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Ocean Avenue
from Ocean Avenue.
Shari Rothfarb | Water Rites:
A multi-media installation and short narrative film

The Jewish purification rite of immersion in a mikveh is the subject of Shari Rothfarb's two works Ocean Avenue and Water Rites. The concerns addressed, however, are universal: hope, legacy, and procreation. Water Rites is an experimental documentary installation in which women are interviewed about the role of the mikveh in their lives. The digital video chronicles their thoughts, experiences, and opinions. Ocean Avenue is a black-and-white narrative short film centered on the spiritual crisis provoked by a woman's infertility.

A mikveh is a pool filled with precisely measured water, most of which is rainwater. Immersion in a mikveh renders ritually pure a person who has become ritually impure through an unclean discharge from the body. Today, the most widespread use of the mikveh is by menstruating married women. Halakhah (Jewish law) forbids marital (sexual) relations during niddah, the period of ritual impurity starting on the first day of menstruation and continuing for seven days after menstruation ends. Jewish law emphasizes that the purpose of ritual immersion in the mikveh is not physical, but rather spiritual, cleanliness.

Mikveh - Israel
Herod mikveh, Israel.

Ocean Avenue - Luna/Flatiron
from Ocean Avenue.

Water, with its purifying abilities as well as its life-sustaining role--the human body is 85 percent water--is a central and recurring theme throughout Ocean Avenue. Luna, the protagonist, is an Orthodox woman in her early fifties. In an attempt to find a daughter, she traverses the streets of Brooklyn, video camera in hand. She questions the diverse population of the borough, from homeboys to Hasidim, asking all of those she meets what they would choose, given a choice between long life and bearing children. Aligning herself with Shari Rothfarb, the artist, she creates a film within the film.

When Luna poses her question to her husband, Jack, he answers, "I choose you. Isn't that enough?" Jack frames the essential issues: "What is enough?" and "What is the will of God?" His answer recalls the Passover seder and the passage in the Haggadah extolling God's blessings given to the Jews. After each blessing is acknowledged, the seder participants pronounce dayenu, indicating that any of God’s blessings would have been enough.

Twenty-seven quotations form the experimental structure of Water Rites. The number corresponds to the number of days in a woman's menstrual cycle. The texts represent a wide variety of women's views--observant, lesbian, feminist--on the role of the mikveh in contemporary society. They include a reading of the mikveh as a gendered space, the alienation of women as a result of the ritual, and the ways the mikveh has been incorporated into women's lives.


Jordan river - Israel
Jordan river, Israel.
Rothfarb uses intricate filmic techniques in both films. In Ocean Avenue, the cinematography, editing, and sound track reflect both the real and imagined worlds that Luna inhabits. Scenes of Brooklyn are shot with a hand-held camera, the edits are quick and precise, and the soundscape is loud and multicultural. For the mikveh sequences, an underwater camera is used. The experimental cinematic techniques are coupled with sparse, minimalist sounds. Besides actual accounts, Water Rites includes footage of ancient and modern mikva’ot; images of water in nature, including the Jordan river, waterfalls, and the Mediterranean; and women preparing themselves for immersion by brushing their teeth and combing their hair. The soundscape of the film includes voice-overs of the interviews, Israeli folk music, and chanting during immersion.

For those who believe, and participate, in the mikveh ritual, immersion offers a woman elevation to a higher spiritual level and prepares her for a spiritual reconnection with her husband. For others--female and male--who have no knowledge of, or experience with, the ritual, Rothfarb's films address real-life issues that we all confront. She foregrounds crucial personal, family, and philosophical concerns: whether we can or should have children; how to maintain the excitement of marriage; how long we each might live; and how we should choose to fill this time. Ocean Avenue and Water Rites suggest that spirituality--as expressed in the mikveh ritual--offers the possibility of renewed hope and even enlightened peace.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Guest Curator

Shari Rothfarb: Water Rites is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Afairs Challenge Program. Additional generous support has been provided by Philippa and Dietrich Weismann, and Sara and Axel Schupf.