The House of the Secrets - Secrets of the Mikve: Photo Exhibition by Researcher Varda Polak-Sahm

by Yitzhak Levinson
Published at: 2006-04-16, 22:37
Last updated at: 2006-04-16, 23:18
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(Jaffa) . - Even though the researcher-author-photographer Varda Polak-Sahm (52) had been born in the ultra-orthodox Jewish Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, she immersed in a mikve (Judaism - ritual bath) only twice in her life, at indispensable and unavoidable circumstances for a Jewish women. But the place, the immersing women with their stories and the mikve attendant women fascinated her attention.

For a decade she visited to mikves, conducted heart to heart conversations with immersing women and mikve attendant women, photographed and wrote. The outcome was at the beginning a masters paper for the University, then a book and now also a photo exhibition (with the same name as the book) The Sacred House - Secrets of the Mikve. One might definitely use one of the days left of the intermediate days of Passover for visiting the unique of its kind exhibition presented in Artura gallery in Jaffa. If there will not be a prolongation, the exhibition will continue to be presented until this Thursday (20 April).

A women only world where they enter impure and leave after been purified

The woman's body as a symbol of purity, freedom of the creation and the spirit of expression is presented by the artist Varda Polak-Sahm with her picture series "The Sacred House". The project was the result of her academic research about the "Secrets of the Mikve", published in Hebrew by the Modan Publishing House. It is all about the ritual bath used by Jewish women.

The exhibition permits a rare glance into a place of intimate meetings of women only. It is a place with a mystic atmosphere. The mikve is associated with the experience of baptism. It is a public place, where women strip naked and reveal their body. This moment is part of the tension between the men, who define the rules and the women who liberate themselves from ritual impurity. Symbols of togetherness and female pride are ever-present.


The mikve for women is a closed world, like the "forbidden city" in Chaina, sealed behind high walls. It is strictly forbidden for men. Inside it is a world only for women. Inside women can do what is forbidden outside. The "House of the secrets", a technical term for the intimate places of the woman, is hidden and yet it is a public place. There is a mixture of reality and fantasy.


Polak-Sahm watched the developing dialog between the impure women and the attendants. They must check every part of the women, from the toes to the tip of their hair. After the ceremony of bathing in the water, the women leave the place while they are pure. Now the women are again "permitted" for their husbands.

An artistic display

The exhibition is an artistic display recreating the atmosphere of a typical orthodox Mikve in Jerusalem. Parts of the exhibits are artistic, hand made candles created by Polak-Sahm. The candles are for sale.

Varda Polak-Sahm is a multi expressional artist. It all started with photography. She developed her career with her husband Ulrich W. Sahm, who is a correspondent for German media. Polak-Sahm put the emphasis of her artistic work on photography. She grew up in Meah Shearim and is deeply rooted into the traditions of Jerusalem.

Among her most important works is By Bread Alone. This series of symbolic pictures about basic food, religious belief and tolerance was shown at the Vatican and in many other countries. Another series of pictures was made as documentation of the gilding of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The result was a Peace Album presented by late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to King Hussein of Jordan at their first historic meeting in Washington. A larger collection of these photos is on tour through museums in Germany and Italy.

Polak-Sahm discovered a remarkable photo archive of Barefoot Photographers in Tilonia, India. As a curator she turned it into an exhibition shown at UNESCO in Paris and at the Brunei-Gallery in London. Polak-Sahm received personally Prince Charles at this exhibition.


From the ultra-orthodox society to secular life and art


Varda Polak-Sahm was born in Meah Shearim neighborhood and she indicates her being very close to Jewish tradition, even most of her life she passed as a secular woman, married today with a non Jewish person. She is a daughter of an eastern family, seventh generation in Israel and telling about herself: "Our family had not been an orthodox one, but very religious. My grandfather's home was the Alayof Manor - a patio building surrounded with rooms and he lived in the second story of the building. Afterwards he sold the house to a Yeshiva and passed to live in a small apartment. I lived there for the first seven years of my life. Both my grandfathers were cantors. My father obeys the laws of Shabbat and my, I do nothing of these. I do not define myself as a secular. A secular is a person who does not have a God and I have, even I do not obey the religious orders. I have an approach, sensitivity and knowledge of the faith and religion. I have no problem with the definition "secular", but only by definition, because my culture is based on the Jewish tradition, holidays, religious songs and customs - it is not strange for me".


Even she had disconnected herself of religious life, Polak-Sahm says: "I liked very much the religious environment and also my childhood gave me the ability of easy making connections with religious people, it is a part of me. I do not have restraint of religious persons - I am use to it from my childhood and have a lot of sympathy for them. My childhood was there and it also cleared my way to the attendant women - I respect them".


With all the sympathy to the religious existence, Polak-Sahm does not have any connection with her childhood girl friends. "I left there all my childhood and I do not have connections with any of the girls who were my childhood friends", she says and adds: "I have not any connections today with the girls of Meah Shearim and also with non religious childhood friends of the Yemenite congregation of Shearei Pinah neighborhood at the edge of Meah Shearim, where I used to live once. But I still have an emotion to the religious community".


(Studio Artura, Poriyah St.9, Jaffa - Curators: Doron Polak and Esti Drori)

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