Dwindling Diasporae


Lost Futures’ Finds Jewish Communities Disappearing

“Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora” at the Austrian Embassy is a far-ranging exhibition of black-and-white photography that bears a weighty title, and an incomplete ambition.

It carries weight because the title suggests that the people pictured in these portraits are on the verge of disappearing from the landscape they call home. It is incomplete because the creator, Chrystie Sherman, has been working on this photographic archive of disappearing communities in the Jewish Diaspora for the past six years, and she is not yet finished — and won’t be for some time.

Nevertheless, this incomplete “Journey” can stand on its own in a very transcendent way. Just as these photographs give life to far-flung tribes of people, they also speak to their fight to maintain that life — the challenges of surviving in the modern world that are both specific and universal of cultures everywhere. This duality can be seen in an expansive photographic journey that traverses a great variety of countries and regions, which is what makes the exhibition so impressive.

At the same time, the Jewish Diaspora, wherever it exists, tends to be unique simply because of its existence, often in exotic, hostile surroundings — from the far reaches of the Manchurian border to North Africa. This leads to the central question posed by the exhibition: What does it mean to be Jewish in the contemporary world, outside of Israel, and what has it meant in the past, in the pre-Israeli world?

To answer this question, Sherman turns her lens on India, Cuba, Tunisia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other communities, documenting the rich traditions but also the vulnerability of these communities as they grapple with issues of oppression, poverty and emigration.

The people portrayed inside these villages and cities — schoolmasters, janitors, farmers, butchers, housewives, war heroes, children and old men — exist on two levels. On the one hand, they are the town residents and neighbors, with their job titles, roles, families and place in the larger society. On the other hand, they are also Jewish people trying to enforce and preserve traditions of religious and social practice — hence the rabbi, or the kosher butcher or even the boy on his bicycle in Uzbekistan delivering specially made bread.

So what, for instance, does the Jewish Diaspora in India like? Pretty much like everyone else, in clothing, skin tone and surroundings, although there is the omnipresent subtext of Jewish heritage that colors their lives. Likewise, we see a woman, thin and perfectly posed, standing in a doorway in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. You have to read the caption that identifies her as a housewife preparing for the Friday night Shabbat to understand her Jewish connection, and not get distracted by her very modern, sophisticated beauty in what could otherwise be just another striking portrait.

And these are indeed striking portraits in and of themselves — by an award-winning photographer who has an educational pedigree from universities in Vermont, New York and Paris. For 25 years, Sherman has worked throughout the world for the Associated Press, PBS and even Jim Henson of the Muppets fame. But the project that probably led her to chronicle the Jewish Diaspora was an assignment to photograph Holocaust survivors for director Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.

Both projects have at their heart the issue of disappearance of people and cultures, and the idea that photography can, if not delay that disappearance, at least bear witness to it and make it permanent through indelible imagery.

And these images do just that, ingraining themselves into memory, like the two powerful pictures of stocky Soviet and Uzbek grandmother types, wearing Babushkas, hidden in sturdy layers of traditional peasant clothes, which bring back memories of European grandmothers from long ago. But just as these images carry with them the sense that some things never change, we know that they inevitably do.

In this way, Sherman’s project demonstrates that the story of the Jewish Diaspora is both ongoing — stretching back more than 2,000 years, with roots in ancient Babylonian, Persian, Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritages — yet at the same time fleeting and endangered. In fact, Sherman is said to have shot a portrait of “the last Jew in Afghanistan.”

The presence of Israel as a prosperous, modern state in the middle of the Arab world has altered the notion that the Jewish Diaspora is being threatened. Far from Israel though, Sherman shows us, for example, melancholy farmers in Ukraine who embody a way of life — rural and simple — that is swiftly vanishing. These photographs shed light on an overlapping struggle for survival — the struggle to exist as a Jew while co-existing with the local traditions and a rapidly changing world.

Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora through Jan. 9 Embassy of Austria 3524 International Court, NW (RSVP required). For more information, please call (202) 895-6776 or visit www.acfdc.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.