On The Road Again, In The Diaspora


In "A Jew is Not One Thing," a film at the end of The Jewish Museum’s permanent exhibition, a group of American, Israeli and European Jews (a rabbi, an educator, a psychologist, artists, scholars and even day school students) comment on themes that have shaped the Jewish people.

When it comes to the idea of exile, some speakers in the film extol the virtues of living in Israel, of satisfying the soul and of fulfilling the "dream of two thousand years," as the national anthem puts it.

Others cite the vagaries of fate. The Israeli writer Israel Eldad quotes the Nobel Prize-winning author S.Y. Agnon, who said: "I am from Jerusalem, but because [the Roman leader] Titus destroyed the Temple, I was born in Poland."

There are those, too, who refuse to see exile solely as a function of the "Return to Zion." They view the diaspora as something good for the Jews, or at least as a valid and even essential expression of Jewish destiny.

One of those voices comes drenched in the Gallic cadences of Frederic Brenner, the French photographer whose images of the Jewish diaspora are currently the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

In the film, Brenner, like Eldad, mentions Titus, the future Roman emperor who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and brought vanquished Jews back to the imperial capital as slaves.

While seated in a courtyard in Rome, where he was studying at the French Academy, Brenner talks to the film’s viewers about the staying power of the Jewish people. After 2,000 years, he said, Jews are "still here," having survived attempts "to assimilate us, to seduce us, to destroy us.

"We are incredible animals who can adapt to any situation," he adds. Brenner’s portraits of Jewish Romans scroll across the screen: a group of stone-faced young men standing in the ruins of the Colosseum, each holding a motorcycle helmet under his arm; a solitary man with what is often called "a Roman nose" standing in profile amid a display of marble busts.

"That is why we were spread among the nations," Brenner’s narration continues. " We are not only the memory about ourselves, but we are the memory of the nations."

For the past quarter century, Brenner, who trained as a social anthropologist, has visited over 40 of those nations on five continents in a quest to answer what he calls "the eternal question: What makes a people?"

He has yet to find the answer, but the visual results of his search can be seen in the more than 140 photographs (a fraction of his total output) that comprise "The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey," on view in Brooklyn through Jan. 11.

Brenner’s award-winning work has been called "the most extensive visual record of Jewish life ever created," which may be true. A gregarious and philosophical man, he has successfully rallied benefactors whose support enables him to dedicate himself almost exclusively to tracing Jews’ peregrinations: from Havana to Hong Kong, Birobidzhan to Buenos Aires.

His sojourns in Portugal resulted in a film on the secretive Jews who masqueraded as Catholics, "The Last Marranos," and in "Marranes" (1992), one of his several books that include "Israel" (1988), "Jews/America/A Representation" (1996) and "Exile at Home" (1998). His latest, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile" has just been released.

While prodigious, Brenner is not alone in setting out to document Jewish diversity, to reveal cultural cross-fertilization with the people among whom Jews live, or to capture the fading flickers of vanishing communities, as Roman Vishniac did in Eastern Europe before World War II.

Contemporary photographers such as Bill Aron, Joan Roth, Edward Serotta and Zion Ozeri, have each focused on the diaspora in their work. Ozeri’s series on Jewish life in South America, for example, can be seen through December at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. When he returns from Lithuania later this month, Ozeri, an Israeli native whose parents emigrated from Yemen, begins teaching "Images of the Jew: Photography and the Diversity of Jewish Life," a class at the Skirball Center in Manhattan.

Chrystie Sherman, a newcomer to the field, has for the past three years recorded lives of Jews who chose to stay in the former Soviet Union, India, Cuba even when others emigrated to Europe, Israel or the United States. Her photographs are on view at the 92nd Street Y in "Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora."

Brenner, who is in his mid-40s, started out in the 1980s with an ethnographer’s eye. His earlier images show Jews in Tunisia, Yemen, India and Ethiopia engaged in daily activities or stopped in placid poses. "The first 10 years were really a marathon to save from oblivion the fragments of Israel," he said.

But in the 1990s, Brenner began to stage his photographs, infusing them with his own sense of "what was at stake in this country." His choreographed images strike some viewers as stilted or precious, but they are undoubtedly distinctive.

In a 1991 portrait, "The Benchimois at the Opera," for example, an extended family stands, expressionless, in small clusters throughout a salon in the music hall of Manaus, Brazil. In another from 1994, rabbis married to other rabbis sit, legs outstretched, on mattresses in a New York furniture showroom. In 1999, he dressed members of Hong Kong’s Jewish community in matching red Chinese-style jackets.

"The biggest challenge of the entire journey is that at each step, in each new country, I had to reinvent the form at the right measure," Brenner told The Jewish Week. "I could not photograph the tribal group in the same way as the postmodern community."

The opening of "The Jewish Journey" coincides with the release of Brenner’s two-volume "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile"(Harper Collins), which contains an additional 122 images. The first volume includes Brenner’s photographs made during his extensive travels. "Voices," the second volume, contains commentary by scholars, philosophers and poets: arranged around the images in a format intentionally reminiscent of Talmud pages (See sidebar.).

The grandson of Holocaust survivors and Algerian immigrants, Brenner said he wanted to do away with a reader’s preconceptions, to "deconstruct the image of a Jew." But he had to convince his publisher that "Diaspora" should be "a book of questions, not one more coffee table book."

His own questioning began in earnest in 1978, during a student trip from Paris to Israel, when he photographed a child dressed as an angel, for Purim, in a chasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem.

"I was fascinated by this: the way these people recreated the shtetl in the heart of Mea Shearim," he said.

This image and others Brenner took in the neighborhood contributed to his sense that Jews are always exiles, wherever they call home. Ever since the patriarch Abraham followed the divine injunction to leave his father’s house and head for an unnamed land "that I will show you," Jewish history has unfolded in order for Jews to "enact this injunction" and hit the road.

"I never considered diaspora as a curse," Brenner said. "It is a vocation."

"The Jewish Journey: FrÈdÈric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey" is on view through Jan. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The JCC in Manhattan is holding a series of special programs with Brenner and an exhibition of his photographs beginning Oct. 9. Chrystie Sherman’s photographs are on view at the 92nd Street Y through Oct. 24. (For details, see the Arts Guide on page 64.)

"Images of the Jew" with Zion Ozeri begins at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El on Tues., Oct. 21. Call (212) 507-9580 for information.