If ever there were lost tribes of Israel, they can probably be found for the next several months at the Jewish Museum.
For its show “The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography,” the museum asked 13 prominent photographers and video artists to travel the country in search of the most diverse possible picture of what Judaism means. The exhibition is on view until Jan. 29.
“We tend to stereotype any community,” says Susan Chevlowe, a former curator at the museum who now teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and who organized the show. “This lens allows us to look at ideas of Jewishness in a new way.” This week of the High Holy Days merely underscores the surprising places the exhibition introduces where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might be spent.
“Congregations have been closing up in some historic Jewish communities,” says Carl Rheines, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, “but then there’s a whole new migration, for instance, to the West. Or, for young people in their 20s, who are fourth or fifth generation, the ‘old country’ isn’t Eastern Europe — it’s Milwaukee.”
The drift is of continental proportions, yet sometimes right in front of our eyes. In the Bronx, photographer Jaime Permuth captured members of the Spanish-speaking El Centro de Estudiaos Judios Torat Emet, founded by a rabbi from Miami of Cuban descent. Another community that may provoke a double take is that of New York’s Ethiopian Jews, explored by Shari Rothfarb Mekonen and Avishai Mekonen.
“I had such a wonderful experience when I went to the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation’s Sabbath services in St. Albans,” says Chevlowe, who herself grew up in Queens with no knowledge of such neighbors. “It’s a small storefront synagogue, with a lot of the African-American spirit within the Jewish culture there — in the singing, even in the way people dress. Yet the service followed the same lines as anywhere, with the same prayers, the same reading of the Torah.”
Among the show’s more surreally moving sections are Andrea Robbins and Max Becher’s portraits of the Hasidic residents of Postville, Iowa, where AgriProcessors, a large glatt kosher meat-processing plant, is located. Another is their group of studies of far-flung replicas of the red-brick Gothic Revival building at Brooklyn’s 770 Eastern Parkway — the original Lubavitch headquarters. Built by followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson everywhere from São Paulo to Haifa to Montreal, they are anomalous symbols expressing faith through architecture.