PRESS / Photographing a Portrait of the American Jewish Community

Alina Bliumis blogs at jewishbookcouncil.org / Part 2 / May 14, 2015

Earlier this week, Alina Bliumis wrote about the American-Russian-Jewish identity crisis and a photography series she shot, along with her partner and collaborator Jeff Bliumis, in Brighton Beach to explore this crisis. Today she writes about the expansion of the project to include questions around American-Jewish identity. Alina is the co-author of the recently published book From Selfie to Groupie and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Over the next few years, while we were publicly showing photographs from our Brighton Beach photography series, we became interested in this 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?

When Joshua Perelman invited us to show selected photographs from the series at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia in 2013, we saw it as a perfect opportunity to expand our visual survey to the wider Jewish-American community, beyond the Russian-Jewish diaspora. We wanted to ask as many people as possible to describe their identity and record every individual voice that would eventually become a brushstroke in a community portrait.

At that time we also came up with an interactive setup for the exhibition, so that museum visitors could write their identity and take their own photographs without our presence. We printed an 8 x 8 feet vinyl photo backdrop depicting a view of Brighton Beach and sent along three white erase boards—the boards were blank so anyone could write their own group identity with markers. A camera was mounted on a tripod in front and directions for how to participate and take a photo were on the wall.

By the end of the show, Shira Goldstein (who was working closely with Joshua on the show) send us a disk with 720 photographsabout 460 people participated in the project. We were ecstatic with the number of participants and images, the range of voices and expressions, and all of those thoughtful or silly identity definitions. Here are few of them:

The next step for us was to continue the project in other locations, thanks to Vita Anesh introducing us to Audrey David, the amazing leader of the GenerationR program at JCC Manhattan, and in collaboration with Megan Whitman, gallery director of The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC, as well as the support of the JCC staff, our Casual Conversation exhibition was opening at the gallery in JCC Manhattan's lobby. Saying that every corner of this community center is in use is an understatement; a ton of people pass through the lobby everyday, and more people translates to more participants. Soon enough, the backdrop started to look like one big graffiti and Avi (who was working with Megan) would start cleaning it everyday. Ultimately, though, the image with all graffiti would be turned into the cover of our recently published book From Selfie to Groupie. We loved that participants took the time to “play around,” writing, dancing, singing, etc. Looking at all the “in-between” photographs we had a sneak pick of their interactions. At the end of exhibition we had 2,070 photographs and 1,049 participants.

Our next stop were photo sessions at Limmud NY, Limmud Bay Area and Jewish Funders Network's international conferences, with our last stop being an event organized by Ilana Volodarsky at JCC St. Paul, MN. It was an evening full of energy and music. All those locations where possible to visit thanks to the dedication of local organizers (Mila Wichter and the Limmud Bay Area team, David Ezer and the JFN team, Ella Shteingart, the Limmud NY team) and generous support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

In total, 1,922 people participated in creating a portrait of the community—in its many shades, shapes, and sizes—and a collaborative statement about collective identity. Participants ranged from a two-year-old girl who identified herself as a “future president” to vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who identified himself as “a proud and grateful Jewish American.”

Find out more about this project and the companion book, From Selfie to Groupiehere. In NYC? You can participate in a pop-up version of this photography project at Jewish Book Council's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches." Register here (it's free!).

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