JWeekly: Many nations, one tribe: Oakland photojournalist on a quest to document Jewish diversity

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JWeekly: Many nations, one tribe: Oakland photojournalist on a quest to document Jewish diversity

JWeekly: Many nations, one tribe: Oakland photojournalist on a quest to document Jewish diversity

“Many Nations, One Tribe: Oakland photojournalist on a quest to document Jewish diversity”
JWeekly, May 8, 2009

Photojournalist Bryan Schwartz arrived in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, after three days of travel. He was hot, dusty and disoriented.

Nevertheless, the first thing he did upon arriving in the small town near the Ivory Coast border — even before taking his camera from his backpack — was affix a kippah to his head.

“Within three minutes, a guy came up to me and said, ‘Shalom my brother, welcome,’” Schwartz recalled.

“He had no idea who I was, but he saw me immediately as a long-lost cousin, and I stayed for two weeks in his home without anyone asking me for a thing in return.

“And that is the experience I have had all over the world.”

Since 1999, Schwartz, of Oakland, has visited 30 countries on five continents to document far-flung Jewish communities such as the one in Ghana.

The West African nation’s devout Sefwi Jews are one of dozens of isolated Jewish communities in remote regions around the globe, committed and faithful to their Jewish practice but living with few, if any, ties to larger, mainstream Jewish communities in the United States or Israel.

These communities are found in Morocco, Tunisia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, India, Uzbekistan, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, among others, and Schwartz has documented them during his visits — some brief, some a month long — over the past 10 years.

In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Rafael Davydov, longtime president of the Bukharian Jewish community, davens barefoot in the morning in his bedroom. photo/bryan schwartz

The kippah remains his skeleton key — with it atop his head, he is quickly recognized and welcomed.

“When I first arrived in Venta Prieta, Mexico, this kid came biking up to me with his tzitzit and asked, out of nowhere, ‘What size is your kippah?’” Schwartz recalled during a recent interview in San Francisco. “He invited me to his house … and I stayed for Shabbat, and for most of the next week.”

The images of these multicultural Shabbats and rituals were at first only a personal project. But as the snapshots and negatives amassed (Schwartz went digital in 2006), so did his passion for documenting unique Jewish communities — before they disappear through immigration or assimilation.

So he formalized his photo safari by starting a nonprofit in 2001. Scattered Among the Nations is dedicated to chronicling Jewish diversity and educating people about Jewish communities around the globe.

It is a mission shared by New York-based Kulanu (All of Us) and the S.F.-based B’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue). Scattered Among the Nations remains unique in that photography is the foundation for its work.

“My initial vision was that I could visit these isolated communities and put together a coffee table book to teach people about these amazing communities around the world,” said Schwartz, who is still looking for a publisher.

In the meantime, he has published numerous articles about his experiences, collaborated with two other photographers (one of whom he met in high school in BBYO) and organized a photo exhibit that has traveled around the country.

The collection of 55 photographs, “Jews of Color: In Color,” is currently on display at Hillel at Stanford.

“I love the exhibit, that it’s displayed as a celebration of diversity,” said Annie Alpers, a senior at Stanford. “It’s so cool to see these uniting Jewish symbols in all of these diverse places.”

About 2,000 Jews live in Rusape, Zimbabwe where they pray gospel style, akin to black South Baptist congregations in the United States. photo/jay sand

Noah Branman, director of social action at Hillel, arranged for the photography exhibit to come to Stanford Hillel. He often sees students breeze through exhibits on display in the Jewish student center. But with “Jews of Color: In Color,” students linger at each image, taking their time viewing the photos and reading the captions.

“It’s very celebratory,” Branman said. “A lot of exhibits we find out about are in some way, shape or form related to the Holocaust, and though those are interesting and meaningful, we don’t always want to be looking back. We want to look forward, too.”

Schwartz, 36, works as a civil rights employment attorney in Oakland. He works on Scattered Among the Nations in his spare time.

He is married to Alicia Cernitz-Schwartz and is the father of a 15-month-old daughter, Camelia. His family belongs to Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, where Schwartz chairs the social action committee.

