I had the idea of doing a photo essay on the Orthodox Jewish Community ever since I published my first photo essay in the LAist: “6 Feet Back From Life: A Homeless Man’s Photographs of Life During Corona”.
I have lived homeless in the Fairfax District off and on for over 20 years. I knew many in the orthodox community, some since they were teenagers had seen me bum around the neighborhood. Now that they were married with kids of their own, when they see me pushing my shopping cart by they say “Hey Bumdog how you doing! Kids say hello to Bumdog!”
My original concept was to do a photo essay of the Orthodox Community during the Coronavirus. But after a time the Community had adjusted fairly well, as opposed to the original shock of the first lock down. Hence I decided to make a photo essay on the Orthodox Community itself, and folded some of the photos I had already taken into the second part of my CoronaVirus series “6 Feet Back From Life: The New Normal”.
As I wrote it out in my mind I decided I was going to structure it not just as photographs and brief descriptions like my Alley Dogs Series. I wanted to write about as many aspects of the Jewish Orthodox Community as I was capable of. As well the many misconceptions people have about it. Misconceptions that even most non religious Jews have of them: they are in a cult, over controlled, and brainwashed. From certain point of view they can’t be looked at as any other way. But all the years I lived in the neighborhood I learned much more then what a casual outside observer could understand. In fact even before I moved here I had started to try to write a screenplay called “Iron Like A Lion In Zion: A young black man’s experiences in the Jewish Mafia”. I also wrote a short story called “The Orthodox Jewish Mother and the Black Bum”, I wanted to expand it into a book, and did allot of research for it, but I couldn't find anyone interested and had to abandon the idea. However years later I shot it as part of my feature film “Sketches of Nothing by a Complete Nobody”.
The Jewish orthodox community offered in anthropological relief the benefits of a antique culture against the rapidly changing benefits of modern society. They say every old person is a history book. Here was an entire community of people that represented a living psychological history of some communal norms that were untouched for several hundreds of years. That was something that fascinated me. Sometimes looking at an especially heavily garbed Hassidic I felt like was staring back into time. Something the community itself was proud of, and what outsiders mainly criticized.
The tenants of Judaism also offer a galaxy of Philosophical debate, one of my personal writing strengths: the modern freedoms vs the discipline of tradition. The children of Abraham’s unquestioning obedience to God’s word vs the children of Israel’s eternal struggle with God. Equality or structure. Religion vs Spirituality. The moral honesty that lead can lead to self destruction, or the moral hypocrisy that seems to be a path to endless success. Dignified respect vs having a goddamn sense of humor.
I was going to be able to go deep. I was very confident that this was gonna be one the best pieces I’ve ever written, as opposed to just pure photographs. Unfortunately I have a one track mind. In terms of certain endeavors I can’t multitask. One of those has been doing these photo essays, I can’t do two at a time. In fact I cant even start a new essay before the one I was previously working on is actually published. And publishing, whether in print, cyberspace, or stone tablets has its own individual time/space continuum that laughs at the lifespan of us puny humans.
All of my essays, no matter how quickly I try to rush them, usually take from the time I turn them in, about three finger chewing weeks to publish. Or basically once a month.
This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but the LAist.com commissioned me to write an opinion piece on the George Floyd riots at the end May. Even though I wrote almost all of it back in June, I held off on polishing it off, because I felt I had to publish the other photo essays I had already planned first. But it also had to be published before the election, which I thought I would have plenty of time to do. Again not taking into account my own one track mind, and the publishing space/time continuum Jackassing me.
Now it’s just a couple of weeks before the election and despite months of effort I have nowhere near enough photographs to even start putting an essay together. But I have to put out something, if for no other reason then moving on to preparing my opinion piece I already got paid for.
I decided the answer was to put out the very little I had out as a “work in progress”. I didn't know whether the LAist.com would accept a “work in progress”, much less pay me for a work in progress, but I had nothing else. A point I was going to insist upon was the title had to be in Hebrew. That title was the one thing I had gotten right after my months of effort. My sole achievement to look at, in my otherwise four walls of failure.
My editor came back with her editor’s reply. A title in Hebrew was a non starter, it ended there, they didn’t even get to the issue of whether or not they would accept a “work in progress”. Ok I said I would publish it on my own in my Medium account. They said good luck with that.
Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you are standing your ground, or just standing still in a deeper hole that you are simultaneously digging.
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WORK IN PROGRESS?
