Visu­al Arts

A Liv­ing Lens: Pho­tographs of Jew­ish Life from the Pages of The Forward

Alana New­house
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

Alana Newhouse’s beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of archival pho­tographs from the Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, com­piled with the aid of Chana Pol­lack, selec­tive­ly reveals over a cen­tu­ry of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca. Much as the Forverts, as it was known to its Yid­dish speak­ing read­ers, illus­trat­ed both the Amer­i­ca of the neigh­bor­hood, as well as the one that lay beyond one’s imag­i­na­tion, these pho­tographs jux­ta­pose the holy and the pro­fane, the trag­ic and the cel­e­bra­to­ry, the pro­found and the mun­dane, in the lives of ordi­nary Jews. The sheer sweep of its sub­jects tells much about how Jews immersed them­selves in Amer­i­ca, both as a dis­tinct minor­i­ty and as an assim­i­lat­ed group who influ­enced Amer­i­ca as much as they were influ­enced by Amer­i­can cul­ture. 

The thought­ful essays which accom­pa­ny these pho­tos appear in chrono­log­i­cal group­ings. Their sub­jects reflect key aspects of the 20th cen­tu­ry Jew­ish dias­po­ra: the Low­er East Side; the Labor move­ment; the enter­tain­ment indus­try, includ­ing Yid­dish The­atre; the Holo­caust; Israel; and a chang­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. These are among the great sign­posts for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, or at least that por­tion which, new­ly urban­ized, set­tled on the East and West coasts, but the range of sub­jects is what makes these essays so thought­pro­vok­ing. They are orig­i­nal, their insights are based on per­son­al expe­ri­ence, and they care deeply for the peo­ple about whom they are writ­ing. The pho­tographs often cast light on the essays rather than hav­ing the essays explain these large­ly per­son­al, can­did snap­shots. New­house invites the view­er to peer inside a diverse com­mu­ni­ty, which such essay­ists as Nathan Glaz­er, Alan Der­showitz, Roger Kahn, and Deb­o­rah E. Lip­stadt lov­ing­ly ana­lyze.

Holy Hol­ly­wood” that it was immi­grant Jews who cre­at­ed the movie indus­try. They came to Amer­i­ca and dis­played their tal­ent for cul­tur­al intu­ition” by explain­ing Amer­i­ca to Amer­i­cans. What chutz­pah! What genius! Wieselti­er dis­cuss­es the uninvit­ing qual­i­ty of need­i­ness” in many Amer­i­can Jew­ish men which movies reveal. Pho­tos of Woody Allen, and Arthur Miller with Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, accom­pa­ny his words, as if to say, We need not apol­o­gize for this rev­e­la­tion because after all, we’re the ones who dish out the ridicule to our­selves and that’s okay.” And as Jews, history’s exiles, have adopt­ed the char­ac­ter­is­tics of what­ev­er host cul­ture in which we find our­selves, it is nat­ur­al for Amer­i­can Jews to adapt by becom­ing just like the major­i­ty, how­ev­er uncom­mit­ted to seri­ous study and reli­gious tra­di­tion this means we will be. Wieseltier’s essay both chas­tens and com­mends us for doing what we could not avoid if we were to become ful­ly accept­ed as Amer­i­cans.

The Forverts mir­rored the past and sought to uni­fy Jew­ish life in the present. In its sec­ond cen­tu­ry, with a com­plex future ahead, the Forverts is opti­mistic, embrac­ing new reli­gious direc­tions emerg­ing in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Heed­ing Santayana’s warn­ing about learn­ing from his­to­ry, one must revis­it a past which these pho­tographs and essays illu­mi­nate. A Liv­ing Lens serves to pre­pare us to face an uncer­tain future, brave­ly. 


Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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