Brooklyn BookBeat: Visual Survey Began in Brighton Beach, Expanded to 2,000 Participants
This month, acclaimed artists Alina and Jeff Bliumis will publish “From Selfie to Groupie,” a book of photographs and essays exploring the variety and intricacy of Jewish-American identity.
The pair began their visual survey in the Russian-Jewish immigrant enclave of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach before expanding to the wider Jewish-American community in locations including greater New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Sonoma Valley and St. Paul.
In total, 1,922 people participated in creating a portrait of the community — in its many shades, shapes and sizes — building a collaborative statement about collective identity. Participants ranged from a 2-year-old girl who identified herself as a “future president” to former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who identified himself as “a proud and grateful Jewish-American.”
A book launch will be held at Site/109 (109 Norfolk St., Lower East Side) on May 17 from 5 to 8 p.m., which will feature a discussion with the book’s editor, Joshua Ellison, and book contributors Anya Ulinich, a Brooklyn-based author, and professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado David Shneer. A reception with music by Stefania Pia will follow.
The project began early one morning, when on a sunny July weekend in 2007, the Bliumises asked beachgoers in Brooklyn’s predominantly Jewish, Russian-speaking Brighton Beach to define their identities.
Each participant was asked to pose for a photograph with any or all of three signs reading “Russian,” “Jewish” and “American,” or to come up with his or her own self-definition by creating a unique sign. By the end of that day, 52 people had posed and 44 portraits were taken (some photos featured multiple people).
“When I moved from Minsk, Belarus, to New York 20 years ago, I noticed a certain ‘identity crisis’ within the Russian-Jewish community in the United States,” Alina said. “Americans often consider members of this community to be Russian, Russians consider them to be Americans and some Jewish-Americans are not quite sure how to relate to this subset of their own community, still struggling to fit into the larger Jewish-American context,” Alina continued. “The question of how people define their own identity compelled us to undertake our anthropological inquiry into Brooklyn's Russian-Jewish immigrant population — we wanted to hear from people firsthand.”
From 2012 to 2014, the Bliumises expanded the project with new subjects through interactive stations installed at various exhibitions and public events. Participants wrote their own identifying phrases on poster boards and posed in front of a backdrop depicting Brighton Beach, photographing themselves with a tripod-mounted camera in six locations: the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in 2012; the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, from December 2013 through February 2014; Limmud NY, also in New York, in 2014; Jewish Funders Network International Conference in Miami in 2014; Limmud Bay Area in Sonoma Valley in 2014; and the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area in Saint Paul, Minn., in 2014.
Jeff Bliumis explains how the project grew beyond Brighton Beach. “We next became interested in the question: Considering that Russian-speaking Jewish-Americans are looking to fit into the Jewish-American community at large, what does it mean to be Jewish-American today? Not finding one uniform answer to that question, we wanted to ask as many people as possible, record every individual voice that would eventually become a brushstroke in a community portrait.”
The next step was to turn a visual project into a book conveying the results. Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG) stepped in to provide the necessary support to make publication possible.
“GPG always welcomes initiatives that encourage Russian-speaking Jews to preserve their heritage and help to find their Jewish roots and identity,” said Marina Yudborovsky, regional director of GPG. “We are glad to support the Bliumises’ photo project, as it poses the important question: Given the freedoms America provides, how do people identify themselves? So, these portraits represent a real case study, a sort of visual sociological research project, and at the same time present a creative art project.”
The final product of the book includes personal essays by Professor David Shneer, authors Anya Ulinich and Joshua Ellison, visual data analysis by Jenya Gorbatsevich and a historic essay by Konrad Bercovici.