Embracing Our People

Imagine something precious about to slip through your hands, about to vanish and be lost forever. You would grasp at it, hold it tight, and certainly photograph it to remember and to preserve it as long as was possible. Of course you would.

This is what the photographer, Chrystie Sherman, has set out to do: grasp, hold tight and document our most precious possession – fellow Jews from distant shores whose ancient communities are fading and facing extinction in the sweep of the modern world.

She has traveled to every major Diaspora Jewish community to make contact, interact and finally photograph her fellow Jews. Her work includes documentation of Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Cuba, Central Asia, the Caucuses and North Africa including Jerba, Tunisia. This current exhibition expands on her earlier work (seen in these pages October 15, 2003) on the Jews of India.

The diverse Jews of India fall into two distinct groups: the established Jewish communities and newly emerging ones. The well-established Bene Israel live on the west coast of India, south of Bombay (Mumbai) in the Konkan region. While their traditional history claims descent from a group of Jews shipwrecked in antiquity, Baghdadi Jewish traders first authoritatively document them in the 18th century. Although they numbered as many as 20,000 in 1948, since then the majority have emigrated to Israel. There are approximately 2000 Bene Israel left in India.


Hazan – Alibag, India (2007)
Silver gelatin print by Chrystie Sherman
Courtesy the artist

The portrait of the Hazan and caretaker of the Magen Abode Synagogue in Alibag resonates with the history of his proud people. There is no longer a minyan, except during the holidays, and yet he maintains his position and faith. He is the epitome of steadfastness with a compassionate and yet determined gaze, illuminated by the photographer’s dramatic and yet gentle lighting.


Medical Camp – Mumbai, India (2003)
Silver gelatin print by Chrystie Sherman
Courtesy the artist

Perhaps one of the most revealing images of Indian Jews is the Jewish Distribution Society Medical Camp taken outside a free Sunday clinic in Mumbai. While the photographer had gotten to know some of those assembled, the ad hoc nature of this group portrait reveals the gracious and open nature of this Jewish community. The men are modestly posed in back of the nine women. And perhaps most remarkable is that in spite of the fact that to our eyes these smiling individuals simply look like ordinary Indians, they are in fact all members of the Bene Israel Jewish community. This image shows that acculturation with the surrounding society is not in contradiction with maintaining Jewish tradition. All are shomer mitzvos, observe Shabbos and kashrus; the men go to daily minyan and the women go to shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov. The only Judaism they know is Orthodoxy.


Man with Stepdaughter – Alibag, India (2007)
Silver gelatin print by Chrystie Sherman
Courtesy the artist

Naturally, family ties are paramount and the image of Man with Stepdaughter resonates as no other. This young girl is the daughter of this man’s second wife. He was childless from his first marriage and absolutely dotes on his stepdaughter. The photographer had to cajole and reassure him to get him to pose with her standing on the edge of a deep well, hence the understandable tension and concern in his gaze. The result, though, is an image of deep affection and surprising engagement with the viewer, effortlessly bridging the gap between outsider (the photographer) and family intimacy.

The other groups of established Jewish communities include the Cochini Jews, probably originating from Yemen, Egypt, Iran and Iraq over the centuries and finally settling on the far southwestern coast of Malabar, India. They maintained their Jewish practices from at least the 9th century. While traditionally split between black and white Jews, each practiced the same customs and observances. After 1948 the vast majority emigrated to Israel. There are less than 100 Cochini Jews remaining. Additionally, the Baghdadi Jews came from Syria, Iran and Iraq in the 19th century and settled in Calcutta in the east and in Bombay (Mumbai) in the west. Currently, less than 100 are in India, mostly in Bombay.

More recently two groups of Indian Jews have emerged claiming ancient origins. The Bene Menashe are found in northeastern India and trace their lineage through China as descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe. While British missionaries converted many to Christianity in the 19th century, they continue to maintain their Jewish heritage and 25 years ago began to return to Judaism. At least 1400 have made aliyah to Israel, but hundreds still remain in India.

The Bene Ephraim are also in southeastern India, in Andhra Pradesh, and claim a familial tradition of Jewish identity and customs: i.e. circumcision and eating meat in vegetarian Hindu India. They established a synagogue in the 1980’s and are continuing to explore their Jewish roots and preparing to make aliyah to Israel.


The Jewish Community of the Bene Ephraim – Kottarddipalem, India (2007)
Silver gelatin print by Chrystie Sherman
Courtesy the artist

Sherman’s image of the Jewish Community of the Bene Ephraim is, in its way, the most affecting of the exhibition. Can you imagine a single photograph of a complete Jewish community? And yet here they are, the vast majority of a group of Indians who consider themselves, in the face of all historical and cultural odds, Jews. While it is clear they have a long way to go, even – after rabbinic scrutiny – mandatory conversion, they are determined to be fully Jewish. They are learning to read and write Hebrew and pray from a Hebrew siddur that is transliterated by hand in their native language of Telugu. And when we see this photograph, pulled back to show the trees and landscape that evokes the alien context they find themselves in, we can feel their courage and dilemma as Jews set apart.


Lighting Candles on Shabbat- Kottarddipalem, India (2007)
Silver gelatin print by Chrystie Sherman
Courtesy the artist

And then there are those images, which inspire and make us cherish those things which we do over and over again, and just might take for granted. Like lighting Shabbos candles. Lighting Candles on Shabbat is from Kottarddipalem, in far eastern India. Surrounded by idolatrous worship on every side, mother, daughter and mother-in-law of the Bene Ephraim light together, fulfilling a commandment that is unknown among their neighbors. A simple faith transmitted from mother to daughter to daughter is affirmed in this increasingly frail voice of piety.

These are Chrystie Sherman’s subjects, our brethren. What is most remarkable about Sherman’s work is how much she cares about her subjects. Each trip is planned months in advance, mapping out the Jewish communities she will visit and arranging for a guide, not only to escort her through the surrounding society, but also to prepare the communities for her arrival. This frequently produces a curious effect in that once she arrives she is treated like an honored guest. Most individuals are quite grateful for the attention of this foreigner who traveled so far and made such an effort to come and visit them. Quite simply, it makes them feel special. She frequently spends days at a time getting to know both the individuals and the community. Only then is she ready to start taking pictures, carefully and lovingly crafting images of her fellow Jews. For Chrystie Sherman doing documentary photography entails first creating a social relationship and then making images. Her photography is a primal act of loving kindness to fellow Jews. It shows in the honestly and openness of her subjects faces and expressions. Love and concern is rewarded in kind.

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