‘These are my people’

Yosaif Cohain sets out to tell the visual story of the Jewish people in their homeland celebrating Succot.

kids standing next to succa samaria 1990 (photo credit: Yosaif Cohain)
kids standing next to succa samaria 1990
(photo credit: Yosaif Cohain)
In 1981, Yosaif Cohain set out to tell the visual story of the Jewish people in their homeland celebrating Succot. He asked God to grant him 15 years for the massive undertaking. That plan didn’t quite pan out, as 30 years later Cohain’s project is still going strong. He continues nearly every year to spend the intermediate days of Succot photographing citizens from every corner and walk of life celebrating the holiday.
Cohain, a senior photography lecturer at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, has captured thousands of angles of the Jewish people; playful neighborhood children in Netivot in 1990, a proud mother in Gush Katif standing steadfast beside her family’s succa in 2004, soldiers on reserve duty – all with the backdrop of Succot.
As Cohain, a New York native who made aliya in 1971 with his family, walks me through his upcoming exhibition “Identity of a Nation,” which opens October 16 at Jerusalem’s Mayanot Gallery, he describes his subjects and their landscape with remarkably deep love and respect, as cherished beings, as he would his own family. And that’s because they’re not just subjects to him.
“These are my people. These are my heroes,” he says. “This is about the Jewish experience in the Land of Israel. This is why we’re here.”
Though Cohain has shown parts of his collection before at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this is the first time he is exhibiting work of Succot in Gush Katif just before disengagement from the Gaza Strip. While Cohain says his photographs generally don’t have a political message, he admits these do.
“I didn’t want anyone to forget,” he says. “I want everyone to look at them, to see the faces they’ve forgotten… I wanted more than the succa; I wanted the place.”
In the Gush Katif photos, Cohain achieves a mournful, brave tone. In Standing next to the home and succa (Gush Katif, 2004), the mother stands with daughters on either side, barefoot, staring seriously into the camera, as the baby crawls nearby, his face hidden by a bright Israeli flag. The stunning white house behind them, which Cohain says they worked hard for, stands in contrast to the small wooden succa alongside it. When Cohain looks at the mother, she seems to say, “We’re going to go through this together and we’re proud of it.”
These are the faces he wants Israeli society to remember. “To these pictures, everyone brings a collective memory that you can’t blot out,” he says. Whether you’re Left or Right, against or supportive of disengagement, the subjects are demanding that we acknowledge they existed in a Jewish community, now gone, he says.
Cohain points out the minute yet ultra-meaningful details in his photographs – a plastic tablecloth spread over the succa’s table, dirt falling from a flowerpot, old Jerusalem floor tiles, a rag in the corner. “It tells a lot about who we are,” he says of the belongings. “If you don’t feel it and know it, it won’t mean something to you.”
These are the defining elements to the photographs that make the people in the pictures real and endearing. The succot constructed from wood, cardboard and even simpler materials are adorned with Israeli flags – like in Six Day War Motif photographed in Jerusalem in 1980 – political signs and paper chains.
The neighborhood apartment scenes of wriggling children next to their succot are energetic, filled with a natural movement and strong nostalgia for childhood. Cohain never directs people where to stand, but simply allows them to be wherever and however they wish. This is clear, especially in the photos of children. He emphasizes, “It’s not about me. It’s about them.” The photographs, he says, are “basically stimuli for the people to be able to express themselves.”
Cohain, who has lived in Alon Shvut since 1977, says he’s learned that everyone knows for themselves where they want to stand, pose, lean – none of it can be choreographed. His strategy is to listen, yield control and let the self-expression happen organically. “Someone’s giving you something precious.
I respect what they’re telling me,” he says, whether that means a child standing on top of a succa pole and grinning (Youth standing next to, and on the beam of their succa, Samaria, 1990) or a young ultra-Orthodox boy cradling a picture of the Rebbe (Kfar Chabad, 1990).
The smiles, pranks and inside jokes visible on the kids’ faces recall childhood at its most happy moments. In Succa with neighborhood children (Netivot, 1990) two young girls have switched shoes, a few boys are giggling on the banister and one girl clutches a stuffed teddy bear that overpowers her small stature.
“This is part of their play. This is the street,” Cohain says. A particularly lovely black-and-white photograph, Leviah and Rabbi Rozen (Alon Shvut, 1980) reveals a private moment shared by father and daughter sitting in the succa. The light shines on the small girl’s delicate face as she looks up at her wise Abba who is surrounded by Jewish texts. The wonder on Leviah’s face is sheltered by the succa, complete with paper chains and cutout designs.
Cohain’s evocative collection expresses both the impermanence of the succa and the permanence of the Jewish people living their daily lives in the Land of Israel, whatever comes their way. Children grow up here, they grow old here, and their celebration of Succot and Jewish life every day remains. The Jewish people, all of them, are home again. “My people are haredi [ultra-Orthodox], hiloni [secular], and everywhere in between,” Cohain says. “It’s everything beside the succa that’s in these photographs.”
The Mayanot Gallery is located at 28 King George Street in Jerusalem. The gallery can be reached at 02-625-0916 or at www.mayanotgallery.com
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