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REDEFINING ’JEWISH’

LIU’s photo exhibit spans 60 years, several sects and many Brooklyn neighborhoods

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A new photography exhibit on display at the Downtown Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, "Jews of Brooklyn," reflects the broad range of Jewish life in the borough’s neighborhoods from the 1940s to the present. It combines the work of prominent photographers such as Arthur Leipzig, Jerry Dantzic and Harvey Wang alongside emerging photographers.

LIU professors Stuart Fishelson, Jan Rosenberg, Rodney Hurley and Nancy Grove curated the show together with Ilana Abramovitch, co-editor of the collection of essays, "Jews of Brooklyn" (Brandeis University Press), which was released earlier this month.

Rosenberg, a sociology professor, told GO Brooklyn Tuesday that photographs by New York Photo League students Ruth Orkin (1921-1985) and her husband, Morris Engel, in addition to photos by Dantzic and Leipzig, will also be included in the exhibit. (Orkin’s most famous - and controversial - image is "American Girl in Italy," 1951, in which a woman walking in the Piazza del Republica attracts the attention of men of all ages.)

GO Brooklyn got a sneak peek of "Jews of Brooklyn" this week before it opens officially on Feb. 6 with an artists’ reception.

Spanning religious and secular subjects, "Jews of Brooklyn" currently includes photos of children at play and at prayer, adults at a wedding and a bar mitzvah, as well as a smattering of insightful portraits: a grave digger, matzoh bakers and a seamstress.

Rosenberg believes the photos speak for themselves, but that viewers, especially of other cultural backgrounds, would certainly be enlightened if the curators took the opportunity to post explanatory text, or even just a brief glossary, defining terms used in the captions.

The show includes Leipzig’s iconic black-and-white images of boys playing in Brooklyn streets, such as "Hide and Seek" (1943), in which a gaggle of boys hide under a car, and a girl peers around the car, curious about all the fuss being made. Photos from this photojourn­alist’s book "Growing Up in New York: Photographs" (David R. Godine, 1995), depicting children at play, have been exhibited widely, including a 1996 solo show at the Museum of the City of New York.

Emerging photographer Melanie Einzig’s colorful photo "Purim, Williamsburg" (2000), captures two boys sitting on the top step of a stoop, wearing crowns - costumes in celebration of the ancient holiday commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from massacre by the evil Haman.

Fishelson’s "Wandering Jew" (1986) depicts a small boy dragging a baby carriage around on a beach. Fishelson, an LIU professor of media arts, has made his subject more lighthearted by the pun of the title. Similarly cutesy is Einzig’s "Sukkot, Borough Park" (2001), a portrait of a cherubic boy caught with a mouthful of pink cotton candy against a backdrop of carnival games.

Sukkot, explains Rabbi Aaron Raskin of Congregation B’nai Avraham in Brooklyn Heights, is often a time when parents take advantage of the kids’ time off from school to enjoy family outings at Coney Island’s Astroland Park or the circus.

Jerry Dantzic’s "Torah is Forever (L’ag B’omer parade), Crown Heights" (1973) shows children behind a barricade holding placards that read "Torah is forever," "We’re from Canarsie" and "We’re from Boro Park." This auspicious event, as explained by Raskin, is filled with "tremendous joy" commemorating the end of a plague 2,500 years ago. The parade attracts Jews from well beyond Brooklyn’s borders, he said.

Interestingly, Dantzic’s composition, photographing the children partially obstructed by barricades, is open to many interpretations. Are the children being penned in? Or will their numbers soon overflow the barricades? Are they isolated from the world beyond the barricade by their own people or by those from outside the barricade? Can the Torah set these children free? Dantzic’s photo is truly gripping.

Photographs by Michael Macioce are quite a departure from these naive, innocent children at play. His photographs, taken with black-and-white infrared film, inject a mystical aspect to his subject matter of Jewish rituals by lending the prints a soft-focus, grainy quality.

In Macioce’s "Kaddish," the subject is a man with head bent in prayer, his hand bound with the leather band of the tefillin. His hour of darkness contrasts with the softly glowing light of the candles in front of him. The word "kaddish" is Hebrew for a prayer that is recited in the daily synagogue services and by mourners after the death of a close relative,

Macioce’s "Shabbis" depicts a triangle of women, two young girls with their hands covering their eyes, giving the blessing on the eve of the sabbath, while an adult woman towers over them. According to Raskin, the lighting of the candles by the girls brings peace and tranquility into the home. It is an auspicious time for a woman, explains Raskin, when God listens to her prayer.

Macioce’s soft focus in this photo accentuates the gleaming beauty of the upper class home and the regal bearing of the woman.

There are also several photos by photographer-filmmaker Harvey Wang. A widely published photographer, his collections include "Harvey Wang’s New York" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1990), "Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1996), and "Flophouse, Life on the Bowery" (Random House, 2000). Wang’s 1998 film "Vilna" had its premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Among Wang’s photos on display there is a portrait of an ancient man holding matzoh, with piles of cordwood behind him, presumably the fuel for a brick oven. His aged, creased face and long, white beard contrasting with his black yarmulke, reflect the history behind the tradition of making the matzoh, which he holds in pristine paper.

Some photos emphasize the different ways men and women experience Judaism. Emerging photographer Shalhevet Moshe’s gloriously colorful series of photographs depict a Yeminite henna ceremony shot in Mill Basin in October. An elaborate, gorgeous headress is placed on a delighted woman by the dresser, Shoshanna Tubi.

For another, completely different view of the Jewish woman’s experience, Miriam Rubinoff’s somber black-and-white photo "Girls and Women at Bar Mitzvah" (1995) has an interesting title. Three adult women are photographed from behind, peering at the ceremony through a lattice. To their right, three little girls dressed in their flowered frocks sit on the floor together. Both generations are made into voyeurs by their exclusion - while the viewer watches them.

In addition to these works taken by professional - and some quite famous - photographers, Rosenberg said, that scans of vernacular photos, or family photographs, will also be added to the exhibit in a collage with some text.

 

"Jews of Brooklyn" will be on display Feb. 6 through Feb. 28 at Long Island University’s Salena Gallery at the intersection of DeKalb Avenue and Flatbush Avenue Extension.

On Feb. 6, author Andre Aciman will speak on "The Meaning of Memory and Place" place from 3:30-4:30 pm at the Library Learning Center, Room 122 (adjacent to the Salena Gallery). From 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm, photographer Arthur Leipzig will give a slide lecture on his decades-long project of photographing Jews around the world. The opening reception, featuring klezmer music by Peter Sokolow, is from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm.

Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 am to 6 pm and Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, call (718) 488-1052.

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