Judaism and Global Identity: Photo Exhibits To Showcase Communities Around the World

The community author of this article, Erik Ludwig, is Chief Operating Officer of Be’chol Lashon/The Institute for Jewish and Community Research. We welcome your responses to his thoughts in the comments section below the article. You can also email Erik at: erik@globaljews.org or visit www.GlobalJews.org.

Where do Jews live?

While today’s Jewish population centers are Israel and the United States and Jewish lineage is often talked about as being Ashkenazi or Sephardi and sometimes Mizrahi, such simplified borders don’t reflect the multifaceted ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity of the Jewish people.

“The JCCSF is committed to exploring the far-reaches of the Jewish experience and imagination,” says Lenore Naxon, Director of the Friend Center for the Arts at the JCCSF. “One of the places we do so is in our Katz Snyder Gallery, which this year globe trots from China, to Cuba, to Hollywood and Yemen, and lastly South Africa!”

One of a series of photographs from Cuba in the exhibit “La Habana,” by Victoria Montoro Zamorano, opening Sept. 9 in the Katz-Snyder Gallery of the JCCSF.

The opening show of the fall 2012 season is “La Habana,” a collection of color and black and white photographs of Cuba by Victoria Montoro Zamorano. Montoro left Cuba as a child in 1961 and returned for the first time in 2008, when she began to photograph the buildings, people and details of Jewish life in Cuba today. On view from September 9 through November 17, 2012, the exhibit is part of 2012-13 Arts and Ideas Season’s Viva Cuba series.

Contemporary Judaism is a global experience and has been, some might suggest, since the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple. The mosaic of Jewish life is a story pieced together and filled with interracial and intercultural mixing. Historically, Moses married Zipporah, an Ethiopian. Solomon and David each had wives from Africa. Joseph married an Egyptian. While Eastern and Central Europe are the familiar contemporary narratives of Jewish life, Jews have roots in Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. And today, the World Jewish Congress has identified 120 countries with Jewish communities and it is likely that this list is not conclusive.

Despite the popularity of the iconic image of European Hasidic Jews, the ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity of the Jewish people makes it difficult to say what it is to “look” Jewish. Jews around the globe are often indistinguishable from the larger community. While they retain Jewish identities and religious traditions, they do so with a local accent reflected in their dress, language, music, culture and food. For example, the Bene Israel Jews of India, who by most accounts have lived in India for over 2,000 years, look the same as other Indians and eat similarly, making curries with chilies and coconut. Although the Jews of India have lived comfortably among the Hindu and Muslim populations without considerable anti-Semitism, many of India’s Jews made aliyah to Israel or emigrated to the Britain, Canada or the United states.

Ethiopian Jews, like non-Jewish Ethiopians in their region, perform traditional shoulder dancing which retells religious stories through dance. Because of political and religious oppression, many Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel or emigrated to the United States.

Yemenite Jews, an indigenous minority, lived under Islamic law for centuries. The Yemenite Jews, or “Temani” in Hebrew, have historically been well regarded within the tribal system of Yemen. From all accounts, the Jews had been a model of self-sufficiency until religious intolerance forced the majority of them, approximately 50,000, to flee in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50. Today, less than 500 hundred Jews remain in Yemen.

From February through March, the JCCSF will exhibit the work of Israeli photographer Naftali Hilger from his trip to Yemen. His exquisite photos traverse breathtaking landscapes, ancient cities and the everyday life of Yemeni Jews.

A Yemeni Jew. Photo / Naftali Hilger

The Jews who live in the other countries around the globe are as varied as the countries themselves.

In the United States, contemporary Jewish life has been woven into the American fabric. According to the 2010 Census, the number of multiracial children in America has increased almost 50 percent (to 4.2 million) since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country. This is not surprising given that, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, the vast majority of Americans (86%) approve of interracial marriage, up from 4% only 50 years ago.

Even though North American Judaism tends to be defined by immigration from Europe, Jews are more diverse than many assume. Be’chol Lashon estimates 20% of America’s 6 million Jews are racially and ethnically diverse, comprised of African, African American, Latino, Asian, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race, by heritage, conversion, adoption, and marriage. This diversity is most evident in Jewish population centers.

The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 by the UJA-Federation, a comprehensive study of the world’s largest and most diverse Jewish community outside Israel, confirms that roughly 25% of Jewish households are ethnically and/or racially diverse. This suggests that over 400,000 Jews are members of diverse households—a number that exceeds the total Jewish population of any country except Israel or the United States.

The peoplehood lesson

When one thinks about the history of the Jewish people it should not be surprising that a significant number of Jewish households in New York are ethnically or racially diverse. After all, New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. For some, such diversity in the Jewish community creates anxiety and raises important questions about who is a Jew. For others, this diversity more accurately reflects the global lens through which they view the world.

With taboos against interracial marriage diminishing and social networks creating larger and more diverse friendship circles, diversity and inclusiveness is a key lens through which young Jews build identity and make choices about Jewish engagement. Many contemporary Jews feel alienated from organized Jewish life, and Jews of all backgrounds are seeking ways to experience Judaism that is responsive to their desire for a global identity. By opening ourselves up to learning from the global experiences of Jews around the world, whether practicing traditional or not, we can more easily welcome and include those who might have previously been left outside of the neighborhood.


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