NY Artist Re-Genders the Torah While Keeping Tradition

August 28, 2019
Yael Kanarek; Photo by Gili Getz

Unanticipated things happen when you flip the gender of the entire Torah. Eve/Hava becomes the first human created by Elohin, or God in the feminine plural. Out of Eve’s side Adam is created, and men (midhusbands?) rather than midwives Shifra and Puah make possible Moses’ birth in Egypt. The shifts change far more than their names. They alter the experience of those who created the story of the Jewish people. 

Yael Kanarek, 52, a New York-born, Israel-raised self-taught artist whose career began by painting tourists’ portraits on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, has become enmeshed in biblical text. 

She is the first artist-in-residence at Congregation Romemu in New York, a vibrant unaffiliated congregation whose rabbi, David Ingber, weaves together traditional Jewish services with lively music, a Jewish renewal approach and things he learned studying Eastern practices, like meditation.

Kanarek moved into Romemu’s new building at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 105th Street, a former YMCA located across from the church sanctuary it rents for services, days earlier. She warned it might be–messy. But in the narrow room was just a desk with a computer and a Hebrew language book on Sufism, Islam’s mystical sect. The only other furniture was a comfortable red couch, where we sat to talk. On the cinderblock wall facing us were visual art renditions of Kanarek’s re-gendered Torah. 

Kanarek has always loved words. She creates fine jewelry incorporating Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Sanskrit words, created a vibrant, word-based, site-specific sculpture for the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe and now is re-gendering the entire Chumash, or Five Books of Moses. Kanarek calls them the Five Books of Mosha, explaining, “it means ‘to pull out of the water’ in present tense.” Out of the waters of Jewish tradition, Kanarek is pulling out a new way to see ourselves in Torah.

A decade ago, she began listening to Michael Laitman’s lectures about kabbalah. Laitman is a Russian-born Israeli teacher of Jewish mysticism, whose livestream reaches across the world. 

“I got stuck because it became clear that he is a man teaching men. What do I work with?” — Yael Kanarek 

“I couldn’t stop listening even though I didn’t understand anything for several years” because of the esoteric content. “When he talks about the sefirot, about Zohar, I can receive some very fine things. I received the tools of how to do the work. How do you work with kavanah (intention), with ratzon (will).”

“Then I got stuck because it became clear that he is a man teaching men. What do I work with? Women don’t have any books,” she said. “We don’t have anything that describes our relationship with the Divine in our image at all.”

And she wondered: “What if it was all reversed? How do I make it mine? How do I bring my spiritual body into it?”

That led to Mosha. Although not religious, Kanarek knew the Bible because of her Israeli upbringing. She returned to the U.S. in 1991 at 24, having absorbed the idea that “we can’t change the text.” 

Spurred by a need to see herself in the text, “two years ago I sat down to do it. I started with Bereshit” (Genesis). Kanarek has finished re-gendering Genesis, last year did a “hackathon” at Manhattan’s 14th Street Y in which people worked on Exodus together, and is two thirds of the way through re-gendering Leviticus, which she has named VaTikrah instead
of Vayikra.

Her work is already inspiring others: Rabbi Bronwen Mullin wants to create a new trope, or way to chant Kanarek’s text.

Kanarek’s re-regendering of Torah “destabilizes our perspective reading our sacred story on multiple levels,” Ingber said. 

“It invites those who identify as women to read themselves in the story, those who identify as men to be able to read places that might have previously seemed to exclude them, like being a midwife. It destabilizes fixities and gender constructions. And by not changing the basic narrative, it provides distance without distortion, so changes how we understand the text but doesn’t elide over difficult pieces of Torah that still have to be dealt with,” he said. Kanarek’s project “maintains the basic meaning of the text but invites a new way of imagining ourselves and reading ourselves in, and does it in subtle and very bold ways.”

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City.

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