August 21, 2003
Covertly Capturing Mishkon Tephilo
Before going public, photojournalist Marvin Wolf spent four years surreptitiously photographing the life of congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. During another year of shooting, he applied digitography and fine art techniques to transform his images. In the following, Wolf recounts the genesis of his project.
I pause in the gloom near the top of the stairs, feeling for the landing with my feet, then take the last step. Cautiously, I twist the door handle. I silently pull the door shut behind me.
I am perspiring -- and not merely from the warmth of this stuffy loft. I am uneasy because I am engaged in that which the observant will find abhorrent or at least questionable. Minutes earlier, as the sun set and the synagogue began to fill, Yom Kippur began. In biblical times, those who violated this Shabbat of Shabbats were stoned. My eyes adjust to darkness. My heart pounds in my ears.
I have invaded a storeroom packed with boxes of worn-out prayer books and moldering sacred texts. Carefully I move toward paneless windows, then kneel.
The enormous sanctuary is lit by chandeliers dangling from the vast, arched ceiling. On its walls are bronze plaques covered with the names of men and women who built this holy congregation, who raised money for a building, prayer books and Torah scrolls, to pay a rabbi's salary, to buy wine for "Kiddush" and Havdalah, to provide funds for light and maintenance.
The bronzed names are all that are left of the people who united to establish this tabernacle of prayer and their successors. The people of the plaques devoted countless months and years to provide bread for the hungry wayfarer and charity to the poor and to educate their children in the traditions of our ancestors. Now seldom noticed, rarely spoken about, these names led and joined in prayer services, prepared food, consoled the bereaved, visited the sick, cared for children not their own and performed with grace and good cheer the myriad thankless tasks required to maintain a house of prayer, a holy congregation.
It is for the sake of those names and for others yet to be inscribed, that I am about to transgress the Laws of Moses.
A synagogue is more than brick and mortar, more than a slow parade of rabbis, more than names on a plaque. And this synagogue -- this peculiar and eclectic collection of young and old, of people of every race and from every corner of the globe, this warm, welcoming house of prayer -- is supremely special to me, central to my spiritual life.
But human life is fleeting. To paraphrase the Psalmist, our days are as grass: as a flower of the field do we flourish, until the wind passes over us, and we are gone, and our place knows us no more.
I cannot bear the thought that in a few decades all that will be remembered here of Rabbi Dan Shevitz; of his wife, Amy; of our venerable shammas (caretaker), Sam Widawski; of synagogue stalwarts like Sue Kaplan, Louis Sneh, Jeff Gornbein, Phil Bell, Sol Weingarten, Cynthia Goldstein, Andy Bender, Catherine Nelson and Meyer Schwartzstein -- and so many, many others -- are names on dusty bronze plaques, rarely noted and never appreciated.
And so I seek another way. Art lives on for centuries in museums, in reproductions, in books. Not immortality, perhaps, but almost as good.
Yet merely photographing a house of prayer and its members does not convey Mishkon's uniqueness. Every sacred congregation is beloved to its members.
How to explain Mishkon in terms that transcend the familiar and ordinary?
The sages of the Talmud struggled to understand the Torah's contradictions and obscurities, to reconcile law and tradition with the imperatives of their day. They decided what the Torah meant, a lively dialog that continues even now. They added midrashim, commentaries based on exegesis, parable and oral traditions.
I owed Mishkon no less.
Starting in 1998, I began to photograph community events. Clandestinely, I captured the fleeting moments, the people, the events of our yearly religious cycle. I digitized these images and with computer tools, patience and evolving skills, transformed simple snapshots into striking and original works. I deleted irrelevant details, drew with digital brushes, embellished, emphasized. I chose colors and imputed new meaning to selected images.
Photojournalism morphed into fine art -- a visual Midrash.
My project, I realized, might invite anger from those whom I most cared about -- but permission to shoot would almost certainly be denied. After much soul-searching, I decided that instead of asking permission, I would be prepared to seek forgiveness.
After four years, I showed my pictures to Shevitz and the synagogue board. As I'd hoped and prayed, collectively and individually they embraced my work with respect and enthusiasm.
Marvin Wolf's exhibit, "The Tabernacle of Prayer," will be on display from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Aug. 18-Oct. 17. at USC Hillel Jewish Center Art Gallery, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. Admission is free. The opening reception is scheduled for Sept. 7. For more information, call (213) 747-9135.