On the weekend of Oct. 26-28, I once again traveled to the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts. While almost all of the previous weekend programs I have attended have been devoted to Yiddish literature, this program focused on a different art form: “Beyond Naked City: Jews and Urban Photography.”
Deborah Dash Moore, a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, helped the 30 or so participants to see with new, more alert eyes the works that New York Jewish photographers produced, primarily during the first half of the 20th century.
In addition to their formal beauty, these dozens of black-and-white photographs told the stories of our Jewish forbears who passed through Ellis Island into the teeming immigrant community of New York City’s Lower East Side.
Moore’s first lecture focused on Arthur Fellig (1899-1968). Fellig was born in Lemburg, in what is now Ukraine, and at the age of 10 came to New York with his parents. He gained fame as a freelance news photographer who called himself “Weegee,” documenting the grit and the gore of the “Naked City.” It is said that he often managed to beat the police to the scene of the crime, not infrequently a bloody murder.
While there are those who have questioned the quality of Weegee’s photographs, our program notes make clear that “no one challenges his role in shaping the noir aesthetic that flourished after World War II.”
In other lectures, Moore drew attention to women photographers, such as Helen Levitt, Rebecca Lepkoff and Vivian Cherry, who produced vivid images of immigrant Jews in the crowded streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They documented the daily drama in this poor, but culturally vibrant, community, shaping scenes of children playing on the sidewalks, shoppers filling small shops to overflowing, neighbors on the front stoop engaged in earnest conversation.
At the same time, these women managed to create pictures of considerable artistic merit, fashioning a visual architecture of light and shadow in a world of ever-present fire escapes and the haunting, sometimes deafening, presence of the el trains.
Sid Grossman, Morris Engel and Lou Bernstein took their cameras to the boardwalk, the sand and the sea of Coney Island, where – despite the multitudes who seemed to fill every inch of beach on the hottest summer days – they found ways to capture moments of surprising, close-up intimacy.
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was the most gifted – and, in many ways, the most conflicted about his Jewishness – of the many photographers examined during the course of the weekend. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, he was the son of German immigrants. His father, who changed his name from Ephraim to Edward, became a very successful businessman in the new world of America; as a result, Stieglitz was free to pursue the art of photography without financial worry.
In her provocative essay, “An Eternal Flame: Alfred Stieglitz on New York’s Lower East Side” (American Art, fall 2016), Tara Kohn argues that despite his financial security, “to become an American cultural leader, Stieglitz had to shed markers of his familial background and his cultural ties to Europe. He had to fight, continually, to become an American. …”
Kohn points out that Stieglitz had good reason to be concerned about anti-Semitic attempts to demean his artistic achievements. She quotes as an example American critic Thomas Craven, who called Stieglitz “a Hoboken Jew without knowledge of, or interest in, American historical background.” To which Kohn adds, “Craven reveals a xenophobic and pervasive strain of nationalism ….”
When Craven described the works of art at the 1913 Armory Show, in downtown Manhattan, as “immigrant stuff, senseless and degenerate,” he showed how deep are the pernicious roots of today’s anti-immigrant animus!
No Stieglitz photograph reflects his profound ambivalence toward his immigrant background more than his 1907 masterpiece, “The Steerage.” At first glance, the picture seems to highlight the “huddled masses” of poor immigrants in steerage sailing toward a new life in the new world of America – and this is how the picture has been “read” by many, if not most, who see it without prior knowledge.
In actuality, Stieglitz took this picture when he was a first-class passenger aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II, traveling with his first wife and their daughter away from America, to Bremen, Germany, to visit family and friends. The men, women and children whom Stieglitz photographs from his position of privilege on an upper deck were most likely not leaving America because they had been turned away at Ellis Island; in all probability, they were families of workers returning home, having completed their temporary jobs in construction in the booming United States.
Despite its setting, “The Steerage” remains an iconic evocation of the immigrant experience, which, whatever his misgivings, Stieglitz felt compelled to document. As Kohn points out in her essay, a powerful proof of Stieglitz’s discomfort is that he delayed publishing the photo for four years – until the 1911 issue of Camera Work.
As we sat down for our Shabbat lunch on Oct. 27, people checking cellphones began to hear the first reports of the slaughter at Tree of Life synagogue. We did not know at the time that the death toll would climb to 11 Jews murdered during their Sabbath prayers by a shooter screaming, “All Jews must die!”
I wish I could say that I was shocked by this anti-Semitic outrage, but given the current climate of rabble-rousing and the increasing tolerance of hate speech at the highest levels, the tragedy seemed preordained. The only questions to be answered: When? Where?
Resuming our program following lunch, Professor Moore commented on how difficult it was for us to process what was unfolding in Pittsburgh. At the same time, left unspoken, was our collective need and determination to continue to explore the richness of our Jewish roots in America.
As we examined the photographed faces and, by extension, the lives of Jewish immigrants in New York, we knew deep within ourselves that, despite the events of that day of immeasurable sorrow and pain, am Yisrael chai! The Jewish people live!
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.