The first two people I approached to photograph were two of my best friends in the Orthodox community. I say best friends, because despite our various falling outs over the years we have remained friends. A older Orthodox Mother “Ruth” and a single Orthodox man “Jacob”. They both replied emphatically no. Both were life long students of all things Judaic. Which means they didn’t just pedestrianly discourage me, they were biblically discouraging. Citing scripture and history, with a Mossad like paranoia, they told me I would never get enough Orthodox Jews to agree to being photographed, and that if I did publish photographs of them I would be putting them in danger, opening them up to attacks, and any harm to them would be on my head and… Aw Jesus Christ!!! Im sorry, pardon me…. Aw Yeshua ben Yussef!!!
Other jews in the neighborhood who weren’t orthodox also told me my project was hopeless.
“We know these people. Orthodox Jews are all basically in a cult. It’s mind control. They see anything outside their own world as dangerous and sinful. We’re Jewish ourselves, and they won’t even have anything to do with us. If you really believe they will let you any closer, you are in for a great disappointment.”
I didn’t agree, I was optimistic. I knew enough members of the Orthodox community over the years that I believed it could be done.And I became determined to prove them wrong. I immediately saw the irony of me, a black homeless bum, proving them wrong about their prejudices of their own people.
The next person in the neighborhood I asked to photograph was someone who ran a marijuana dispensary. I thought it would be a awesome shot with him with his yamuka and tzitzit surrounded by canisters of cannabis…He said “Fuck no.”
He said if people found out what he did, he’d have people coming at him from all over the place wanting things from him. Also:
“In the Jewish community for us it’s important to stay humble, we don’t like to flash how much we have. It’s considered bad taste. Practicing our religion is more important. There are people here who are millionaires but you don’t know because they drive around in run down cars, and live in shabby houses. And when they give to charity the do so in secret. They dont want people knowing they have given anyone anything. The most important thing is to stay out of the limelight, and be humble.”
As he said these things I was thinking, “that’s a beautiful spin on paranoia.”
But then he continued “But there are also people do give out in public. When they do this it is to inspire other people to give as well. When you do it in that spirit not showing off you are setting an example of inspiration for others to follow. Setting an example for inspiration for others is also a very important tradition in Judaism.”
I thought about what he said. Genuine humility is supremely confident, it gives in secret not needing any recognition. False humility is paranoia. Fear of recognized, fear of your wealth being revealed, fear of people wanting you to help them, fear of being exposed and opening oneself up to attack. Of course as Jews they can give infinite examples throughout their history proves this paranoia is more then justified. So its best not to even question it.
On the other hand you have people who give out in the open because they need recognition. And to them giving is a way of buying that recognition. They start donating to have their names on the side of buildings, when they run out of Mercedes, jewelry, and beach houses to buy for recognition.
The positive aspect of people who give out in the open, are those who genuinely want to share their blessings with others. Who want to inspire others to give, and be an inspiration for givers. Those Jews have genuine joy of their history and situation, and want to share that joy with anyone. Not just their own people, but share that joy with anyone.
Those are the Orthodox Jews I have to find. The only people in the orthodox community that will allow me to photograph them will be those who have a genuine joy of being Jewish, a joy and appreciation of being in the orthodox community and would like to share that joy.
It was still a daunting challenge. People still kept telling me that it was going to be impossible. Then thats what I will have to achieve. The impossible.
“Jews with the joy of being Jewish.” “ The joy of being in the Orthodox Jewish Community.”
I knew where to start: Yossi Ginsburg.
This is a young man I met in an alley some years ago, he noticed the tallit I was wearing (a gift from a friend), and we got to talking. And we would run into each other every once in awhile. He was such a joy to be around. He was one of those types of people that no matter how down, depressed or angry at everything you may be, it all seemed to fade into the background when you talking with him.
Years ago I had read something an early Hasidic Rebbe, Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin had said.
מייַן נשמה איז אַ שוואַרץ פייַער, עס גיט היץ אָבער קיין ליכט.
“My Soul is a black fire, it gives heat but no light.”
That struck me deep. I came back into my mind again and again in those moments when I take a hard look at myself.
One of the reoccurring themes of this essay was going to be everyone I photographed I would also ask what saying in Judaic writing meant the most to them? It could be in the Torah, the Talmud, a famous Rabbi or a Marx Brothers movie. But it did have to be Jewish.
When I asked Yossi the question he responded quickly with a quote from Ben Zoma.
איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם.
Who is wise? He who learns from every person.
איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו.
Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.
One of Yossi’s sisters is Nachama, she runs a kosher popcorn business with her mother. When I asked her what saying in Judaism meant the most to her she said something in Hebrew, and when I asked her what it meant she said “Seeing is believing.”
