Museum Exhibit Shoots Down Jewish Stereotypes

Blue skies and safe streets, Sears lawn mowers and Schwinn bikes. A father and son fishing down by the old creek. A mother pushing a baby carriage. They are bucolic images of suburban America. Except the women wear long skirts and the men wear kippahs and tallits. These are a few of the images (by photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Bechar) from the “Jewish Identity Project,” a new exhibition opening Sunday, Oct. 22 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The exhibition, which premiered at New York’s Jewish Museum in 2005 and ran at L.A.’s Skirball Museum earlier this year, features 13 artists, each focusing on the elusive subject of what, exactly, constitutes a Jew in America today. Using photography, multichannel video projections and multimedia installations, the exhibit is divided into three “questions”: Who is a Jew? Where is home? What is community? The participating artists seem to respond with answers that aren’t strictly black or white. They are black, white, and every other shade of the rainbow. “People will be surprised by some of the images,” says museum Director Connie Wolf. “There is such a stereotypical image of what a Jew is. Some of that is in this show, but a lot is not. Identity is vital right now as a topic for thinking about oneself and the world.”

Robbins’ and Bechar’s images of Chassids from sleepy Postville, Iowa, certainly defy stereotypes. So does the Korean-born Jewish bride in Nikki Lee’s “The Wedding,” a series of photos, not one of which depicts the groom. So do the unnervingly personal portraits of mixed-race Jews in Dawoud Bey’s work.

And so do the multicultural personalities in “Judaism and Race in America,” a documentary by Shari Rothfarb Mekonon and her Ethiopian-born husband, Avishai Mekonen. A segment from the film is part of the exhibit. “It’s something my husband has been grappling with his whole life as an Ethiopian Jew,” says Shari Rothfarb Mekonen. “When he came to America [from Israel] in 2001, he became aware that in general a black Jew was not something most people were familiar with. He wanted to address that.”

The Mekonens’ film includes interviews with Hispanic Jews, black Jews and Asian Jews. The filmmakers met many of them through the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, which co-produced the documentary with Pacific Street Films. “The word ‘stereotype’ always has a pejorative attached to it,” adds Mekonen, of New York City. “[The film] is not so much about challenging a stereotype but about raising awareness.”

Guatemala-born Jewish photographer Jaime Permuth tackles similar misconceptions in his work. For his contribution to the exhibit, the Brooklyn resident photographed the growing number of anusim, or Conversos, in his neighborhood. These are Latinos, most raised Catholic, who discover their long-lost Jewish roots and opt to convert back to Judaism. “For me, the anusim are a very interesting subject,” he says. “I had done projects on the main subjects of my identity: Latin America and Judaism. But they had never overlapped. I was fascinated that I could finally bring these two worlds together.”

In one series, “La Conversion de Carmen,” Permuth chronicles the Orthodox conversion of a Latina woman, including her beit din, mikvah and follow-up celebration over a slice at a kosher pizzeria. “I wanted to make a continuum of images that take you on a journey,” adds Permuth. “I used a wide-angle lens, and got close to faces. [The photos are] installed with that in mind: How to maximize the cinematic narrative.”

The “Jewish Identity Project” is made possible through support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Koret Foundation, the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation’s Endowment Fund, the Guzik Foundation, Altria Group, Inc., and the Lillian H. Floresheim Foundation for the Arts.

As always, the Contemporary Jewish Museum will use the exhibition as a springboard for ancillary community events. Wolf says she will partner with SF Camerawork, a nonprofit organization that promotes art photography, to launch educational opportunities. Several of the artists will be in town to meet with museum visitors, and, like last year, the museum will be open Christmas Day. “In a show like this, we want people to think about their own sense of identity,” says Wolf. “Artists are great at enabling us to look deeper.”

Be’chol Lashon & The Contemporary Jewish Museum co-sponsor
FAMILY DAY at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
February 11th, from Noon – 3pm, FREE and Open to the Public!

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