Sara Erenthal is a NYC multimedia artist who ran away from her ultra-Orthodox upbringing to truly find herself.
“When I grew up I didn’t feel like I was worth much and didn’t feel like I was good at anything,” says Sara Erenthal, a 35-year-old multimedia artist living in Brooklyn. Her statement is relatable to any teen unsure how to navigate impending adulthood, but Erenthal’s story is unique.
Erenthal grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York known as Neturei Karta, whose teachings call for the end of the State of Israel and, most relevant to Erenthal, refrain from embracing Western culture. Erenthal couldn’t flip through magazines or wear pants. She couldn’t watch Hollywood films, listen to pop music or interact with other kids outside the ultra-Orthodox community. Chatting with the opposite sex was tantamount to scarfing down bacon.
“I would see other kids in my area, and I would be jealous of how they lived,” she recalls, “and I remember thinking I wanted a life like that.”
When she dabbled in art at a young age, her strict family didn’t encourage her outlet, and she wasn’t exposed to galleries or museums to further inspire her. “And I was surrounded by the most boring traditional art,” says Erenthal.
Her feeling of living in a cage of conformity reached its peak in 1999, when she was 17. Her parents and siblings returned to Israel and got her a job working in a Haredi orphanage. They then announced she should marry and that they had found a suitable Orthodox man for her. Erenthal was anxious, finding ways to stall meeting her would-be husband. Her exasperated parents enlisted the help of a matchmaker who threatened Erenthal with statements like “What are you going to do, find a husband on a street corner?” and “If you don’t marry now, you’ll be alone forever!”
Erenthal couldn’t take it anymore. With the help of her cousins, she ran away from home and then joined the Israeli military.
Her parents discovered her truancy and even called border patrol in Israel to try to stop her from leaving the country.
They were too late. Erenthal escaped her family for good, forever.
Her father took the news so hard he “sat shiva” for her, a solemn tradition among Jewish families when mourning the dead.
Erenthal befriended an Israeli man who offered her her first pair of jeans. “I was like, wow, this is what my butt looks like,” Erenthal says. After all, for her entire childhood Erenthal wasn’t allowed pants or even pajama leggings.
The multimedia artist realized the military life didn’t suit her, and in 2001 she returned to NYC.
After some ups and downs with jobs in New York, Erenthal explored India and Thailand and, while trekking across the world, sold her first pieces of art — painted T-shirts. “That gave me the confidence that people would spend money on my creations.”
“A lot of things about the way I was raised I haven’t worked out, and through my drawings I’m putting out these emotions and coming to a better place for myself.”
She returned to Brooklyn in 2011 and promised to dedicate her life to art. Erenthal tends to explore her ultra-Orthodox childhood and her evolution as a secular Jew in her work, such as four pieces representing a family: a mother and father and two siblings. She also produced the Kinder project, made up of 22 wig heads lined up like soldiers. The number 22 represents the Hebrew alphabet, and she says the heads “were like soldiers, similar to children in very religious communities, where they are raised like in the military to follow these rules out of fear and never step away or question what they are doing,” Erenthal explains.
Her pieces often concentrate on her past. In one example, the size of a full-length mirror, we can see a religious Jewish mother with staples where her mouth should be. Another piece shows a rope made up of the hair and beard of an Orthodox man’s face. He also has staples where his mouth should be.
Being a multimedia artist allows Erenthal to play with various materials, such as fabric collage, paper drawings, coffee stain paintings, ink and found art. She has even come upon discarded mattresses on Brooklyn streets to draw on, often giving the garbage newfound life with stylish self-portraits.
“I want to educate people about who I am as an artist and where I came from,” she says about her motive behind her art. “Maybe some people will connect with me and my journey.”
In the last year, she has been particularly active creating street and public murals, sometimes for a barter or two. She got her new bike after painting a mural on the front of Sir D’s Lounge on Union Street, whose owner also owns a bike shop.
A mural work called Sara’s Three Selves stands sentry at Sir D’s Lounge in Brooklyn. Courtesy of The Dusty Rebel.
Using her art as therapy has also emboldened Erenthal to dabble in performance art. In 2015, she performed a solo show where she spoke about her upbringing while first dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb: long skirt, unflattering shirt, tied-back hair. Through the course of her performance, she stripped down to be completely naked with her hair down, a sort of exorcism of her past that she never would have dreamed of doing 20 years before.
“There’s something very raw about bringing nudity into my art,” says the multimedia artist. “It’s very honest and I’m not concealing anything. It’s all out there.”
Erenthal’s work might even be illustrated on found material such as discarded mattresses in Park Slope. Courtesy of Sara Erenthal.
Erenthal’s next big solo exhibition, Moving On, takes place at FiveMyles March 4 through April 16, with an opening reception March 9. Moving On will showcase a new adventure for her: “I’m doing something very different from what I usually do. It will be a series of memoir-like paintings depicting different memories from my life.”
When asked what art means to her, the accomplished multimedia artist replies quickly, “Creating art is healing to me. A lot of things about the way I was raised I haven’t worked out, and through my drawings I’m putting out these emotions and coming to a better place for myself.”