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Frederic Brenner

(1959 - )

An elderly Soviet officer, medals littered across his chest and cascading to his paunch; nine Italian men with deadpan stares and motorcycle helmets clutched beneath their arms; a group of Africans framed by bare, stony earth and mountain; a somber Chinese family of four, and black-coated young men, side curls dangling from beneath black hats, oblivious of the tall grass and wild flowers surrounding them, arguing points of Torah. What common thread runs through these people’s lives? It is this: they are all Jews, and they are pieces of a puzzle assembled by renowned photographer Frederic Brenner in his new two-volume book called Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, published by HarperCollins.

Consisting of 264 photographs and commentaries by the world’s foremost thinkers, the book is the most extensive visual record of Jewish life ever created. It is the result of a 25-year journey that took Brenner to more than 40 countries on five continents. “What I did,” Brenner says, “is to deconstruct the image of the Jew and to say there is not one way of being a Jew, but as many ways as there are of being a man or woman among the nations.”

Brenner’s mission was more than an anthropological study of the varied Jewish communities around the world; it was a personal search for self. Born in Paris, Brenner grew up in a totally assimilated Jewish family. He says, “I believe one of the reasons I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing over the years is to try to reclaim this part of my history that I didn’t know. I think one does what he does because of the part of himself that is the part of history that he ignores, not the part of history that he knows.”

The part of his history that Brenner did know growing up in Paris was that his mother’s family were Spanish Jews who had found refuge in Algeria and had immigrated to France at the beginning of the 20th century. His father’s family had left the Ukraine and Romania for France before the Russian Revolution. Brenner says that his parents, who survived the Holocaust, tried to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage. “Most Jews tried to melt within the French society after the war, either to assimilate or to be as quiet as possible.”

Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967 provided a wakeup call after which Brenner’s parents began to acknowledge their Jewishness. They sent him to a Jewish school, which he describes as “a door opening.” But the door had only widened a crack and Brenner wanted to fling it open and pass through to explore what was on the other side. So at age 18, he joined a group of friends and traveled to Israel. His companions traveled around the country, but Brenner spent most of his time in Jerusalem.

“I was fascinated by this ballet, this theater, taking place in front of my eyes in Me’a She’arim,” he recalls. He had no previous interest in photography but says, “I started to photograph those people who had recreated in the heart of Jerusalem a shtetl like no other shtetl that exists today. I then spent about three years, back and forth, between university and Israel to portray these people who seemed to me the authentic Jews.”

Even though he was spending his spare time photographing the Jews of Me’a She’arim, Brenner says, “I never wanted to become a photographer.” Yet at age 22 he had his first solo exhibition and won his first major awards: the Prix Niepce and the Prix du Salon de la Photo.

“I know very little about my life,” he says. “I think the mystery of life is a motor that makes me move, and maybe photography has chosen me as much as I have chosen photography.”

It was a good choice. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums in Paris, New York, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam and other major cities. Among his published works are Israel with a text by A.B. Yehoshua and Marranes with a contribution by Y.H. Yerushalmi.

A book he published in 1996, Jews/America/A Representation, includes group portraits of some 40 famous and powerful people who shaped American and western culture in the 20th century. Framed against the New York skyline—literally framed in the elaborate gilded picture frames in which you find old masters at a museum—are Itzhak Perlman, Betty Friedan, Norman Mailer, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbra Streisand, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Billy Wilder, Carl Sagan and other Americans who Brenner selected as men and women who have redefined their fields. “Of Philip Roth,” Brenner says, “you can say there is before and after Philip Roth. Of Steven Spielberg, you can say there’s before and after Steven Spielberg.”

Steven Spielberg is among the prominent Americans who have supported Brenner’s projects. “I was lucky enough to meet people in New York and on the West Coast who believed in my dreams and who gave me the means for 25 years to achieve them. If it hadn’t been for Jews in the U.S., I would never have been able to create these portraits of my people.”

