Secular Lens, Religious Vision

For Gil Cohen-Magen, from stranger to friend in Mea Shearim.

05/01/13
Staff Writer
Photo Galleria: 

The mechitza at a Mea Shearim wedding. Photos by Gil Cohen-Magen

A lone chasidic man pushing against a bulldozer digging up Jewish graves on the Golan.

In the Jerusalem of his youth, the religious neighborhoods that lay near Gil Cohen-Magen’s secular Kiryat Hayovel in the southwest corner of the capital were foreign territory, just a few hundred yards away.

The residents were “like enemies,” he says. “You never talked to them.”

That was the case during his days studying photojournalism at Hadassah College of Jerusalem, and later, working for Reuters, taking pictures of elections and intifadas that made the covers of the world’s top newspapers and magazines. He had moved away from Jerusalem, started to raise a family, and immersed himself in Israel’s secular life.

Until an assignment in 2001, shortly before Rosh HaShanah, took him to the famed haredi enclave of Mea Shearim in Jerusalelm. He was there to document the customs of those who populate the neighborhood.

Day after day, Cohen-Magen, who had started shooting with a camera he received as a bar mitzvah gift and never stopped, drove to Mea Shearim. He talked to the men and women who had been strangers, and learned about a way of life that had seemed remote.

A veil lifted.

“I learned to understand them,” he says in a telephone interview from Modiin, where he now works as a freelance photographer. “I wanted to go deeper.”

“I discovered,” he writes in the introduction to  “Hassidic Courts” (Eye Publishing), “a whole universe, wonderful in its visual and spiritual aesthetic.”

For a decade, he took his Canon 5D back to Mea Shearim, to other haredi neighborhoods and communities throughout Israel, to Uman, the town in Ukraine where thousands of Breslov chasidic men hold a prayer pilgrimage on Rosh HaShanah each year. After initial hostility and mistrust and mild violence, he gained the trust of the leaders and rank-and-file members of many of haredi Judaism’s most-insular groups, gaining rare access to homes and synagogues, yeshivot and other sites of (to non-Orthodox Jews) obscure rituals. Most of his time he spent among a handful of fervently Orthodox and fervently anti-Zionist groups, the type of people with whom Cohen-Magen, who served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army, would not earlier have associated.

The result is a coffee-table book of stunning color photographs and Cohen-Magen’s essays, in Hebrew and English, which explain the images.

The choice of color was intentional, Cohen-Magen, 41, says.

Many photographers’ visual essays about ultra-Orthodox life appear in black and white, he says. The tacit message is that haredi Jews are quaint, old-fashioned, leading lives without color, that their lives are clichés. On the other hand, most news photos of haredim, Cohen-Magen says, show them burning Israeli flags or engaged in other acts of anti-social behavior.

With his newly gained perspective on haredim, he set out to show the color, the nuances, the daily life. “I tried to find something nobody had seen in Mea Shearim.”

Here’s what his book shows: a couple biking in the Hula Valley; a wheat harvest for Passover shmura matzah, and then Mea Shearim men making it; children burning chometz in bonfires before Passover; chasidic men dancing and swimming; chasidim trudging through the snow in northern Jerusalem; a chasidic rabbi playing the violin in his apartment on Chanukah; a chasidic man blowing a shofar in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market to herald the imminent arrival of Shabbat; chasidic men demonstrating against what they considered desecration of graves; a chasidic man holding a pair of cheap sunglasses over his eyes to protect his vision during the every-28-years Blessing of the Sun prayer; a tashlich ceremony in front of a small swimming pool set up in a Bnei Brak synagogue; a bedecked donkey during a Redemption of the Firstborn Donkey ceremony in Jerusalem; and men celebrating Purim in letting-their-hair-down costumes.

And women leading their children through the warren of Mea Shearim alleys on Purim; and the women’s side of a mechitza at a Bnei Brak Satmar wedding. These are the rarest photos — in haredi circles, contact between the sexes, especially with outsiders, is highly restricted. ‘I don’t have so many — what can I do? I’m a man.” He got what he could. Pictures of men greatly outnumber those of women. But, he says, he considers himself lucky to have taken the shots he did.

At first, the Mea Shearim residents ignored him; they told him to go away, they shut their doors in his face. “Some of them attacked me.”

Cohen-Magen kept going back. Some chasidim, some street-smart youths, slowly started to trust him. They saw that he came to praise, not to mock them. “I’m trying to find the nice side of the ultra-Orthodox,” he would declare. “I explained that I’m not a normal photojournalist.” The youths offered to help, to make the needed introductions, to help him gain entrée. “They opened a lot of gates to me.”

To fit in, he dressed like an Orthodox Jew, donning black pants, white shirt and kipa. He even grew “a little bit of a beard.”

Eventually, he went “everywhere,” ending up with more than a million and a half photographs for the book; 141 made the final cut; he let his friends, “people I trust,” do the choosing. He didn’t always agree with his friends’ decisions. Some of his personal favorites got bumped.

His favorite shot, which made it into the book, is of a young chasidic man pushing against a massive bulldozer in a 2005 demonstration against grave desecration in the Golan Heights.

“A lot of journalists” were covering the demonstration. Cohen-Magen  was the only one who noticed the lone chasid suddenly break from the pack to sprint across a field, about 300 yards. Cohen-Magen followed him, sprinting.

The chasid stopped in front of the bulldozer, which was digging up earth. “He decided to stop it.” He pushed; the bulldozer, which could have crushed the chasid, stopped.

That photo, Cohen-Magen says, captures the type of dedication he wanted to show. “In my mind’s eye,” he explains in the book, “I saw the unforgettable image of the biblical battle between David and Goliath.”

A wheat harvest for Passover matzah.

The lengthy encounter with the chasidic community “changed me,” Cohen-Magen says. It “sharpened my Jewish identity, and for that I am grateful,” he writes in the introduction. “I saw the nice side of Judaism,” the chesed and the eventual openness.

“I’m not dati. I’m hiloni,” he says, using the Hebrew words for, respectively, religious and secular.

“We keep traditions at home,” Cohen-Magen says. “I keep kosher … all the holidays.” He makes Kiddush on Shabbat. He and his wife send their kids to a “traditional school.”

He’s still in touch with the haredi friends he made; they ask for prints of photos he’s taken. “To this day they call me — ‘Come to this wedding, to this tisch’ [traditional communal meal].’

“They are now my friends,” Cohen-Magen says.

He keeps going back to Mea Shearim. “I can’t stop,” he says. “I’m still shooting. Maybe there will be a second book.” 

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

05/05/2013 - 18:51

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I was fortunate to do a photo project with Gil and found him to be exceptionally perceptive. He has an 'eye' that is able to see in to the soul of the individual and the scene. Many times I'd be standing beside him, and he would see a 'scene' that I would miss, and capture a moment that resonates with deeply humanistic feelings. All people relate to him because he relates to all people. He is truly mekabel kol punim b'sever ponom yofos, and that's why the Chareidi community felt at ease inviting him into their homes, neighborhood and lives. I do hope he puts out another book - he has a lot to offer.

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