Photographic Visions of the Diaspora - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Photographic Visions of the Diaspora

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On View: August 24, 2012 – May 31, 2013
Opening Reception: October 17, 2012 at 5-7 pm

There’s a whole generation of shopkeepers whose small businesses are a part of our lives, and whose presence we take for granted, that are fading from our scene. - Sy Edelstein

It’s been centuries since Jewish families first were forced to live in the Diaspora, outside of their ancestral homeland. Over time, many found their way to the United States, where they set up shop, both literally and figuratively. They settled and became butchers, milliners, cobblers, and tailors. They sold ties and buttons and sandwiches.

It is this once-vibrant — now dimming — culture of independently run and owned Jewish businesses that is the subject of Photographic Visions of the Diaspora and which fascinated Sy Edelstein. An art director and graphic designer who once taught at the Otis/Parson School of Art, he began photographing shopkeepers in 1978 when a corporate magazine assigned him to show people in their workplace. What followed was more than 20 years-worthof attraction to a rapidly disappearing way of life. From Los Angeles to New York, he captured not just the shopkeeper, but the workplace with its own story as well.

Still, Edelstein recognized that even when these businesses and their owners don’t fade away, sometimes they are erased by progress and the mere passage of time. As he wrote about one of his first subjects, an elderly watchmaker in his cluttered shop in downtown L.A.: “Some weeks after being photographed, he died suddenly at his workbench. His daughter was in the process of closing down the store when I came to show the prints. The watchmaker and his shop were history.”

There were others too. The Russian émigré shoemaker who survived a Siberian prison; the attractive antique shop owner who was once a professional dancer; the barber in Venice who served in the British army during World War II and still keeps a photo of himself in uniform stuck to the wall.

Many of these shopowners are captured on the black-and-white photographs here. Some stand proudly in front of their wares, like the New York man backed by rows of ties in “Jack Berg Quality Ties.” Others are hard at work. A gloved Torah scribe bends intently over the scroll as his long white beard flows onto it in Rabbi A.m. Eisenbach (Wearing Gloves).” And then there’s the man behind the cash register, flashing a smile as he beckons the viewer towards him in “Delicatessen on Essex St.” from 1993.

Edelstein approached each with understanding and empathy, preserving their stories forevermore, even if they no longer remain to tell them. Maybe it’s because of his own background — his own role in the Jewish Diaspora — that he was able to do this.

“Looking back at my own early life as a child in Chicago, I remember my father’s stores, he sold parlor stoves and re-upholstered furniture. In my teens in New York, my parents had a ‘candy store’ and of course I worked there. I guess that made me a ‘storekeeper’ too,” he wrote. “Perhaps that’s why I have an affinity towards the people I have chosen to photograph … I could have been some other photographer’s subject.”

Artists in Photographic Visions of the Diaspora: Sy Edelstein

Organized by Anne Hromadka, Guest Curator of the Art Collection and Exhibitions at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, in partnership with campus’ Enhancement Committee.

3077 University Avenue, Los Angeles

Entrance on Hoover Street between 30th and 32nd streets


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