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Portrait of a People

Where does identity end and assimilation begin? In a sometimes oddball collection of photos, Frederic Brenner explores the paradoxes of American Judaism.

September 20, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EW YORK — The most memorable images in Frederic Brenner's new book of photographs about Jews and America are shocking, whimsical, disturbing or over-the-top stereotypical:

Jews on Harley-Davidsons in front of a Miami Beach synagogue.

Jewish women in a prison celebrating Passover.

Iranian Jewish rug traders on a carpet "flying" mysteriously down a New Jersey street.

Fourteen members of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute beside an oversized couch.

Jewish lesbians portrayed alongside their mothers, all Holocaust survivors.

Breast cancer survivors bare chested and showing their scars.

But are any of them actually representative of the 3.5 million Jews who live in America?

In "Jews / America / A Representation," published this month by Harry N. Abrams Inc., Brenner seems unconcerned with that particular question. Rather he is asking: What do Jews look like in America?

With a Gallic flair for the dramatic, he sought to juxtapose Jewish identities with things uniquely American. Like a group of Hebrew Academy students forming a pyramid next to "Egyptian" statuary in Las Vegas and a spiritual gathering of religious Jews posed next to a group of Navajo.

Crisscrossing the country with his camera, the 37-year-old French-born photographer sought the broadest expressions of Judaism he could rustle up in 32 states. A trained social anthropologist, Brenner contrived most of the photographs. And so he posed a showy group of Broadway stars next to a sukkah that he had reconstructed atop a skyscraper, with the Empire State Building in the background.

He also brought together a few dozen Jewish motorcyclists, some wearing German helmets, muscle T-shirts and multiple tattoos, in front of an Art Deco synagogue most of them had never set foot in. The photo is titled "Jews with Hogs, Miami Beach, Fla., 1994." This image raises the question of the purpose of the more extravagant photographs: Is the aim to capture what the American Jewry really looks like or is it simply to shock with the aberrational?

But Marvin Lebovitz says he helped assemble the bikers for Brenner because "I wanted to show you can't tell a book by its cover. Like me, most of those guys are upstanding citizens. The guy in front with the beard and tattoo is a lawyer. But the normal stereotype of a biker is a lunatic bum, a hoodlum carrying on and raising hell. It is fascinating to find that a bunch of Jews enjoy the sport of riding and can rub elbows with that element and not be detected as Jews."

What about the strangely upsetting group of women in the Bedford Hills (N.Y.) Correctional Facility celebrating a Passover Seder? Do those women represent anything about Jews and America? Probably it would have been more typical, but not half as provocative, to portray the other 60,000 Jews in suburban New York celebrating Passover that season. The portrait of the six female inmates, however, clearly has a much greater aesthetic value.

Says Brenner: "I wasn't worried about a less-than-proud portrait of Jews. Is it to be hidden that there are prisoners who are Jews?"

In the book's introductory essay social historian Simon Schama describes the power of the photograph as the "shock of the paradox," noting that it depends on "the relationship between the narrative of the exodus--the heart of the Passover service, with its emphasis on freedom from bondage, and the brutal denial of 'Exit,' signposted at the back of the prison room."

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"What a Jew is, is improbable and impalpable," Brenner adds. "It resists definition."

But Brenner's book raises all the old questions about definitions, some so tired the answers should be obvious, but they're not. Are Jews a religious group, a race or a nation? Is being Jewish an active verb or is it simply about having Jewish blood coursing through your veins and Jewish parentage?

Brenner's photographs seem to say yes, yes, yes, being Jewish in America is all of those things and none of them and more.

"There is no way Jews will survive without reinventing themselves wherever they live," Brenner says.

But therein lies the danger too.

To cross that thin line and exit from Jewish history would spell disaster, he acknowledges with his canny eye for irony. And in America, Brenner is saying with his collection of sometimes oddball portraits of Jewish identity, it has never been as easy to remain Jewish and it has never been as difficult because of the temptation to completely assimilate. Thus, the photograph titled "The December Dilemma," in which a Staten Island family is posed with a swagger between a Christmas tree loaded with presents and a blazing electric menorah.

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