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"Diaspora is the term generally applied to Jewish communities living outside Palestine.  Historically, Diaspora Jewry goes back to the period of the Babylonian exile in the 8th century B.C.  With the re-establishment of the second commonwealth the coexistence of an independent Jewish center in Palestine with Jewish community life in various parts of the world became an established and continuing fact.  The extinction of Jewish statehood in A.D. 70 led to elimination of the central role of Palestinian Jewry. Jewish history from then on is a history of Diaspora Jewry, with shifting centers of hegemony from epoch to epoch - the most recent being the United States. The Diaspora saw the emergence of the "Jewish problem" and anti-Semitism as well as the continuing struggle between the forces leading to assimilation to the non-Jewish environment and those tending to maintain Jewish national identity."

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Remembering and Recording

It's been a terrifically hot summer in LA. People have died. August is no time to get stuck on the freeway in traffic, and we were hearing ominous reports about tie-ups just ahead,  so it was with some relief that we headed off the famed Mulholland Drive exit into the mountains of beautiful Bel Air. We found our way to the Platt Gallery on the campus of the University of Judaism, which according to the literature is  "..the only Jewish university of its kind in the United States," and is located in the heart of "the nation's second largest Jewish community".

At the Platt Gallery, the show "Photographic Visions of the Diaspora in Black and White, " curated by Victor Raphael and King Levin, consisted of the work of a group of disparate artists with the theme of the different faces of Judaism around the world, including that of vanishing societies, women, shop owners and the Palestinian conflict.  All of the work was in black and white and of varying degrees of print quality and craftsmanship.

Andy Katz who lives in Boulder, Colorado and travels world wide has been photographing "Vanishing Jewish Societies" since 1983. The  work, according to Katz, is an artistic look at an endangered world rather than an attempt at photojournalism, largely because earlier photographers have documented the Holocaust in exhaustive detail.

Katz's large black and white images were handsomely framed, matted, mounted and printed. Although the subject matter and presentation bordered at times on the clichéd, (Prayer books by the window, the old Rabbi, the Western Wall, etc.) Katz managed to stay just ahead of the trite and at his best moved into the transcendent. "Prayer, Orthodox Synagogue, Warsaw, Poland," is both an abstract and poetic rendition of it's subject. A master technician and printer, Katz has a way of letting the light pour into his images, even when they are of a night time shot of the Western Wall. Almost like a Vermeer painting, each image is tightly composed and structured around the subject which is primarily the light, and secondarily the Jews. The romantic quality of his work refers back to that of the 19th century Pictorialists who took their cues from fine art, however, Katz's work is imbued with a more contemporary Andrew Wyeth-like clarity. Katz shoots with a Mamiya 7 and the enlarged quality and  sharpness of the medium format negative contrasted with the 35mm graininess of other work in the show.

David Wells, a photographer from Providence, RI, has spent the last two years photographing what he describes as, "The entire range of the relationship between these biblical brothers, the Jews and the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham's sons, Isaac and Ishmael."  His effort has been to capture the subtlies and complexity of co-existence. While there are violent extremes on both sides, in ordinary day to day reality, there exists much more of a spectrum of behaviors, affections, tolerances, and actions.

In one startling image two Israelis and an Arab are engaged in what for all appearances is a moment caught in a macabre ballet. A tall slim man, with perfectly creased trousers, arches the whole of his body, toes "en-pointe",  in a graceful semi circle, his head tilting back against the shoulder of an Israeli soldier whom the viewer notices has the man in a choke hold. In the split second caught by the photograph, the Arab man appears to be gently (but one assumes not) assisted in his dance with a touch at the elbow by the second soldier who is carrying a rifle. In the background a third soldier races toward the scene, and oddly, someone wearing a surgical mask and holding a portable phone looks on passively. It's a Brassaie photograph of a different time, a different place, a different society, but with none of the ambiguity. We know what's happening here.

