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Exhibit Explores Changing Jewish Identity


The United States is a multi-cultural country marked by religious and ethnic diversity. A multimedia exhibit in Los Angeles shows a surprising diversity among a single religious group, American Jews. It is called the Jewish Identity Project, and VOA's Mike O'Sullivan spoke with some of the artists who participated.

The exhibition features photographs, videos and multimedia projects, and some of its featured subjects are recognizably Jewish. The men and boys in several photographs are wearing the traditional Jewish skullcaps. But they are not shown in New York or Los Angeles, as one might expect, but in Postville, Iowa, where their families have moved to work in a meat-processing plant that produces Kosher foods, prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.

Thirteen artists participated in the project. One who is not Jewish, Korean American Nikki Lee, explores the theme of intermarriage through staged wedding portraits that depict her as a Jewish bride. Tal Gozani, associate curator at the Skirball Cultural Center, is hosting the exhibition. She says the artist is touching on a theme that is relevant today. "We see a trend that she's dealing with of Asian women marrying Jewish men and so we see now this whole new idea of an Asian Jew, which we never really thought of, but it's a reality," she said.

Marriage sometimes leads to the conversion of the non-Jewish partner and to children with multiple cultural and religious identities. One subject in the exhibit, a teenager named Jacob, is the son of a Jewish mother and a father from the Central America nation of Belize. Two other subjects, Sahai and Zenebesh, were adopted from Ethiopia and converted to Judaism. Two cousins share a Native American and Russian Jewish background.

Persian American videographer Jessica Shokrian explores her own community of Iranian Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. They number in the tens of thousands, and her six videos show their everyday activities and rituals. "It amazes me how traditional they still are and how big the community is and how close everyone is. In a way, it's almost like the whole community that my father grew up with in Iran is all here -- here and in New York, but mostly here," he said.

Chris Verene, a New York-based photographer, shows the tiny Jewish community of Galesburg, Illinois, where he grew up. "Galesburg is a town of about 30-thousand people that's been on the prairies since the beginning of the railroad in America," he said.

Not long after it was founded, the 19th century farm-town had a Jewish community, and a later immigrant, a survivor of Nazi death camps, has since joined them. The photographs show the man, named Max, who is very much at home in the American heartland, but maintains his Jewish rituals and is involved with the town's small synagogue.

Photographer Jaime Permuth, a Jew from Guatemala, spent nearly two years with a New York community of so-called crypto-Jews, or hidden Jews. They are Spanish-speaking converts to Judaism who trace their ancestry to Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago. For his subjects, Judaism is a rediscovered tradition.

"I understood this community as a community that was all about new beginnings. And in particular I focused on the role that ritual plays in religion in allowing for new beginnings," he said.

His photographs examine, among other things, a conversion ritual and Bat Mitzvah coming-of-age service for a rabbi's daughter.

There is some debate in the Jewish community over the question of who is Jewish. Tal Gozani says the exhibit takes a broad approach. "There are many different ways to identify as being Jewish, and nobody can really say, yes, that's OK, you can call yourself a Jew or you can't. The reality is that people are calling themselves Jews for different reasons," he said.

The exhibition "The Jewish Identity Project" was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York, and will be on display at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles through early September.

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