Counting The Stars
Benjamin Seroussi From the 31st Bienal de São Paulo guide.
On a journey that led her from Natal to São Paulo, stopping in Campina Grande, Recife and Belo Horizonte along the way, Nurit Sharett assumed a foreign viewpoint in her documentation of Brazil. Still, the search for a different culture wasn’t the motive behind her trip.
An Israeli of Jewish origin, Nurit is interested in identity-themed constructions. In her films, which are documentary in nature, the artist always provides the central thread in the investigation, delicately measuring her proximity or distance to the subjects of her work. In Brazil, she travelled to meet self-proclaimed descendents of the New Christians – or anussim – Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Portuguese Inquisition of the fifteenth century and who took refuge in Brazil.
Five centuries later, heirs to this hidden memory ask to return to Judaism. ‘Since we are a people of miscegenation, of mixed races, we can be anything inside of this mix’ – something which, for one of the anussim interviewed by Sharett, is a condition of his hybrid identity.
This, to another of the film’s characters, an orthodox rabbi, sounds like the weakening of this identity: ‘It has been over five hundred
years since the Inquisition. Five hundred years is a long time: many things have happened, many influences, lots of miscegenation, lots of
alienation, lots of assimilation.’
Preserving the specificity of each discourse and not flattening any of them, the artist edits the gathered interviews in Counting the Stars, a three-channel video, as if they were part of a long, single conversation, giving equal weight to the rabbi, the anthropologist, the recent convert, the psychoanalyst, the poet and the young man whose mother always told him he was Jewish and who wishes to be recognised as such. Distanced from the discourses of the institutions that legitimise them as real or denounce them as fictional, each story becomes plausible as history and each interview subject becomes the protagonist of his or her own identity.
Counting the Stars
A Conversation between Nurit Sharett and Carlos Gutierrez. From the 31st Bienal de São Paulo book.
The term Anussim – ‘forced’ in Hebrew – refers to the descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition regime in the Iberian Peninsula.They are also known as Marranos (crypto-Jews) or New Christians (cristãos novos), in opposition to the Old Christians. Many of them used to keep hidden Jewishpractices and were often persecuted by the Inquisition.
Nurit Sharett: I started my journey in 2011 when we went to the east zone of São Paulo to meet a member
of an Anussim group. Until then I thought the Anussim belonged to the past, having learnt about them in high school history lessons.
Carlos Gutierrez: I discovered the group in 2007 and followed them through a process that we in anthropology call participant-observation: living with and like the group, eating kosher food, going to their jobs and analysing their interactions. My main goal was to study how the Jewish identity is defined in a struggle that involves this specific group as much as the ‘established Jews’ – who are generally considered to be the ‘real’ ones. I don’t consider that there are real and fake Jews. One could say that there are no Jews but that Jewish identity, like any identity, is produced on an everyday basis.
Nurit Sharett: What do you mean with ‘there are no Jews’?
Carlos Gutierrez: This is always shocking! Of course there are Jews, but how can we define them? Many orthodox groups won’t consider you Jew because you are not religious. But I cannot consider their opinion as ‘the truth’. We have a plurality of visions and perceptions about Judaism. Anthropologists can’t decide who is Jewish or not. We have to analyse this struggle and how the agents involved in it use these categories, classify themselves, justify their positions and deny the identity of the other. When I say ‘there are no Jews’, I am referring to the fact that this is a social construction that changes all the time.
If you look at the old texts in the Torah, it says that a Jew is someone who has a Jewish father. This thing of being Jewish by mother appears only after the Roman war in Judea, because there were very few men left. They had died fighting against the Roman Empire. So the rabbis, at that time, decided to change the established order of classification to the actual form. But liberal synagogues still consider anyone who has a Jewish father to be Jewish, as they refer to the old texts! So, who is right? What is Judaism? We cannot answer this question, it is under construction and it will always be.
