The Magazine

Funny, But I Do Look Jewish

The photos of Frédéric Brenner's "Diaspora."

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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If one of the contributors to the text volume of Brenner's "Diaspora" were asked to read a photograph of my face, he might well find in it a longing to return from my post-exilic existence in America. How perfectly, absolutely, delightfully wrong he would be! Proudly Jewish though I may be, pro-Israel though I shall always remain, I have never wished to live anywhere else than in America. I can recall one evening in Jerusalem, awaiting the performance of Shlomo Mintz and the Jerusalem Music Center Chamber Orchestra, thinking that everyone else in this room could, theoretically, be Jewish. Rather than feeling that I was home at last among my people, I thought how, given a choice, I preferred instead to be among a small minority in a larger, free country. Perverse? Idon't believe so; this position might even be considered a natural one for a writer who longs for objectivity, which is to say to be a little distanced from the life around him.

A French social anthropologist, Frédéric Brenner has been photographing Jews in their diasporic condition over the past twenty-five years, in what began as a search, as it was described in a New York Times article about him, for "the quintessential Jew." He has photographed Jews in fifteen republics of the old Soviet Union, in Yemen, India, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, New York, along the Amazon, in Brazil, Argentina, China, Hong Kong, Africa, Germany, Holland, and most other countries of Europe. Among other things, "Diaspora" demonstrates the demographic ubiquity, if not everywhere the density, of Jews worldwide and in countries where they are often deeply rooted and not in the least cosmopolitan.

BRENNER MIGHT BE CALLED the Jewish Diane Arbus, if Miss Arbus herself weren't Jewish (having been born a Nemerov, sister of the poet Howard). He has, that is to say, a taste for the stark and even the freakish; grotesquerie seems to light his fire. He provides photographs of a midget Jewish hatter in the Ukraine, rabbinic couples (men and women rabbis) on beds together at a bargain furniture store
in New York, a Jewish drag queen stretched along the sandy ground in Johannesburg, South Africa. Some of his photographs are distinctly "in your face," or, to use the pro-football term, "smash mouth." An example of this aspect of his work is seen in a photograph of ten defiant-looking young female rabbis and cantors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in prayer shawls with phylacteries, or tefilin, wrapped round their forearms. None of Brenner's photographs carry titles or captions, but this one might have been entitled "Not Your Mother's Judaism."

The photograph in this book for which I do not possess a proper introductory adjective--shocking? devastating? desolating?--is one of six Jewish women from Los Angeles with their blouses off who have had mastectomies (five single, one double). I am not sure how one is supposed to react to this photograph. Powerful it is; that is beyond question. But to what end? How was Brenner able to get the women to pose for it? They sit at a table, each holds the hands of the women on both sides of her. Some attempt a smile, but without much success. "Posing for this picture with these women was a very intense experience," one of them remarks, and then, alas, breaks off into psycho-babblish jabber about meditation and the sense of connection required to summon the bravery for allowing the photograph. One can perhaps see the possibly cathartic effect of having done so. Only the motives of the photographer are really in question here.

Is iconoclasm part of Brenner's project? One picks up bits of anti-Israeli feeling, for example, in some of his photographs. A set of photos, takenroughly a decade apart, shows a perhaps six-year-old, earlock-wearing Yemeni Jew, Lewi Faez, studying a Jewish book in his grandfather's jewelry workshop, a room that does not seem far advanced above a cave. Years later Brenner photographed the sixteen-year-old and now married Lewi Faez and his wife and infant child in a nearly empty modern apartment in Israel in a manner meant to suggest his loneliness in his new country--the implication here being that Yemen, with all its primitiveness, may have been better. The camera, it is said, does not lie, but the man behind it can have his devious subtexts and political agendas.