Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Focus on Issues: in the Eye of the Beholder; Jewish Identity Through a Lens

September 27, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Growing up in the Bronx, Ralph Lifschitz attended the Talmudic Academy in Manhattan. Later, as a college undergraduate, he studied at Yeshiva University.

When he was 16, he changed his name because he did not want a moniker that sounded like an epithet, he said. Five years later, he stopped keeping kosher.

Today, Ralph Lauren reigns as the monarch of a fashion kingdom.

“I’m very Jewish,” says the designer, when asked how he feels about his religious and cultural background.

“Changing my name had nothing to do with being Jewish,” he says as he crosses the river to Ellis Island to participate in an event orchestrated by French photographer Frederic Brenner.

“People always assume it was because I don’t like how Jewish it sounded, but that wasn’t it at all.

“My identity is not something I wanted to change,” Lauren says.

Lauren’s personal style epitomizes Americanness in a quintessentially WASPish way. For the journey to Ellis Island, he is fastidiously and fashionably attired in one of the broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted double-breasted pin- striped suits he is making famous this season.

The look of the models in his ads is similar. The athletic men are invariably broad-shouldered and strong-jawed. The women are always slim-hipped, straight- haired, blond beauties with narrow noses.

When asked whether he thinks there is any reflection of his religious background in his work, Lauren says “no,” but that his style is no less Jewish than it is Protestant.

After all, he says, “what does Jewish look like?”

And that is precisely the point that Brenner, the photographer, wants to make.

Brenner, a 37-year-old native of Paris, has been traveling the world for most of the last two decades, photographing the Jewish people in all their cultural diversity.

For Brenner, who holds a doctorate in social anthropology, the camera is a “tool,” he says, through which he can communicate his observations.

Many of the Jewish communities he has documented are now gone.

Entire Jewish villages in the central Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union are empty now, Brenner says, as are the Jewish communities of Ethiopia’s mountain region, and of Belmonte, Portugal, where until recently the very last community of Marranos, a group of just 120 people, practiced their “hidden” Judaism.

The photographs Brenner took of these people are warm and loving, an intimate look at worlds in which Brenner immersed himself for months at a time.

Brenner’s photographs of American Jews, newly published in a book by Abrams, titled “Jews/America/A Representation,” are different.

They are formal, distant, contrived, in stark contrast with Brenner’s images from other Jewish places.

The photographer agrees that there is a difference in his view of American Jews.

The images “are what America is about,” he says during a recent interview. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, all contrived.”

He shows survivors of breast cancer — half a dozen women posed at a table naked from the waist up, each of their chests bearing the scars of their mastectomies.

Another photo shows unidentified female prisoners at the maximum security prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., lined up behind a seder table for the observance of Passover.

There is a photo of female Holocaust survivors with their lesbian daughters, posed in back-to-back pairs in a circle.

“Jews with Hogs” is the title of a picture of Jewish Harley-Davidson riders, posed in all of their Hells’ Angel-style regalia in front of a Miami Beach synagogue.

Another shows the teen-age members of Kahane Chai at their upstate New York summer camp, with the right-wing youth standing stiffly upright, their hands in fists at their sides, surrounded by tree trunks bearing paper gun-targets riddled with holes.

Brenner is fascinated by the mystery of Jewish survival in a non-Jewish world.

“How does the Jew remain the Jew?” ponders the photographer, even as he attempts an answer: “Not by rejecting the society which wants to destroy us, but by swallowing it.”

The stars Brenner selected as “icons” of American Jewish life illustrate the degree to which different American Jews have assimilated each part of their identity.

He invited about two dozen of those celebrities photographed for his book to participate in a well-publicized photographic happening on Ellis Island earlier this month.

The luminaries of North American art, music, literature, jurisprudence, business and sexology were posed in the corners of a waist-high labyrinth, which Brenner had constructed for the event.

Some were individuals whose Jewishness is part of the very essence of their public image: people such as Yitzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Ruth Westheimer and three generations of the Bronfman business dynasty.

There were also people who are not widely known as Jewish, people for whom Jewishness is just another part of their larger identity as Americans: people such as Ralph Lauren, Lauren Bacall and art dealer Leo Castelli.

Lauren, sitting on a grimy ferry boat navigating the choppy waters between Manhattan and Ellis Island with his wife, Ricky, who is also Jewish, and their three children, says he has always attended a Manhattan Conservative synagogue on the major Jewish holidays.

They have a Passover dinner and light Chanukah candles, says his wife.

Their two sons, David and Andrew, went to Hebrew school and became B’nai Mitzvah, though they did not require the same for their daughter, Dylan.

Andrew, a 27-year-old movie producer and actor, says: “I consider myself Jewish but am open to other religions.”

When asked whether he feels it important to marry a Jewish woman, he says, “It’s not important. What matters to me is who you love.”

For Philip Glass, the avant-garde composer who was another of the “icons” who participated in Brenner’s event, being Jewish “doesn’t factor at all into my compositions.”

“I’d say that is probably true for most of the people here today.

“I’m not even a once-a-year Jew,” chuckles the craggy-faced, wild-haired composer, as he points out he has no intention of observing Yom Kippur.

So why was he participating in the Brenner project about American Jewish identity?

“Brenner asked me to,” he says. “It’s more about being an American” than being a Jew.

Brenner says he plans to quit photography in a few years and turn to other pursuits, including poetry.

He has been single-minded about documenting Jewish cultures for the last 20 years because, he says, “we have been living in a time of mutation.”

“Two thousand years of history have disappeared before our eyes, and this has been the only possible moment to capture our exiles.”

In the end, Brenner says, he wants his work to be “about breaking stereotypes” as much as about documenting lost cultures.

“There is not such a thing as `a’ Jew. I’m trying to put a face on all of our diasporas, on the many declensions of our Jewishness.”

Recommended from JTA