A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward
Edited by Alana Newhouse
$39.95, W.W. Norton, 2007
The smile is as unmistakable as the pointed white beard, long flowing side curls, black hat, robe and thick white socks. The rabbi, with his hands clasped behind his back, turns his head to his left and looks over his shoulder at the camera, as if amused to see a photographer present and curious why anyone would deem his presence a worthy photo op. The caption reads: “The grand rabbai of Satmar Hasidism, Joel Teitelbaum (right), standing at the railing of the deck of the Queen Mary at Pier 90 in New York. From the back of the photo: ‘This is the only picture taken of Teitelbaum on his journey from Israel.‘“
The photograph of the Satmar Rebbe is one of more than 500 photographs collected in Alana Newhouse’s A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward. In the book’s introduction, Newhouse, arts and culture editor at the Forward, uses the paper’s filing cabinet as a symbol of its significance to Jewish history and journalism.
While conducting a reporter’s version of dumpster diving, Newhouse discovered a letter then Vice President Harry Truman wrote in February 1945 to his friend, former fellow soldier, and short-lived business partner Edward Jacobson. “Sixty years later I found a copy of the letter in a folder at the back of a metal filing cabinet drawer,” writes Newhouse. “The note, written by one of the most powerful men of the last century, had been filed under ‘Jacobson.'”
As Newhouse explains, Jacobson is said to have influenced (at least in part) President Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, though “one might fairly assume ‘Truman’ would trump ‘Jacobson’ in any filing system. But the metal cabinet in which I found that note is part of the archives of perhaps the most famous Jewish newspaper in the world. And to its staff and readers, the buck stopped at ‘Jacobson.'”
Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (bearded), pictured with other cantors. According to the photo caption, Rosenblatt turned down a $100,000 offer from Warner Brothers to play Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer, “because he believed it would demean his sacred calling. Nevertheless, he agreed to play a small part as himself, singing a Yiddish art song, for which he received star billing.” Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.
The Forward‘s photo archive dates all the way back to the newspaper’s inception in the late 19th century. The book also collects more contemporary photographs, from pop singer Madonna at the Kabbalah Center’s 2003 release party for The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul to a flooded synagogue in New Orleans, a “Bark Mitzvah” (a canine Bar Mitzvah) and a chassid from New Square holding a fish reputed to have spoken and to have been possessed by the soul of a Canadian chassid.
In one photograph (image one), a young man wearing a bowtie and suit with a drawing board over his knees sits on the right side of the photograph, happily engrossed in the moment. His bored-looking model, whose intense stare and wide eyes are only rivaled by the lion-shaped knockers on the door behind him, uncomfortably crosses his legs and locks his fingers together tightly, trying to hold his pose. The setting is regal, with a Roman bust in the corner between two handsome doors, and the artist has made himself right at home with a half smirk on his face. Perhaps the artist, Elias Grossman, who worked for the Forverts (the Yiddish Forward), smiles because he is aware of the mischief he is unraveling. His drawing of the sitter Benito Mussolini would later become an etching and appear in the New York Herald Tribune with the caption, “What Price Mussolini?” Upon publication, Grossman fled the fascist Italian ruler’s wrath.
Forverts employee, Elias Grossman sketches Benito Mussolini. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.
In Living Lens, Grossman’s photo sits on a double page spread beside another picture of a Jewish artist, sculptor Carl J. Longuet standing at a 1933 exhibit in Paris beside a bust he created of his great-grandfather Karl Marx. If one offers Marx’s receding hairline to Longuet and imagines him growing a bushy moustache and beard, the resemblance is apparent, particularly in the brows. (Incidentally, Marx was at one point a London correspondent for the Herald Tribune, so the two photographs are distantly related.)
Israel Rokeach, founder of the kosher food company which bears his name. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.
Another photograph (image two) portrays Israel Rokeach, who founded the kosher food company that bears his name. Rokeach wears a large black yarmulke and long white sideburns and beard. He sits writing with a pencil at his desk, surrounded by a phone and stacks of papers. A large framed canvas (the head of the portrait is cropped out of the image, but it might depict Rokeach himself) hangs over his chair. The photograph, which is catalogued in the section “From a Series on ‘Industry,'” illustrates how Jewish immigrants brought their traditional attire and appearances to a new country and managed to cling steadfastly to the old, even as they achieved a great deal of success with the new.
Image Three captures Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Szold was a very accomplished woman, who taught three languages (French, German and Latin), history, mathematics and science at the Baltimore-based Misses Adams’ girls’ school for 15 years. Having studied Hebrew and the Talmud with her father, she taught at his synagogue in Baltimore. Somehow, she also managed to find the time to organize a night class for newly arrived Eastern European immigrants in American history and culture and to help start Hebras Zion, which might have been America’s first Zionist organization.
Henrietta Szold, former president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.
Szold, who is pictured as a firm, serious woman in the Forward photograph, though she allows a bit of a smile to invade her face, worked for 23 years at Jewish Publication Society (JPS), and later traveled to (then) Palestine in 1909. Upon returning to New York, she immersed herself in American Zionist activism, ultimately forming the Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion (1912), which became simply Hadassah in 1914 – named for Queen Esther, identified in the Megillah as Hadassah. A 1920 trip back to Palestine saw Szold fundraising for what would become the Hadassah Medical Organization. She would later die at the Jerusalem-based Hadassah-Hebrew University Hospital she helped create.
Living Lens presents a treasure trove of images that capture moments and figures fundamental to the American Jewish experience and the Jewish experience at large. The images capture the sacred and the secular side by side. A full page photograph of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, mixing flour for matzos in Jerusalem in 1925, sits beside another full page photograph of folksinger Isa Kremer aiming her pool cue as the world champion of billiards, Jack Schaefer looks on. Many other images in the book attest to the Forward‘s Socialist youth, from protests to members of the Workmen’s Circle. There was only room in this column to highlight a few of the photographs in the book, but it ought to be clear that it is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of photography, journalism and the American Jewish experience.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
I graciously acknowledge the comprehensive biographies on Encyclopedia Britannica ( http://www.britannica.com/), which I used to research this article.