Brenner has produced these portraits the way a painter would. His subjects are carefully posed: In the Vatican, Jewish vendors bearing their wares of Christian souvenirs gaze into the camera flanked by the colonnade of the Piazza San Pietro against the backdrop of the Basilica; in front of and on the steps of a Miami synagogue, we find a band of—are they Hell’s Angels? No, they are Jews with cut-off tee shirts and tattoos, astride Harley-Davidsons; a gaggle of New York psychoanalysts literally pushed to the wall by an enormous analyst’s couch; four survivors from Salonika display their tattooed arms in the camera’s face—three vertical lines and one horizontal, a vision that came to Brenner in a dream. (Three men hold an arm out, its fist clenched; their expressions are angry and unforgiving. The fourth uses his arm to cradle a face that reveals a depth of sorrow beyond imagination with no trace of anger.)

The images that Brenner composes are disturbing, funny, moving and challenging. But he sees these portraits as no more unnatural in composition than our own choices of how we represent ourselves to other people.

“Whenever you speak of natural, it’s already cultural,” he says. In addition, even a photojournalist who is capturing a subject in the moment is making choices as to how we see that subject. The photographer selects how and where to shoot and that assigns a particular meaning to the end result. We think of this as natural, rather than composed, but Brenner says, “The photographer often doesn’t realize how much he’s affected by so many choices that have been deeply internalized. I believe that each photojournalist should re-invent the rules of photojournalism.”

Brenner’s sees life as theater. “It’s a big stage and I’m just staging the life. I am only doing with people what they do in their everyday life, only more so. It’s not by being objective that you create a document, it’s by being subjective and accepting and assuming. Photography is a long, on-going conversation—with myself and with the people that I photograph. And I need the person that I photograph to collaborate with me. I’m really a midwife for the person that I photograph. And the person that I photograph is a midwife for me. I know where I want to go, but I know that the place where the person that I photograph will lead me is a much better place.”

The photographs should also lead the viewer to find his or her own place, which is why Brenner shoots in black and white. He believes that less is more. The lack of color leaves space to enable viewers to undertake their own journeys.

The variety of cultural and social background, size, shape, features and color of the Jews in his new book is amazing. It renders laughable the concept that someone can “look Jewish.” And it challenges anyone who thinks they have the answer to the divisive question, “Who is a Jew?

Brenner says, “This book shows such a large spectrum of expressions and representations of Jews that I believe this book could enable people to understand the extreme fluidity of identity. It could tell people that maybe you can become the Jew that you want. All identities are invented. Why cannot you become who you want to be as a Jew? When Jews try to freeze a definition of themselves, they are already negating the fluidity of their own identity.”

Jews, he reminds us, are descended from Abraham, an idol breaker, a man who created a new identity, who metamorphosed from Abram to Abraham when he followed the Biblical injunction: Lech lechah (Go forth). Leave your land, your kindred, and the house of your father, and go to the place that I will show you. “This is a permanent movement,” Brenner says. “Life is only about movement. And I wanted to show who these people are, like Abraham, who have re-invented themselves. Non-Jews and Jews alike should understand that Jewish identity cannot be frozen, cannot be petrified. This identity is about becoming. Jews don’t exist, they become.

“I believe that what Jews have in common is their differences,” Brenner continues. “I spent 25 years going around the world from India to Sarajevo, from Rome to New York, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, and to Morocco and Ethiopia trying to understand what makes a people. I really see these portraits as a puzzle and each fragment is necessary and indispensable. Each place enabled me to express a part of myself and a part of what the Jewish people are.”

The search began in Jerusalem. “Twenty-five years later I understand that Me’a She’arim was, in fact, the matrix of my entire project.” When he first encountered them, he believed that the Jews of Me’a She’arim were “the beginning and the end of Judaism.” But Brenner wanted to understand the diffusion of Jewish identity. Today, he says, “I believe we all are woven of so many threads that in each of us there are so many voices that speak. We just don’t have the courage to listen.”

