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Jewish Journal

Diaspora: A Photographer’s Quest

by Gaby Wenig

October 16, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Village women, some wearing tallitot, in the Simens Mountains of Ethiopia in 1983. Many villagers have left for Israel.

Village women, some wearing tallitot, in the Simens Mountains of Ethiopia in 1983. Many villagers have left for Israel.

"My work was driven by a sense of imminent loss," writes Frédéric Brenner in the introduction to his new book, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile." "Two thousand years of history were about to vanish. I felt a desire and a responsibility to document these permutations of survival in exile before they disappeared.... As I began my journey, I realized how much loss had already taken place."

It was this sense of loss that led Brenner, a 44-year-old French photographer on a 25-year journey to more than 40 countries, to document the lives of Jews in exile. Brenner wanted to record the process of acculturation that has distinguished the history of the Jews since the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered into exile.

"The journey undertook me more than I undertook it," Brenner told The Journal. "I needed to unveil and uncover the many threads which make up the fabric of my identity. I am a product of the East and West -- my grandparents came from Algeria, and my other grandparents came from Ukraine and Romania. I am typical of the blending which makes up the fabric of our people."

So Brenner traveled all over the world, using his camera to tell stories that might otherwise never be told. He went to Abyssinia, where he photographed Jewish women who still practice the pre-talmudic custom of confining themselves to a hut during menstruation; he captured Jews in Yemen who know how to read Hebrew upside down, because they have only one book that all need to learn from; descendants of Marranos (secret Jews) in Portugal who light Shabbat candles in hiding and celebrate Passover in the attic; Russian peasant Jews who work on kolkhozes (communal farms); and Gen. David Dragunsky, the leading Russian anti-Zionist during the Brezhnev era. Brenner shot Jewish merchants in India; female rabbinical students, all wearing tefillin, in New York; Chasidim in Mea Shearim, and Hell's Angels in Miami.

The photographs, all black and white, give the viewer a glimpse into the many permutations of Jews and Judaism today. They manage to shake any sense of complacency that one might have about definitions of what the religion should be, and should look like. All in all, they are profoundly moving, because it is only this gossamer chain of religious identity that is shared by all.

"What these people have in common is mainly their differences, and their acceptance of their own differences," Brenner said. "What Jews have in common is that they altogether make the experience of dispossession and dispersal, again and again and again. This experience is not only experienced passively as a curse, but very often it is claimed as reinvigoration. The 'wandering Jew' is something we reclaim, as a project, a vocation."

In "Diaspora" (Harper Collins) the photographs are presented in two volumes. The first installment is a coffee-table collection of some 260 photographs; the second is a selection of the shots with accompanying text surrounding them, laid out like a page of Talmud.

The text is written by a variety of authors: Jacques Derrida, Stanley Cavell, Sami Shalom Chetrit and Carlos Fuentes to name a few. They approach the photographs as a layered text, attempting to discern the meaning in the image, and to raise the issues that they see embedded in the duotones. "What rouses me against this photograph and doesn't let me go?" asks Michael Govrin of a shot of four Greek Holocaust survivors, each stretching out their arms so the viewer can see the numbers tattooed there. "Did Frederic mark those nameless men yet again in a 'composition' of tattooed arms and clenched fists? Did he violate the pain etched in their bodies by imprinting it on film?"

Sometimes, the text tells the story of the person in the image, such as the wonderful letter, written in 1821, that accompanies the "Tribute to the Raba Family." The letter tells the story of the Rabas, Portuguese Jews who escaped the inquisition keeping their Judaism intact, and went on to amass a huge fortune in France.

"I don't offer any answers, only questions," Brenner said of his images. "The texts chosen are very elliptical, and so there is a lot of space for the viewers to trust their own commentary."

Brenner is an outgoing, lively and handsome man, who is as likely to quote biblical commentators like Rashi in his speech as he is postmodern theorists. He gives the sense of always being in flux, his projects are infused with the same gusto that his every gesture exudes. One can easily imagine him jetting around the world, camera in tow, feeling invigorated as he traipses through a ludditic Ukrainian village looking for the last remaining Jew.

"Jews are people who subvert the archaical forces of death," Brenner said. "A large majority of Jews, and non-Jews, know how Jews died, but they don't know how Jews lived. The history of the Jewish people is becoming the history of the Shoah; there is a fascination with our own disappearance and that is not Jewish. The fact that we have been victims for a large part of history has taken over the other part, which defines who we are. There is a famous verse in the Bible where God says 'I will put in front of you life and death, and you will choose life' -- and that is what we have to do."

Frederic Brenner presents and discusses images from "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile," at the Skirball Cultural Center on Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. This lecture is in association with "The Photograph and the American Dream, 1840-1940,"on view Oct. 18-Jan. 4. For more information, call (323) 655-8587.

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