Saturday, December 15, 2012

Photographer captures intimacy of ritual bath 

When Houston photographer Janice Rubin first decided to focus her lens on the mikvah, the ritual bath used primarily by Orthodox Jewish women, she was met with indifference and disdain.

"Orthodox Jews thought it was too private for pictures," she said in a telephone interview. "Reform Jews thought it was too Orthodox to be of interest to a wide audience and too related to menstruation to be interesting."

But the climate began to change in 2000 when she first exhibited her photos in an alternative gallery in Houston.

"Women, some of whom had never talked about their mikvah experiences, began telling me about them," Rubin said. "Others began looking at the ritual with new eyes. I found myself at the forefront of the movement toward greater use of the mikvah."

Orthodox women still use it to mark the end of their menses and return to intimate relations with their husbands, but Jewish women and men of all denominations are immersing in its warm waters to mark

other transformative moments in their lives.

Because Rubin did not want to breach the privacy, solitude and sanctity of the mikvah, she sought models to simulate the ritual rather than women who were actually performing it.

"I tried to find women who were at a place of transition in their lives so there would be an element of reality in the photos," said Rubin, who also educated the models about the purpose and spiritual aspects of the immersions before she photographed them. "Several said they had their own spiritual experiences during our sessions."

Interest in the exhibit, which has been touring nationally and internationally since 2002, is still strong.

After Memphian Susan Adler Thorp saw it at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, she approached fellow members of Temple Israel's museum board to consider bringing it to Memphis.

With approval from Rabbi Micah Greenstein, financial support from the Robert T. Goldsmith Fund and ArtsMemphis, the exhibit opened in October and will be on display until mid-January.

It can be viewed at Temple Israel, 1376 E. Massey from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

"Janice Rubin shows a private ritual in an artistic and sensitive way," said Thorp, a past president of the museum board. "It's been educational and emotional for me."

Rubin's 40 black-and-white photos are accompanied by text revealing testimonials from women all over America on their mikvah experiences.

After the first exhibit of the photos, Rubin asked Houston writer Leah Lax to help her find women who would speak to them in a way that was "real, not canned."

Their purpose was not to promote the mikvah but to reveal how the ritual shapes women's lives — positively and negatively.

"When I first started the project, I had a negative attitude about the mikvah being a ritual that signified women were unclean at certain times," she said. "But when I learned how it can be used for healing, I began to understand that we can use the ritual of the mikvah and other Jewish rituals as tools to infuse our lives with meaning."


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