HER STORY #67 - shira
Written by Shira Richter as responses to questions given by Sarah Arnd Linder from PiP
I Love My Name
My name is Shira Miriam Richter.
Each name has a deep meaning for me. “Shira” in Hebrew, means “The song of God.” “Miriam” has several meanings: Biblical Miriam was a prophetess, a woman in a patriarchal era with ideas which challenged the status quo. She does not accept reality as the final answer, she challenges, initiates, leads, she opposes cruelty and power dynamics. She is a dancer, a drummer, an artist, a midwife, an activist who saved her own baby brother from death, and then made sure he became of royal status, and she also stood up to her own personal patriarchs- her father and brother. Like most opinionated women in the bible, she was also punished for wanting a piece of the ‘power pie’. The name Miriam was given to me because it belongs to my paternal grandmother, whom I never met, whom I know very little about. This means her value was unacknowledged.
“Richter” is the family name from my father’s side of the family, which means – judge, or justice.
I love my name because it embodies art, creativity, spirituality, women’s activism, and justice - several themes that represent who I am: A feminist artivist who specializes in the status of women and mothers in the socio-political-economic context and sphere. I am an artist researcher.
The word “Name” (Shem) in Hebrew, is also one of the words for God (Ha-shem).
A Protest Song
In the last decade I have merged the many disciplines I work with (cinema, storytelling, painting, photography, feminist and gender research, writing and visual literacy) into artistic, informative, illuminating and visually stimulating talks about subjects connected to love and sexuality regarding gender, war, peace, care work, and unpaid labor (Feminist Economics), the economic status of mothers and parents, and the unappreciated status of art and artists. (For instance, there is no Noble Prize for art. And “Nobel” himself, profited from armament trade). I also love to dance, to sing (badly) and to challenge deeply held ideas that are limiting. You could say my name embodies a protest song.
The way I introduce this name is a good example of how I think. The personal is very political for me, and the political- is very personal.
I was born in the United States to Jewish, middle working class, American-Canadian parents, whose families were poor refugees/immigrants from Europe, Poland and Russia. They were the lucky ones who managed to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms (prosecutions) and holocaust.
My own life has been a laboratory of research for me. When something painful happens in life and people tell me to get over it, instead of getting over it, I dig into it. A similar way of practice can be found in many spiritual practices, like Buddhism: “Learn to investigate the pain, and instead of running from it, run to it”.
Knowledge seeking, and meditating are always the best cure for me. My tools are artistic. Art is my “mother tongue”, a form of spiritual practice, meditation and investigation. For me- art is the language of the soul. “Soul” talks in images, scenes, story, feelings, in energy and wave lengths.
What usually happens is that through my “digging” expeditions I discover my pain is never- ONLY – my own pain. It usually belongs to many other people, which means- the pain is a signal that something bigger is going on, not only inside an individual, but also outside of the individual; in the systems and structures of society.
My own personal life led me to create large scale film and art projects which people across the world relate to. Thus, the subjects I am talking about are not only “personal” or “private”- but also public and political.
As a feminist the slogan “The personal is political and the political is personal” is my life-work slogan. I have always been very fluid in the way I think. Today we call this kind of thinking “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” “Polymorphic”, however, long before these words became “fashionable”- my mind was working this way.
In fact, I was blamed for this kind of thinking. I was told I couldn’t focus, and was “all over the place,” which was not meant as a compliment. Even today this style of research confuses people. Despite waving the “out of the box” flag – western culture prefers it’s boxes and needs its compartmentalizations.
Finding connections between things which are seemingly unconnected comes naturally to me. I think I might have initially learned this from my father, who is an occupational health practitioner, a human rights and public health doctor (epidemiology), who taught me about the interconnectedness between social status and one’s personal health. When a factory (which I visited with him, as a young teen) -for the purpose of profit, doesn’t protect its own workers bodies from the poisons it uses for its production line, in other words- poisons its own workers - then there is a strait connection between the politics of the factory, economics, greed, and a person’s private health, life, and family.
I was seven years old when my family immigrated to Israel, where I have lived most of my life. As a child trying to fit in to a culture I did not understand, whose language I did not know, I did everything in my power to pretend I was born here, in Israel. I denied and erased my American English-speaking roots. I invented my own personal “born in Israel” story. I learned to speak guttural Hebrew in a way few can detect my English-speaking background. I adopted the main line national story. This succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and I forgot where I came from.