Wells states," My photographs can help to create the kind of understanding between people that John Dos Passos described as our last hope when he said, Our only hope will lie in the frail web of understanding of one person for the pain of another.'"  A nice sentiment, but in a study of the six photographs offered in this show one comes away with a sense that the balance of pain resides more on one side. The long titles tell all: "In the old city of Jerusalem, soldiers arrest a Palestinian suspect of throwing stones." "A Palestinian boy is harassed by Israeli soldiers at a check point for Palestinians entering the old city of Jerusalem for weekly Moslem prayers." "A Palestinian woman tries to ignore a group of Israeli soldiers she is passing on a street in Jerusalem." and so on.

Martha Fuller showed photomontages of what were said to be images of contemporary Israeli life and  Joan Roth showed work from a collection on Jewish women around the world.  Many of Roth's photographs were of women in Ethiopia and included images of women at home, at a wedding, reading from a prayer book, and dancing.  The photographs in Fuller's work were all square format and placed in rows next to, or on top of the other in varying arrangements giving a sculptural quality to the work. Fuller's work which might be said to be at the opposite end of the continuum of documentary work in the rest of the show, are all one of a kind.  The prints have been marked, altered, solarized, re-photographed, and layered. All of them are fuzzy, out of focus and hard to read, creating an abstract, rather than photographic impression. Her work also refers to painting and one thinks of the the black and white collages of Conrad Marca-Relli or even the minimalist work of Robert Ryman.  In one sequence a hazy group of Jewish men in hats appear to be standing near a wall, or walking by. The vague imagery, blur, high contrast, and out of focus motion, brought to mind the famous, hard to see, but heart rending films made of the Jews lining up on train platforms waiting for transport. In the wall text about her work, Fuller, who in 1991 took a degree in English and American literature at Claremont Graduate School, CA., says, "They reflect a forward looking or future while constantly referring to and reflecting the inescapable past. Notions of creation, image making , ritual and icons combine with factions and frictions both actual and perceived." Gee, I'm not sure.

While Andy Katz's work records images of dying traditions and a vanishing people, Seymour Edelstein, in a different style and from a different perspective, documents the once vibrant but now disappearing, independently run and owned Jewish shops and businesses on both coasts.  Art Director and graphic designer, Sy Edelstein began his photographic project - documenting Jewish shopkeepers from New York and Los Angeles - over twenty years ago.

A former instructor at Otis/Parson School of art, and a student of Robert Heineken , Robert Fichter, and William Webb, Edelstein shoots in a traditional style of photojournalism.  His image, "Store, Lower East Side, N.Y., 1994" graces the announcement for the show.  In it, a shabby, but once typical New York corner candy store with signs selling, stationery, ice cream, and Coca-Cola, is photographed in the bright sunlight, the supporting corner pole of the building firmly bisecting the image. On the left, a garbage can, rubbish and scraps of paper on the sidewalk and on the right a woman and a man with a white beard, hat and long coat turning to look, (I think)  at what the photographer must have been photographing - the store.

Other images are of a New York hat store, a New York tie store, a button shop, a fabric shop, a clock shop, a deli, and so forth.  Most images show the proprietor or sales person standing in front of his or her wares, gazing directly into the camera, as though the photographer has just walked in and asked, "Can I take your picture?"  and received the friendly reply, "Sure." Many of the pictures in this show were taken in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties and one has the sense that  like many other photographs, their interest value will be greatly enhanced with the addition of another fifty years or so. Their value and importance now is one of an historical document of changing times.
 

Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 151, 1998 © A.M. Rousseau
 

Titles of images
 

1.)"Prayer, Orthodox Synagogue, Warsaw, Poland." © Andy Katz

2.)"Study - Israel Western Wall", © Andy Katz  (Image of a profile of an old man reading)

3.)"Charred book. St. Petersberg Russia." © Andy Katz

4.)"In the old city of Jersalem, soldiers arrest a Palestinian suspected of throwing stones." © David Wells

5.)"Palestinians are crowded into a funnel of barricades while waiting to have their Id's checked by Israeli soldiers in order to enter the Damascus gate and the old city of Jerusalem." © David Wells

6.)"Button Shop, Williamsburgh Brooklyn, 1994" © sy Edelstein

7.)"Scribe Fixing Torah, Lower East Side, 1994" © Sy Edelstein.
 

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