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It seems as long as there have been Jews, Jewish identity has been a subject of obsessive exploration. Whether it's Jews in the Diaspora debating assimilation, Israeli Jews parsing the meaning of national identity or American Jews trying to find their roots, Jewish identity - ethnic, racial, religious, political - has never been clear or uniform.
In America, Jewish identity is a particularly interesting dilemma. Because the majority of the country's six million Jews trace their origins to Ashkenazi Eastern Europe, it is their appearance and their specific narrative that has become dominant in our minds and representative of the Jewish people as a whole.
The Jewish Identity Project, an illuminating new exhibition of 10 photo and video projects at New York's Jewish Museum (on display through January 29, 2006), seeks to question that prevalent image of American Jews and stimulate dialogue. The artistic exhibition asks: Who is a Jew?, What does it mean to be Jewish? and Who gets to decide?
The 10 projects are the work of 13 artists and feature photographs, video and audio recordings of mixed-race Jews, Hispanic Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, Iranian Jews, adoptees, converts and Jews in the iconic American heartland.
Curator Susan Chevlowe, 45, explains that the show was conceived in order to question "assumptions about Jewishness in the United States, the idea of what Jews look like and how Jews are represented in the popular culture, the media and the history we've constructed. In a multicultural society, Jews, who have always been a diverse people, are looking more diverse."
Among the more engaging projects is "The Wedding" by provocative photographer Nikki S. Lee, 35, a Korean artist based in New York. For the work, Lee fabricated a series of photos in which she herself is a bride at the center of conventional Jewish wedding images. The photos are staged to meet stereotypical expectations of a Jewish wedding, but then there is Lee - an obviously Asian woman - totally at home in that context and arousing no discomfort in the others present. Lee, the exotic core of the photos, appears so natural that the groom is literally cropped out of the frame.
In his work, Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey, 52, produced five large-format color photos of mixed-ethnicity Jewish teenagers confronting the camera, accompanied by brief audio interviews about each teen's identity. In what could have easily devolved into political correctness or irksome racial politics, the teens come across as thoughtful and candid.
One girl, Sahai, a 16-year-old adoptee from Ethiopia who converted to Judaism after coming to the US, sees her Jewishness as a religious choice. For her, being Jewish is a spiritual way to brace a difficult childhood within a support system, to make life easier.
Fifteen-year-old Jacob, who has a deceased black father and a Jewish mother, has made the most of the world's desire to assert labels: "I identify myself as being Black but I also identify myself with being Jewish, too. I like being different than other people. I'm one of a kind, you could say."
Bey asserts: "I do think that identity as such is a subjective construct, and all of us are hybrids in a way. That is to say that a lot of people cannot claim any singular sense of race or ethnicity. It's more complicated than that."
The Florida-based husband and wife photographic team of Andrea Robbins, 42, and Max Becher, 41, created a two-part series on Lubavitcher hassids called Brooklyn Abroad. The first part documents the Lubavitchers of Postville, Iowa, a remote and quintessentially small-town community that was unfamiliar to Jews before the arrival of a kosher slaughterhouse in the 1980s. In the photos, we find Hassids posing on a porch, bicycling through a rural street, mowing a spacious lawn and fishing on the riverbank.
"We sometimes approach projects that we know are very clich ," starts Robbins. "With the Hassidim, one of the clich s that we see over and over again with photography is the idea of these old fashioned-looking people performing rituals," conveying the theme of "timelessness" and casting the Orthodox as the "keepers of religion." But, "by studying, we realized that the Hassidim were actually quite a modern phenomenon. So, our point of view was to present them not in an old fashioned historic context but as a modern phenomenon...against a backdrop that would be very familiar to most Americans."
"We don't use people to stand for groups," Robbins adds. "The photos of people doing things are always just that personâ€¦But everyone goes fishing. Everybody can relate to having a day with your son and just the simple pleasures of life."
But the Lubavitchers are not, of course, just like their neighbors. "Everything about them is different," says Robbins. "The way they dress, the rituals, the food they eat. That is the essence of an Orthodox Jew. It's about separation, about ritualizing and essentializing every aspect of their lives."
In the second part of the project, Robbins and Becher photographed 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn - the architectural heart of the Lubavitcher movement - and several of its dozen replicas throughout the world. We see the collegiate red-brick building first in its original location, then carefully recreated in entirely different contexts: Los Angeles, New Jersey, Israel, Montreal and dramatically dwarfed by the space age skyline of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"We show the 770s in panoramas, up-close," Robbins concludes. "We sort of isolate them so they're in the center" of the frame, out-of-context from the surroundings. "Sometimes they blend in and sometimes they don't. But I don't think blending in is a concern of theirs. They want the building to be immediately identifiable [amongst themselves and] not necessarily to others. It's like a kind of code."