web analytics
August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

Interracial Chalk Drawings And Dances

Through Their Eyes: Captured Moments of Childhood

Photography by Godfrey Frankel and Helen Levitt

July 6-August 13, 2006

The Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery at the Washington, D.C. JCC




With their own long history of suffering oppression and hate fresh in their minds, many American Jews played important roles in the civil rights movement. Jewish merchant Julius Rosenwald, who bought one-fourth interest in Sears, Roebuck and Co. before it became a huge business, founded the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to help improve education for African Americans. The fund helped launch over 5,000 schools in 15 states in the south, as well as several universities. In 1964, Jews were arrested with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prominently marched with Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights. In the arts, Jewish, Puerto Rico-born photographer Benedict J. Fernandez recorded many of the events of the U.S. civil rights movement. His images of Dr. King’s funeral are now iconic.


         The current show at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, “Through Their Eyes: Captured Moments of Childhood,” explores the powerful black and white photographs of the Jewish photographers Godfrey Frankel and Helen Levitt that depict Jewish and African American subjects.


         Frankel (1912-1995), a Cleveland native, got started in advertising photography and somehow found himself covering the nightclub scene in the nation’s capital. He met the nightclub editor of the Afro-American, who took him to nightclubs on U Street. In an interview with Merry Foresta of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Frankel described his experiences: “I started looking around the city, a strange city to me then, and I found these alley dwellings. I think there are still one or two left, [a] very small area. This was where poor people and mostly blacks lived I would find myself down there three or four times a week in the late afternoons when the sun was good before I went out to visit nightclubs. It was perfect.”


         Frankel also worked in New York, where he described his photographs as “probably my most important work.” In the interview, he said his interest in New York was “mostly the edges of the city – the East Side and West Side. On the Lower East Side, I guess I’ve taken most of my pictures.” Although Frankel did not use the word Jewish once in his interview with Foresta, his typical day began with him setting out in the morning with four or five rolls of film, taking the elevator or subway to the Lower East Side and shooting pictures until he got hungry and tired. He would “get into Ratner’s or some place and get some matzah ball soup, [laughing] some bagels or something and rest for an hour. Get out again about three or three-thirty and shoot some more pictures.”


         One of Frankel’s photographs in the JCC show is “Kids on Storefront Steps” (1943). In the photograph, seven African American children sit on a step in front of a store with “all bran” signs in the windows. The steps are in bad shape, and they seem unable to bear the children’s weight, let alone to reinforce the store for long. But, for the most part, the children seem happy, despite the grimy setting. Some of the boys seem asleep, while others smile or look off into the distance. However, none of the boys meets the gaze of the viewer. They are in their own world, wholly oblivious to the viewer.



Godfrey Frankel. “Kids on Storefront Steps.” (1943) Vintage gelatin silver print. 9 3/4″ x 6 1/4″.



         Other photographs by Frankel show young Jewish boys studying the Talmud. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva” (1948) shows two young boys reciting the Shematogether. One boy turns his back on the viewer, facing his partner who covers his eyes. The two boys sit on chairs with books open in front of them on a table. The composition is a bombardment of triangles, from the boys’ elbows to suspenders to the shapes of the flowers in the bottom left corner. Another boy watches from afar, perhaps laughing at the two praying boys. And perhaps the most fascinating part of Frankel’s photographs of children is that they rarely make eye contact with the viewer. They are either shut off in their own world or literally distracted by something out of the picture frame.



Godfrey Frankel. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva.” (1948) Vintage gelatin silver print. 8″ x 10″.



         In another image, also titled “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva,” Frankel shows the same boy who was covering his eyes in the last photograph, sitting in the same chair. His partner has left (and his empty chair and open book attest to his absence). The boy from the background has drawn closer, but he seems uninterested in the boy as he walks past. The boy, with his finger keeping his place in the book, turns to look over his left shoulder at something out of the picture frame to the right. The boy is at once rooted in the task at hand (his finger marking his place in the Talmud) and distracted.