Nurit Sharett: This first encounter with the Anussim made a strong impression on me. I felt that this group is suffering from two sides, the Jews don’t let them into their synagogues, so they have to create their own, and their Evangelical neighbours don’t want them in their area either. Can you explain to me what brings people at a certain point in life to call themselves Anussim?
Carlos Gutierrez: In the end of the 1990s, this question exploded, and many people started to consider themselves Anussim and to claim their Jewish identity.
Why did it happen? I have two connected hypotheses: urbanisation and Pentecostalism. When people are in rural areas, they have
only two options: being Catholic or Evangelical. When they go to cities, they have the possibility of interacting with many other groups, such as Jewish people. At the same time, with urbanisation, Evangelical groups have grown practically from zero, in the 1950s, to about 42.3 million today, which represents 22.2 percent of Brazil’s population! Most of these Evangelical movements claim to be the ‘New Hebrews’ – adopting Hebrew words, Jewish symbols and Jewish rituals in their churches. So the majority of those who classify themselves as Jews have a previous experience, through Christian institutions, that provided them with a ‘grammar’ of Judaism. Many of them, before discovering their ‘Jewish roots’, in their own words, were admirers of Jewish culture, religion and languag
Nurit Sharett: Can you explain to me what you mean by grammar?
Carlos Gutierrez: When I use the term grammar, I refer to the knowledge of the Anussim issue; the historical context; the Inquisition; the ‘new Christian names’ (Morreira, Carvalho, Perreira, etc.); and how these are operationalised by these social actors when they justify their positions and claim their Jewish identity. Here I have to emphasise the importance of Anita Novinsky’s work. She was a pioneer in gathering all the data we had in Brazil and Portugal about the Inquisition, showing how the majority of cases denounced by the Inquisition Tribunal were related to Jewish practices. Anita helped us to historicise and to understand this phenomenon in Brazil. The people who consider themselves Anussim learned a lot with Anita’s work as well, and they use it to argue about their Jewish identity. They bring these arguments to rabbis. They have access to academic work and they use these sociological and historical concepts as strategies to gain legitimacy within the established Jewish community, justifying their positions.
Nurit Sharett: If Judaism is always in construction, why is the Anussim issue so problematic? Why are they not being accepted as Jews by the Jewish establishment?
Carlos Gutierrez: We have, in the Jewish Law, trials about the Anussim question in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Many rabbis judged cases of Anussim, in order to see if they could be accepted inside the community. So, what has changed? Why is it now a problem?
The people who classify themselves as Anussim don’t want to wait for a Rabbinical Court. They want to be Jewish right now. So they start to create their own synagogues and to define themselves as Jews. They changed the rules. The monopoly that the established Jews used to have is gone! Everyone can be Jewish now. Of course, you won’t be considered Jewish in an established synagogue, but many of them don’t care about this. They only want to have their faith. When the Anussim started to create their own synagogues, they contradicted the established power that the Jewish community had. And, surely, the established Jewish community does not enjoy this situation. Eventually, many of these Anussim want to be recognised by the established Jewish community and by the Israeli State, so there must be some kind of interaction, but not the kind of interaction that rabbis want. Something different, that is being negotiated all the time. In the past, rabbis had total control, now they have to negotiate. The Anussim destroyed an established logic of power in order to establish another one.
Moon on Mount Gerizim
Dor Gues From exhibition Catalogue “Forbidden Junctions”
The Work of the Israeli artist Nurit Sharett, Moon on Mount Gerizim, sums up eighteen months of work during which the artist followed the Samaritan community during their religious festivals and holidays in their two centers in Israel: Holon and Mount Gerizim near Nablus. Sharett conveys her cumulating impression of the customs and rituals of the Samaritans who invited her to join them, and some even opened their homes to her. As an onlooker, she outlines the cultural space unique to the Samaritans without being able to decipher it, much like cemeteries located around ancient cities, marking the disappearing city’s borders. Acknowledging her limited abilities, Sharett’s position oscillates between curiosity, expression of an opinion, impressions resulting from appearances, and admitting her partial knowledge. Thus her work illustrates the ways in which art introduces questions about the limitation of vision and the restricted ability to decipher cultural codes. Sharett’s work is encapsulated in the sentence repeatedly confessing her limited knowledge at the outset of the project: ”630 men, six surname, three languages, two neighborhoods”.
