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Taking The Diaspora’s Portrait

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Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora
Photographs by Chrystie Sherman
Through January 9, 2009
The Austrian Embassy
3524 International Court, NW,
Washington, D.C.


Walking through Chrystie Sherman’s solo show at the Austrian Embassy in Washington will almost inevitably make viewers rethink their notions not only of what it means to be a Jew, but also what Jews look like. Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora is the product of six years of traveling, wherein Sherman photographed Jews in communities that are disappearing. Included are images of Jews from Krasnaya Sloboda, Batumi, Privolnoye, Oguz, and Tbilisi in Azerbaijan and Georgia; Santiago de Cuba and Old Havana in Cuba; Teplik and Vinnytsa in the Former Soviet Union, Berdichev, Kiev, Odessa, Shargarod; Aghbalou Village, Arazane Village, and Tunisia in North Africa; and Tashkent, Bombay, Kochin, Parur District, Kottareddipalem, and Alibag in Uzbekistan.

Many of the images are difficult to look at. “I cried a lot on these trips,” Sherman said at the exhibit opening. “No one is smiling on these trips, because it is counterintuitive.” Sherman also found mixed responses from her would-be subjects, ranging from “terror to pleasure to hostility.” Yet, Sherman said, she became friends with many of them and sent them the photographs she had taken after they were developed.



Chrystie Sherman. “Rabbi,” 2002. Tashkent, Uzbekistan.


However sad, she compares her photographic project with Oscar Wilde’s famous 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the coming-of-age story of Dorian, a very attractive young man who posed for the artist Basil Hallward. As Dorian discovers more about himself, he realizes to his horror that his own depravity and sins are visited not upon him but upon Basil’s painting. Despite his reprehensible life, Dorian remains forever young and beautiful, as his representation becomes more and more terrifying. Sherman sees her work as akin to Basil’s portrait of “past, present, and future” − but added that, “Lost Futures” is “ultimately a question of the future” − the future of the far-flung Jewish communities.

One of the most gripping portraits in the show is a white-bearded rabbi who sits on a bench with a Holy Book in his hand. He wears a dark coat over a white robe and has a large knit kippa on his head, which tilts to the right as he looks at the camera. His face is deeply wrinkled, and he appears to have been disturbed from his studies or prayer by the photographer’s sudden appearance. Behind him is a structure of some sort that seems liable to collapse at any minute – a dramatic touch deepened by the dark shadows of the black-and-white image. According to Sherman’s caption, the rabbi is the oldest member of the Orthodox synagogue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and he sits in front of the construction of a new synagogue, which will probably never be finished.



Chrystie Sherman. “Shabbat,” 2002. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.


“Shabbat,” which shows a housewife in a doorway to her house in Bukhara, carries a very different tone. The woman, who wears a dress that both evokes a lizard’s scales and camouflages with the doorway, is preparing Friday night dinner, according to the caption. Sherman’s compositional move of capturing the anonymous woman in the doorway provides a second frame, wherein the woman is in a doorframe, which sits within a larger frame. The viewer is offered no glimpse of what is inside the home, and a bright white light shines from behind the figure, almost offering her a halo. Like the rabbi, this woman’s expression is tough to read, and she could easily be mistaken for a movie star posing for a glamorous photo rather than a Jewish woman preparing for the Sabbath.




Chrystie Sherman. “Holocaust Survivor,” 2000. Teplik, Former Soviet Union.


The woman who posed in Teplik in the Former Soviet Union for “Holocaust Survivor” cannot be mistaken for a movie star. Most of the woman’s family perished in the war, and she lives by herself in a small wooden house. Sherman shows the woman, who wears a flower-patterned shirt and a shawl over her head, standing in a field full of weeds. The woman carries a walking stick in her right hand, and it seems that her laundry is hanging behind her. This photograph could be a companion piece to the Tashkent rabbi in a diptych, as the survivor tilts her head in the opposite direction. Like the rabbi, she looks directly at the viewer.




Chrystie Sherman. “Challah,” 2001-2002. Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.


In “Challah,” a young boy carries a loaf of challah that his father baked to the synagogue. The boy wears a striped polo shirt and a large kippa, and he stands in front of a street and an alleyway where two Cuban children sit. Viewers can compare and contrast the boy with the two children and arrive at a lot of differences. They are black and wear no shoes. He is white, holds a Jewish ritual food, and is dressed nicely. In fact, many viewers might be comforted by the fact that, a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah − and they make it the same way in Cuba. But that does not seem to be the point. Sherman’s work is about gathering together − perhaps an antidote to the Diaspora that she represents − and about finding common bonds between Jews around the world, even as they are very different.

I think this is a touchy point for Jewish art. If Diaspora and losing the Temple is supposed to be our punishment for sin, and if we are spread out around the world just as the builders who created the Tower of Babel were, because we were deficient in our faith, then ought Jewish art celebrate those differences?

Is documenting Diaspora an appropriate project for a Jewish artist? I think there is a great risk in becoming enamored of Diaspora, since a multicultural world where people look different and act differently and have different customs sounds far more exciting than one where everyone is the same. Sherman agreed that the aim is to leave the Diaspora and return to Israel, but she was not particularly worried about the notion of memorializing Diaspora.

“As a photographer, to go around and see these really ancient communities that are really steeped in community and history that are drying up is very sad,” she said. “Maybe I just have a problem with things that end.”
MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

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.

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