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A Second Chance: God's Gift of Renewal
By Hallie Lerman
In our hyper-communicative age of Internet travel blogs and photo-sharing Web sites, it's never been easier for traveling writers and photographers to share their words and pictures with the global public.
Free from the constraints of editors and the tyranny of publishing houses, a new generation of digital-camera and laptop enthusiasts have flooded cyberspace with their thoughts and images from around the world.
What a pleasure it is, then, to sit down with a book like Hallie Lerman's A Second Chance: God's Gift of Renewal, which is the complete antithesis of such electronic frenzy.
A hardcover, coffee-table book printed on glossy paper, A Second Chance is an elegantly designed showcase for Lerman's well-composed black-and-white photographs of Israel, offset with scriptural quotations and the author's own commentary. The book is divided into thematic sections, each with a brief introduction, although there are no chapters or page numbers.
Published by Sinai Temple, a large Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, the book grew out of a visit to Israel by a group from the synagogue to collect a new Sefer Torah, especially written to commemorate the recovery of their rabbi, the author David Wolpe, from a life-threatening illness.
The book focuses on this particular Torah and branches out to explore themes of renewal found at the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and around Israel.
Despite the origins of the project, this is not a travel journal by any means - Lerman focuses on her photographs and their sequence and meaning. The text, all in English, comprises well-chosen quotations, explanations of themes and interpretations of the photos. The effectively minimalist graphic design - images on the right-hand page, text on the left, lots of white space - enable her starkly shaded photographs to jump off the page.
The first sequence is almost cinematic in presentation: a series of photographs of the new Torah scroll from different angles, drawing ever closer, paired with quotes extolling the virtues and benefits of study from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is followed by shots of the hand of the scribe, who finishes Deuteronomy at the dedication ceremony.
In this sequence his hand is accompanied by other, helping hands touching his and seemingly guided by his work, one of which is revealed to belong to a young girl. In a dynamic image, she is shown staring thoughtfully at the camera, while behind her, reflected in a mirror, is a man with a pistol clearly holstered at his side.
"In the presence of a prayer shawl, a child in a pensive and thoughtful pose, mindlessly playing with her hair, is as natural and comfortable as a man sitting nearby with a loaded gun resting upon his hip," Lerman comments. "Only in Israel."
Another powerful image is a photograph entitled "The Blouse," which shows a woman's body and hand leaning over the Torah, touching the hand of the scribe as he is writing.
"A lovely jeweled bracelet rests upon her wrist as her other arm extends back, framing his arm and lending a maternal protective presence," Lerman writes. "Her soft, sensual womanly presence is projected through her dress and d collet blouse, framed by Queen Anne's lace. It reveals her form. A fitted skirt reinforces this image of femininity... The restriction that women are not to approach a Torah, and the sensual reality that this female presence projects, reveal visually the ongoing conflict between this modern practice and traditional Judaism."
Her choice of photographs and commentary reveal her roots as a Conservative Jew from Los Angeles visiting the Holy Land. Passionately connected to and respectful of Torah tradition but clearly a feminist, Lerman is an ardent Zionist who looks at Israel from the outside, and her fine eye for detail can at times reveal unexpected depths in familiar places.
In one stunning example entitled "The River of Prayers," in a close-up shot a section of the Western Wall appears as a barren landscape seen from the air, with the cracks holding the notes left by worshippers emerging as flowing rivers, merging into a larger waterway toward the bottom of the image. Another photograph in the sequence shows her use of deep contrast, as a broad section of the Wall is suddenly illuminated amidst the surrounding darkness, with the dark hats of praying hassidim silhouetted along the dividing line.
The theme of renewal truly comes to the fore in the penultimate section of A Second Chance, which focuses on Yad Vashem and symbolic images of Israeli life. Lerman's photos here are of the grounds and plantlife surrounding the complex of buildings. Her choices - a shoot bursting forth from among the rocks, stately trees honoring the Righteous Among the Nations, delicate flowers reaching toward the empty sky - are shown as effective metaphors for the Israeli experience after the Holocaust. Among the quotes she chooses in this section is "For the life of a man is like the tree of the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Overall, A Second Chance is a fine work that fulfills the author's intention. The choice of quotations is well done although one might wish at times to see them in their original Hebrew - this absence is particularly conspicuous in a work so focused on Torah and Judaism. Lerman's remarks, while interesting, are sometimes meandering, but they do reveal hidden meaning in her images that might go otherwise unappreciated.
The book is well-suited to casual browsing on a Shabbat afternoon but leaves food for thought as well. Many of these photographs, enlarged and framed, would make an excellent addition to any home... as would the book itself.