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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What kind of Jew are you? Part One of Three

What kind of Jew are You?

In this heady 6-year chapter of my unexpected life, I was privileged to be a part of photographer Frederic Brenner’s American exploration of Jewish Identity, only one piece of his 20 year global ethnographic photo essay.

As I began to study Frederic’s remarkable collection of images taken over the course of 20 years in over 40 countries on every continent on the planet, I received an unexpected education; one I had not as a Hebrew school student in a rather Reform synagogue, ever expected. Frederic’s thousands of images captured our modern fur trading Uncles in Alaska, our tshatshki peddling nephews in the Vatican City, our Sari clad Aunts in India and our silk trading cousins in Hong Kong. So when Frederic asked me, “ What kind of Jew are you?” I had not even a remote understanding of the infinite ways I might answer that question.

My challenge was to take this anthropological photographer of Jews and turn him into a viable commercial entity in an already overcrowded market. As an agent to commercial photographers in New York City, I knew that I had to understand my product, get into the photographer’s head and create a compelling commercial sales pitch for Art Buyers. We spent many hours combing through his archives, talking about his travels, discussing the story behind the images, and putting together an engaging portfolio of images. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be affected by this heretofore unknown tale of dimension and depth of the contemporary jew.

I think the most profound understanding of who I was, who we were as a people, was the moment when Frederic described the Jewish Diaspora, our dispersal into the world, as an infusion. I had never conceived of how one culture might infuse another. In my mind’s eye I imagined a glass tea cup of hot water with a rose-hips tea bag very slowly turning the water a deep deep red like a slowly blossoming and unfolding lotus flower. There was something so organic, so natural and sublime about this. It confounded my notion of Diaspora.

I had, up to then, conceived of our flight as a necessity for survival; abrupt and jarring. We were the other, intruding uninvited to foreign places and remaining separate to ensure our tenuous survival. I never considered how our presence might have changed where we went. What customs and words and ideas did we impregnate our unexpected hosts with?

I knew that we had settled in the corners of the Far East to trade in silk and spices, to the Americas to trade in Rum and Sugar Cane, and to Amsterdam to establish the coffee trade. As Jews we established a singular worldwide network of merchants with our far flung cousins in Russia, Spain, France, India, South Africa, Amsterdam and the Americas. Not permitted to own property, our massive combined wealth was built on this extended international family network of traders.

It’s difficult to select a jumping off place, how or where to begin to share this very extraordinary chapter of my life -- so imagine it is 1996 and you are at a party in a penthouse of a beautiful hotel in the financial district of New York City. It is a beautiful evening in the Fall, I should say, Autumn in New York. There you are, standing next to Lauren Bacall who is speaking French to a handsome young frenchman who has given her a very special book as a gift. Her voice is extraordinary and to hear her speak French takes my breath away. It is one of those moments that I want to freeze in my memory. ‘Jouer de nouveau, Sam.’

Her handsome son is by her side because this is a family affair, a celebration of all of our Jewishness. The three Bronfman men, Edgar and sons, have come as well as Ralph Lauren and his beautiful wife and children. Artist Roy Lichtenstein has brought two lovely young women while the honorable Ruth Bader Ginsbury is flanked by two monolithic body guards. We mill about a beautiful room dining on delicate fish appetizers and champagne while a live Klezmer Quartet provides the appropriate bittersweet soundtrack.

We have just returned to the island of Manhattan after a private gathering and tour of Ellis Island. We traveled to the Island together in two ferries reserved especially for us. The musicians traveled with us and once we were out in the water; you became your European ancestors making this journey on the salty grey waters of New York Harbor, rising and falling with the tides, awed by the first glance at iconic Lady Liberty, and moved by the expressive notes of a familiar yiddish folk song. There are about 100 of us, a select few, famous and not, who watch President Clinton address our party via videotape and talk about Frederic and his extraordinary work. I am standing near Arthur Miller.

