Facing the prospect of an arranged marriage at the age of 17, Sara Erenthal ran away from her haredi family in Jerusalem. Two decades later, the New York-based artist has never looked back, or regretted her embrace of secularism.
But leaving behind a secure, cloistered world was far from easy for a teenaged girl, especially 20 years ago, before modern support systems existed.
Erenthal is exhibiting her painting series, Moving On, which chronicles the stages of her life, at the Museum of Jewish Montreal (MJM) until July 29.
At the vernissage, she explained that she did have one important advantage: her family had just moved back to Israel from New York and she was old enough to enlist in the Israeli Defence Forces. An ultra-Orthodox person, let alone a female one, serving in the army was unthinkable, but for the daughter of the extremely anti-Zionist Neturei Karta to do so effectively left her disowned. Those years in the IDF, and later on a kibbutz, cushioned her transition.
Moving On consists of seven acrylic paintings that bring to mind a graphic novel, only without words. Each is a self-portrait, although she depicts herself from behind until the final frame, which celebrates her personal liberation. Through a simple, illustrative style that reflects Erenthal’s love of drawing, her journey is told.
The series starts with a distressed three-year-old Erenthal trapped amid traffic at a busy Jerusalem intersection, which apparently was her first attempt at breaking away.
When she was four, her family moved to New York and we see Erenthal in her classroom at Beikvei Hatzion, an all-female private Jewish school in Brooklyn, which Erenthal said was fitting because the girls were primarily taught obedience and modesty.
The next two works recall her difficult relationship with her parents: her mother’s neglect and her father’s abusiveness. The final straw was when he locked her out of the house for not coming in when he told her to. She says that was the first time she stood up to him.
The real world posed its own challenges: viewers follow her on an “ill-fated first date,” clueless about how to act with the opposite sex.
Never married, Erenthal worked various office jobs for a decade in Israel and then New York. She felt unfulfilled, but stuck with it because it paid the rent.
“I was raised to believe that a woman could never make it on her own, that I would end up on the street, taking drugs or being a prostitute, so it was important for me to survive,” she said.
Losing her last regular job just before she turned 30 proved a blessing. She spent time backpacking in India and Asia, where she found herself and was able to completely let go of the past.
I was raised to believe that a woman could never make it on her own.
– Sara Erenthal
In the last picture, viewers see her facing forward, which is meant to represent her realization that art, something she had used to cope with her emotions since she was a child, could be a full-time vocation. It is appropriately titled Purpose.
Erenthal says art has been “a means of healing and reclaiming my identity.” She is completely self-taught.
“I have rejected religion, but I am still a Jew culturally,” she said.
Moving On was shown last year at Brooklyn’s FiveMyles gallery, a non-profit that supports underrepresented artists who are doing innovative work and engages the community in dialogue.
The MJM has a similar mission. Alyssa Stokvis-Hauer, co-curator of exhibitions, said Erenthal’s work fits with this season’s theme of “Rituals/Fragments.”
“Sara’s own ritual of artmaking as healing and affirmation of self, with its fragments of her past brought together snapshot-like, make for a powerful narrative,” she said. “It’s a piece of Jewish life that a lot of people don’t know much about.”
The MJM is inviting people of all faiths and backgrounds to come in and exchange their own stories. It has reached out to Forward, a local organization that supports those who have left ultra-Orthodox communities. A number of complementary discussions are scheduled.
Plans are for Erenthal to return to Montreal for the international mural festival in June. In December, Artnet News placed Erenthal first on its list of the top 10 rising street artists. Her signature red-lipped self-portraits are all over Brooklyn – on walls, trashcans and even discarded furniture.
The MJM has a more conventional outdoor canvas for her to express herself, near its premises at the corner of St-Laurent Boulevard and Duluth Street.
“I hope that sharing my own journey will give hope to others who are struggling,” Erenthal said. “The message is: your future is in your hands.”