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Bringing “chained women” out of the shadows

New photo exhibit in Woodbridge portrays the dark side of divorce

By Cindy Mindell

Gett or get – the Halachicly required document to effect a Jewish divorce – has been drawing a lot of attention in the film world, thanks to Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy Award, and hailed as a Critics’ Pick by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, the 2014 Israeli film follows one Israeli Orthodox Jewish woman’s grueling, years-long process to convince her husband to grant the document, which states, “You are hereby permitted to all men,” freeing her from the marriage.

The fictional Viviane Amsalem is a big-screen example of the too-real agunah (plural: agunot), Hebrew for a “chained” woman trapped in an unwanted marriage as long as her husband withholds a gett. Often used as a weapon to extort financial or custodial concessions, or to exact revenge during the divorce process, gett-refusal has sparked activism in the Orthodox Jewish community as a way to bring attention and a solution to the problem.

agunah #6

“Agunah #6”

The agunah is the subject of “In the Shadows,” a new traveling photography exhibit by Aviva Klein on display at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven through July 30.

Born and raised in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, Klein attended yeshiva until sixth grade, when she entered the public school system. She became interested in photography during college, when she took a few classes in the art. “Photography made me feel a way

I’ve never felt before,” she says.

Now a New York-based freelance lifestyle and portrait photographer, with a client list that includes music celebrities and fashion houses, Klein received a #MakeItHappen micro-grant from the Schusterman Family Foundation in late 2013.

“I was clear that I wanted to use the grant money to create a photo series bringing awareness to a Jewish issue,” she says. “A friend had sent me an article about an agunah and I was really intrigued. I had never heard of an agunah; I never knew that this existed in the Jewish community. So from then on, I started my research for this portrait series.” Klein later launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to continue the project. “I created this photo series to bring awareness to a group of women who are suffering in the shadows of their communities,” she says. “I wanted to give them a voice, visually bringing them into the light.”

To find her subjects – current and former agunot – Klein contacted various organizations and non-profit agencies that advocate and mediate for “chained women,” including Agunah International in Brooklyn.

“Typically, when I work on a series I have a vision for it; for this particular series, I couldn’t,” she says. “I was dealing with very vulnerable women who were wary of me and my intentions. So, I had to make the process very comfortable and easy for them. With that said, I photographed the women where they felt most comfortable – some at home, some in parks or other outdoor areas near their homes. Ideally, I would have loved to photograph them all in their homes. In terms of the posing, I had to find ways to photograph the women in a way that would not reveal their identity.

Anonymity was very important to most of the women I photographed.”

For a photographer used to showing off the best face of her clients, taking “portraits” of women without revealing their faces was “definitely a challenge,” says Klein. “The true definition of a portrait is the representation of a person in which the face and its expression are predominant,” she says. “I applied the standard principles of photography to help carry the images.”

Klein hopes that her photographs will help raise awareness of agunot and serve as a reminder to her subjects and women like them that they are not forgotten.

To view Klein’s “In the Shadow” photographs visit: avivaklein.com/in-the-shadows. For more information on In the Shadows at the JCC of Greater New Haven visit jccnh.org.

CAP: Amsalem’s “Agunah #4”

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