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Exploring the Creative Women of Israel: Netta Lieber Sheffer

By Mindy Rubenstein 

In the world of Israeli art, Netta Lieber Sheffer is known for her thought-provoking exhibitions that delve into Jewish history, identity and alternative realities. 

Netta’s work offers a unique look into the complexities of Jewish existence as wanderers, the establishment of the modern state Israel versus 2,000 years of Jewish history in the land. 

“The last few years I have loved to draw charcoal on paper,” said Netta, adding that it’s a low-tech medium, with a “Kind of intimacy and basic way of communication.”

Through her work, she likes to explore alternative realities. She is a recent recipient of the prestigious 2023 Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art. 

“I deal with what is gone…things that almost disappear and give them a second life with drawing or painting,” she said.

Netta’s latest exhibition, at the Tel Aviv Museum, is called “Shattered Hopes, Roads not Taken.” The collection is a testament to her artistic vision and intellectual exploration. Through monumental charcoal drawings depicting boats sailing in empty space, carrying with them figures and symbols from the past, the artist navigates historical crossroads associated with Jewish identity. 

Her work highlights alternative paths and ideologies that once contended with the course of Jewish history—visions like Herzl's utopian dream for a Jewish state, the Bundist ideology of diaspora identity, and the Canaanite movement's attempt to connect Jewish identity with ancient Hebraism.

What sets Netta’s art apart is its emotive power and ability to provoke deep reflection. 

Separate from the exhibit, Netta recently painted a portrait of Ronen and Karina Engel, who were kidnapped October 7. Four members of the Engel family, father Ronen, 54, mother Karina, 51, daughter Mika, 18, and daughter Yuval, 11, were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who swarmed Kibbutz Nir Oz, killing, kidnapping and burning homes.

Karina, Mika and Yuval were released on November 27. The IDF confirmed Ronen’s death on December 1. His body is still held in Gaza.

Netta said, “It’s a reminder that a painted portrait can evoke a more profound impact than a photograph.”

Netta’s artistic journey is deeply rooted in her surroundings and personal experiences. Born in Beer Sheva in southern Israel and raised in Kiryat Tivon in the north, her grandparents immigrated to Israel during the fifth aliyah from Germany and Austria in 1933. This rich heritage fuels her exploration of Israeli identity and history.

A significant theme within her work is the role of women in shaping Israeli society. One of Netta’s paintings depicts a boat of female pioneers, carving paths for themselves and future generations. These pioneers hailed from diverse backgrounds—Poland, Russia, Iran, Morocco, and beyond—reflecting the mosaic of cultures that contributed to Israel's development, particularly during the First and Second Aliyah waves of immigration.

Israeli Women: Shaping Our Identity 

Through her art, Lieber Sheffer champions a feminist, Zionist perspective, celebrating the strength and resilience of Israeli women throughout history. It serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of Israeli women, who have played pivotal roles in shaping the nation's identity and continue to inspire through their creativity and resilience.

Gathered in the boat are women with a feminist consciousness, who fought for a just society and for the advancement of women before the establishment of modern Israel. They were inspiring pioneers in their field, entrepreneurs, doers, and legislators. 

“Even if they engaged in management, law, or medicine, I chose to depict them as pioneers working with tools to emphasize their being trailblazers for female Jewish leadership in Israel and the world over,” said Netta.

Depicted at the center of the boat is Ada Fishman Maimon (1893, Bessarabia, Russian Empire – 1973), founder of the Ayanot Youth Village, where Netta has lived for the past 16 years, and the Training Farm for Young Women operating on site. Her legacy is founded on the recognition of women's rights and the belief in a woman's ability to control her life and shape it in her own way. She immigrated to Palestine in 1912, and fought for women's right to participate in the elections to the Yishuv institutions and for recognition of the female labor representatives. 

As a member of the first Knesset, she fought for the right of women to sign contracts so they could own property, promoted the law setting the minimum age of marriage, the law on equal rights for women, the law on women's work, and more, believing that female cooperation preceded political affiliation.

The women in the boat (from left to right): 

Hélène Cazès-Benatar (1898, Morocco – 1979), the first and only Jewish woman lawyer in Morocco at the time, founder of the Casablanca WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization) branch, was active in the Joint (American Joint Distribution Committee) and the Red Cross. She was among the founders of the Committee for Assistance to Refugees in World War II, and issued fake visas to refugees, provided them with food and shelter, and obtained money for them, thus saving many Jews while risking her own life. 

Nehama Pohatchevsky (1869, Lithuania – 1934) was among the first settlers in Rishon LeZion, where she helped immigrants, especially women, from Yemen. She founded the Devora association of women who taught women Hebrew, and the Linat Zedek hostel for passers-by and laborers. She was among the founders of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel and served as a mediator and judge who fought racism, published books and articles. "A woman is more aware than a man of the suffering of others," she wrote. 

Mazal Matilda Mosseri (1894, Hebron – 1981) was born in Palestine and moved to Egypt with her Egyptian-Jewish physician husband. A journalist and a Zionist activist, editor-in-chief of the Jewish-Egyptian newspaper Israel, she founded an organization of Hebrew scouts for girls, helped Jewish refugees who arrived in Cairo, and was active in Aliyat HaNoar (Youth Aliyah) organization. She traveled to Iraq and Morocco to promote aliyah among teenagers at personal risk. 

Šamsi Moradpur Hekmat (1917, Teheran – 1997, Los Angeles) founded the Jewish Women's Organization in Iran, within which she established day care centers for children and centers to assist low-income families, Jewish and other. In 1947, she gave a formative speech in a synagogue in Iran, centering on the defense of women's rights. Following the Islamic revolution in Iran, she moved to the U.S. and worked there to change regulations pertaining to women, especially inheritance laws. 

Regina Danon (b. 1892, Bulgaria -Israel,1972(? ) studied medicine in Switzerland and treated the wounded of World War I. She specialized in gynecology, specifically in fertility problems. One of the first female doctors in Jaffa, she treated Jewish, Arab, and Armenian women, local as well as from neighboring countries, including the Queen of Jordan, who named her daughter after her. 

Puah Rakovsky (1865, Poland – 1955), educator and activist for girls and women, headed a room for girls and a gymnasium for girls in Poland, founded the organization of Jewish women in Poland, and spread the Zionist idea among women. She was one of the founders of the monthly Froyen-shtim (Women's Voice), which called upon women to speak out in society and politics. 

Hannah Maisel-Shohat (b. 1883, Grodno, White Russia – 1972), an agronomist with a PhD in Natural Sciences, founded the Kinneret Training Farm for Young Women in 1911. As one of the founders of Nahalal, she aspired to an egalitarian society, free of economic, social, and political oppression.

Beyond Our Reality

As we navigate the complexities of history and identity through Netta Lieber Sheffer's art, we are reminded of the profound impact of creativity in illuminating the past and shaping our understanding of the present. Her work stands as a tribute to the strength and diversity of Israeli women, echoing their voices across generations and inviting us to ponder the roads not taken in Jewish history.

Her intricate charcoal drawings and paintings offer glimpses into lesser-known narratives, inviting viewers to explore paths less traveled and to contemplate what lies beyond our everyday reality.

She offers herself and others the chance to, “Put aside what we really know in everyday life and figure out what is beyond our reality.”

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