But when I was working on my film “Two States of Mind,” about women’s voices regarding the conflict, I realized my thought pattern, meaning my perspective, is very much influenced by my American- and English speaking roots. Israel is made of refugees from many countries, who, in order to make room for the new country narrative, had to deny their individual traditions and histories, especially those who immigrated from Arab countries, (Arab Jews). In recent years there is a revival of these pasts, but because the Anglo-Saxon immigration was relatively privileged, few acknowledge it. So I never really acknowledged the influence it had on me.
At an international conference on Education for Peace and Democracy (lead by IPCRI) I met Palestinian Professor Muhammed S. Dajani Daoudi. His initiative, called “Wasatia”- is a movement to forward the moderate aspects of religion, and Islam especially. He clarifies one of the biggest obstacles in the face of peace building. The reason that so many initiatives fail, he said, is because they are secular initiatives, meaning, they ignore the religious and spiritual roots of most of the people of the region. You cannot have a serious dialogue with a religious person without knowing the scriptures. They won’t take you seriously. Most of the region- the Middle East that is, is quite religious.
This made me re-examine my own upbringing. Sure enough, even I, the secular American-Jewish-Israeli, had been indoctrinated by Bible texts. It is so pervasive, we, who live here, don’t really see it, even though Bible lessons are taught several times a week from kindergarten till the end of high school.
For instance, when I got pregnant, the first line that entered my head was from the bible- from Genesis; “In sorrow ye shall bear children” (which, by the way, is usually mistranslated. The Hebrew source says- “In sorrow ye shall bear SONS”). I mention this as a way of explaining how even a secular woman has biblical blood running through her veins.
Think of it- the first “blessing” that enters my pregnant mind, as god’s co-creator, is a curse and a punishment (!) - reminding me – as a woman, my place, reminding me that this pain is the price for being curious, and thirsty for knowledge and growth. Our child-birth/labor pain is punishment for the original sin of women.
After exhibiting two ground breaking feminist photography exhibitions and installations in Israel about the secrets of the transition into the land of motherhood, and the economic status of mothers (Named: “The Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit”, and “Invisible Invaluables”) I realized my connections to the biblical texts & land went even deeper. As an artist who was educated in Parson’s School of Design- New York, Bezalel Academy of Arts- Jerusalem, and Film School Camera Obscura-Tel Aviv, I felt the His-story of art and film couldn’t offer me much in the form of maternal role models and examples.
You see, as an artist, I looked for artistic representations I could identify with, and most of the formally taught history of art featured only one, passive, woman-mother; The Virgin Mother Mary. Now, Mary (supposedly) did not have sex, was Christian and had straight hair. Three facts I couldn’t relate to. So I ignored her, thinking there is no way she could inspire me.
But later on American Jewish artist Beth Grossman pointed out a very important point- “Shira, she said – Mary is actually Jewish. And so was Jesus”. Slowly that connection became meaningful to me. Mary WAS a Jewish mother, to a boy who was quite an eccentric (which I wrote about here). She was also probably dark skinned with curly hair, like I am, because European Religion white washed Semitic Mary and Jesus representations. She had to bring up a boy who opposed the violence, corruption and greed of his own times, and preached feminine values. As a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock she had to escape being stoned to death, or exiled. And the most amazing detail I learned was that in the Middle East- the biblical name “Mary”- is actually - MIRIAM, which is my middle name.
Is it a coincidence that two central female figures of the three religions espouse the same name?
So the connections between being a feminist who calls herself “A woman who Loves Men and Hates war”- and the biblical land I live in- became the focal point from which I view my status as a woman and mother in the context of Israel and Palestine.
It Was My First War
A year after immigrating to Israel the 73’- Yom Kippur War broke out.
As a little girl aged eight- it was actually fun. I remember playing outside when the first siren went off. I had no idea what it was and kept on playing. Suddenly a grownup- someone I didn’t even know, frantically ran towards me, whisked me on his hip and dashed us to the bomb shelter.
We didn’t go to school, we covered the windows with black paint and masking tape (very creative for me!) kept the light off at night, it was my first war.
In fact, I was sad my father wasn’t enlisted, because all the other kids’ dads were. That shows you how a kid thinks. (The reason he was spared battle duty was because of our status as new immigrants. Little did I know that 6 years prior, both he, and my mother, had given almost a year of their lives to the Vietnam war: He, as an army medic, and my mother, as the Homefront and family keeper).
Growing up in Jerusalem, I remember lots of bombs blowing up on public transportation buses – several lines on which I sometimes traveled- and in the center of Jerusalem, where I spent many hours. Roads and streets were closed off because of dismantling bombs, or suspicious objects. The terrible terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics (1972), and then at a high school in Ma'alot (74, North border) which I witnessed via the single- black and white TV channel - obviously affected me.