According to Brenner, the refusal to acknowledge and embrace our differences leads to ideology and fundamentalism. “While this project is, of course, about Jews,” he says, “it’s really a lesson of pluralism. It’s really about asking, ‘Do you listen to all these voices that speak within you, even when they are dissonant?’ And from that point of view, I believe that when I photographed Yemenite Jews or Ethiopian Jews or Jews in Sarajevo, I was not photographing somebody else. I was photographing a part of myself.”

Brenner’s book is a celebration of diversity, a study of a people that is all-inclusive. That is one reason Brenner would like to see it brought out in Israel, as well as in the U.S., France, Germany, Holland and England, where it is now in publication. Translating the book into Hebrew “would enable people to really reclaim the many fragments of their history that they have been deprived of—that have been ignored.”

He lays the blame on the way Jewish history has been chronicled in the 20th century. “It has been written largely from a very white, western, Ashkenazi point of view, to the extent that whole pages of our history have been entirely buried.” He cites a history book used in Israeli schools. “Of its 264 pages, only four are devoted to Oriental Jews and Sephardim. So in this way, my book is really rehabilitating many of these groups who have lived on the fringe of history, on the fringe of our memory.”

A comprehensive visual account of where and how Jews live, Brenner’s book assigns no pre-eminence to any one community. Home for Brenner is Paris where he lives with his wife, Myriam Tangi, a poet and painter, and his two teenage daughters. But, he says, “I don’t believe that the journey of my people within the French nation is more important than the journey of my people among the German, Italian, Yugoslavian or Yemenite nations. I believe that each of these dwellings has enabled us to extract very different types of potentialities. And the very notion of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, is made of all these many fragments. It is a puzzle that implicitly supposes the interdependence of these fragments.”

Not just Eretz Yisrael, but the Diaspora as well is a calling for the Jewish people, says Brenner. “Again, Lech lechah—Go forth. Leave your land, your kindred and the house of your father, and go to the place that I will show you. But the place is never named. It’s as if it belonged to each of us to name it. And from this point of view, I never saw the Diaspora as a curse but truly as a blessing, as a vocation.”

History, he believes, has unfolded in a way to enable the Jewish people to accomplish this vocation. “I believe that what Jews have in common is the experience of dispossession, dispersal, whether chosen or forced.” This dispersion is not a passive experience. It is an active encounter that benefits humanity. Spread out among the nations, Jews have absorbed knowledge and culture from their hosts while enriching them with their own values and traditions. Brenner says, “It appears to me that the Diaspora is this incredible metaphor how we have been fertilized and how we are fertilizing in return.”

After more than 5,000 years, the Jewish people are still a vibrant presence in the Diaspora and in their homeland. “Who are we?” Brenner asks. “Who are we, these people who are still alive, who are still here after more than 5,000 years, still an enigma to the nations and still an enigma to ourselves?”

Nations do not like enigmas, Brenner says, and he sees Purim as the ultimate metaphor for the Jewish presence among the nations. While Purim recounts persecution and the threat of extinction, it is, after all, a story of survival and triumph. He believes his photographic odyssey rebuts a culture of victimhood.

“I would say it took me 23 years to come back to Europe, to the very place where I was born, and maybe because intuitively I knew that there’s no way one can win with whatever touches death. It took me all those years to deal with those subconscious injunctions passed on to me from my grandfather to my father to me about the episode of the Shoah in my own family.” Brenner believes his photographs offer incontestable proof that, “We are not the children of the Shoah. We are a children of a much deeper tradition which doesn’t surrender to Death. While the very large majority of Jews and non-Jews alike in our generation know how Jews died, my book—this photographic journey —is about how Jews live. And this is another injunction in the Bible: “I have placed in front of you life and death, and you will choose life.”

Sources: Article written by Myra Cohen, courtesy of Lifestyles