In my synagogue, the Jewish Center of Princeton, the lobby where mazel tovs drop like manna doubles as an art gallery. Often the art provides a demure backdrop for well-heeled congregants — a still life of lilacs here, a lithograph of the Old City over there. But not The Jewish Shtetl Today, an arresting exhibit of 51 black-and-white photographs taken between 1988 and 1995, mostly in Ukraine, by photographer Dmitry Peysakhov.
The contrast between bat mitzvah girls in prom dresses and Peysakhov’s tattered, Ukrainian Jews is stark. In these photographs, there are few icons of modernity. In one picture, a broken-down pickup truck seems to be towed by a horse-drawn carriage up ahead. Telephone wires look too frail to carry a voice. As one viewer remarked, “They could almost be pictures from a century ago.” At a pump, girls draw water to boil on the lone flame of a primus stove. A cock-eared goat roams in a cemetery of slanted stones. Even “Lenin Street” (“Shtetl 1-02”), the shtetl’s main drag, is an unpaved path of stones and dirt.
But Peysakhov’s Ukrainian Jews are marked by time in subtle ways. The exhibition opens with a cluster of pictures taken at the site of Babi Yar, where, in 1941, Nazi “Einsaztgruppen C” massacred 34,000 Jews — one-third of Kiev’s Jewish population. Within two bloody days, 100,000 people lay dead in a ravine. “Babi Yar #10,” a luminous portrait of an old woman, which appears on the cover of Peysakhov’s book, “Jewish Life in Kiev” (Hartung-Gorre Verlag, 1992) , suggests the endless mourning of those who make the annual, late-September pilgrimage to the ravine. Tightly cropped, the image is a study in lines: Large fingers, clasped to the woman’s mouth, mimic the deep lines etched on her brow; a tiny strand of silver shines in her scarf. From a bloodshot eye, a single tear spills onto her cheek. Yet even mourning is marked by history at Babi Yar. Not until 1959, when Kievans protested a planned soccer stadium at Babi Yar, did the Soviets erect a memorial there, one that entirely ignored the Jewish losses. In “Babi Yar #15,” three elderly Jewish survivors stride toward the camera, shoulders squared, their backs toward the massive sculpture that turns its back on them. Peysakhov’s most acclaimed photograph, “Babi Yar #1,” is also his most unusual. Above a narrow plinth of black, topped by a razor-thin white line, we see a dense crowd of shadows, perhaps the lives thrust into darkness by Nazi firing squads. Only one man’s face, one remnant, appears in positive, staring back at us over his shoulder, his face seared in pain.
The signs of Perestroika are writ large here. In one picture of a Hanukkah performance, an immense bust of Lenin, now relegated to the theater’s wings, peers down through a slit in the curtains at a lit menorah. In the early 1990s, Peysakhov captured the tremulous revival of Jewish rituals, customs and learning. Where Russian “lovers of Zion” once sat, dreaming of a Jewish state, emissaries from Israel and the United States arrived to keep Judaism on life support. In Peysakhov’s pictures of Ukrainian yeshivas, synagogues and Jewish summer camps, you can easily pick out the Israeli and American Jews: They’re the bearded Hasidim in caftans.
But even as Judaism revives, in these images, it is fading out. Several photographs depict Jews on the verge of emigration. In “Exodus #2,” young men on a train platform give a snowy send-off to a friend. Two hold up an Israeli flag; another wields a bottle of vodka; all their faces are jolly. Still, lined up in two files, they look rather like rows of comforters awaiting a mourner. “Exodus #1,” taken up a narrow staircase, depicts three men carrying an old woman down the stairs. Her body stiff, tightly bundled in a wool coat, she looks like a corpse borne into the next world by pallbearers, or the bones of Joseph carried away to the Promised Land.
Black-and-white pictures of Eastern European Jews inevitably call to mind the photographic relics of those who perished in the Shoah. The titles of such albums — “Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864-l939” “A Vanished World” — ask us to regard these pictures through a scrim of sorrow. In Roman Vishniac’s famous hidden-camera shots, the subjects turn on the photographer with alarm, cradling in their arms the shoes now on display at Yad Vashem, Washington and Auschwitz.
Peysakhov’s pictures, though, offer a redemptive irony. Even as he captures Russian Judaism at pains to survive, he renders the vitality of Ukraine’s Jews. He does this by allowing them their ordinariness. Here they are at work, tending animals, fixing clocks, making new shoes. When not intent on their labor, his subjects look at him with a regard that can only be called tender; clearly he has earned their trust. A 6-year-old pulls her ears and mugs for him (“Ira Potapova”); a pair of schoolgirls gaze back at his camera with sublime simplicity (“Shtetl 2-01”). The most recent pictures in “The Jewish Shtetl Today” are already 10 years old, and many of the subjects are already dead. But their glory is to give us neither a vanished world nor a timeless one, but a world of presence. In Peysakhov’s photographs, Jews experience time doing what it does best: passing.
Esther Schor, professor of English at Princeton University, is writing a biography of Emma Lazarus for Nextbook/Schocken.