A series of highly unusual photographs was recently on display at the town hall of Paris’s 4th arrondissement. The exhibit depicts Hasidic Jews — but not like we’ve ever seen them before.
This was precisely French photographer Sacha Goldberger‘s intention with the images, which he titled, “The 770: Lubavitchs of Brooklyn,” referencing the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Many professional photographers have staked themselves out on the streets of Brooklyn, surreptitiously capturing moments in the lives of Hasidic Jews are they go about their daily lives. On occasion for documentary purposes, some have even gained rare access into the homes and synagogues of the community.
Goldberger has uniquely partnered with Chabad-Lubavitch Jews themselves to produced stylized, ironic and self-deprecatingly humorous images that serve to both amuse and educate.
“I decided I wanted to do a project that showed Jews in a positive light,” Goldberger told The Times of Israel shortly after the exhibition closed on July 9.
“The image we Jews have in France is not good now. There is lots of anti-Semitism, and it’s getting worse and worse. We are in a bit of a lull at the moment, but the anti-Semitism will surely come back,” he said.
According to the photographer, both old and new varieties of anti-Semitism are abundantly evident, and it has become popular in France to be anti-Semitic.
Goldberger, 47, wanted to do something to combat the negative image of Jews, and he did it in the way he knew how — through his highly stylized approach to photography that he developed from years of working in advertising and fashion.
Those familiar with Goldberger’s work will recognize this approach from his acclaimed “Mamika,” “Super-Flemish” and “Meet My Mum” series, all of which are currently being featured in a major retrospective exhibition at Gare de Paris-Austerlitz until September 30.
In “Super-Flemish” Goldberger imagines what superhero characters created in the 20th century (Superman, Wonder Woman, The Hulk, and others) would have been like had they been born in the 16th or 17th centuries and had their portraits created by painters of the Flemish school. In these striking, painting-like images, we perceive the softness and melancholy of those we have come to consider invincible.
‘I didn’t do this to get any money or fame. This project is very personal for me’
The “Meet My Mum” photos resemble 1950s Edward Hopper paintings. In each, an adult character is seen with his or her elderly parent literally on his or her back. Of course, these somewhat eerie images are about what it means metaphorically to have one’s parents weighing on us — for good and for bad.
“Mamika” is the series for which Goldberger is best known. These photos, shown in many exhibitions and collected in two books, are of Goldberger’s own nonagenarian grandmother posing as a purple spandex suit-clad superhero involved in crazy stunts like dueling with Darth Vader, walking a flying dog, and riding backward atop a vintage black Dodge Coronet. (Mamika, the superhero’s name, means “little grandmother” in Hungarian.)
It was while he worked on the “Mamika” project that Goldberger first started exploring his Jewish identity. “Mamika,” or Frederika Goldberger (now 97) and her daughter (the photographer’s mother) are Holocaust survivors. After escaping the Nazis and managing to survive the war in Hungary, they came to Paris via Switzerland when the communists took over. Because of her wartime experiences, Frederika insisted that her children and grandchildren hide their Jewish identity.
The photographer attended Christian schools as a child, but with the last name Goldberger, it wasn’t hard for his fellow students to suspect that he was Jewish.
“The kids would call me ‘Dirty Jew,’ so when I was about 13 years old, I knew I had to take a position,” Goldberger said about his decision from that point to be open about his identity. Years later, as an adult, he began educating himself about Judaism and observing Shabbat, holidays and kashrut. He also visits Israel on average twice a year.
‘With the situation as it is in France, I had to deal specifically with the Jewish religion’
“‘Mamika’ was about Ashkenazi-Hungarian Jewish grandmother humor. I felt that this time, with the situation as it is in France, I had to deal specifically with the Jewish religion,” Goldberger explained about the genesis for “The 770.”
“I knew I couldn’t just take photos of a guy with a kippah. True, a guy with a kippah is a Jew, but with a photo you have to be very symbolic, you have to go right to the point. For most people, a black hat and a black beard equals a Jew,” he said.
Was it hard to get the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights to read a prayer book while standing atop a sidewalk bollard, drive a motorcycle while balancing a black fedora atop a bulky helmet, perch atop a laundromat washing machine, or do a slapstick fall on a wet sidewalk?
According to Goldberg, the answer is emphatically no.
“The Lubavitchers are the most open to the world of all Hasidim. They have a huge sense of humor. They are very funny and happy people,” he claimed.
The photographer was introduced to the Chabad community in Brooklyn through the rabbi at his synagogue in Paris. (“If I have to go to the synagogue, then I go to a Lubavitch one,” he noted.)
After a week of just hanging out in the community and getting to know people, Goldberger started photographing according to concepts that he and his creative partner Ben Bensimon came up with.
‘The Lubavitchers are the most open to the world of all Hasidim. They have a huge sense of humor. They are very funny and happy people’
“I showed them my ideas, which were very different, and most of the people agreed to being photographed in this way,” said the photographer, who ended up making several trips and spending a total of two months shooting in Brooklyn.
With his goal of educating the French public about Jews in mind, Goldberger wanted to be sure to deal with specific subjects in the images — only in an arch, exaggerated way. For instance, to illustrate that religious Jews cover their head to remind them that there is a higher power above them, Goldberger did not merely photograph a Hasid wearing a black hat. Instead, he put him behind the wheel of a classic car with a black hat on the vehicle’s roof.
In another example, to show the intensity of the Lubavitchers reverence for their rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Goldberger photographed three men holding up portraits of him. The portraits obscure the men’s faces, symbolizing the extent to which their personal identities are intertwined with the identity and legacy of their leader.
This photo, like some of the others, weave humor with critique, or at least critical questioning.
A photo of a young girl posed in a kitchen, wearing her mother’s wig and long skirt and modest blouse looks at first glance like many photos of little girls playing dress-up. But the little girl’s expression is not happy. Could this be a statement challenging or disapproving of the fixed gender roles in ultra-Orthodox Judaism?
In another photo, a Hasid reads a newspaper. Someone has taken a marker and turned the person in the photo on the front page into a Hasid. One can take this as merely indicating that Hasidim live in tight knit communities where virtually everyone dresses and looks the same. But is this a good thing?
‘I am still proud to be French. This is my country. But to be a Jew in France right now is complicated. I’m seriously thinking of moving to the US’
“The 770” has been a real departure for Goldberg from his previous work. For one thing, these pictures are made with black and white film instead of in the vibrant digital colors Goldberger is known for.
More important is the different motivation behind the project.
“I didn’t do this to get any money or fame. This project is very personal for me,” Goldberger said.
He has been buoyed by the positive reception to the recent “The 770” exhibition, but he’s far from convinced that things are going to change for the better for Jews in France.
“I am still proud to be French. This is my country. But to be a Jew in France right now is complicated. I’m seriously thinking of moving to the US,” he said.
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