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"A Most Unorthodox Orthodox Woman"

Julie Bindel photo
Julie BindelLondon
"A Most Unorthodox Orthodox Woman"
The Orthodox Jewish artist Gitl Braun discusses her works on Jewish tradition and the female body, and their place in a community with "no room for feminism"

For twenty five years, Gitl Braun lived in her quiet neighbourhood, raising eight children, and looking after her husband Marton. An Orthodox Jew, Braun dresses modestly, covers her hair, and wears no makeup. She is however, atypical of the women in her close-knit community in Stamford Hill, North London. Eighteen years ago, with her children grown up, Braun decided to make a career out of her love of art, and has never looked back.

The first thing I see when I walk into Braun’s large terraced house is a huge, framed photograph of wooden blocks decorated with Hebrew lettering. The work takes up almost an entire wall. Martyred Letters, Braun’s graduation piece which secured her a distinction from St Martin’s School of Art last year, has secured her reputation as an artist of worth. It was shown earlier this year as part of the British Library's Sacred on Location tour.

Braun speaks quietly but passionately. For someone who has only spoken English for the past twenty years, her eloquence and articulacy is impressive. “Art and aesthetics are underdeveloped amongst religious Jews,” says Braun, “with few appreciating anything other than ancient Jewish works. Art is about ambivalence, whereas Orthodox Judaism is about certainties.”

Martyred Letters is a photograph of a collection of old hand-carved Hebrew printing blocks used in the creation of holy books. The lettering is positioned so that it reads: The Beloved, The Pleasant, The Just, words from the prayer for the soul of the martyrs. I tell her it makes me think of the Holocaust, of piles of shoes, clothes and other possessions taken from the bodies of those destined for the gas chambers.

Is there disapproval within the community that a married woman with eight children is an artist? “There is disapproval and ignorance here about art, full stop,” she says, “but I am lucky because I have a very supportive husband and children.”

Until 1995, Braun only spoke Hebrew and Yiddish. She decided to learn English when it became imperative to communicate to people outside of the Stamford Hill community. Two children in a family well known to the Brauns disclosed allegations of sexual abuse, by a man with a certain standing in the community. The Brauns believed that that police should be called in to investigate, whereas the majority of the community, led by the Rabi of the accused, argued that making the issue public would provoke anti-Semitism, and that it was best dealt with ‘internally’.

“Learning English was a necessity, not a luxury,” says Braun. “One day you wake up and you are invisible. Nobody talks to you.”

Overnight, people ostracised the family of the abused children, and the Brauns who were visibly supporting them. One morning the Brauns woke to find a group of 500 people – all from the Orthodox community – demonstrating outside their house.

“There were bricks thrown through the house of the family who had reported the abuse,” recalls Braun. “It was then I realised for definite I had done the right thing. People being punished for their children being abused? Unbelievable!”

In 1995, Braun picked up the courage to enrol in college and learn English. “I was terrified,” she admits, “but there were 28 different nationalities represented on that course, so I felt the same as them – different.” Next Braun took an art foundation course, and the work she produced – paintings of Israeli landscapes – impressed St Martins enough for her to be offered a place.

“I always felt that once my children were grown I would become something other than just a wife and mother,” Braun tells me. “If you have children the first priority goes to the home. It is a full time job. It is not just physical, but there is barely any mental space. You cannot think about art in between the cooking and the nappies.”

Braun began by photographing large Chasidic Jewish families, with seven or eight children. “I hoped I would reveal something, maybe about gender or culture.”

Staying with the theme of families and motherhood, Braun’s next project was an enlarged photograph of a baby’s face as he was suckling. It is an amazingly powerful image. “Because his face was so enlarged, we no longer saw this little fragile baby,” says Braun, “but the huge strength of the baby. You saw that as soon as he comes out of the womb he was looking after himself.”

A few years ago, Braun turned to the subject of the female body in her work. “In Judaism a woman should almost deny her body, and be always covered up.”

Braun asked her doctor for a photograph of her womb, taken just before she had a hysterectomy. One day, during the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, she sat in the sukkah (a temporary dwelling used during Sukkot), which was hung with the traditional pomegranates, symbolising fertility. “The shape and colour reminded me of my womb, and the seeds were like semen, so I decided to drape some cloth over it to see how it looked as a sculpture. Eventually I took away the pomegranate and sculpted and sculpted until I was happy with the result.”

A number of Braun’s fabric sculptures resemble intimate parts of the female body. How does art which depicts nakedness fit with her faith? “Exploring the female form gave me the freedom to express myself,” says Braun. “Before anything else I am a woman, and that woman has a body,” she says.

Braun’s background is deeply traditional. Growing up in Hungary and then Israel (Braun’s mother decided to move there so her children would live in a religious environment) she was betrothed to Marton, a local young man, when she was only 17 years old. They married the following year. “We were very young” she admits. It was an arranged marriage but one which quickly turned to love. “Neither of us had a home, and we wanted to create one,” says Braun. For Orthodox Jews, meeting alone before the wedding day is forbidden. This did not deter Braun, however, who managed to find out where Marton lived and turned up on his doorstep. Marton chuckles at the memory. “I was a rebel already,” says Braun. “It is in the blood.” The couple moved to London in 1973.

What does Braun think about arranged marriage today? “It is the usual way that people get together in this community,” she admits, “But how can a young woman decide after one meeting that she wants him. It is unnatural.”

Braun tells me that divorce in the community, which used to be almost unheard, is now fairly common. There are, she says, a number of young women not yet 20 years old who have left their husbands. Many have young children. “There is still a stigma attached to those women,” says Braun, “but not so much as there used to be.”

Are women equal to men according to Jewish tradition? There is a long pause before Braun answers. “We have different roles” says Braun. “Jewish men are obliged to look after the women and children, and to bring the money in. There is no tension between the two sexes.”

In May 2007, Braun held an exhibition of her work at the Jagonari Women's Centre in the East End of London, which is a predominantly Bengali neighbourhood. It is a delicious irony that her art, which grew out of being ex-communicated by her own community, is now helping bring together traditionally ‘closed’ communities that is most remarkable. Braun laughs at the similarities between Bengali and Jewish women (“We all put family and food at the centre of our existence”).

A number of women from Braun’s own community, who would never normally attend art exhibitions, have also been to see her work. How did she manage to persuade them to come? Braun’s eyes sparkle, and she begins to laugh. “I put together a collection of ancient Jewish postcards to entice them,” she says, so they came in droves.” What was amazing, Braun recalls, was how the men and women “forgot” to segregate (Orthodox men and women never congregate in public). “They all sat down together,” says Braun. “Men, women and children. Art brought them together.”

Does Braun consider herself a feminist? “There is no room for feminism in the community. It is very hard having so many children. Your body becomes a machine; you are so tired you can’t even think. It takes away your ability to think, because you don’t sleep.”

There is no choice, says Braun, about a woman’s role within Orthodox Judaism. “You are always pregnant and looking after little children,” she says. “But when they grow up, that is a different matter. I am so grateful I have been given this opportunity to become something other than a woman tied to her kitchen.” Braun is surely a most unorthodox Orthodox woman. 

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