American Jewishness in All Its Infinite Variety
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.
In 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 show.
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 European descent.
The varied 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.
One 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.
Multiculturalism 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Among the 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?
The show’s 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 her photographs.
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 versa.
To paraphrase a famous female poet, how can one be Jewish? Let us count the ways.