He grew up in Cupertino and Mexico City, a duality that from a young age cultivated his curiosity and appreciation for diversity.

While in Barcelona, Spain, for a semester of law school, Schwartz made plans to spend a weekend in Morocco. As always when traveling, he wanted to observe Shabbat with a local Jewish community.

He opened his Lonely Planet North Africa guidebook, flipped to the index and searched for “Jewish.” The index directed him to a section on Djerba, Tunisia, a small Mediterranean island that Jews first inhabited in the Babylonian exile 2,600 years ago.

As a longtime and active member of Jewish communities in the Bay Area, Washington and Mexico City, Schwartz was shocked he’d never heard of Djerba.

In Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, Jewish children and their mothers play dreidel in front of a general store owned by a member of the House of Israel community. photo/bryan schwartz

“As soon as I read about it, my imagination went crazy thinking about all the other places in the world I could go,” he said.

First, though, Schwartz visited Morocco, celebrating Shabbat and Passover with the last Berber Jew. He lives in the Ourika Valley of the country’s High Atlas mountains, two hours by bus from Marrakech.

The community was once home to 300 Jews, but all have since made aliyah. Only Hananiyah Elfassie remains in the Ourika Valley, where he guards the tomb of tzaddik Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh, dead 500 years but still revered like a saint.

Shortly thereafter, Schwartz went to Djerba for Lag B’Omer. Home to about 1,500 observant Jews, the island community draws thousands each year for its carnival-like Lag B’Omer celebration.

Schwartz saw bimahs festooned with ribbons in bright shades of turquoise, gold and emerald green. Women spent days preparing dishes made with spicy harissa
and cumin, essential spices in Tunisian fare, their scents filling the streets where Sephardi Jewish music was played day and night.

“People are always surprised to learn that we’re not all of the lox-and-bagel-eating, Seinfeld-watching set,” Schwartz said.

He hopes Scattered Among the Nations and the Stanford exhibit shatter some of these stereotypes by showing viewers that “the Jewish people are as diverse as the world.”

While some communities Schwartz encounters want nothing more than to leave behind their lifestyle, their ancestry, and start anew in Israel, others seek to preserve their culture and way of life.

Peru was once home to 300 Inca Jews, who are not descendants of Jews but adopted the religion in the early 1990s when they found they identified with its teachings. They photocopied every page of a chumash onto parchment paper and stitched them together to make a Torah. They taught themselves how to read and write Hebrew.

Because Peru lacks the religious freedom of the United States, many practiced Judaism at great cost, which Schwartz observed when he visited in 2001.

When Inca Jews told employers they could not work on Sat-urdays, they were often turned away from good jobs and forced to do menial or dangerous labor as taxi drivers or shopkeepers. These jobs, with their lower wages, also meant lives of poverty.

The Inca Jews’ mezuzahs were often stolen from their doorways. Their children were ridiculed or punished for refusing to say Catholic prayers in school.

Shortly after Schwartz visited Peru, he raised $40,000 for an Israeli beit din (Jewish court) to travel there and formally convert the Inca Jews, concentrated in Trujillo, Cajamarca and Lima. The money also helped them make aliyah. Today only a few dozen Inca Jews remain in Peru.

In Krasnaya Sloboda, Azerbaijan, Passover calls for a family feast every day, not just during seders. During the holiday in 2001, Mazanto Agarunov sets out traditional dishes such as ashkana beef stew, pomegranates and sweet mint tea. photo/bryan schwartz

“I couldn’t possibly put my own interest in seeing these communities ahead of what the community itself actually wants,” Schwartz said. “Which was, in this case, to practice freely and be part of the Jewish world.”

In contrast, in Manipur, India, Schwartz found a community of 7,000 Jews who were peaceful and happy to practice Judaism in their impoverished and sometimes dangerous northeastern province.

The Jews there live in mud and bamboo huts on stilts 2,000 miles away from the nearest substantial Jewish community in Mumbai.

The devout Indian Jews in Manipur are known as the Benei Menashe, or “Children of Menashe,” and claim descent from the biblical Menashe, the eldest son of Joseph.

