Photography exhibit showcases worldwide Jewish Diaspora

Sunday, October 5, 2003

— It began with a single photograph -- a small child running down a back alley in Jerusalem, wearing an angel costume as part of the festivities to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim.

For French photographer Frederic Brenner, that 1978 image was the start of a journey that would take him throughout the world for the next 25 years, documenting the lives of Jews in 40 countries on five continents.

Of the thousands of pictures Brenner has taken, 150 are going on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. "The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner's Photographic Odyssey" opens Friday, and runs through Jan. 11. The exhibit coincides with the publication of a two-volume book of Brenner's photographs, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile."

"I didn't wake up one morning thinking I was going to portray the Jewish people," Brenner said. "But as I went traveling it appeared to me ... that what I was doing was piecing together an amazing puzzle made of all these many fragments."

The works show the tremendous diversity of the Jewish community around the world, a diversity that Brenner wasn't prepared to find when he first started.

"I believed in continuity, I only found discontinuity," he said, as he saw how Jews differed from each other in appearance and culture depending on where they lived in the world.

Brenner hopes looking at the photographs will help viewers, Jewish and non-Jewish, "undertake the journey that I undertook myself and break all those frozen and petrified representations of 'What is a Jew,' 'What does a Jew look like?"'

So aside from familiar images of Orthodox Jews in Israel and Jewish life in America, there are images of African Jews in Ethiopia, Greek Holocaust survivors, Jewish barbers with their Muslim customers in Tajikistan, and Italian Jews who sell religious paraphernalia to Christian visitors in Rome.

"We have a very ethnocentric perception of what Judaism is about," Brenner said. "History in the 20th century has been written mainly by white, Western, Ashkenazim while there's an entire huge part of this puzzle which remains on the margin. ... I wanted to rehabilitate many of those groups who live on the margin of memory." Ashkenazim are those Jews who trace their ancestry through Northern or Eastern Europe.

"We live in a time where Jews and non-Jews at large know how Jews died," Brenner said. "This work is about how Jews live."

The exhibit will travel to other galleries around the world, but tour plans have not been completed.