October 5, 2005
Photography Review | 'The Jewish Identity Project'
American Jewishness in All Its Infinite Variety
By GRACE GLUECK
Who's Jewish, who isn't and, by
the way, what is a Jew, anyway? These are questions that, in this
country at least, are posed as often by Jews themselves as by outsiders
seeking to characterize them. Not surprisingly, the questions have been
pondered over the years by organizations like the Jewish Museum, whose
1996 show "Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities" was found by
some viewers to be a little too challenging for comfort.
search of fresh insights, the museum has now come up with "The Jewish
Identity Project: New American Photography." Despite a klutzy title,
it's an intense who-are-we exploration that involves more current media -
photography and video - rather than the traditional ones of the earlier
The goal of the
exhibition, Joan Rosenbaum, the museum's director, writes in a foreword
to its catalog, is "to explore and even celebrate the heterogeneous
nature of Jews in America" - black, gay, lesbian, secular, strictly
observant, rich, poor or none of the above. And so 13 artists with
histories of delving into the nature of identity were commissioned to
produce 10 projects forming a "cumulative picture" that might help break
the stereotype of American Jews as uniformly white, middle-class and of
lifestyles and ethnicities of the subjects should be experienced on a
par with the artistry of the works, Ms. Rosenbaum suggests. It's a task
easier to envision than to sustain. Still, the museum has made a brave
go at it.
The 13 artists have
interpreted their missions broadly, from the Korean-born Nikki S. Lee's
meticulous staging of a full-blown Jewish wedding, with herself as the
bride, to Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's look at the thriving
Lubavitcher Hasidic community in the idyllic town of Postville, Iowa.
obvious expression of diversity is Dawoud Bey's photographic and audio
presentation of Jewish adolescents with "other" backgrounds: Jacob, the
product of a Jewish mother and a father from Belize; Sahai and Zenebesh,
adoptees from Ethiopia who were converted to Judaism by their parents;
the cousins Samantha and Claire, who share an American Indian
grandmother and a Russian Jewish grandfather.
gets more complicated in a work-in-progress video by Avishai Mekonen,
an Ethiopian Israeli, and Shari Rothfarb Mekonen, an American. The video
interweaves Mr. Mekonen's own search for identity as a Jew of color new
to America with those of others: a Korean-American female rabbi; an
Ethiopian rabbi; a rabbinical student from Uganda; a professor of
African history at Princeton University who is of Yemenite and Ethiopian
descent; and a rabbi born to a family of Jews who lived in Cuba for
five generations but were able to practice their religion openly only
after immigrating to the United States.
Two generations of three
families - all three of the matriarchs Holocaust refugees, with some of
their American-born children married interculturally - are portrayed in
video interviews and still photos by the artist Rainer Ganahl, himself
born in Austria but now living in the United States. In long interviews,
accompanied by shots of the families, their homes and their lifestyles,
he draws out the various ways they have adapted to their circumstances.
matriarch of one family, a psychologist born in Berlin, does not really
identify herself as American; her daughter, married to a man of Puerto
Rican descent, is happy in her American skin. Another matriarch, born in
Vienna and today a sociologist involved in post-Holocaust studies,
rejoices in the marriage of a daughter to a West Indian. The third, also
Vienna born, is married to an American Jew and has lived a comfortable
life. Their daughter, a lesbian, and her partner are the parents of two
adopted children of color.
If Mr. Gamahl's work has a message, I
suppose it is that willy or nilly, American multiculturalism has invaded
a once tight-knit community of East European Jews for whom such
goings-on would in the past have been all but unthinkable.
touching story of a convert, a woman brought up in the Roman Catholic
faith but descended from Jews who left Spain during the Inquisition, is
told in "Carmen's Conversion," a series of black-and-white photographs
by Jaime Permuth. Born in Cuba, the woman spent years on a spiritual
quest, finally finding a Sephardic rabbi of Cuban descent in Miami who
served as a guide for those converting or returning to Judaism. After
two years of preparation, she underwent the relevant Jewish religious
and legal rites (including the ritual immersion in a bath known as the
mikvah), signed a contract and emerged with a new name, Esther. In
gratitude, she gave her new synagogue a window dedicated to a couple she
had befriended who survived the Holocaust - a gift from a descendant of
Jews who fled the Inquisition.
Fanning out to Middle America are
two wonderful photo essays. One is the Robbins-Becher story of
Postville, where a Russian-born kosher meat supplier from Queens bought
and refurbished an old slaughterhouse in the 1980's. The other, Chris
Verene's "Prairie Jews, 1927-2005," focuses on Galesburg, Ill., his
overwhelmingly Protestant hometown.
In Postville, the
slaughterhouse became a thriving meat-processing plant now employing 350
workers, many of whom are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Other businesses
followed, along with yeshivas, synagogues, mikvahs, a kosher market, a
dairy, a restaurant and a pizza company. In short, the Lubavitchers
established an urban-style shtetl in a small piece of Iowa. Yes, their
odd customs, clothes and clannishness, their disinclination to take to
local public life, have not endeared them to the outside community. But
to the Jews, there are compensations for living there: spacious houses
and backyards; activities like fishing, hiking, bike riding and
swimming; the safety of a small-town environment.
Robbins-Becher photographs, the homey rural scenes include a Lubavitcher
mowing his lawn while wearing the requisite heavy black hat, with the
fringe of his prayer shawl dangling from his shirt; and a pastoral
vignette of a man and a boy fishing on a grassy bank, each wearing a
yarmulke. Still, it seems doubtful that the Lubavitchers, deeply
involved with their tradition and the past, will ever blend into the
Postville way of life.
On the other hand, in Mr. Verene's
Galesburg, the modest number of Jews are highly assimilated. Among those
shown are Barry and Harry, two close Jewish friends of Mr. Verene's
non-Jewish father, Donny, who has known them since Cub Scout days. Barry
relaxes with Donny against the neat white rail of a porch; Harry,
founder of the Galesburg Model Train Show, is depicted in the engineer's
cab of a full-size locomotive. Max Wineman, 93, who escaped from a
concentration camp during World II and made his way to Galesburg, where
he became a friend of Donny's father, is depicted living alone. (His
wife died in 1972). We see him observing the Sabbath in the Friday night
ritual of lighting candles.
Mr. Verene does not pose the
question, but his photographs can't help touching on an issue brought to
world consciousness by the Nazi genocide: does assimilation ever go
deep enough to make a difference during a Holocaust?
wittiest and most photographically stylish endeavor is "The Wedding,
2005," by Ms. Lee, an immigrant from South Korea known for photo essays,
with herself as subject, exploring issues of female and ethnic
identity. Guilefully shifting makeup, hair styles, body language and
dress to suit the occasion, she appears in all manner of social
situations, from hip-hop gatherings to yuppie bar scenes. "The Wedding"
is from her "Parts" series, begun in 2002, in which she uses male
friends or actors as the supporting cast in cleverly staged scenarios,
carefully removing most traces of her leading man in the final prints of
For "The Wedding," she cast herself as the Asian
bride of a Jewish man, who is visible in the pictures only as a hand, a
finger, a nose or part of a face that presses itself against hers in a
wedding kiss. It is a bravura performance; Ms. Lee, who sees
similarities between Korean and Jewish culture, says she poses the
question of how a Jewish man affects a Korean woman's identity, and vice
To paraphrase a famous female poet, how can one be Jewish? Let us count the ways.
Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography" is at the Jewish
Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 93rd Street, (212) 423-3200, through Jan.