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The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography

Oct 22, 2006–Apr 29, 2007

The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography, featuring newly commissioned photography, video, and multimedia projects by thirteen emerging and mid-career artists. The exhibition explores the hybrid and complex racial, national, and cultural identity of contemporary Americans through a Jewish lens.

about the exhibition

Organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, this exhibition features thirteen emerging and mid-career artists who were commissioned by The Museum to create ten projects focusing on different Jewish communities in the United States. Through the works of these photographers, the exhibition looks at real and constructed boundaries between people. Using Jewish culture as a lens, The Jewish Identity Project examines the hybrid and complex racial, national, and cultural identity of contemporary Americans.

American Jews are commonly pictured as a homogenous ethnic group, yet conversion, adoption, intermarriage, immigration, multi-racial, and gay and lesbian families have transformed the fabric of Jewish communities. This trend parallels the changing and multifaceted definition of what it means to be an American in the 21st century.

Organized into three thematic sections, the exhibition considers race, community, and home. Representing a wide range of lifestyles and ethnicities, the artists’ cumulative vision demonstrates that identity is a process of becoming—variable, multilayered, and socially constructed. The works raise provocative questions about Jews and our multicultural society in general. Who is a Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish? Who gets to decide?

featured artists
  • Dawoud Bey
  • Nikki S. Lee
  • Shari Rothfarb Mekonen
  • Avishai Mekonen
  • Chris Verene
  • Yoshua Okon
  • Jaime Permuth
  • Tirtza Even
  • Brian Karl
  • Rainer Ganahl
  • Jessica Shokrian
  • Andrea Robbins
  • Max Becher

African-American photographer Dawoud Bey’s collaborative photographic and audio project, created with Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, allows his subjects—adolescents with Jewish backgrounds—to share their personal thoughts and feelings about race, religion and ethnicity. Jacob is the son of a single Jewish mother; his father was from Belize. Sahai and Zenebesh were adopted from Ethiopia and converted to Judaism. Cousins Claire and Samantha share an Ojibwe (Chippewa) grandmother and Russian Jewish grandfather. The voices of these teens provide a window into their personalities and reveal their awareness about how they are perceived by society. Bey’s works underscore the truism that one should not make easy assumptions about another individual’s identity or heritage.

In the snapshot-like series Parts, Korean-born Nikki S. Lee stages real-life scenarios in which she appears with a male friend or actor, cropping most of him out in the enlarged final photograph. Relating to earlier work in which she takes on different personas, here Lee is seen as a glamorous Jewish bride. The elaborately staged images accentuate the artifice of the snapshot aesthetic and belie its seeming spontaneity. The viewer gets only hints of a story: What is going on? Is this the real Nikki S. Lee? Can she be Jewish? Can viewers see her as such?

An excerpt from Shari Rothfarb Mekonen and Avishai Mekonen’s work-in-progress, a documentary entitled Judaism and Race in America, follows Avishai Mekonen’s search for his identity as a Jew of color new to America. An Ethiopian Israeli, Avishai Mekonen undertakes a journey that intersects with the stories of other Jews of color. Stylistically, the film layers his past and present lives and uses vérité footage to illuminate themes of visibility, acceptance, Diaspora, and community.

With Prairie Jews, part of the series Galesburg, Chris Verene notes that no one in his small Midwestern hometown would know who is Jewish without asking. Jews were among Galesburg’s early settlers, arriving less than twenty years after the town was founded in 1837, and newcomers continue to reshape the face of the local community. Representations of regional Jews tend to stereotype both the people of the dominant culture—in Verene’s case, “the people of the prairie”—and the Jews who assimilate into that culture. Verene’s pictures and the stories he tells in handwritten texts challenge notions of who is “inside” and “outside” the mainstream.


Guatemalan-born Jaime Permuth explores the intersections of individual and communal cultural identities. Permuth’s black-and-white photographs and texts document the Spanish-speaking congregation, El Centro de Estudios Judíos Torat Emet (Torat Emet Center for Jewish Studies), founded in the Bronx by a young Sephardic rabbi of Cuban descent. The artist captures this community during three events: a conversion, a Bat Mitzvah and the process of koshering a home. The Bat Mitzvah illustrates the bridging of Ashkenazi and Sephardic customs and communities. It takes place at the rabbi’s new synagogue in Yonkers, where a congregation previously made up exclusively of Ashkenazi Jews now also serves Sephardis of a younger generation.

