August 6, 2020

The Other Side of Holiness: Reenvisioning Queer Womanhood in the Jewish Imagination

By Aliyah Blattner

Shterna Goldbloom, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s featured artist, recently met with this year’s cohort of Gilda Slifka interns to host her virtual workshop “Self(ie) in Isolation.” As we framed shot after shot, complete with fabulous costume changes and eclectic camera angles, Goldbloom spoke to us about the concept of multiple selves, one of the themes of her current exhibit “Ich Bin Di Sitra Achra (I Am the Other)” which is on display at HBI’s Kniznick Gallery and available online. 

In a series of masterfully shot self-portraits, Goldbloom’s photography explores the Hasidic conception of “Sitra Achra,” reimagining what “the other side of holiness” looks like in a queer, feminist context. Growing up in a Lubavitch community in Chicago, Goldbloom reflects on her childhood, where the extent to which tradition was interwoven through every facet of her life ultimately resulted in what Goldbloom described as a “mutual pushing away.” In Goldbloom’s art, she celebrates both the “frum woman and the queer explorer,” bringing together two powerful subjects whose different choices are showcased as equally legitimate paths towards agency for Jewish women.  

In her Kahlo-esque titular piece Ich Bin Di Sitra Achra, Goldbloom most distinctly visualizes these two selves. On the right, the devout and modestly-clothed Goldbloom cradles a loaf of challah to her chest, evoking connotations of motherhood. On the left, Goldbloom sprawls out in her chair, androgynous in her all-black attire. The red roots, which Goldbloom found by chance at her shooting site, bridge the gap between past and present, religious and secular, traditionally feminine and transgressively queer. Like veins reaching towards each other across the divide, the brilliant crimson hue, which represented idolatry and attention during Goldbloom’s upbringing, allows Goldbloom to collapse the false dichotomy between holiness and heresy. “I want all these different truths to live at the same time in one image,” Goldbloom explained. The different versions of Goldbloom are less a reflection of a split self, and more so indicative of a multifaceted and fluid identity that straddles the line between traditional conceptions of Kedusha and new understandings of a divine queer identity within the Jewish imagination.

Dora's selfie

Dora Kianovsky poses for a selfie

Goldbloom challenged us to explore the different sides in ourselves through the workshop experience. Issuing a set of constraints that ranged the incorporation of props to the use of self-timers, she encouraged us to abandon our instinct to pose for the camera and emphasized the importance of finding joy in the process. While this seemingly innocuous activity was intended to be a lighthearted experimentation with photography and self-portraiture, what Goldbloom asked of us was intentionally transgressive. For our generation, selfies are carefully cultivated to project the best (read: objectified, hypersexualized, and performatively feminine) image. The photo that makes it to our feed is one of 30 less desirable shots, touched up, and run through filters until the final product is a subjective version of the best photo. But Goldbloom asked us to dismiss the impulse to “take our selfies for others” and what began as an awkward and panicked attempt to capture ourselves on camera transformed into an empowering experience. 

Andie's selfie

Andie Watson’s selfie

I was struck by Goldbloom’s impact on the ways we saw ourselves and each other as Jewish women/nonbinary people by the end of the workshop. “I found [Goldbloom’s work] seemed non-judgmental,” remarked intern Maya Zanger-Nadis, “one aspect of [Goldbloom’s] identity wasn’t trying to dominate the other.” It was Goldbloom’s lack of judgment that Zanger-Nadis cited as a liberating force during the workshop experience: “I started trying to see myself through the lens that I was looking at everyone else, which was way less critical.” I witnessed this same shift in perception as we scrolled through the shared folder of our silly, joyful, and strange selfies at the end of our time together. Our cohort transitioned out of an adamant discomfort at seeing ourselves in photos to a constant stream of praise, laughter, and celebration of self-portraiture as a form of reclamation. 

As Jewish women and queer people, we often are not afforded the luxury to champion and share versions of ourselves that deviate from acceptable gender norms. Unless one caters themself to the androcentric, misogynist, and heteronormative standards of our culture, many find their identities and stories to be erased, villainized, and silenced. I was reminded most strongly of this when, in our perusal of everyone’s photos, I came across a screenshot that showed the “suggestion mode” of one of the intern’s cameras. From the best lighting recommendations to suggestions on which angle to tilt one’s head to achieve the most flattering photo, I saw the lens that Jewish women are perceived through in our communities. And I could not help but wonder when I learned to stop questioning the cishet men in my life who strove to define my holiness (or lack thereof) on their terms as opposed to my own.

When asked about the concept of Sitra Achra and how womanhood and queer identity can be reenvisioned in the Jewish imagination, intern Dora Kianovsky offered her own thoughtful response: “There are so many sides to a person and so many sides to Jewishness in a person. I’ve been thinking a lot about holiness and holiness in people. There’s a power in everybody. The other side of holiness can be the process of reclaiming whatever power you have. Holiness doesn’t need to be Jewishness and it doesn’t have a specific shape. It’s about finding your power.” By embracing our multifaceted, many-faced Jewish selves, our intern cohort was able to transcend the limitations of the predominant narratives that limited our self-expression as Jewish women/nonbinary people because we were actively taking the camera back into our own hands.

At the beginning of the workshop, I was floored by the adamant discomfort that many of my peers shared when seeing themselves in photos. But I now understand that discomfort as an expression of frustration with and a rejection of the versions of ourselves we see and feel pressured to create through the eyes of cishet men. To that end, Judaism often encourages men to be both the proverbial photographer and the coder programming the suggestions that pop up on our phones. With the click of a shutter, our ability to shape our own image in the Jewish imagination is forfeited to patriarchy. For many in our community, it may feel like their holiness does not belong to them. I left Goldbloom’s workshop with a renewed understanding of the danger in allowing cishet men to unilaterally control how women and queer individuals are represented in Jewish culture, especially when the sides of women that we mark as holy or unholy are also distinguished through that gaze. 

Some may interpret Goldbloom’s work as a reckoning with an assumed objective stance taken by religious Jews on the lives and identities of women and queer folks. But I see Goldbloom’s photography as peeling back the curtain on what it means to both embrace tradition and to break from it as equally important avenues towards agency. Goldbloom’s exhibit declares that every person, from the most devout to the most radically other, holds a multitude of selves, holy and heretical alike, inside of them. There is equal power in celebrating the ways you fit, and the ways you feel that you don’t, within Jewish tradition. Goldbloom creates her own lens through which to perceive her different sides and selves, acting as the subject, the photographer, and the audience for her work. Her art challenges viewers to take back the metaphorical camera in their own lives and to question what a Jewish self would look like outside the constraints of a patriarchal tradition. By challenging those distinctions and reclaiming ownership of the lens through which Judaism understands holiness, we become empowered to celebrate every version of ourselves.

Aliyah Blattner is a rising sophomore at Brown University and an HBI 2020 Gilda Slifka summer intern.

View HBI’s exhibit with artist Shterna Goldbloom, “Ich Bin Di Sitra Achra (I Am the Other).

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