On a wet afternoon in Lower Manhattan, an elderly man in a rain-drenched tweed coat strolled into the photo gallery at America’s most famous Islamic cultural center — dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its critics — and perused the portraits of New York children from 169 of the world’s 193 countries.
“When you are a kid, you don’t understand religion or politics,” he mused to a man in a black baseball cap and a jeans jacket, sitting on a bench at the far end of the makeshift gallery. “You are just human.”
Danny Goldfield, the unassuming photographer behind the exhibit, stood to introduce himself. “Can you agree with me that humanity is the way to peace?” the man suddenly asked. Goldfield looked taken aback. He murmured quietly, “Sure.”
Goldfield is an unlikely ambassador for the Islamic cultural center. A 44-year-old Brooklyn Jew, he opened his exhibit, “NYChildren,” at the Islamic center on September 21. The debut may signal a subtle refashioning of the center’s orientation.
Originally envisioned as a $100 million, 15-story Muslim community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site, Park51 — as the facility is formally known — has drawn massive opposition from bloggers and activists, as well as from some Jewish communal leaders who view it as an affront to the memory of 9/11. Today, it appears that the criticism has taken its toll, with plans for a new building tabled for at least two years. In the meantime, Park51 consists of just a small mosque next to a gallery in the Burlington Coat Factory building in Downtown Manhattan.
Goldfield’s exhibit — which has nothing to do with Islam — reflects a project that appears to be recontoured as a modest neighborhood community center from its original vision as a tony Islamic version of the JCC on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Goldfield first connected with Sharif El-Gamal, chairman of the project, and his partner, Nour Moussa, last August, at the height of the controversy over the site. A friend of Goldfield invited the Brooklyn photographer to a neighborhood meeting in the Park51 mosque, where El-Gamal described his vision for the facility. It was El-Gamal’s repeated references to cultivating good neighbors that prompted Goldfield to speak to the assembled crowd about his project — a seven-year work in progress to photograph New York children from every country in the world.
After the meeting, Goldfield approached El-Gamal with a book of the photographs and El-Gamal commissioned him on the spot for the center’s opening. The next day, Moussa showed Goldfield the cavernous room by the light of his cell phone. It lacked electricity and interior walls. Was Goldfield sure he could make something of the space? Goldfield said he could.
Armed with $70,000 in private donations from a 40-day online fund drive, the Park51 team overlaid the factory store’s tile floor with white-painted sheets of particleboard and constructed two interior walls on which to hang Goldfield’s 169 photographs. On one wall, Goldfield placed a list of the 23 countries that he had yet to photograph. He hoped that the exhibit would yield these last children.
More than one year after Goldfield took on El-Gamal’s commission, the “NYChildren” exhibit quietly opened, void of the protesters the organizers feared would show up. At the opening, Goldfield found himself acting as a spokesman not only for “NYChildren,” but also for Park51. Until then, his Jewish background was a bit of a joke between him and the two Muslim organizers. Now, it suddenly took on broader significance. “This guy from Univision called me up, and he said: ‘Are you by chance Jewish? That makes the story better,’” he related.
Pamela Geller, the Jewish blogger widely credited with igniting the fury against Park51 on her blog, Atlas Shrugged, voiced a cynical view of Goldfield’s Jewish background. “El-Gamal gets a ‘Goldfield’ to front for this mosquestrosity, using children and immigration and all that jazz to raise money for the mosque, and this Goldfield gets huge media coverage for a photo exhibit,” she wrote.
Goldfield contends that the show has nothing to do with his religion. “This is Danny, Nour and Sharif putting on an exhibit with their respective teams,” he said. El-Gamal reiterated this in an e-mail to the Forward: “It was the artwork that caught my eye, not Danny’s religion.” Yet El-Gamal also acknowledged, “It is significant to bring Jews and Muslims together in such a positive way — something akin to the Seeds of Peace program,” a reference to the summer camp in Maine that brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth.
Before the opening, the Anti-Defamation League affirmed the right of the center to locate at its site, but declared the decision to do so as “counterproductive to the healing process” post-9/11. Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said that Goldfield’s Jewish background has no bearing on his opposition to the center. “I am not revisiting this because someone is having an art exhibit with a Jewish artist,” he said.
Goldfield himself shies away from the implication that his Jewish background makes him an especially significant figure for the center’s opening. But he said that visiting the homes of nearly 200 immigrant families had forced him to probe his identity in unexpected ways. Rather than seek out children from the dominant ethnic groups in their home countries, Goldfield created a rule for himself to photograph the first child he met from whatever nation he was seeking. His photo project inadvertently brought him into contact with Jews from far-flung places, like Moldova, Tajikistan and Suriname. His Israeli child was an Ethiopian Jew. He put on tefillin for the first time with the parents of his Uzbek subject.
When it came time to hang the exhibit — a mere 20 hours before the opening — Goldfield subtly injected his Jewish sensibility into the project: He grouped the photos into 18 sections, a number that in Hebrew signifies “life.”
Noticeably absent from the show were images of children from contested regions like Palestine and Tibet. Goldfield has a photograph of several Palestinian children, taken at the behest of a Palestinian intern. But he opted not to put this photo in the exhibit, hewing to his self-imposed rule to restrict his exhibition to children from countries recognized as such by the United Nations. Goldfield’s exhibit opened two days before the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. “If somehow this vote happened,” he said. “I would follow my rule” and put the photograph on the wall.
The photographs that did make it into the exhibit spoke volumes about immigrant life in New York — a place simultaneously welcoming and wary of newcomers, at least as far as Park51 was concerned. There was Joshua from Tajikistan strolling in a winter coat, a flower in one hand. Joie from Malaysia lifted a spoon to her mouth using a pair of chopsticks. And Victor from France sat on a metal chair, his mouth opening into a broad smile.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.