On an everyday living basis we are taught to always be on the alert. To look around to see if there are suspicious looking people or unattended objects left on a bus, or a room, or the school, or the pool.
Actually, I have a funny story about the automatic internalized behaviors of living in a war zone. When I studied in New York back in the 80’s, I discovered -to my surprise, that when you enter a store you have to leave your bag on a shelf next to the door. That would be the stupidest thing to do in Israel.
I grew up with the automatic movement of opening my bag whenever entering a store/the cinema/a café so the security man could look inside it and check if I hid a bomb or something. Here, New York City stores were afraid of something else: I might steal things from inside the store and put it in my bag.
So here you have two different store ceremonies that tell a lot about the culture. I hadn’t realized how automatic this behavior had become. How easily a culture normalizes violence.
My brother’s best friend was murdered by a terrorist on a private nature trip. He was a family member. His family was torn apart by what happened.
Since then I have been even more afraid to travel on my own in Israel.
As a young woman, a soldier used to be something very sexy. You know, there is a reason uniforms make such an impression on us. It took me many years to understand how such a “sexy” soldier is experienced by a Palestinian.
I tried to explain this “colour blindness” to the international members of the Noble winning Women’s delegation to Israel I filmed, who were shocked at seeing soldiers walking around the city streets with guns on their shoulders. “You need to understand something important”, I said. “Israeli’s don’t see soldiers”. To us, a soldier is family. We don’t see the military uniform, or gun, the way you do. Soldiers are our class mates, our friends, our family. Our protectors.
To most parents a soldier is just their child, their little boy or girl. In fact, almost every Israeli city has a building named “The house for the boys/sons”. And a street named “The street of the boys/sons”. Both commemorate soldiers who have died in war. The language we use is telling: these words don’t describe soldiers, only “boys and sons”.
Obviously, I have sobered up. The invisible prices of war are visible to me. Men and women come back from battle zones with trauma’s that never heal, which affect the lives of their children, their marriage, their ability to hold a job. Even though I have learned that in recent wars-that on the Israeli side very few die in battle, this ignores the extension and expansion of the ongoing wound, which is usually tended to in the private invisible sphere-by women.
The 1st Gulf War (1990) stopped my film studies for several months. We left Tel Aviv, which was targeted by Iraqi missiles. I also learned -again- how fast we get used to going about our everyday businesses with funny gas mask boxes flung over our shoulders, how Israeli society is very good at uniting when there is a visual war - “visual”, meaning a formal war, not one that happens “far away” in a village you never visit that is actually, just a 40 min drive away.
Over the years I have learned that I live in an area in Israel which can pretend we have “a few wars”, and that in between these “wars” we have normal lives. Sometimes there is a suicide bombing. Sometimes there are knife attacks in the streets, meaning, we can go about our everyday secular lives almost without being affected.
And then sometimes there is a “real” war, meaning, missiles fall from the sky, sirens alert, bomb shelters are prepared and lived in. Friends and family are enlisted, clothes are slept in, and schools are closed, or turned into make shift hotels for those living in the red zones.
But my extensive research and work on my film “Two States of Mind,” introduced me to many new and different perspectives.
My eyes got exposed to even more layers of lies. Today I know that there is always a war here, and many profit from it, including countries which like to boycott Israel. Palestinian, underpaid people living in Gaza and other target points- feel this every single day - every moment, every second. Just getting up in the morning is affected by the conflict, because in order to get to work in Israel many have to wake up in unhuman hours, travel many dangerous miles, and wait on humiliating lines to be scanned by young (“sexy”) soldier boys and girls who are situated at the check points.
I know I have privileges many others don’t have. If I ignore my Facebook page, which is filled with activists and watchdogs informing me about each and every feminist-political-social injustice you can imagine (which mainstream media usually ignores), I can go about my everyday business in relative, misleading “peace”.
In fact, one can visit Israel and not know anything about the situation.
Tel Aviv is a great city. But if your eyes have been de-cataracted- you will be able to notice it everywhere. Most street names commemorate historical battles or commanders, almost all parks and (manmade) forests are in memory of this or that soldier or battle. Vacationing in the silent desert? You will wake up to shooting practice sounds of a nearby military base, or aerial drills of the air force. You will pass by many more military bases on the roads.
Most sculptures in public spaces are memorials for this or that battle. Israeli sculptors usually have one major source of income- from commissions for memorial monuments. Most school field trips are to locations of (single narrative) battle heritage.