I still needed a title for my essay. I had no idea what it could be. “A Bumdog Among Us”? No… “A Bumdog in a Strange Land”? No….“Jews in Da Hood”? Nononono.
Now with the theme of “Joy of Being Jewish”, I needed a phrase in Judaism that meant just that. I started asking people for a phrase that meant “The Joy of being.” Or even better yet The Joy of being Jewish”. No one I talked to, including my two discouraging Talmud scholar friends, could not think of anything. They would quote phrases that meant “PROUD” to be Jewish, but none that related the joy of being jewish. But I knew it had to be there somewhere, it would eventually come to me.
When I first started seeing Tommy walking around in the neighborhood, I couldn’t get over how much he looked like a Hawaiian. I lived in Hawaii for several years and not just in his size and body type, but in his walking gait was very Hawaiian. Which can be best described as the body language of a brawling boxer. Eventually I started talking to him. It turns out Tommy actually did grow up in Hawaii, in Honolulu. He loved it, the people, environment, the lifestyle. But as he grew older he decided he was ready to get married and start a family. And there simply wasn’t a Jewish community in Hawaii. There were Jews there and a few synagogues, but no real orthodox community that he wanted to raise children in. So he wrench himself from island life and made a 6,000 miles exodus to Pico/Robertson area where he started his construction company, after a few years he met his wife Gina, moved to the Fairfax District and had their two children Ivy and David.
When I asked Tommy what phrase in Judaism meant the most to him. He said it was a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslev.
אושר הוא סגולה גדולה
“Happiness is the greatest service to God”
It was something that he loved about Hawaii and what connected him strongest to his faith in Judaism.
Thats it. Thats the title of my essay (thats the title you see at the top). I asked him more about it. He said it was from the Breslev sect of Chassidism which he followed, that preached being happy is one of the most important things in life. Not just for yourself, but for the world around you as well. He talked about the Rebbe Nachman and gave me a book of his folktales. I started reading up Nachman and the Breslev Hassids. I began recalling many other Orthodox Jews that I knew, that I planned on photographing because I believed they also had a joy of being jewish, many of them were also Breslev Hassids. I made a note that that was something to look into.
Years ago I read a phrase in a metaphysical book: “Avatars walk among us always. Who can see the greatest in a Jewish Carpenter?” It took me years after I read that to get what it meant. Now every time I see a Jewish carpenter I think of that saying. Here is one: Ari.
This is Isaac, another neighborhood carpenter. Corona Virus has seriously slowed his trade because no one wants anyone in their homes. He is hoping Sukkot will pick up his business. When I asked him if I could take a photo of him he said. “But I’m a nothing. Why would you want a photo of a nothing?” And he started walking away. That’s when I had to get Rabbinical on his ass, and I shouted out “Nothing?! You were created by God! Are you saying god creates nothing? That’s atheism! That’s an insult to god!” He finally said “Ok ok, you can take the picture.”
I had planned on getting several more but for one reason one after another didn’t pan out. Now the high holidays were coming up: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I figured that would be my best time to do the shots because plenty of people would be in from out of town, and I could probably get all the shots I needed in that time. My shot list included: the various men blowing the Shofars early with the morning moon in the background. People building their various sukkots. And during the new year, it was tradition to say your prayers over a body of water and throw them in. There was a turtle pond in the neighborhood and people often came with their children, recited their prayer from a prayer book and threw it into the water. It was a very beautiful sight. These would be the best shots, but I was sure along the way I would get some other good ones as well.
Then right before Yom Kippur I was struck down. A tooth ache had been bothering me for a few weeks, Saturday morning I woke up with the toothache gone but the rest of me in pain. It felt like the infection left my mouth and spread to the rest of my body. I’d wake up, try to get up, then lay back down for 10 minutes, and when I woke up again it was a hour later. This kept happening until about 1 in the afternoon, when it occurred to me I might have COVID-19. I looked up the symptoms: exhaustion and body aches were the two symptoms I had.
If I have the coronavirus I’m totally fucked. I’m gonna have to be quarantined for two weeks or longer somewhere, and I won’t be able to go near anyone for another month after that. A friend of mine called an ambulance for me. They came to my spot where I couldn't move. They took my tempterure and looked me over. They said they didn’t believe I had Covid. To them my symptoms seemed more than likely from my infected tooth. Which was a relief but I was still on my back and I remained there for the whole weekend. On Monday I was good enough to make it down to the clinic and get a Covid test. Then I quarantined myself in a hotel for five days till I got the results back that I was negative.
