A Jewish life down under

Photographer Angela Lynkushka was the first to document the Melbourne Jewish community as a body of work, seeking to create a historical document, maintained and preserved to live forever.

By SCHELLY TALALAY DARDASHTI
April 4, 2007 08:50

 
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A new Beth Hatefutsoth photographic exhibit - the first new exhibit in two years - focuses on the vibrant Jewish community of Melbourne, Australia. Photographer Angela Lynkushka has recorded an immigration and settlement story in three parts: The people, the oldest synagogue and artist Felix Tuszynski. In addition to Lynkushka's photographs, two films by Australian filmmaker and writer Lesley Sharon Rosenthal will be screened: Buboolah Bagela (1998) and Shmatte Mazel (2001), as well as Monique Schwarz's Bitter Herbs and Honey: The Jews of Carlton - A New Beginning (1996). Born in Melbourne to parents from London, Angela Lynkushka, 59, lived and raised her children in the Brunswick working-class suburb in the late 1970s, in a milieu of thriving community activism and consciousness. The first residents were Jews, Italians and Greeks, but they had moved on; the second wave of migrants included Turks, Lebanese and Vietnamese, in addition to some Jewish seniors who had stayed. "I was the first person in the neighborhood with a camera," says Lynkushka, in our far-ranging conversation at the museum soon after she arrived from Melbourne. She stressed that at the time, most people didn't have telephones ("I didn't") or cars; they were learning their way around a new language, a new country. Educated as a librarian, she says, "I was always interested in photography and my father was a graphic designer." But she never thought of photography as a career. In the 1960s-70s, the photography field was a boys' club: very macho, tough and, if a woman came along, she was bullied. "The only possibilities were commercial or studio photography. I wasn't interested in that." The women's movement brought transformation and change, an understanding that women can get the picture or the story that a man can't. In any case, she was raising her children, couldn't work as there was no childcare, but she had an opportunity to learn basic photography from a friend with a darkroom. "We started a child photography business, as we both had young children." They didn't get very far - area residents were photographed only when christened or married. She began to work with the local council, photographing childcare facilities, kindergartens, cr ches, festivals and council members for reports. This wasn't what Lynkushka wanted. "I wanted to do an epic," she recalls. "When you're young, you have a dream that is very long because you have a long life ahead of you." Her dream was to look at Australia as a society of new cultures at a time when - in the 1970s-80s - it was an Anglo "mono" culture. "If it wasn't Anglo, it was marginalized, hidden or invisible. There were all these vibrant cultures, but they had no public face." Lynkushka had a desire to change the public face of Australia through the power of photography, which she had seen in books. "Compared to America and Europe, Australia was so bland." The revelation came when she opened her eyes, realizing "it was all around me, in my own community. I only had to walk down the street, out my front door." This she believes is what is unique about her work, as she works on projects in small geographical spaces. "I believed that I was revealing hidden secrets, hidden treasures." When she showed her photographs at a gallery, they asked, "Where did you find these people?" She replied, "They live next door." Lynkushka says that Australia was so distant that writing a letter and getting it to France, Germany or Poland was nearly impossible. "People just forgot their families, like amnesia." The elders don't want to talk about it, she says, adding "Our generation pushes for information, curious, educated, going outside the family for information, and are now gathering these fragments into a social family quilt." Lynkushka believes that although family life and quality of life was very good, many people ("intellectuals or artists") left Australia, as they felt suffocated by parochialism. "Our generation took this as a challenge. We said we're not going to accept this, we're going to change that, the world will change, culture would change. We said 'I'm going to paint this, photograph this,' and we didn't care whether it was accepted or not." Since 1978, Lynkushka has been a photographer in the genre of documentary portraiture and social documentation. Her work is in private collections and museums in the US, France, Italy, Israel and the UK. Her work explores the juncture between history as an art form and a documentary. It goes beyond photojournalism, beyond social documentary photography. She has also worked with migrant communities, youth culture, artists, dancers and indigenous Australians. Her website www.lynkushka.id.au/ illustrates her previous work. She was the first to document the Melbourne Jewish community as a body of work, "not just a picture for the Jewish News, or the city paper for a Jewish event." "This was to be a work that was to be a historical document, maintained and preserved to live forever - the community at that particular time." The work is now in the archives of the State Library of Victoria for public access. The exhibit incorporates