Moon on Mount Gerizim
The video Moon on Mount Gerizim is dedicated to the Samarians - followers of the Mosaic Law - an old religious-ethnic community that consolidated around one of the versions of the Torah. “730 people, 6 family names, 3 languages, two neighborhoods,” the background audio explains. “In the book about the Samarians I read that this is the only community in the world that makes a sacrificial offering according to the Torah’s rituals,” adds the artist while concurrently different colorful pictures depicting scenes of the community’s life run on two different screens. The pictures reveal a side-view observation, consciously curious, of the life of “the other”: the community that lives in Holon and on the Mount of Gerizim. Men clad in white robes climbing on a mountain in the dark; an old volume of the Torah written in an antique language; a ceiling of a living-room decorated with citrus fruit; hushed mumbling of prayer, a fez.
The video - like the community on which it focuses - is divided among several screens/stories. The camera - which is the main”voice” of Moon on Mount Gerizim - shifts between Holon and Mount Gerizim above Nablus, from a private space to a public space, from festive days to the routine of everyday. The divided frame wanders among three adjacent screens that run the images simultaneously. At certain stages each one of them becomes an independent communicating channel. Plain data, personal impressions, quotations and testimonies - all interwoven - are attached to the changing pictures . At times image and word validate each other, at times they ignore each other. All of them are enveloped by the sound of male singing which bears an enigmatic-religious character. The overall visual aspect is overwhelming and creates a stirring experience.
So who are you, the Samarians? The video supplies an incomplete answer which expresses the very weakness of questions of this genre, just like the weakness of the viewpoint of a researcher. How does one look? On what? By what means? These questions do not only touch upon a methodological issue. These are questions that address themselves to viewpoints and limits, to limits of viewpoints. This enigma becomes no less intriguing than the enigma that the entity of the Samarians poses. Because, evidently, knowledge is a question of limits and the guarding of limits. “We are a small community,” the artist quotes one of its members, “if each one will do whatever he wants, the community will not survive.” Preserving the limits like guarding cultural information is a measure of defence but also a barrier; it is both knowledge and the barring of knowledge; it is an insoluble paradox.
Ilana, Tami Sharom & Me
In Ilana, Tami, Sharon & Me Nurit Sharett presents a group portrait of four women in black, facing the camera and themselves determinedly.
As the camera lingers on their faces it exposes the signs of time enabling the viewer to read in them the signs of their prolonged and stubborn battle against time. A feminist, social and political struggle.
Like many Video works created today, Sharett’s piece relates to the first generation of video artists and to the medium’s basic features. It is a type of historical tribute, echoing the preoccupation with the dimension of time ingrained in the medium and its close link, at the outset, with performance, with the body, and the mutual relations between the artist and the video camera.
Winter At Last
Yair Garbuz for the 2006 Biennale of Sydney catalogue
Nurit Sharett’s video-film “Winter At Last” is a diptych that mirrors two letters that speak of love, loneliness and yearning. One letter is to Jacqueline, a Swiss friend who lives in Zurich; with whom she speaks in Swiss-German; the other letter is to Abla, a Palestinian friend who lives in Nablus, with whom she speaks in English. Both video- letters are composed of identical visual images, and in both of them the writer-director illustrates the sorrow of parting and the great difficulty in breaking a contact. She expresses this void in her life by describing her daily routine on one hand and her political involvement on the other, while refraining from any comment regarding the essence of interpersonal relationships and the circumstances that had caused their being cut off.
This is a film whose narrative lies in the past, in the background. It seems that the film lacks a narrative because the writer wishes to return to the old narrative, to the past, which is unfeasible. For that reason she lives in a kind of static, frozen, continuous present.
