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Putting the Pieces of the Puzzle Together

A few minutes shy of 8 o’clock on a sticky August morning, a stylish restaurant in midtown Manhattan barely hummed, its normally alert staff still blinking back sleep. Suddenly the door swung open, blown back, it seemed, by some freakish wintry gale. But no mere force of nature disrupted the early-morning calm. It was French photographer Frédéric Brenner, who rushed forward with the vigor of a young bull and imperiously waved off the waiter who offered to stow his portfolio before plunging into nearly two uninterrupted hours of passionate, multilingual commentary on the 25 years he has spent photographing Jewish communities around the world.

Brenner, perhaps best known for his books “Jews/America: A Representation” (1996) and “Exile at Home” (1998), depicting immigrants to Israel, was in town to promote his many contributions to New York’s fall cultural season, including lectures, three short films and the publication of an extraordinary two-volume collection of photographs and commentary, “Diaspora: Homelands in Exile” (HarperCollins). “Diaspora” also serves as the catalog for the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey,” opening October 3 and running through January 11, 2004. Merely intimating the existence of a commercial strategy, though, caused Brenner’s warm baritone to rise several octaves. “It’s never the marketing that has dictated to us!” he stressed, noting that the organization and selection of photographs in the book and exhibit are completely different. “Merchandising,” he said, pausing to coin a word, “is about decomplexifying. The questions in this book are difficult questions by difficult writers.”

One look at “Diaspora” confirms Brenner’s assessment of his project. Born in Paris in 1959 and trained as a social anthropologist, he took the earliest photograph in “Diaspora” a child costumed as an angel for Purim, darting down an alley in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim district — in 1978. Its incongruity struck him: “I was photographing a reproduction of an Eastern European shtetl in the heart of the Middle East,” he said, a recreation of exile and diaspora within the holy city itself. Brenner began to ask himself what it means to be Jewish: to be “ivrim, passeurs,” people who “cross over.” His quest for answers would bring him to more than 40 countries and become his life’s work. It took him a decade to recognize the nature of the project he had chosen — or, as he put it, the project that had chosen him.

Brenner’s distaste for tidy rationalizations is evident in his work and its disposition in “Diaspora.” The first volume, “Photographs,” consists of 264 images (all but two duotones) arrayed in a calculatedly disorienting manner, with constantly shifting margins and layouts — “a true puzzle,” he explained, “where the pieces don’t exactly match, and there are some missing pieces.” The photographs themselves evoke “ambivalence, paradox and discontinuity” just as insistently as the space around them. “The Prayer” (1985) depicts three Portuguese crypto-Jews, hands covering their faces, standing beneath a turbulent sky. Are they hiding their identity or reciting the Sh’ma openly, for all to see? Is their stance evidence of a “refusal to forget” or the hollow mimicry of a long-suppressed rite? Does the bristly fig tree to their right hint at the burning bush of the book of Exodus or, more ominously, the parable of Luke 21 and its pre-apocalyptic “ingathering of the Jews”?

Such questions come to the fore in the second volume of “Diaspora,” titled “Voices,” which contains 60 images from the first volume surrounded by talmudic-style commentary from several dozen distinguished thinkers, including Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, George Steiner, Carlos Fuentes and Jacques Derrida. A 1983 photograph of Ethiopian Jews regally clad in white robes, seated before the Simens Mountains, calls forth a bracing variety of responses. Brenner’s text relays the disillusionment of one subject, Etenesh Bruck, now settled in Israel: “We are first seen as black and then as Jews.” Contributor Zvi Bekerman conveys Bruck’s humiliation at being asked to undergo conversion upon arrival. Julius Lester ponders the resistance to Judaism’s putative African origins, remarking, “At the very least, we can say that Moses and the Jews in Egypt were not Ashkenazim.” Most provocative, perhaps, is the poem Sami Shalom Chetrit addresses to the “black desert daughters,” challenging them to “say something… of European wisdom,” “of her sublime culture” — to “say something,” at last, “of Auschwitz.”

Provocation abounds in “Diaspora”: in “Jews with Hogs,” depicting Miami bikers and their Harleys in front of a synagogue; in “Passion Play in Tykocin,” showing Catholic Poles costumed for the purimspiel that their village’s exterminated Jews cannot enact. Still, the Ethiopian image and its commentary evoke aspects of Brenner’s work that may ruffle feathers in the North American Jewish community: first, his conviction that recent Jewish history “has been written from a very ethnocentric point of view: white, Western, Ashkenazi.” He leaned forward, eyes ablaze. “I wanted to show all the many fragments that make up the fabric of klal Yisrael. I believe that there is no minor or major diaspora.” And then there is his treatment of the Shoah: ever-present, to be sure, but less front-and-center than some might expect. Brenner noted wearily “the way Jews — mainly in America, but also in Europe — have dealt with the victimhood story, the way we have been abused by it.”

Indeed, for all the emphasis on paradox and ambiguity in Brenner’s work, on one point the photographer was unequivocal: “One of the things this book achieved for me is that, for the first time, while the great majority of Jews and non-Jews know how Jews died, this book is about how Jews live.” He paraphrased Deuteronomy, giving lusty weight to his conclusion: “‘I have put before you life and death. Choose life!’ Et Rachi nous dit “And Rashi tells us,” he continued, switching into French — “‘And you will dig into life!’”

Marion Lignana Rosenberg, a regular contributor to Time Out New York and Opera News, has written about the arts for, Playbill and Boston Magazine.

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