Diaspora: Homelands in Exile  19 September 2004 until 27 February 2005

Photographs by Frédéric Brenner

What does 'being Jewish' mean: what unites Jewish people? This question has absorbed French photographer Frédéric Brenner (born Paris, 1959) for 24 years. He has travelled the world, chronicling Jewish life in more than forty countries. From Israel to China, from Argentina to Poland: in each new place, Brenner's questions took on a different significance. Each Jew he met reacted with a unique answer. The photographer and social anthropologist realized that being Jewish isn't easy to explain. His photographs reveal the many-facetted world of the Jewish Diaspora.

Diaspora: Homelands in ExileBrenner's quest began in 1978 in the heart of Jerusalem, in de ultra-Orthodox Jewish district of Mea Shearim. He observed what many imagine to be the typical Jewish way of life: the shtetl of eastern Europe before World War II. His first photograph taken there - a child dressed up as an angel during the festival of Purim - is heavy with the atmosphere of a vanished world. Brenner decided to photograph Jewish life worldwide, in an attempt to record what remains - before it has forever disappeared.

Diaspora: Homelands in ExileInitially, Brenner chiefly took pictures showing Jewish ritual ceremonies. In Ethiopia he photographed the so-called 'women's huts' where women remain during the days of their menstruation. In India, it was the handprint on the doorpost, recalling the Exodus from Egypt. But after a while he came to realize that being Jewish embraces far more than 'authentic' Judaism. The influence of the surrounding non-Jewish culture, everywhere different, always in flux, also affects the identity of Jews in the Diaspora. So Brenner took photographs of leather-clad motorbike riders in Florida or hairdressers with Muslim clients in Tajikistan, to illustrate the multi-cultural nature of Jewish life. He came to the conclusion: 'Each time I release the shutter I write a new definition for something that resists defining.'

The Jewish Historical Museum is presenting a selection of 150 of the most intriguing photographs from Brenner's vast collection numbering more than 80,000 negatives. An exhibition of this work has previously been shown to great acclaim in New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. His magnificent and brilliantly sharp black-and-white pictures show us all kinds of figures, some everyday, some startlingly unexpected, some posed and some caught unawares. Accompanying the exhibition is a splendidly-produced publication consisting of two substantial volumes titled Diaspora: Homelands in Exile (HarperCollins Publishers; Mets & Schilt Publishers). The 264 photographs in the books are complemented by searching commentaries from leading contemporary intellectuals such as George Steiner, Jacques Derrida and Carlos Fuentes.