When North Carolina native Shoshana Gugenheim moved to Israel in 2000, she began meeting with a Haredi tutor who agreed to teach her the ancient art of Torah writing. But since Jewish law declares holy texts written by a woman (or a slave, a heretic, or a non-Jew) to be unkosher, the meetings had to remain a secret.
By 2004, Gugenheim, who’d been raised as a secular Jew, was working professionally as a Torah scribe, a job that isn’t without its major difficulties: Her clients were limited to Reform and Conservative congregations willing to re-interpret the rules. But she loved the work—its meticulous lines, its meditative pace, and most of all, the opportunity it presented to connect in a physical way with the ultimate spiritual guidebook. The only issue was how solitary it was.
“I had always had a potent response to the text as a woman, and I was always searching for the women’s voices between the lines,” Gugenheim told me. “But I tend to work collaboratively, and I just thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to hear the voices of women reading Torah, through their own interpretations?”
While very few Jewish women are trained Torah scribes—fewer than a dozen in the world today have written an entire Sefer Torah—many are trained artists. So, in 2007 Gugenheim founded “Women of the Book,” a collection of 54 artworks on parchment, each representing one of the 54 weekly Torah portions (parashiot) and each completed by a different female artist from around the world.
It was an almost comically complicated process, and Gugenheim is still searching for four more artists to complete her roster, but the project now contains 50 moving pieces and is currently making its debut at the Jerusalem Biennale of Contemporary Jewish Art unfolding across Israel’s capital. Taken together, the works represent a major first both for Jewish art and female experts of Jewish letters: a near-complete Torah scroll interpreted entirely by female artists.
The artists represent a cross-section of the modern Jewish tribe: They hail from North and South America, Europe, and Israel, and their religious backgrounds run the gamut from hair-covering, halakhah-following Orthodox women to lesbian Jewish converts. While many of the artists came to the project with intimate knowledge of Judaism and its texts, it was the handful who approached it as novices who really got Gugenheim excited.
“There are so many different doorways that can allow people in [to Torah],” Gugenheim said. “Especially for an artist who feels excluded or pushed away or hasn’t found her way in, this was important for many of them. I would connect them with educators or encourage them to meet with their rabbi or just link them up myself with pages on the Internet. And it became, for many of them, their first time ever sitting and reading this text.”
The exhibit remains a work in progress. Each work was done on parchment, with the goal of eventually binding them together with sinew, in the same fashion as actual Torah scrolls. But as there are four parashiot still missing from the project, and the parchment is currently delicate and difficult to mount, Gugenheim had to settle for printed reproductions of each piece that hang from the gallery ceiling by clear fishing wire.
The best way to experience this first hanging of “Women of the Book” is with close scrutiny, which allows for examination of the symbolism and minute details up close. There’s Shoshannah Brombacher’s interpretation of Parashat Tzav, in which explosive strokes of pastel and ink evoke the horrors of Jewish exile in a style akin to Chagall. There’s Sharon Rosenzweig’s light-hearted, subversive comic-book rendering of Parashat Behar, complete with thought bubbles, dialogue boxes, and a voluptuous, impossibly tall African goddess embodying the Promised Land. And then there’s Gugenheim’s own contribution, a dizzying take on Parashat Veyeira, in which she has digitally transposed the ovulation charts she used during her own difficult years struggling for a child to connect with the story of Sarah being told she will, at last, bear a son.
The gallery itself, located just off the entrance to Jerusalem’s bustling First Station entertainment complex, is surprisingly humble. Tucked between a coffee shop and a breakfast spot, with a line of vendors selling jewelry and crafts from rolling carts directly outside, on a recent Friday morning it was drawing all sorts of Jerusalem characters, from young religious couples in skullcaps and sheitels to American olim in flowing Thai fisherman pants. They moved slowly from print to print, squinting as they stared at flowing bits of text and vividly reimagined scenes of lore.
This is how Gugenheim wanted it. The exhibits of the Jerusalem Biennale are scattered across Jerusalem, and Rami Ozeri, the Biennale’s founder, had originally hoped to place “Women of the Book” at the Van Leer Institute, which sits nestled in the hills in Rehavia. But Gugenheim wanted a more accessible space and pushed for a smaller gallery at the First Station, so that it could equally attract art lovers and average afternoon shoppers alike.
“It’s the most popular venue we have,” Ozeri said. “Thousands and thousands of people go through the station every day, and the population we get is not like museum visitors.”
Ozeri had concerns. The status of women in Jerusalem is an issue of constant debate, with the city’s far-right factions launching a fervid campaign in recent years to erase females from billboards, the front sections of buses, and most crucially from Jewish spiritualism. But he decided to take a chance, and the response to the exhibit, he says, has been overwhelmingly popular since it opened on Sept. 24.
“It’s really an entrance point for women to the discussion about Judaism,” he said. “And if we have an opportunity to add an layer of a female interpretation of Jewish text, which for many decades was dominated by men, that’s a wonderful thing.”
Any visitor who might be offended by the idea of Jewish text written by a woman is being short-sighted, says Yedidia Stern, a professor of Jewish law who serves as vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There’s no halakhic issue whatsoever. Torah should be interpreted by every human, and half of humanity are women,” he said. “Interpretation can be done in many ways, and one of them is art.”
Elana Sztokman, an author and activist for Orthodox Jewish feminism, adds that any critics of the project—and to be fair, the exhibit has seen hardly a ripple of controversy since its debut—should step back from the current conflicts in Jerusalem and instead stare down the long lens of history. “We need to acknowledge that Judaism has evolved, and continues to evolve, in front of our eyes,” she said. “Throughout the ages there have always been women who have had a voice in interpreting culture. And art, like this exhibit, is visual text. It’s the kind of artwork that for hundreds of years has accompanied Jewish manuscripts.”
The exhibit will remain on display through Nov. 5, after which Gugenheim has a number of plans: She hopes for a museum tour in cities across Europe and North America and to raise enough funds to present the 54 works in a glossy, full-color book.
Perhaps more important, though, is taking advantage of the sisterhood that has been created. “Women of the Book” represents one of the largest, if not the largest, ingathering of female Jewish artists. “We have this network now,” Gugenheim said. “We’ve come together, and part of what I’m hoping is we can come together and find new ways to collaborate in the future.”
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Debra Kamin is a Tel Aviv-based writer. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Variety, Foreign Policy and TheAtlantic.com.