Photo Essay

A Friday afternoon in Brooklyn

The hat

What do I know about Hasidic Jews? Not much.

I mostly buy my photographic goods from them!

I do that at Adorama and B&H, the two stores run by orthodox Jews, with the best assortment and the best prices in New York City.

What do I have in common with Hasidic Jews?

Not much.

Well...I have a fairly unkempt beard and long, curly hair but I was unmistakably born and raised Catholic in my native Italy.

There is, perhaps, a faint mnemonic oral history connection in my childhood with Jews, if we really want to dig deep.

My grandfather, during World War Two, was imprisoned by the Nazi and sent to a labor camp, where he befriended several Jews and nearly died with them, until my grandmother, a very strong willed woman, together with the wives of other prisoners, was able to organize an escape for their men, just a couple of nights before their husbands were to be shipped to Germany.

So, as a child, I did hear stories about those Jewish friends from my grandfather.

Nevertheless, my education and life are certainly a world apart from the Hasidic community, but for some reason, over the years, I have always had a fascination, not to mention a strong visual attraction for their very private, ancient looking society. Plus, I have a very keen culinary interest for certain kosher recipes, first amongst them: matzah ball soup.

Trying to make the best of a bitterly cold winter in New York City, last week I started taking photograph in a Hasidic neighborhood. With utmost respect for their right to privacy, I walked around one of their Brooklyn enclaves just a few hours before the start of Sabbath.

Everybody was extremely busy, rushing to finish all business before sundown. Entire families were often running down the streets, buying flowers, doing the last shopping, trying to find a parking spot, making the last calls on their cell phones.

You could feel this preparation as a powerful energy in the air. It made me think of the rest of the city, so far away, on that Friday afternoon, as if it was a different planet altogether.

Black clad men, boys and children started playing strange optical games in my lens, as if they were multiple reflections and projections of the same subject. I was rapidly loosing the notion of time, place and history, surrounded as I was by a perfect replica, or rather a vivid, realistic extension of a distant culture still being lived and written with strength and determination, black on white, just like those black coats on the snow covered sidewalks.

At sundown, a deafening siren blasted in the air, unequivocally announcing the beginning of the Sabbath and almost acoustically wiping off the working week to prepare bodies and souls for the next twenty-four hours of prayer, rest and reflection.

I took a few more frames in front of a Temple, while the last men and children were rushing to enter, quite oblivious to me and to my photography. Then I got on the subway and went back to the 21st century.

My experience, for peripheral and marginal it may appear, triggered and augmented both my respect and my interest for this community.

I admit that, as an American in a brutally divided and divisive America, the close-knit social tissue of the Hasidic fascinates me.

Obviously a lot of my fascination also has to do with the visuals of it.

I admire the tenacity and the political statement of dressing today, even here in New York City, in exactly the same way they dressed centuries ago in the remotest regions of Eastern Europe.

And I guess I admire their tenacity in being able to "resist" the world at large, a world luring the majority of us towards an apparently inevitable consumerism and relativism, in all aspects of who we are, how we look and how we behave with each other, a world pasteurizing our individuality and our many ancestral cultural identities into a monochromatic mush.

I know too little about the Hasidic community, the strongpoint of their belief, their history and their customs to have a realistic opinion about their lifestyle but I can certainly make some initial comparisons based on previous research I have conducted in different fields of oral tradition.

For example, I cannot but immediately notice that every single manifestation of oral tradition I have investigated in the past twenty years is by now either extinct or has gone through major changes due to the influences of modern society.

I could perhaps find a small number of exceptions to this rule, mostly in the oral tradition of Haiti, which in my personal experience is particularly resilient and difficult to erode.

Everything else, no matter how geographically remote or how strongly preserved in the name of faith, magic, healing or cultural identity, is inexorably mutating at a fast pace, succumbing to modernization.

In a world where corporations have more power and leverage than governments, in a world where socializing is less and less practiced and promoted, where family and society rules are bent, voided or ignored to accommodate financial interest and greed on all continents, the Hasidic tenacity certainly is, to say the least, appealing to someone like me who for all his life has tried to research and preserve the oral tradition of our ancestors.

And on a strictly personal level I cannot but wink my eye to someone who considers television, computers and the technological orgy of our times as a negative presence in their children lives and want to avoid it, replacing it with more organic ways of learning such as books, music, socializing and refraining, at least a day of the week, from switching on or off anything at all !

Of course, I can immediately find controversial issues and oxymoron too, as they are an inescapable fact of every society.

Some critics of these ultra-orthodox Jews, after hearing about my interest and fascination for the Hasidic community have hurriedly warned me about several things (and here I merely quote their words, refraining from a personal opinion, which my ignorance is still not allowing me to express).

They told me about the abusive treatment towards Hasidic women, segregated from the society of men as mere child bearers, who cannot even show their hair in public nor look at a man in the face, they told me about the double standards, apparently part of some Hasidic men sexual life, about the brutal and blindfolded activism of certain ultra-orthodox groups, especially in Israel.

Well, I definitely need to know more.

And, mind you, I don't really care to reach any personal decision about what is right or wrong. When you investigate a phenomenon from a cultural and a visual angle, the "rights and wrongs" are just numbers in an equation. My short field trip to Brooklyn, the other day, rapidly convinced me that for a researcher and visual explorer of oral traditions like myself, something like the Hasidic community would be a greatly interesting topic to look into.

It is my hope, with utter unobtrusiveness, respect and determination, to establish some contacts within the New York Hasidic community. I would like to photograph a series of portraits of community elders as well as slices of everyday life, commerce, prayer and celebrations.

Considering I don't know anybody in that community yet, I'll need to do a lot research and brainstorming alone, at first, to envisage a viable field strategy for my new project.

I'll probably do that after enjoying a matzah ball soup.

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6 responses

  • ajtiM

    ajtiM (Deleted) said (12 Jan 2011):

    brilliant!!

  • Harm Poelman

    Harm Poelman said (14 Jan 2011):

    rad!!!!

  • Harm Poelman

    Harm Poelman said (14 Jan 2011):

    forgot to add: almost like a trip back in time...

  • Michele Randell

    Michele Randell said (14 Jan 2011):

    A brilliant essay that deserves to be published..

  • Carol Arntsen Masiak

    Carol Arntsen Masiak gave props (17 Jan 2011):

    wonderful essay - my vote

  • The Man Who Isn't There

    The Man Who Isn't There (Deleted) gave props (21 Nov 2011):

    A great essay. I love this series.

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