensely, comprehensively personal. Her pre-recorded voice, which came through the loudspeaker in slightly accented, melodic sentences that came to sharp, uncertain ends, went on to explain how as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, she was taught that being modest was her greatest responsibility as a woman. Erenthal enumerated the strict laws of modesty that she was forced to adhere to: the covered collar bone, the stockings, the skirt six inches below the knee. Erenthal stood and touched the costume she wore, her chest rising and falling rapidly. "My hair always tied in a braid," the voice said, as Erenthal took hold of her hair. "I hated that the most."
Her face expressionless, Erenthal's voice described a childhood plagued by the prohibition against nudity—even while changing clothes—and the modest bathing suit she had to wear at camp if she wanted to go swimming, called a "swim dress."
"I didn't think it was possible to leave," she said. "They told us, if we left, we wouldn't survive."
Erenthal began to unbraid her hair while the voiceover described her flight from the community, her loneliness, her first time putting on pants. She began to disrobe as she described her first pair of jeans, her difficulty finding her own sense of style, the difficulty of letting skin show for the first time, or letting people touch her body.
Lifting a pair of shears, Erenthal started hacking away at the braid, and described how things got better over time. "I started feeling more comfortable in my own skin. I started feeling more confident with my body," the voiceover said, as Erenthal unbuttoned and removed her pants. "And then one day, I needed a job." Erenthal removed her top. "As an artist I needed to find a creative way to make ends meet." Removing her bra, Erenthal's voice described how she started working as a nude model in an art school. "It felt very strange to sit up there like that, exposed to a group of strangers, afraid my imperfections were being judged," she said, removing the rest of her clothing. "But I needed to do that for my wellbeing. I needed to let go of that stigma, that shame, associated with nudity. It felt pretty good," Erenthal said, now fully naked. "I felt so powerful. Yet my mind was somewhere else." She crossed her hands over her full breasts.
Removing the remnants of the wig to reveal her bleach blond hair, Erenthal stood before a mirror, and the voiceover spoke of how she now tries to see her imperfections as signs of her uniqueness. She is enjoying sex more than ever before. Still, she is haunted by her past. "There are moments when I still feel shame… It's a work in progress," Erenthal said, raising her arms in triumph, to applause.
Earlier in the day, I had visited Erenthal's apartment, where she was being followed around by a camera crew for a documentary about people like herself, who left the ultra-Orthodox world. Often referred to as OTDs for "Off the Derech" (Derech means path in Hebrew), these individuals face enormous challenges. The lack of secular education in ultra-Orthodox schools makes it difficult for many to find financial security, and many suffer from family shunning. The road from ultra-Orthodoxy to secular life is a hard one, fraught with elemental difficulties like finding housing, or establishing normal relations with the opposite sex. Members of this community are at higher levels of risk for suicide, too; two weeks ago, Faigy Mayer, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur who left the Belz Hassidic community, took her own life, joining a long list of suicides from within this community.
In spite of these challenges, or perhaps because of them, these individuals have formed their own community. Some, like Shulem Deen and Leah Vincent, have written memoirs about their struggle for a self-determined life. Others, like Sara Erenthal, produce art.
Erenthal is short, with yellow eyes and bleach-blond hair that when we met was braided close to her head—like much of her art, an appropriation of one of the worst constraints of her childhood. She was wearing a leopard print bra, visible beneath a gray tank top, and cut-offs that displayed henna tattoos of her own art on two unshaven legs. One was a drawing of a Hassidic male, the other of a young girl. Erenthal's work has a geometric quality to it, as though the reoccurring characters are all related, stuck in their abstractions.
She was raised in the Neturei Karta sect—a stream of Judaism alien even to most Jews. Ultra-Orthodox but not Hassidic, the Niturei Karta are anti-Zionists and oppose the State of Israel, so much so that their leader once joined David Duke and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a conference in Tehran about the Holocaust. The Erenthal family moved from Israel to New York, settling in Brooklyn where Erenthal went to high school.
Sitting on the stoop of her Crown Heights apartment smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, Erenthal explained how young she was when she first imagined running away. Her father was a violent man, and—not unrelatedly—Erenthal was terrified of God. "I was a pretty good kid, just to avoid getting beat by my dad," she recalled. She remembers praying hard, asking God why he gave her such a hard life. But things never seemed to improve, so she stopped praying—though she still pretended.
From very early on, the strictures of her upbringing were a poor fit for Erenthal.
"I'm born an artist," she explained. "I'm born someone who wants to have her own thing going on." She went on, "I didn't understand why we had to be so extreme," she said.
Despite how much she wanted to escape, it seemed impossible. She was told frequently that if she tried to leave, she would end up dead, or a drug addict. It was only with the looming threat of an arranged marriage at 17, after the family had moved back to Israel, that Erenthal finally managed to run away from home. Distant relatives helped, and made her leave a note for her parents—"Sorry, I couldn't take it anymore, I have to go, don't worry about me, I'll be fine."
It wasn't easy. There were dark times, when Erenthal would question everything. "What is life supposed to be about?" she wondered. "Why does it have to be so hard?" Not having a family increased her sense of alienation, and she remembers crying herself to sleep on many a night. Still, rather than feeling homesick, "I was so relieved to be away from my family," Erenthal recalled. She'd wanted to run away for as long as she could remember. "I never felt loved or cared for. I had to fend for myself," she recalled.
After a few years on a Kibbutz spent shedding her religious skin, Erenthal joined the IDF before finally moving back to New York.
All along, Erenthal would draw when she needed to express strong emotions, but she's fuzzy on the details of her early work—and much of her past. She even forgot how to speak Yiddish for a time, so strong was her desire to block out her childhood. The realization that she wanted to be an artist, that she was an artist, came when she was traveling in India and had a lot of free time on her hands. "What really made it official is when a fellow backpacker asked me if he can buy one of my drawings," she recalled.
An outsider artist, Erenthal has no training, but she's been successful in the New York scene. Much of her art features the same literal sensibilities present in the performance piece in Bushwick, like the painting she hung on the wall during that piece, which features two women, both with yellow eyes, holding hands, one with long braids and one with short hair and a single earring. The piece is called "My Present Encouraging My Past." Another performance piece featured Erenthal in her black braided wig, painting with her hands dipped in black paint over a video stream of herself, naked and screaming, bound by phylacteries.
Erenthal's use of Hassidic imagery seems to be prolonging her exit while reappropriating and even creating a new symbolism through which the ultra-Orthodox community may be viewed.
There's an elemental quality to the work, as if everything extraneous has been stripped away. It's consistent with the surprising lack of affect with which Erenthal tells her story. When I asked when her anger went away, she smiled and said one word: "Art." Art operates as a kind of therapy for her. "Every time I make a piece I'm kind of letting go of something," she said.
Now Erenthal lives with three roommates in Crown Heights. While she no longer believes in God, she enjoys celebrating some Jewish holidays (the food mostly) and hosting untraditional Shabbat dinners.
"The young me would feel a lot better if I knew that everything will turn out all right," she said.
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