It was good news, but I had missed Yum Kippur and the first days of Sukkot. I had to catch up.
Rebecca I used to see all the time in the Fairfax Library with her two young daughters. As I sat there I would have funny face competitions with the oldest who would have been about 10 or 11 at the time. I hadnt seen them in a few years, when on Instagram she commented on one of my posts. When I started this essay she was also one of the first people I ask that said yes. She invited me to her Sukkah in Pico-Robertson with her husband Daniel.
I ask her what phrase in judaism meant the most to her. It was:
כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי
“When my father and mother abandon me, then the Lord will gather me up.” Psalm 27:10
“When I was young, my parents separated. Almost right away, my father disappeared. We didn’t hear from him for many months. He would go on to disappear from my life over and over for stretches of varying length.
“Although my mother was there for me, eventually, after I left home, I couldn’t rely on her to take care of me. And I got overwhelmed. Often, I felt like I couldn’t handle things — but there was no one else around to do it.
“Only God. So I started to rely on God, who was always there.”
When Rebecca met her husband Daniel she recalled“When I first met him I thought ‘no way he is too religious’.” and Daniel says “And when I met her I thought ‘no way she’s not religious enough’.” Two decades and four children later here they are.
After shooting Rebecca in her sukkah, I was leaving and caught this family of African American Jews: Kaleb and his daughters Hadassah and Ayelet. I asked Kaleb if he was Ethiopian or had converted? He said no he was raised a Jew in Jamaica. Interesting, I wish I could have talked to him more, but I only had time to shoot these few shots quickly.
Part of my photo essay on the Orthodox Jewish Community looks at how Orthodox Jews rarely have dogs. There are many different theories as to why this is but there is no consensus. But when you see an Orthodox Jew with a dog, it often means they weren’t raised orthodox but came to it later life…and brought their dogs with them.
But I simply wasnt able to catch up, because of the high holidays everyone was too busy to listen to anything other then what they were doing. I wasn't making any progress. Half the problems were through miscommunication, unwilling subjects, with bad luck and timing thrown in. I could have gotten through that, if the other half of the problem wasn’t my own complete lack of discipline and organization skills.
It began to look like this wasn’t gonna happen.
It looked like my confidence that I was gonna be able to do it was all wrong, and my “friends”s confident predictions of my failure were right. If it was just this essay it would be alright, but the other things I was trying to do in life at the time were also going terribly wrong. Nothing was going right for me. My optimism now seemed like manic delusions.
I knew I had to get control over of all this negative thinking before it over took me. I was starting to desperately to fight off an encroaching depression. But it was like these thoughts were coming from the outside of me dive bombing my brain. I was getting so depressed it was embarrassing. I mean I have my depressed moments, same as everyone else, but this was gutting depression. The kind I hadn’t felt in years. The kind I thought I had finally gotten over years ago.
Something from without seemed to be flooding my nervous system with the chemicals of depression. It was a familiar feeling, I used to have severe chemical depression. But why is it coming back to me like this? Why now? Although this was a familiar feeling there was also something different about it. I noticed a foreign taste to it, as very very unhealthy thoughts I couldn't stop were coming into my head. Like something the Jewish Photographer Diane Arbus wrote a couple of years before her suicide:
“I go up and down a lot. Maybe I’ve always been like that. Partly what happens though is I get filled with energy and joy and I begin lots of things or think about what I want to do and get all breathless with excitement and then quite suddenly either through tiredness or a disappointment or something more mysterious the energy vanishes, leaving me harassed, swamped, distraught, frightened by the very things I thought I was so eager for!”
I could relate to that. And I now began to ponder. Was what I was reading and researching on the Orthodox Jewish community having a effect on me? Through osmosis of what I was working on, was I experiencing a kind of Jewish depression?
First I started to think back over famous Jewish artists over time who suffered from depression. And not just the kind you see in Woody Allen films.
I remember reading about the early Hassidics masters who all seemed to be affected from some form of despondency. Even the Baal Shem Tov was said to suffer from times of melancholy, that he had to be away from his own congregation for certain periods. “Their battles they fought alone.” Come to think of it the writings of King David and Solomon had a theme of fighting off despair, running through them as well.
Is it because I havent been able to get anywhere with this project on Orthodox Judaism, thats making me depressed? Or is this depression the only way I going to finish this work on Orthodox Judaism? Is this depression stopping me? Or is it a part of the process?
As I write this, I have no idea…..
TO BE CONTINUED…..?
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