But it’s much more complex. The violence doesn’t stay safely tucked away in wartime. The violence is everywhere. Just the simple act of driving for a half hour will introduce you to the anger we all are carrying around inside of us (See “It is raining in Israel”- image). The Israeli economy is built around and on the Military. Most of public life opportunities are built on your army experience, especially as a man. The public educational system is closely linked to the army. The children’s basketball league is linked to the army service. People I know, dear ones, make a living by working for the army complex. Even artists, who exhibit against war in the Art world, are sometimes supported economically by a family member working in the Army complex.
It affects me professionally. There is money for war, not for women, culture or education, human rights or art. It is challenging enough being an artist in Israel, being a feminist artist- and being a feminist artist who deals with the feminine- is the worst. Because the fear of the “F word” is ripe-everywhere.
Being a person who tries to expose the links between these different worlds- between the war situation, the gender situation and the economic situation is practically to be an enemy of the people. Last year, on the way to the Israeli Palestinian alternative memorial service we were accosted violently by angry, flag waving right wingers who spit, cursed, and would have killed if there were no police to stop them.
Then I have the added “luxury, or privilege” of being boycotted by institutions and feminists overseas who do not understand the complexities. It is very easy to take sides in a conflict you don’t belong to. Private/professional me, who belongs to those who try to affect consciousness and expose lies inside of Israel- is sometimes boycotted/excluded both by my own culture and disciplines and once again by feminists in other countries.
I experienced this a few times, and it weakens me, and you’d be surprised- it also weakens women who are Palestinian artists. Because there is also an added gender aspect to the conflict which in my view- is downplayed. This affects my ability to earn a living for my family, which weakens my value inside of my family, and consequently, the influence I have in my own culture. It weakens those who are already weak.
That said, I am not totally against boycott. By all means, boycott your own country which profits from buying and selling munitions from Israel and others. Boycott countries in which gays and women are stoned in the streets. But boycotting feminist artists –in my perspective- serves the purposes of the war mongering voices. It disempowers those of us inside society who are trying to affect change. The most difficult changes are the ones we are trying to make inside of our own cultures. Ask “Combatants for peace”. There you see ex fighters, both Palestinian and Israeli, who try to convince their own cultures of the futility of war. Both are considered traitors by the majority of their own.
It affects the time, mental and emotional resources I have. I gave two years of my life to a feminized army duty, a service which unlike several men of similar social back ground, offers me no benefits later in professional or public life. And a few more civilian months to a war here and a war there, to spending hours preparing our building’s bomb shelter again and again because there is a war threat. I remember the genius idea I had about a decade ago, when another war was brewing. I convinced my children (I think they were four) to do a picnic in the shelter, just for the fun of it. I didn’t want them to be scared of going down to the shelter when the sirens came. If the mental and emotional gymnasts and calculations per minute a mother does were ever measured…
During the extremities of violence, I am enlisted both as a mother, and as an activist inside my own culture. I consciously spread information about -other- moderate voices and opinions, and about UN resolution 1325, which I have been informing audiences about with my film Two States of Mind, since 2002. I know for a fact I have changed people’s minds and several have become part of movements like Women Wage Peace.
As a mother, I invest hours trying to both sooth the dismal reality flaunted on the front pages of the media and printed press which usually tote the most violent and scary scenes, on newspaper stands which are- listen to this- situated at the eye level of a four year old. Simultaneously, I try to loosen the militaristic and masculine brain washing the formal “free” educational system rains on my children (From kindergarten your children are “enlisted” to pack and send yummy packages to soldiers). You could say – I work full time as a protector and as an anti-brainwashing machine.
Since they were four or five, every Memorial Day (for Israeli war casualties), I allow them to skip school, because the school has ceremonies relating to one side - the Israeli side. Now it’s not that I think we should not mourn our losses, or that Israel is the only guilty party. It’s because these events fail to update the context in which we live. Thus they are geared to instill an outdated fear about “the other” and a false unity. These events perpetuate the idea of an eternal “enemy”.
Instead, I sit them in front of the Israeli-Palestinian alternative Memorial Day which is streamed live, online, worldwide. “See?” I say. “Arabs and Israelis are on one stage, side by side, together”. And the older my children get, the more details I add: “These people have paid the highest price there is, they have lost their loved ones. They have all the reasons and validation to hate each other, to want revenge, but have bravely realized- war is no solution. They want to live. These people understand that no one wins a war.
I want my children to see there is a different option. Because the main stream educational system ignores these groups, and sometimes downright opposes them.
This is ongoing, every day, uphill, and invisible work, which is usually unacknowledged, draining and exhausting. In my visual talk “Being a Woman who Loves Men and Hates war” I show a seemingly innocent invitation to a paint ball birthday party of nine year old’s. It’s designed as a mock call for army duty. The only parent whose heart missed a beat when she saw the invitation was – me. Did I say anything? No.
