In Their Own Space (Extract)

A new photo exhibit in Tel Aviv offers an intimate look at ultra-Orthodox Israelis as 'normal people living perfectly normal lives'

25haredi88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. An elderly man, with a bushy white beard and dangling earlocks and wearing black hat and a black frock coat, urged on by his cheerful similarly attired companions, shoots an arrow from a makeshift bow at a cardboard target with the words "yetzer hara" (the evil inclination, in Hebrew) scribbled on it. In another photograph, a bespectacled joyous father with ear-locks, lies on the beach, buried up to his neck in sand, enjoying a sun-soaked day with his family. These are not the images of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, that the Israeli public is used to seeing. More often, haredim are seen demonstrating against what they see as violations of Jewish law, or praying at the Western Wall. "I want to show the other side as well," says Menahem Kahana, who has been photographing ultra-Orthodox Israelis doing what they do for 15 years. A selection of the results can be viewed in "Haredim," a solo exhibition of 67 of Kahana's photographs running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv until June. For Kahana, a Jerusalem-based news photographer for the Agence-France Presse (AFP) news agency, showing the "other side" means "showing haredim going about a normal life, relating to each other and to their own environment." Nevertheless, there are a few photos in the exhibition that do highlight the clash with the outside world, such as one of an ultra-Orthodox man seated on a bench in a pedestrian mall, while everyone else stands for the siren on Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers. Kahana's interest in the ultra-Orthodox is linked to his religious upbringing. Born in Ashkelon 50 years ago, he was raised in a modern-Orthodox, Zionist home by parents who had emigrated from Romania after World War II, and was educated in a yeshiva. Just before his 18th birthday and his compulsory military service, Kahana became secular. "There was no single moment that made me change. All the time I was studying in yeshiva, I knew I didn't belong," he tells The Report at the exhibit. His parents did not object, and his siblings continued their religious lives, he says. For many years, Kahana, who is married with two teenage children, amassed photographs of ultra-Orthodox life without a grand plan. "I didn't think about a book or exhibition. I was just clicking away, searching for a specific angle." His "Eureka!" moment came during a pre-Shabbat stroll in Lifta, an abandoned Arab village on a bucolic hillside on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Walking among the overgrown-by-nature homes, he reached the valley floor, where he came upon a natural spring. "There were haredi men in a mikve (ritual bath) ceremony," Kahana relates. "It was then that I realized that 'my specific angle' was photographing haredim, not only away from the secular, but also out of what others see as their usual territory and routine." A similar photo showing a single nude seen from the back, taken years later, is in the show. Nonetheless, the exhibition includes many such scenes, particularly in nature, interspersed with more ordinary street scenes, synagogue interiors and classrooms. "In order to be accepted as a photographer of the haredi world, I had to follow my subjects day and night, until they got used to me, and I became a piece of furniture," says Kahana. "I had to be very patient until they trusted me." A burly, deeply tanned man with short brown hair, Kahana wears dark-rimmed, narrow eyeglasses that give his face a pinched look, as if he is looking at you through a lens. He dons a knitted rainbow-colored yarmulke that covers his whole scalp when he is shooting in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Hanging from his neck are two large, intimidating cameras, which announce his commitment to his duty as a news photographer, ready for any eventuality. A picture of the intrepid photographer in Me'a She'arim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, shows him atop a rickety, metal trashcan in order to get a better shot of a funeral. "I know Menahem from his constant presence in our community," says Avraham Friedman, a 21-year-old ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student from Jerusalem, who attended the opening of the exhibit. "I am his lookout. He has asked me to call him if there ever is anything interesting happening. I told him about our collecting water from a spring in Beit Safafa (an Arab village in south Jerusalem) to use in making matza shmura (handmade matza from spring water and grain under special supervision to ensure that no fermentation has occurred)." Friedman appears in one of the photos with his younger brother, enjoying a ride on a donkey. It was taken in 2003, when Friedman called Kahana to come to the spring to see the men collecting water. "The donkey ride was just by chance," says the thin, wispy-bearded, fair-skinned Friedman, a member of the anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon sect. Asked if he objects to seeing his photograph hung in a public place, Friedman says he has no problem with being pictured outdoors. According to him, neighborhood street scenes and even synagogue exteriors are permitted. "The only forbidden place," Friedman asserts, bringing his clenched hand to his breast, "is 'bifnim, bifnim'" (within, within), referring to the parts of ultra-Orthodox society that are off limits to outsiders. Some of Kahana's strongest photographs are devoted to water collection scenes, including a brigade of black-garbed boys carrying colorful jerry cans. They walk one behind the other as if they are foot soldiers, bringing home the liquid booty in preparation for making the matza shmura. There is a "serious happiness" to scenes like these, says Kahana, "a joy that takes place within the framework of performing mitzvot. They are carrying out their tasks with a seriousness of purpose as if they are defenders of the faith." That seriousness of purpose is evident in Kahana's acceptance by the ultra-Orthodox. "The rabbis could see I was serious," he says. "The first year, when I tried to photograph palm fronds gathering for Sukkot in Jerusalem, the hasidic rabbi gave me only 10 minutes. A few years later, I was given an hour, and the last time I shot for as long as I liked." Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.