Exploring the feminine side of Jewish self-image


Aviva Braun is a take-charge kind of woman, especially when it comes to exploring the often-overlooked feminine side of Judaism. 

Armed with her two professions — psychotherapy and photography — Braun brings that Jewish femininity to life with a new exhibit now open at The Riverdale Y.

“I find myself often getting frustrated at how Jewish publications write and talk about Jewish women and eating disorders (and) body image,” Braun said. “There is rarely any discussion about feminism and how women need to feel empowered to feel good about their bodies, and be able to live fully within them.”

Braun took that frustration to a new level with her exhibition, “The Embodyment of Jewish Femininity,” currently on display throughout November at The Y’s Gallery 18. The exhibit features 15 photographs of women between a year old and 82, chronicling their individual relationships with their bodies. 

Braun was encouraged to develop the exhibit by fellow photographer Bonnie Geller Geld, who herself volunteered to be a subject in one of the pictures. Braun has spent 12 years as a psychotherapist, but only picked up photography as a hobby six years ago. It didn’t take long for Braun to combine both skill sets as a way to examine how women view their bodies.

Braun then took to Facebook asking if anyone wanted to take part. Within two minutes of posting, she received 25 responses from women. From there, she narrowed it down to 15.

“I was really looking for women who felt most connected to their bodies and were really able to live fully within them, at least at this point in time — even if they hadn’t been able to in the past,” Braun said. “The majority of subjects are Riverdale residents, with the exception of maybe four. I think that made it even more special for me that it became a community project.”

As Braun worked with each of her subjects, she had each write a narrative about the relationship she had to her body. 

In the end, each of them had a cathartic experience of self-discovery about what it means to be a woman at her particular age.

Throughout Braun’s creative process, there were a few moments that stood out to her. 

She worked with two cancer patients — a young girl named Cara who lost her hair after having cancer at 7 and 9, and a woman who wanted to remain anonymous after undergoing a double mastectomy following a breast cancer diagnosis. 

While working with Cara, Braun said position the girl’s hair correctly was profound.

When she photographed the anonymous woman, she had to be careful not to show her face. Yet the end result, Braun said, was positive and thoughtful. 

“The way we ended up photographing was with her looking off into the distance, but with a strong ray of light beaming down on her,” Braun said. “Almost like a ray of light or hope looking towards her future.”

Combining her psychotherapy and photography work allowed Braun to experience a few differences and similarities. But at the end of the day, she got to do what she enjoys most from both — work with people.

“As professions, they are similar in that I am very much dealing with people and what they need to work on or need,” Braun said. “The difference is therapy is very long-term and I am working with people weekly on continuous goals and things they struggle with. When I do a photo shoot, it is sometimes a one-shot deal, and I don’t always work with them again after that.”

As Braun takes away the lessons of what it means to be a Jewish feminist from her subjects, she has future plans to turn the project into a book. 

But for now, her goal is to get people thinking “more about what it means to feel embodied” and “take away some of the positive messages” that were written by the women who took part in the exhibit. 

“My message is supposed to be positive,” Braun said. “I want women to walk away and feel hopeful about the future of how Jewish women feel about their bodies.”