         Helen Levitt’s photographs are equally voyeuristic. Levitt’s “Dancing Girl” shows a young girl and a boy separately dancing in the street. The horizon line is cropped high up in the photograph, so the image becomes more about the street than about the buildings lining the street. With the exception of some stairs and banisters, nothing that suggests a context for the joint dance invades the image. The Caucasian girl wears a polka dot dress and stretches her arms in a twisted pose, decidedly unglamorous but cute, as an African American boy looks on and dances with his hand atop his head.



Helen Levitt. “New York, c. 1945.” (Dancing Girl) Black and white silver print. 16″ x 20″.



         Born in Brooklyn in 1913 (although the JCC exhibit mysteriously says 1907), Levitt dropped out of school to pursue photography. She became obsessed with children’s chalk drawings and photographed many children drawing. Like Frankel’s subjects, the children in Levitt’s photographs do not make eye contact with the viewer. However, where Frankel’s children are intentionally oblivious to the viewer, Levitt’s might be performing a street dance for the viewer’s benefit.


         Levitt’s photographs in the JCC show children in strollers – climbing, dancing, hugging, and engaging in a variety of activities. One particularly engaging image shows three boys playing in a yard covered with dirt and rocks. Behind them, chalk writing on a wall reads, “Home team the Reds.” One boy carries a stick, while the other carries a small leafless bush. Levitt has caught the boys in the middle of their motion as they run and leap about. One wonders how the boys find joy in that most dreary of places, but at least for the moment in which Levitt has captured them, they frolic happily.


         The children that Levitt and Frankel capture in their photographs are worlds apart from those that photographer David Seymour-Chim portrays, as were discussed in these pages (June 21, 2006, “Smile And Say Cheese: Children Maimed By War”). Where Chim portrayed children who were sick, maimed, and otherwise struck by war, Levitt’s and Frankel’s images show children who have not suffered through wars and the Holocaust. But like Chim, Levitt and Frankel sought out the humanity and the optimism in the children’s situations. In the work of all three photographers’, children play and smile like children despite the bleak context. And as Chim found life and hope in war, Frankel and Levitt used their photography to find common ground between the lives of Jewish and African American children as they played in parks, alleyways, and on storefront stairs.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com 


         I graciously acknowledge the articles about the civil rights movement and Helen Levitt and Godfrey Frankel in Encyclopedia Britannica Online (www.britaannica.com) and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/).

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Interracial Chalk Drawings And Dances”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Swiss Amb. to Iran Giulo Haas presents his credentials to Iranian Pres. Rouhani
‘US and Iranian Cartoon Doves’ Shown Defecating on Bibi by Swiss Amb to Iran
Latest Sections Stories

Even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before.


I’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions regarding bullies, friendship and learning disabilities.


His parents make it clear that they feel the right thing is for Avi to visit his grandfather, but they leave it up to him.

There is a rich Jewish history in this part of the world. Now the hidden customs are being revealed, as many seek to reconnect with their roots.

There are times when a psychiatrist will over-medicate, which is why it’s important to find a psychiatrist whom you trust and feel comfortable with.

On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder created one of the most famous, and valuable, pieces of film and became forever linked with one of the greatest American national tragedies when he stood with his camera on an elevated concrete abutment as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Exhibited here is […]

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength – carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” – Corrie ten Boom I’ve been thinking a lot about worrying. Anxiety is an issue close to my heart – […]

Don’t be afraid to try something different.

Upon meeting the Zionist delegation, General Wu, a recent convert to Christianity, said, “You are my spiritual brothers.

With the assistance of Mr. Tress, Private Moskowitz tried tirelessly to become an army chaplain.

Dr. Yael Respler is taking a well-deserved vacation this week and asked Eilon Even-Esh to share some thoughts with her readers in her stead.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/interracial-chalk-drawings-and-dances/2006/07/19/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: