(December 24, 2019 / JNS) As Diaspora-Israel relations remain at the forefront of dialogue about global Jewish life today, a photography exhibition at the Derfner Judaica Museum in the Bronx, N.Y., aims to bring a message of hope that was just as relevant five decades ago as it is today.
In conjunction with The Art Collection: Art at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, the Derfner Judaica Museum is featuring photographs through Jan. 5 by the late Jewish photographer Leonard Freed that appeared in Israel Magazine in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. The exhibition includes 50 black-and-white photographs from Freed’s estate, and represents the first exhibition to examine this period of Freed’s work and the context in which these images were published.
Freed was born in 1929 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents from Minsk, now in Belarus. While traveling throughout Europe and North Africa, where he photographed Jewish communities, Freed published his photos in Israel Magazine, a publication marketed to the Jewish Diaspora to garner support for the young state at a critical moment in its history.
In June 1967, war broke out between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In response to this news, he made his way to Israel from Amsterdam, where he had been living for a decade. Over the next two years, Freed spent 15 months living in Israel and covering the aftermath of what came to be known as the Six-Day War. In 1968, his wife Brigitte and young daughter, Elke Susannah, joined Freed, and they settled in Tel Aviv, where Brigitte at first borrowed famous Israeli photographer Micha Bar-Am’s darkroom to print Freed’s negatives, as she often did throughout her husband’s career.
Warmth, wit and feeling spring from the images.
Susan Chevlowe, chief curator and director of the Derfner Judaica Museum, worked directly with Brigitte Freed for the exhibition that explores the context in which many of the images first appeared in print.
“The exhibition is, at heart, about a Jewish documentary humanist photographer drawn to Israel both because of the conflict and suffering he sees there and wants to bring to the attention of potential viewers, and the hope he sees there for the continuity of Jewish life in the wake of the Holocaust,” Chevlowe told JNS. “For viewers today, looking back at this critical moment in Israel’s history through Freed’s lens will, I hope, allow visitors to reach their own conclusions about its lessons for the future.”
Conceived of in Amsterdam as a joint Israeli-American venture between the Philadelphia-based Israel Publishing Company and Spotlight Publications in Tel Aviv, Israel Magazine, she said, sought “to serve as an enduring bridge between Israel and [the] Diaspora” while being independent, eschewing propaganda, and bringing to Jews and non-Jews “as vivid as truthful an image of Israel as possible.”
‘A plurality of voices and opinions’
The exhibition includes five issues of the magazine displayed in cases near photographs that appeared in those particular issues. In addition to the magazines themselves, exhibition labels provide information about the articles that the photos accompanied and the editorial themes of each issue.
For example, one image on exhibition was taken at an International Business Conference in Jerusalem in April 1968. According to an article about the conference, there were 500 foreign attendees—most of them wealthy Jewish businessmen—and 100 Israelis. The conference sought to promote partnerships and investment in Israeli industries at a time when outside attention and support from Diaspora Jews had been given a boost by the war and the threat to Israel’s existence.
In the contemporary context of a supposed rift between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel, Chevlowe voiced her intention that the exhibition could bring hope to both parties. “The exhibition focuses on a turning point in Israel’s history where the editors and founders of Israel Magazine were optimistic about the future. They were hopeful, as was the photographer. I think taking a look back and seeing the vitality of the people as they emerged from a brutal and devastating war with hope is important today,” she said.
“One of the most interesting things I found in my research for this project was that while under Jewish editorial control, the magazine provided a platform for a plurality of voices and opinions,” she added.
For example, she explained, Vol. 1, No. 5 in 1968 focused on conflicts between secular and religious Israelis and featured the question “What is a Jew?” on its cover with two different-looking Jewish men—one religious in a black hat, and one modern and secular facing opposite directions in front of typical Jerusalem stone wall. “The importance is to understand that there have always been diverse voices and opinions about almost everything in Israel,” she posed, “and perhaps one might think about where and how [we] make space for them today.”
Visitors to the exhibition have included Jewish day-school and synagogue Hebrew-school classes, older adults of all backgrounds and from senior centers throughout New York City, as well as tourists and visitors of all ages from around the world.
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