Daughters of the King | By Federica Valabrega
Almost four years ago, I was invited for Shabbat dinner at the Garelik family in Crown Heights, a Lubavitch, Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I had just sat down at the table when Rabbi Yossi’s wife, Chani Garelik, took me aside and uttered to me a sentence straight from the Torah, “Col Cvuda Bat Melech Pnima,” which, translated, means “The pride of a Daughter of the King resides in the most secret depths of her soul.” She said to me that if I really wanted my photographs to speak about religious women, I first needed to understand this concept on my own.
“Daughters of the King” began that night, at that instant, although I was not able to take any photos then. Chani Garelik became my mentor, my so-called Muse. Interestingly, she never permitted me to photograph her. I kept going back to her house to seek advice on how to approach my subjects; how to behave among religious, Jewish women. Little-by-little, I became part of the lives of these women whom I randomly met on the streets of Brooklyn. After a while, they began inviting me to their weddings and dinners. Even now, they recognize me when I am walking in their neighborhood to go shopping, as if I have become part of their world, as if—at least for a moment–I am one of them.
With my photos I have sought to avoid the common stereotypes frequently attributed to Orthodox Jews. I have attempted to show aspects of these women, their most spiritual ones–those that transcend their religion and its strict rules governing the sanctity of their bodies. I chose to delve into a deeper dimension of my subjects’ holiness–one of femininity accompanying every gesture, every moment of their daily lives as religious women. In my images, head coverings, long-sleeved dresses, modest skirts and shoes ceased to be barriers to unwanted eyes, but instead, became vessels exalting the attributes of these women, not only as Jews, but simply as women.
In almost four years, I mainly photographed Jewish women in the largest religious communities in the world: Brooklyn in New York, Israel, and Paris in France. In these countries, the majority of Jews are Ashkenazi, ethnically from northeastern European countries, such as Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. But, since I wanted my photos to show more geographical and historical diversity, I also included Sephardi Jews. So, during this last year, I traveled to North Africa where I took my camera to Tunisia and Morocco. The little island of Djerba in Tunisia is the oldest Sephardic, Jewish community in the Maghreb, one that, even now, maintains a very good relationship with its past colonial power, France.
My experience within these communities has not always being easy. But, with time passing, these religious women changed their attitude toward me, and started showing me my own way inside the Torah without pushing me any further toward their own religious views.
Federica Valabrega was born in Rome, Italy in 1983, but spent most of her adult life between Boulder, Co., Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn, N.Y. Valabrega has a Bachelor in Science in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and in 2008 she received a Masters in Journalism and Documentary Production from American University in Washington, D.C. She started taking pictures soon after on the street of the United States capital documenting the historic Presidential race that brought Barack Obama to the 43rd presidential seat and following inauguration for herself. Her images have been part of the collective exhibit “Cherchez La Femme” traveling across Germany first at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany until April 2018 and later at The Jewish Museum Franconia in Ulm, Germany until January 2019. Her stories are focused on the most intimate, vulnerable and subtle moments people find themselves into as “the magic of photography” happens right then. She lives between Rome and Milan, Italy following her personal and editorial assignments.
Photo Essay edited by Alejandra Martínez Moreno