I watched as Isaac Stern and Phillip Glass chatted and walked together on the balcony in the main exhibit hall and wondered what they might be creating together. I timidly introduced myself to Art Historian Simon Schama, who had written, What does a Jew look like?, a beautiful introduction to Frederic’s extraordinary American book, Jews/America/A Representation. Simon is gracious until he asks what my relationship is to Frederic and when I tell him that I am his commercial agent, he scowls and is no longer interested in me. I laugh inside thinking that even the most brilliant of minds cannot necessarily control the emotions on their face.

The most gregarious character in this adventure is Ed Koch. I tell him I am a fan and always think he’s doing just fine. The most withdrawn is Betty Friedan. The illustrious guests include Mark Spitz, Neil Simon, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and notorious minimalist massive works sculptor, Richard Serra.

These larger than life characters are all in Frederic’s homage to Immigration, a mind boggling image that took over a year to create and includes over thirty five individual portraits of American Jewish Icons, suspended from scaffolding on Ellis Island with a backdrop of Manhattan Island, Twin Towers intact.

The final photograph took a year to complete. Dustin Hoffman made Frederic wait six months to meet him. Paul Newman was flattered to be considered but let us know that he was not jewish. Woody Allen just turned him down and Barbara Walters said through her publicist that she, as a serious news person, couldn’t affiliate with a particular group as it would be inappropriate given her “gravitas”. We all roared with laughter at this child of a notorious nightclub owner who interviews celebrities for the Oscars. She was hardly our idea of a serious journalist and whether she chose to affiliate or not, she is a jewess.

In spite of who didn’t participate Frederic was able to persuade Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Lew Wasserman, George Burns, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jerry Lewis, Billy Wilder, Saul Bellow, Richard Avedon, Milton Berle, Michael Milken, Kirk Douglas, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, Jonas Salk, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Itzhak Pearlman, Isaac Asimov and then agent to the stars Mike Ovitz to pose.

I was only at a few of these photo sessions, those in New York City at our studio in Chelsea and at Issac Stern’s apartment, but many took place in Los Angeles. This particular project was being underwritten by Life Magazine which published an issue largely devoted to his work.

Each icon is photographed surrounded by a magnificently gilded antique frame that Frederic has shipped over from Paris. To witness the work of a portrait photographer is fascinating. Each subject interacts with the photographer differently. Taking each photograph is akin to participating in a journey to where the subject leads you. Each subject interacts with the prop in a way which compelling reveals their discomfort with or embracing of the camera and themselves.

Some are not content to stand alone and use symbols of their fame to comfort and clarify. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger poses with his beloved New York Times, Neil Simon ponders with his glasses, George Burns smokes his cigar, Jerry Lewis leaps through the frame in his tennis whites holding a racquet. Some warily peek out from behind the edge of the frame. Others like Ed Koch and Milton Berle just have fun with it.

Phillip Roth’s portrait burns with anger. Elie Wiesel’s plaintive face and clasping hands feel like a Rouault portrait with dramatic lines that convey an unimaginable sorrow. Michael Milken, newly freed from prison, poses in front of the frame as if his time already spent in a cell have been ample confinement. Phillip Glass assumes the pose of a dancer. Mark Spitz swims shirtless. Alan Ginsburg poses Buddha like in the frame.

When you look at the finished photograph you can only know one part of the story. There are over 30 stories here.

The event I am describing is a celebration of Frederic's newly published book but also a gifting of a very special book. A book with less than 200 copies printed. It is the individual portraits of these icons with an acetate overlay in which they responded to the question, “What are your hopes as a Jew as we enter the new millennium?”

What is the future of our identity? Part One of Three

Note: All photography © Frederic Brenner


  1. Perhaps my mom and I, devoted fans of Yiddish, have been 'infused'...

  2. Whatever it takes, it is important to understand how we are one race, the human race and it is our extra-ordinary responsibility to be kind, to be compassionate and to seek out our commonalities.