Project Created & Executed by: Ali Senal
Photography by: Tal Reichert
Facilitated by the Gilda Slifka Internship
at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute
at Brandeis University
About this Project
This project snuck up on me. I am a secular Jew and I spent the majority of my Jewish Studies degree avoiding religion classes at all costs. I was much more interested in history than the word of G-d. During my senior year at Muhlenberg College, I took a course entitled “Jewish Traditions,” which was required for all Jewish Studies majors. In this class, we visited an Orthodox synagogue, which was my first time in an Orthodox space. I knew about the mechitza, but I had always pictured something akin to the divider at the Kotel; I thought it would be tall and divide two somewhat equal sections. I was so surprised by what I saw. In this sanctuary, the mechitza was low, low enough for men to look into the women’s section and vice versa. The women’s section was wrapped around a central men’s section, essentially keeping them on the edges of the space.
This design led me to start asking a multitude of questions. Why was this the placement of the mechitza? What was this synagogue trying to convey to women about their place in religious worship? How does this mapping affect a woman’s ability to perform their religion? For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to seriously interrogate religious tradition. In addition to a degree in Jewish Studies, I also have a degree in Theatre and a fascination with Performance Studies. This led me to questions about performativity and ritual. How much does mapping really affect performance? What performances do we manufacture through the use of designed spaces?
These are the questions I asked myself in designing “Through the Mechitza,” and they are the questions I challenge you all to think about when examining this work. I chose a website as the venue for this work for this very reason; I wanted to make it accessible and allow anyone to think about what I have presented. Through the course of working on this project, I visited three Orthodox synagogues in the Greater Boston Area and worked with my photographer, Tal, to capture the women’s sections, which all had unique designs and mechitza placements. Our goal was to take the viewer through the journey of walking through the doors into the sanctuary, finding a seat, and looking towards the bimah.
After viewing each photo story and drawing your own conclusions, please take a look at the scholarship I have provided about mechitza, mapping, and performance. In addition, I have provided testimonials on the mechitza from a diverse population of Jews. I hope that, no matter your background, you are able to derive meaning from this project and leave with something that you can take with you into your own life.
Some of you may be wondering how my personal biases will come into play in this project. I am a secular, Jewish, feminist woman. I recognize that I was not raised with the religious values that I have attempted to examine and that I am an outsider looking in. I felt that this project was important and that I was well-equipped to handle it academically, but I did have to do some introspection upon beginning this project and decide how I would address my own inherent biases. Having completed the project, I personally feel proud of the amount of objectivity I was able to apply to this work.
One choice I made to keep “Through the Mechitza” as impartial as possible was to not include any analysis for the photo stories. I knew that any analysis I provided would be through a narrow lens. Rather, I decided to include bios about each synagogue and provide those who viewed the photos with the tools they would need (in the form of academic scholarship and testimonials) to draw their own conclusions. I want people from all backgrounds to be able to find something they identify with and I do not want anyone to feel alienated. My goal is not to critique; my goal is to bring mapping, mechitzas, and performance together, in a way that I believe they always should have been.
None of the photos we took were doctored in any way. With the exception of putting down the seats on the retractable chairs, we did not change anything about the condition of the synagogues that we visited. We simply photographed the spaces as they exist. All participating synagogues were aware of my project’s concept and all three received any information about the project that they requested.
Why do I classify this project as “Performance Studies”?
Often, people hear the word “performance” and imagine actors on a stage, performing a play. In reality, theatre is one aspect of Performance Studies which is a highly complex and interdisciplinary field. Richard Schechner, founder of the first Performance Studies department at NYU Tisch said it best: “[Performance studies] is intergeneric, interdisciplinary, intercultural.” Performance Studies is largely a combination of the fields of theatre, sociology, anthropology, and communications, and the many disciplines which those fields entail.
Performance Studies is about ritual. It is about the ways in which we communicate facets of our identity through performance of self. It is about the social agreements we enter into and the ways in which we enact them in daily life. It is about these things and so many more.
In “Through the Mechitza,” I am recognizing that the synagogue is a performative space which can be mapped to facilitate certain types of performance from those who enter it. Religion itself is already an expression of ritual, and, in this case, maps are the vehicle through which performance of ritual can occur. I am also recognizing that, as Judith Butler has said, “gender is constituted by the performance itself.” Religious ritual is one of the ways in which gender is continuously reaffirmed. I would classify this project as an ethnography of space.
You may be asking yourself, “how can you have a performance without bodies?” I made the conscious decision to leave the sanctuary spaces empty for this project because I wanted to allow the camera to stand-in and “perform” the role of the viewer. This allows those who view the photo stories to see the mapping of the spaces unencumbered by bodies that are (knowingly or unknowingly) performing in the space. I have cast the camera in the role of the female viewer and I believe that this was the most objective way to present the space.
I wanted to say thank you to a few people who allowed for this project to come to fruition. Thank you to Gilda Slifka and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute for facilitating my internship and believing in this project. Thank you to my photographer, Tal, who was extremely flexible and worked so hard to make this project the best it could be. Thank you to the leadership at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe, and Young Israel of Brookline for allowing me to enter your spaces and trusting me to study them.
Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519-31. doi:10.2307/3207893.
Goffman, Erving. “Performances: Belief in the Part One Is Playing.” The Performance Studies Reader, Routledge, 2016, pp. 61–65.
Schechner, Richard. “What Is Performance Studies Anyway? (1998).” Theatre in Theory 1900-2000: an Anthology, Blackwell Publishing, 2008, pp. 517–522.