Women of the Balcony series

Women of the Balcony 1


This large panel honors the memory of the German-Jewish refugee women who attended services in Ohav Sholaum Synagogue in the Inwood section of Manhattan, NYC (near Washington Heights). The background is tallis-like creating a sacred space, or rather sacred canvas, to make concrete these women’s life experience. In the women’s balcony, there were rows of multicolored cushions abandoned on the benches marking the places of their absent owners. I took them home —- orphans with little intrinsic value except as a memorial to the generations of Jewish women in synagogue balconies.

The fabrics of all the original cushions are reused in the vanishing perspective stripes that recall the view I saw in the synagogue balcony. I was told that when the women died, their cushions were never moved nor removed. In fact, the cushions, which expressed their personalities by the fabrics they chose, became their markers —- in life, and then later in death.

Other viewers may also see the railroad tracks that many of the friends and families of the cushion-makers traveled on their way to oblivion in Europe. The stripes are also versions of the black stripes found on traditional talleisim —- but leaning in to form an iconic but subtle triangle representing all womanhood.

The ritual fringes (tzitziot) are clearly non-traditional. They are the braided or corded events in women’s lives —- particularly Orthodox women: a challah, a young girl’s braided hair, and an umbilical cord. The forth is a traditional fringe but it includes a non-traditional red string.

A seamstress, who represents them all, is seated in the center. She is making a cushion, of course, and using the same red string.

We are all seamstresses, who are descended from seamstresses.

Women of the Balcony 2trigere-textile-overall-view3

These two small panels remember and honor the relationship between men and women in the world of Orthodox synagogues. There is a flowing movement that connects the two panels. The women are upstairs; the men downstairs; the black tallis stripes flow down and frame the whole.

The flower fabric represents the female; it becomes a tallis bag in the top piece and a cushion in the lower one. This fabric is from an original cushion rescued from the Ohav Sholaum Synagogue. In the top piece the flower fabric bag encloses and holds the tallis — the male, and in the lower one the tallis becomes a man’s arm and encloses and holds the flower fabric cushion — the woman.

The recurrent red/maroon color is found on all the memorial pieces. These panels also include a period cuff link, and (from the synagogue), brass name place holders and a tagged key. The key is for the locked cabinet in front of each man’s seat where he kept his personal things. Lectern covers become the canvas and frame for both panels.

Women in the Balcony 3

This panel is the most impressionistic of the series. It explores the same theme of male-female relationships… of upstairs and downstairs… in the synagogue life of Orthodox Jews. Great height compels the head to tilt up as one would to glimpse the women in the balcony.

The female is represented by the cushion textiles and the male by the stripped down black strips from the talleisim. The flowery textiles are above and the stripes are below… much as flowers sit above their stems. Some may only see that image; others may not see it at all. Nothing is dictated, but many things are implied.

The whole is applied to a long strip of parachute silk. Again, nothing is meant by this except what the viewer chooses, but there is a theme of interdependence between the sexes that pleases me to think of as a fluid, billowy dance where each is capable of holding the other securely.

Supported by a grant from Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2007

Women in the Balcony 4


The fourth and last in the series takes what remained of the cushion textiles and actually transforms them into the most feminine aspect of a (clothed) woman: her hair. I have pressed the cushion textiles into an icon of the feminine, just as the black and white talleisim have always been iconic of the male.

I interviewed several of the former balcony inhabitants of Ohav Sholaum, but few remembered the humble cushions that populated the women’s balcony. Despite their incongruous bursts of color, these commonplace cushions were “invisible.”

I imagined the women really present and I fashioned the brightly colored fabric as their hair which I covered with hats representing all the decades the synagogue existed. Molded plastic heads with noses gently restructured to create variety and decidedly German Jewish profiles came to life.

The black and white motif persisted as the faces were layered with from pages of a book. Not any book, but a tehinnes in German. Tehinnes are prayer books designed especially for women and sometimes by women and always in a vernacular like Yiddish. They have only prayers that women would need or want. A prayer for “taking the challah,” a prayer for one’s son in the military, for one’s daughter, for one’s in-laws, etc. I checked with a local Orthodox rabbi about using this text in this way. He judged it permissible because the intent was to honor these women, and additionally, the language of the text was not Hebrew. What you see are photocopies of the actual tehinnes pages.trigere-sculpdetail3

Titles of prayers are on their lips. Their prayers have become their faces. Behind the triangular mehitza (draped in parachute silks), they are a balance of color with black and white… apart from, and a part of their downstairs male counterparts.

Supported by a grant from Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 2007

Hebrew Union College, New York, NY, “A Stitch in Jewish Time” (Sept. 7, 2010-June 30, 2011)