It’s a very fine line to walk – on one hand, being a parent who knows your children are being indoctrinated by the party line, and on the other - wanting your children to fit into the fabric of the community, in order to belong and survive, because a human being is a very socially dependent creature. Thinking outside of the box can mean exclusion, and exclusion- for anyone, and especially for children- is painful.
When I was at the hospital, after laboring intensively to transfer twin babies from the insides of my body to the outside world, a realization, which became the focal point of my life and work -hit me. Here we are a culture that pretends it values life, but judging by how we birthing women are treated, it’s not valuing the work women do to produce and sustain this life. The opposite.
New mothers are treated quite badly.
As a culture we publicly say we want a growing Jewish demographic, and are a leading country in IVF [In vitro fertilization], but once the baby is born, you are on your own. The culture is not putting its money and efforts where its politicians mouths-full-of-family-values, are. No one is walking the talk.
The hypocrisy felt like betrayal.
A decade and a half later of artistic research, I discovered why:
Conscious mothering is one of the biggest threats to nationalism. Because there is something mythical that happens when a woman’s body starts growing a human being- her insides elicit a deep, wild call and prayer to all her birthing predecessors. For me it was as if the ground opened, and my veins connected to snake-like root shaped veins emerging from the earth, belonging to and uniting me with all of the birthing women who came before me. It is a physical link to the depths and source of humanity. Of life.
I think we can call it a women’s embodied enlightenment. All women suddenly become one. It is our life and death bond. Men have created war as a bonding and uniting element. Men who have gone through war together usually have a life long bond of deep connection. Women, who have been divided by patriarchy, have a physical connection to life and death which has united them, but (and this is important) – this moment of deep realization is covered over by an amnesia which the culture throws into our eyes.
I try to counter this amnesia with my work, because remembering our lineage and heritage as women and mothers, is crucial for opposing war and violence. In my visual story lecture “Hot potato called Mama” I expose the antiquity of the erasure of the power of the woman-mother – throughout cultures disciplines and modern life. For women, the most subversive act is to unite in the face of the divisions of patriarchy.
The price we mothers/parents pay for producing and sustaining life is not counted, calculated or acknowledged. If we connect this erasure of the cost of producing life, to the ease in which war is practiced, (and the economic profits of war) it seems as if those going to war, have no idea about the real price of life. And maybe if they did, they would think twice about going to war.
Think about it- a woman’s body, weather she has children or not, bleeds and hurts monthly for 40 years. Who counts that price? Children who go through ongoing missile attacks wet their bed for many years. Who does the laundry? The soothing? The emotional work? Who is counting?
Most politicians are men who don’t know what it is to perform ongoing hands-on, demanding mothering work. Or women who can afford to pay other women to do it. Most of the people who are involved in sustaining life are- women. A human being is one of the most labor-intensive animals there is. Think of it- how many women (or men) have helped grow you up through your care intensive years?
Then I discovered that Mother’s Day in the United States was initially created -not for the purpose of consumerism; flowers, fancy breakfasts, and hall mark cards, but with the stated purpose of stopping/preventing wars.
Julia Ward Howe, who became a celebrity for writing the famous National Battle Hymn of the Republic, turned her views around 180 degrees after witnessing the horrors of the civil war. She (and later on, in similar style, another Mother’s Day activist by the name of Anna Reeves Jarvis) issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation”, which calls for women and mothers to unite worldwide in order to not allow and to refuse one’s children kill the children of another mother. Amazingly, Howe uses very similar words to my own- noting the fact that mothers alone know the real COST of creating a life. Btw, in Israel, for the purpose of political correctness, mother’s day was transformed into “Family Day”.
In March 2018 I was invited to be the first artist to participate and visually speak at The Mother’s Day Project created by artist Sarah Black and Writer Esther Wilson with the Desmond Tutu center for peace and reconciliation at Liverpool Hope University.
I mention this because it is rare that the connection I make in my work, between wars and the erasure of the feminine and the mother, is realized in my field. Because when people talk of “The political”- they mean – politicians. Since when does an artist-woman -mother have anything relevant to say about war? “Who are you to speak about Israel’s presence in Lebanon” said an army commander to the four mothers who eventually convinced Israel to pull out of Lebanon. “Your art is very nice, Shira, but why do you insist on those political, economic and feminist texts?!”- I have been asked by several art people.
Hmm, this reminds me of an older line; “Why bother a pretty head like yours with politics?”