Each letter is edited in a different order and is accompanied with a different text. The theme unifying the two is the impossibility of renewing the contact; Winter comes again and life goes on. The static aura of the film, its pictorial nature, its overwhelming beauty, its stationary camera - all these re-enforce the feeling of the continuous present which wishes to reconnect with the past. Only that which moves in reality, does so in the picture. The wind moves and so do waves, clouds, lightning and the people in the check points. Only the writer is afraid to move from her position, lest any movement might endanger the very anticipation of her addressee’s coming for a new visit.
These are emotional elements that are handled with deserved caution and without any exaggeration, even without any complaint. There are no staged scenes because the letters say: this is my life without you and this is exactly the way it looks. The precise and meticulous esthetics heighten the feeling of reserve but at the same time emits a stillness satiated with desire.
Instead of complaints and empty promises the writer offers her far-away addressees coffee, a window overlooking the city, a most enticing salad, fruit, Persian rice full-screen. The personal and the public intersect in a gripping way in this sentence: “Magdalena, a new friend, showed me the wall and a check point and taught me to eat geranium.” This is an especially courageous sentence that intimates, consciously or not, the limitation of political dictums and the capability of daily life - like those feelings of yearning - to gnaw at these positions.
In her letter to the European Jacqueline, the wall and the check points are seen as another interference with the old narrative. The beautiful pictures are there for the purpose of both pleasure and caution. Beauty casts lovers into forgetfulness and beauty casts the miserable in the check points into forgetfulness.
Maybe it does not make us forget altogether, but it allows us to live with this. Indeed, this is what this film is all about: the great wonder that life is possible with the pain of parting and also with oppressing iniquity. Is it desirable to compare between a “small” private sorrow and a “big” public calamity? The question is not whether this is desirable or not, but how courageous it is to dig deep into these weaknesses of ours and into the spectacular disproportion that love engenders.
In the letter to Jacqueline there is only one straightforward plea: “I ask myself how many more movies I shall make until you come.” The letter to Abla, obviously, allows itself to be less complicated. It does not offer the Palestinian woman “the daily routine” but rather what is most urgent - liberty and independence.
The second letter does not begin with Winter so as not to blur the picture by melancholic means. Although it employs the same images as the first letter, here they seem less beautiful. Here beauty becomes negligible. Maybe this harbors a statement regarding the relationship between the two letters: private sorrow enables us to distinguish between nuances; iniquity, to the contrary, erases them. Iniquity demands from us full attention. This letter also does not enable us to think about interpersonal relationships and love. It fills us with malaise and an unclear conscience. And even the lovely glitter that lights up the night looks like a bombardment. Also, in this letter the spectator is obliged to say to himself that one cannot incorporate the wall and the check points into the framework of “life is going on”.
Both films are accompanied with the director’s narration. Her voice, attuned to their atmosphere, is not used for the purpose of persuasion. It has the cadence of inventory taking devoid of emphases, however it is musically mellifluous.
The two letters that are fused into one seem to be simple, but gradually they seep into us to leave an imprint of beauty and sorrow.
Galit Eilat, From the catalogue of "People, State, Land", 2006 The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon
Through four short chapters touching upon her personal biography, Nurit Sharett in her video Identity addresses issues of national identity, ethnicity, foreignness, and gender. Each chapter presents an object associated with her identity, accompanied by a personal story rife with irony: her ID card, IDF discharge papers, a Swiss passport, and paper money. Through her personal story Sharett discusses the set of conventions underlying Israeli culture which for three decades has been undergoing a process of destruction of conceptual, social, cultural and political structures and construction of alternative ones. The most conspicuous among these struggles were the feminist, the ethnic, and the Palestinian struggles. Within each of these a group narrative was constructed – turning inward and outward – a group creating its own mythology and rewriting history from its own point of view. This act of construction resulted from the realization that the way in which the group had been described and interpreted by the canon, the ”Israeli collective” (which is the privileged in the power structure), was insufficient, and often – misleading.