an architectural study of The East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, founded in the Gold Rush days of 1852; the current building dates from 1877. It was the newcomers' center of Jewish communal life, which remained connected through Yiddish culture. The Jewish immigrants worked hard ("survival mode") in the early days. They were too busy working, dealing with a new environment and language, absorbing English on the factory floor ("there were no classes then for immigrants"), with little time for anything else. It was Yiddish that connected them. When she was growing up, says Lynkushka, people gathered at the Kadima community center. "We had Sunday school that all the boys and girls hated in universal fashion, and they would have preferred to take the tram to the beach." It also offered Yiddish theatre and a library - the culture held the community together. Lynkushka believes that although family life and quality of life was very good, many people ("intellectuals or artists") left Australia, as they felt suffocated by parochialism. "Our generation took this as a challenge. We said we're not going to accept this, we're going to change that, the world will change, culture would change. We said 'I'm going to paint this, photograph this,' and we didn't care whether it was accepted or not." Has her personal family history spurred her interest in recording her community? Lynkushka shares a story about part of her family immigrating to Australia in the 1860s, after a first stop in America. She readily admits she doesn't know much, but she plans to visit the museum's genealogy center for some research. "It's interesting that you asked about my family, because I've never thought of this before," she says. "It's fragmented - I don't know much. Who's out there?" "I realize now that one of my driving motives, my desire in doing this initial project in the late 80s-early 90s, was to transfer my frustration about having little knowledge of my own family into finding out about other people's lives and families." When you talk to people about themselves, she says, they talk about their relatives, and if they don't have any, they talk about those who are dead. "In one sense, it was transference and fulfilled me. It was hidden from me, and from other people. Of her images, she says, "I've immortalized that person, that moment is frozen forever, no one can take it away from me, the person or their family." Lynkushka takes responsibility for placing the image in a museum, to be respected and preserved forever. She believes that artists who "extract" information from people have a responsibility to the community, the individuals and themselves. Lynkushka's goal is to hunt - to be a hunter - uncover information, preserve it and immortalize it. She continued hunting for more than 2 1/2 years. The photographer's power, she believes, is stronger than text or speech: "It is proof." Lynkushka has photographed many cultures and groups, and when she began working on the Jewish community - her own community - she felt a sense of urgency about recording the first generation because people's lives were changing. The people who owned the little shops retired and today that site may be a fashionable caf . Most places pictured are now gone, or the people have died. "Capturing these images was so important - 'the wonder of the moment.'" A museum staffer commented that the pictures could have been in Chicago or Brooklyn - but it was Australia, stresses Lynkushka. That first immigrant generation arrived in Australia, abandoning ties to family in other countries, as it was so difficult to communicate in the early days, she says, adding that it happened with her own family who lost contact with the American and European branches. They were joined by Holocaust survivors and others, re-establishing their lives. The second generation was more educated, with associates from various areas of life, while today's young, contemporary generation is confident, educated, has no fear, and travels the world with many choices and opportunities. The cycle seems complete: The immigrants arriving from around the world and cut off, while the young people begin traveling the world and making connections. "I've been in Israel before, and I'd love to stay for a year and just work," she says, adding that she'll be here a few weeks and is also interested in working on a Beduin project to show the multi-cultural society in Israel, relatively unknown elsewhere. Lynkushka would like to change that perception. NIS 40 million injection for museum On March 18, the Knesset approved a development budget of NIS 40 million over the next five years for Beth Hatefutsoth's development and expansion. It will become the National Center for Jewish Communities in Israel and Around the World. Resources will come from the Ministries of Finance, Education, Science, Culture and Sport, and the Prime Minister's Office. The plan includes upgrades to the existing permanent exhibit and adapting it to 21st century technological media; a new permanent exhibit documenting contemporary Jewish life; additional temporary exhibit display space; completion of the new Spiegel Family Wing (empty for 15 years); and general facility renovation. The exhibit runs through July 31, and is a joint project with the Jewish Museum of Australia, curated by Helen Frajman, funded by the Gandel Charitable Trust.

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