Pioneer Jewish Photographers

The book was carelessly shtupped in the “just returned” shelf. I was browsing this shelf in my local library when the title caught my eye: Documentors of the Dream: Pioneer Jewish Photographers in the Land of Israel 1890-1933.

I checked it out, expecting the usual photos of Christian holy places, Arabs on camels–G-d I hate camels, they spit and bite and smell like you know what–and photos of dunes, lots of sand dunes.

Wrong.

This book and its contents are a complete knock-out. And for a Jew and a lover of Zion, well, a complete revelation.

To quote from the flap: Documentors of the Dream is the first comprehensive book to chart the origins and development of Eretz Israel as seen through the eyes of Jewish photographers and their images are largely unknown and unpublished in the world of photographic history. It is a curious fact that Israel, the embodiment of a culture, language, and history, a symbol of nationhood for Jews, almost never appears in photographs of the Holy Land. Most photographs of the period reflect a predominantly Christian world in a period of colonial expansion. Documentors of the Dream is a stunning and beautiful testament to an emerging art form and the emerging nation it captured.

After I inhaled the photographs in this book I gave it to Karen and begged her to look at it. Usually, Karen isn’t all that interested in my art books. She’s busy reading all these psychology papers that I find, frankly, incomprehensible. But she sensed that this time there was something different about the book I was offering and dutifully she set about going through it with her usual care and rigor. The next day Karen said to me: “The pictures in the book are just amazing. It’s Israel before any sleaze set in.”

You think you know what Israel looked like back before statehood? Look at the photo taken of Rav Kook with Rabbi Harlap in The Mercaz haRav Yeshiva, Jerusalem, in the 1930’s, by the incomparable photographer Tzadok Bassan, pg.105.

Deeply touching are Avraham Soskin’s intimate photos of British and Palestinian WWI servicemen. Note that the Palestinians in Palestine are always Jews. The Arabs are always called, well, Arabs, never Palestinians. It’s a triumph of PR, actually a triumph of the big lie, that the Arabs have coopted the name Palestinians for they never referred to themselves as anything but Arabs until recently.

How did Israel let them get away with that?

Who said Jews are smart?

But I digress.

If you love somebody and you’re looking for the perfect gift to give, well, this is it. A beautiful and illuminating art book that has amazing pictures you can look at again and again, and text that just never fails to astonish. This fine volume was published back in 1998, but you know what, it gets my nod for the best art book of 2005.

The other night, I dreamed of Ariel and woke drenched in a cold sweat. I got out of bed, went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea. In the living room, I sat in the Eames chair where Ariel spent most of the last year of his life learning, reading, talking to people. Making believe that Ariel was looking over my shoulder, I slowly leafed through the book, pausing at the photos of the Rebbeim and the Hasidim–the photos I knew Ariel would take particular pleasure in.

We spent the longest time on page 53 with Tzadok Basson’s portrait of a Jerusalem Hasidic family: The noble and handsome patriarch Israel Shimon Schein Azulai with his two grandsons, Avrech Azulai and Chaim Yosef. Beautiful children with light–holy light–coming directly from their eyes.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted January 2, 2006 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Jack:
    It's a wonderful book. I think you'd really like it.

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  2. Posted January 2, 2006 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    That sounds like a fascinating book.

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  3. Posted January 1, 2006 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Michael:
    Thanks so much for the link. Amazing photos!

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  4. Posted January 1, 2006 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Janjan:
    Thanks so much. Let me know your reaction to the book.

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  5. Posted January 1, 2006 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    As they say…a picture/photo is worth a thousand words. (and you started with a couple hundred)

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  6. Posted January 1, 2006 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I sell books on line. I am always amazed at that these types of books never sell.
    I have had all kinds of such books, w/ unique and unusal photos like you are describing, and there is no interest. So I keep them for my own enjoyment
    I am happy to meet someone who does appreciate this.

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  7. Posted December 31, 2005 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Robert, have you ever looked at these pictures? They are colour photos of Czarist Russia from around 1910 – they are colour via a three exposure process and are amazing. They are extraordinary all round, but a rich Jewish culture is certainly one thing recorded. See here for instance.

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  8. Posted December 31, 2005 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Robert, sorry about the double. Please erase the top one, as the URL is incorrect on that one.

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  9. Posted December 31, 2005 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Honestly Robert, you write so elequently of your son and your grief, I am so moved every time. I wish you a year of continued healing and blessing.
    And, I went and bought that book, BTW.

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  10. Posted December 30, 2005 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Lance:
    I feel like that British archeologist who discovered King Tut's tomb. Really, this book is a gold. Get it. You will not be disappointed. Have a lovely Shabbos.

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  11. Lance
    Posted December 30, 2005 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Wow….who would have thought a book like that could be found in a public library?
    Robert, sounds like you uncovered a lost gem. 🙂

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