“These are people who have nothing, but are willing to give everything,” Schwartz said. “That’s what a religious community should be about.”

When he arrived in 2000, he saw the Benei Menashe using small toy Torahs, the kind you might receive for a consecration or b’nai mitzvah.

“The love they show this Torah is something else, something you might never see in America,” he said. “They passionately dance around with these toy Torahs, so I knew how much it would mean to have a real one.”

After Schwartz published a story in Hadassah Magazine about the Benei Menashe, a 77-year-old man wrote to him and asked how he could help.

Schwartz told the man from Chicago that the Benei Menashe would most appreciate a kosher Torah. He said it half-joking, knowing that “a Torah is a $25,000 article, and you can’t exactly FedEx one to Manipur.”

But the Chicagoan was very serious about helping, and he raised enough money to purchase a kosher Torah scroll. Three years ago, he traveled to Manipur to gift it to the community.

Bryan Schwartz is welcomed by the Benei Menashe Jews in 2000 in Manipur, an isolated state in northern India. photo/sandy carter

“That was in response to our project, and that’s something I’m very proud of,” Schwartz said.

Visiting global Jewish communities has profoundly affected Schwartz. He is now more religious, lays tefillin every morning and keeps kosher. He’s also made it a practice never to work on Shabbat, after seeing that “wherever you are in Jewish world, you can always find some peace in Shabbat,” he said.

“When I say certain prayers, I feel like I’m connecting with people 10,000 miles away who are saying those same prayers,” he added. “And I think about how the prayer is bringing peace to people all throughout the world.”

Although he has been accepted as family in Peru, India and Morocco, among other nations, it is the reception he received in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, that still serves as the best example of the extended Jewish family, one to which Schwartz believes all Jews belong.

“We should all think of the Jewish world as one tribe, even though we might look different and eat different foods,” he said. “There really is a familial connection, and we should all be looking out for each other like a family, taking care of each other like Abraham.”

Scattered Among the Nations’ “Jews of Color: In Color,” featuring photography by Bryan Schwartz, Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, is free and open to the public. It is on display through at least the end of May at the Koret Pavilion at the Ziff Center, Hillel at Stanford, 565 Mayfield Ave., Palo Alto. Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

For more information www.scatteredamongthenations.org.

Stanford students embrace range of Jewish identities in own exhibit

A global photography exhibit on display at Hillel at Stanford inspired students to create their own.

“Jews Untitled” is composed of 10 portraits of students who defy the stereotypes of what it means to “look Jewish.”

Pictured are half-Jews, Latino Jews, Asian Jews, Indian Jews and black Jews.

Tess Rothstein, a sophomore and Hillel outreach intern, was one of three students to create and coordinate “Jews Untitled.”

Although they loved the photographs from India and Ghana taken by Scattered Among the Nations, “we wanted a way to highlight the diversity of Jews here at Stanford,” Rothstein said.

And so they created an exhibit parallel to “Jews of Color: In Color,” but more local in its scope.

Katrina Monet-Padilla, a Hispanic Jewish student, agreed
to take the portraits. The photographer’s face is featured in the exhibit as well — she set up the shot and had a friend click the shutter.

Each student wrote a brief biography explaining some element of his or her identity — a sentence, paragraph or poem that enhances the image.

Annie Alpers’ blonde hair and blue eyes are also pictured in the exhibit as an example of a face that defies what’s stereotypically considered Jewish.

“I really don’t look Jewish. I’m 5-foot-10, blonde, half-Swedish but look all-Swedish,” said Alpers, a senior from Seattle.

Her father is Jewish and her mother is not. Alpers identifies as Jewish. When asked to be a part of “Jews Untitled,” she was thrilled. “I’m so excited about anything that highlights diversity within the Jewish community,” she said.

Alpers worked as a Hillel outreach intern last year, and through her work met many who were insecure about their Jewish identity, either because of their ethnic makeup, physical appearance or religious observance (or lack thereof).

She hopes the photo exhibit broadens the personal and collective American Jewish identity. “We should feel united by [our diversity],” Alpers said, “not alienated by it.”

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