This Brooklyn-Based Artist Got Her Start as an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Schoolgirl From Borough Park


Sara Erenthal was 17 when she tried on jeans for the first time. “I remember looking in the mirror thinking, ‘Oh my God, my butt!’ ” she recalls. “I’d never really seen myself in pants.”

Tonight, the now 34-year-old artist is wearing a pair of gray skinny jeans and a striped top, her black bra peeking through the flaps of her open-back shirt. Her hair is chin-length, roots growing in black, the rest bleached; black polish is chipping off her nails; and gold rings adorn her septum and left nostril.

Erenthal’s running back and forth halfway up Saint Johns Place in Crown Heights, between an exhibit at FiveMyles Art Gallery and her outdoor installation of nearly forty drawings plastered upon the green wooden planks of a construction site a few doors down. “We wanted to lessen the negative impact of having a construction site on the street for us and for the neighbors,” says Marine Cornuet of FiveMyles. “So we thought to make it a public art location.” Erenthal’s portraits and everyday scenes can really speak to everyone, Cornuet adds.

An Indian baba seated cross-legged, a bearded Orthodox Jewish man in a black hat, a bicycle, a German shepherd, a self-portrait of a girl wearing a long dress with her hair in two long braids — all are somewhat cartoony, drawn with simple lines, a limited color palette, stoic expressions, and, in the right corner of each, “Sara” spelled phonetically in Hindi.

“My work is generally really self-healing and just a way to let go of certain things,” says Erenthal. “Mostly it’s based on the reality of my life, and the past is a big part.”

Erenthal speaks quickly, her accent colored by a faint Brooklyn twang and a touch of Yiddish, her native tongue. She grew up between Israel and New York, her family having settled upstate in Monsey and Kiryas Joel before heading down to Borough Park and eventually moving back to Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

“I was always questioning, but I kept it to myself and would follow the rules outwardly,” Erenthal says. Her parents belonged to Neturei Karta, a fringe sect of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, best known for its dedication to the Jewish Bible and opposition to Zionism, believing that a Jewish state is forbidden until the coming of the Messiah. For reasons of modesty, Erenthal couldn’t ride a bike, couldn’t wear pants, couldn’t wear short sleeves, couldn’t wear her hair down. “My hair was always braided,” she says. “I hated that the most.”

She remembers struggling with the pain and discomfort of knowing there were alternatives to the insular world in which she grew up but thinking that those alternatives could never become a reality.

Not until after high school — when her family moved back to Israel from Brooklyn and her parents and the matchmaker arranged her marriage — did Erenthal run away from home. She left a note at a complicit relative’s house nearby: “Sorry, I can’t take it anymore. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Erenthal made her way to the Israeli army recruiting office, looking for a home away from the home she had escaped. “I was dressed really religious, and this young guy there looks at me and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said I wanted to join the military,” she says, explaining that the ultra-Orthodox are often exempt from Israel’s otherwise mandatory military service.

“But you’re religious,” said the boy. Erenthal denied it. “So how come you’re dressed like this?” he asked. She replied that she had no other place to go. Eager to help, the boy took her home and gave her a pair of his roommate’s jeans. Over the next two years, the army and the kibbutz, or Israeli commune, where Erenthal then lived, became her “secular education.”

Today it’s Friday morning and Erenthal is rolling a cigarette as she hurries from Grand Central to her first stop, a high-rise apartment building in Murray Hill, to pick up Chloe, the first of several dogs she’s scheduled to walk.

“I find it funny that as a child I used to be terrified of dogs and now I love them,” she says. Haredi Jews mostly don’t have pets because they’re considered dirty, she explains. And it becomes complicated whether you can walk a dog on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which instructs those who observe not to carry anything or perform any kind of “work,” physical or otherwise.

A nine-month trip to India in 2010, ten years after she had returned to New York following her army service, became the foundation for Erenthal’s art career. She began painting murals in restaurants and designing repurposed clothes for money. “The first time I finally accepted that I’m an artist, a traveler asked to buy a drawing. That gave me a push to take it more seriously,” she says.

Art is her calling, but these days dog-walking brings in consistent cash.

“My story is the story of discomfort to liberation,” says Erenthal. “Dog-walking, bike riding — it’s not a rebellion per se. It’s a consequence of growing into a different world, of evolving.”

This summer she learned to ride a bike. “Bicycles give you freedom,” she says. “There have been times when I didn’t have money to take the subway and couldn’t leave my house. Now there’s no such thing.”

In a way, her art — paintings of bicycles and dogs, portraits of her Orthodox mother and father — chips away at the past while simultaneously processing it.

“I think the most important part in life is just to be a good person. I don’t mind people being religious as long as they’re not extreme or hurting other people. It’s just not for me,” Erenthal says, rolling another cigarette on her way to the next stop.

She’s near Madison Square Park now, passing an old bakery. Its cozy aroma wafts through the crisp winter air. “I’ll tell you one thing, there’s something about my childhood I still enjoy: traditional Jewish food,” she says. “I can change my life completely, but food is something we have this crazy mental connection to. Still probably one of my favorite foods is to have a piece of kugel and chulent.” But still, Erenthal jokes, she doesn’t eat bacon — not because it’s not kosher, but because she doesn’t like it.

“You can’t really get a childhood out of a person,” she says. “But I don’t need to be associated with any specific group to feel like I belong.”

Erenthal’s exhibit is currently on display at FiveMyles Gallery, located at 558 Saint Johns Place, Brooklyn 11238.