An Observant Jew

OUDTSHOORN, South Africa — I am an observant Jew. I observe Jews all over the world and photograph them. Just in the last month, for instance, I have observed and photographed Jews in five countries: South Africa, Zambia, Mauritius, Mozambique, and Namibia. It has been quite the journey. In fact, it’s not over yet. But the end is nigh.

Greater Plettenberg Bay Jewish Community Synagogue. Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Greater Plettenberg Bay Jewish Community Synagogue. Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

I’ve squeezed sand between my toes on beaches and in deserts, and had too many rocks inside my Crocs, even some thorns through them (I hate it when that happens)! I never thought I’d be driving across the Namib Desert or South Africa or visiting Victoria Falls twice in my life, but there you go. Community members from Maputo, Mozambique to East London, South Africa have come out just to meet and greet me. I’ve been given special shout outs at Shabbat services. Countless souls have schlepped me from here to there and back again (and treated me to lunch or dinner) for no greater reward than because they love what I am doing and wish to facilitate my efforts. I have, in no uncertain terms, been given the rock star treatment everywhere I’ve been. I am humbled. I am honored. I am grateful. I’ll reiterate here what I’ve told all of them: They are my heroes because although I am the guy behind the lens, they are the community behind the scenes. Without their commitment and support, I’d have far few images in my opus.

Uitenhage Synagogue, Uitenhage, South Africa

Uitenhage Synagogue, Uitenhage, South Africa

When I set out on this Jewish Africa photographic survey project, I hoped I would find some stark differences between the Jewish communities that would reflect in my photographs. Managing the logistics, the miles, and the cost is the easy part for I am still figuring out how to capture those cultural differences in my photographs.

The challenges of a photographer can be many. The biggest and arguably the most important is telling a story, or at least making a statement, in one’s images. No, that is not possible in every image and I certainly do not aim to do so. But I do hope that the best of my images “speak a thousand words” or even more.

Seizing the differences of language, expression, accent, for instance, into a still image requires more than the click of the shutter. I am beginning to feel as if I am photographing a silent film. Some of that film is of the black and white archival kind (old cemeteries, closed synagogues, abandoned Jewish homes). Other bits of the film are in color (a Shabbat service, a Purim party, a newly-built social center, even the red African dirt of a freshly dug grave). But there is a silence, or at best, an eerie hum.

Temple Israel, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Temple Israel, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

So here’s what I have discovered: I am searching for a soundtrack yet I am hearing the sounds of silence. “I am an African,” many Jews here have said to me. But I don’t see the African in their portraits. I see a Jew not so different from myself or Jews I’ve met just about anywhere.

In the end, perhaps it is the sounds of silence which speak to today’s African Jewish communities. After all, and sadly, all that remains in many towns is a cemetery or an abandoned building that was once a Jewish home or business or synagogue.


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