In Casting: Prototype for a Stereotype, Mexican-born Yoshua Okon uses contemporary improvisations of a biblical story as a means to explore the dynamics of group identity formation. The artist asked women from the Ken community—a secular, Spanish-speaking, Jewish communal organization of recent Mexican immigrants based in San Diego—to re-enact key moments from the Book of Ruth. In the biblical tale, Ruth, a Moabite, decides to return to her husband’s ancestral homeland in Judea with her mother-in-law, Naomi, after her husband’s death. Okon then videotaped the women in the California desert with minimal stage directions and props. Okon’s video project captures the stream-of-consciousness improvisations as well as the behavioral conventions that emerged as each woman performed Ruth. By linking her fate with Naomi’s, Ruth defined her community and home not in geographical but in familial terms. For Okon, the story offers new ways to understand how communities are formed. By viewing the improvisations of this story collectively, Okon creates a lens by which to deconstruct identity stereotypes of Jewish women and, more specifically, Jewish mothers.

Tirtza Even and Brian Karl’s audio-and-video installation, Definition, explores the flexible nature of language. This project is based on interviews with more than twenty individuals about what the word “Jewish” means to them. Several words, which were used repeatedly, are projected at random onto the floor (among them, anti-Semitism, assimilation, discrimination, family, Palestine, ritual, and Zionism). Simultaneously, the viewer hears a series of two-minute audio clips in which different interviewees speak about the highlighted topic. Two panoramic video projections enhance the audio component. One shows a woman running through a series of gestures that do not have any ascribed meaning in our culture. These constitute a visual “lexicon” or dictionary. The second projection depicts stylized environments in which people perform choreographed movements made up of these gestures. Both words and gestures encourage the understanding that all perception is subjective, including what it means to be Jewish.

where is home?

Austrian-born Rainer Ganahl, who emigrated to the United States, is fascinated by the sense of displacement experienced by many immigrants. In his series Language of Emigration, he interviews three women who are Holocaust refugees, their children and grandchildren. This rich photographic and video study reveals how the remembrance of the Holocaust filters down through generations, as well as how Jewish families change over time. The three daughters of these “matriarchs” find partners and have children, at times creating less traditional Jewish families. Settled in different cities, these women experience feelings of both belonging and displacement—conditions made palpable through these videos and photographs.

The visual styles and emotional pitches of Jessica Shokrian’s six short videos convey the richness and complexity of life-cycle events and rituals of her Persian Jewish family in Los Angeles. Simchat Torah marks the donation of a Torah by Shokrian’s father to his synagogue in Beverly Hills. The pace and visual details of Ameh Jhan (Dear Aunt) transform a bus ride to local ethnic food markets into a metaphor of displacement and longing. The videos Brit Milah, The Funeral and The Engagement reveal the tensions implicit in communal rituals. Turning It Around allows the artist to train the camera on herself. Viewed together, these videos illustrate the converging and diverging identities of one American family.

Fixed by the camera’s frontal, iconic gaze, the photographic subjects of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher—portraits, landscapes, and architectural motifs—reveal much about dislocated and reconstituted cultural experiences. From the series Brooklyn Abroad, Postville documents a Hasidic Lubavitch community that moved to Postville, Iowa in order to run a kosher meat processing plant. Recording their distinctive dress codes, these images challenge assumptions about the religion and daily experiences of Midwesterners, as well as the life associated with Hasidic Jews. 770 depicts replicas of the Brooklyn home of the Lubavitcher rebbe—the group’s spiritual center—in various international locales, from Jerusalem to São Paulo to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The series portrays the Lubavitch practice of creating exact replicas of the rebbe’s home, regardless of context. Both series capture the ability of Hasidic Jews to maintain their heritage while creating new communities in surprising locations.

exhibition catalog

Co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography (232 pages, 138 color and 37 black-and-white illustrations, $40 paperback) contains essays by guest curator Susan Chevlowe, Joanna Lindenbaum and Ilan Stavans. It is available at The CJM and bookstores nationwide.


The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography was organized by The Jewish Museum, New York where it was sponsored, in part, by the Allan Morrow Foundation, Altria Group, Inc., The Henry Nias Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and UJA-Federation of New York.

The CJM's presentation was made possible through major support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. Additional generous support was provided by Koret Foundation Funds; the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation’s Endowment Fund; Altria Group, Inc.; The Guzik Foundation; Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation in memory of Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson; and the Lillian H. Florsheim Foundation for the Arts.

The CJM gratefully acknowledges the generous support of a grant from an anonymous Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, The Simcha Foundation, Grants for the Arts of the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, anonymous donors, and the Members of The CJM. The Museum is a beneficiary of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties.

Image Credit

Header image: Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Postville: Triplets, 2004, archival ink jet print, 20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm).  Courtesy of the artists and Sonnabend Gallery, New York.