‘Meaningful Fragments’ of Jewish Life

Zion Ozeri explores the search for connection in Jewish communities impacted by exile

“Welcoming the Sabbath”, by Zion Ozeri, taken at Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, 1990.

“Almost every photograph packs a story.” — Zion Ozeri

As it turns out, so does almost every photographer. For almost 40 years, Zion Ozeri has traveled all over the world to document the diversity and commonality of Jews and Jewish life.

According to the biography on his website, Ozeri’s work “explores a personal search for connection in a world impacted by exile and loss,” and is influenced by his childhood, which was spent “among people whose lives had been shaken by displacement.”

Many of his photographs address the themes of migration, immigration, and Diaspora (the collective group of Jewish communities established outside of Israel). As a Yemenite Jew born in Israel, Zion Ozeri grew up during the mass migration of Jews from Europe and the Middle East to the reclaimed Holy Land.

He later served in the Israeli Army as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War. Ozeri’s exposure to both Israel’s perpetual conflict and its rich multicultural environment inspired him to visually explore and record Jewish life both in Israel and the Diaspora.

“Cave” by Zion Ozeri, taken in Haidan A-Sham, Yemen, 1992.

“In my photographs, I try to capture meaningful fragments amidst the spectrum of Jewish life, one that helps the viewer appreciate its value, giving it meaning and purpose.” — Zion Ozeri

When Ozeri got out of the Army, he moved to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

He steadily gained prestige as a photojournalist for New York Jewish Week from 1980 to 1985 and published photographs in The New York Times, Newsweek, Baltimore Times, L.A. Times, The Jerusalem Report, The Jerusalem Post and Middle East Insight throughout his career.

Despite his successes in the journalism world, Ozeri’s true passion remained
documenting the Jewish world. Ozeri makes portraits of individuals, families and communities that reflect both his high art aesthetic and documentary background.

These images capture the strength and softness of his subjects, characteristics that pierce directly through the camera lens to meet the viewer’s gaze. This effect accentuates the profound differences and similarities that bind and bond humankind, and continue to unite people across time and place.

Ozeri also records the streets and landscapes where his subjects reside, providing a comprehensive yet limiting window through which the viewer can experience their lives.

Ozeri uses both natural and artificial light to emphasis the ethereal nature of Jewish life and religious practice in these diverse communities, visually constructing physical realms that illustrate the divine nature of the world in which they (and we) live.

“Synagogue Attic” by Zion Ozeri, taken in Riga, Latvia, 1991.

Thus far, Ozeri has had 16 photography exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the U.S., Israel, Canada and Argentina. As a seasoned professional artist, Ozeri has grown to understand the power of photography as a means of visual expression and communication, and gained in-depth knowledge of the global Jewish community.

“Photography is so accessible; everyone has a camera,” Ozeri said in an interview with Charles Zusman of New Jersey Jewish Standard. “We should realize the power of the image.”

In 2005, he founded The Jewish Lens, a non-profit educational organization that teaches youth about Jewish values, traditions, and identity through photography.

According to the organization’s website, “The Jewish Lens provides the next generation of Jews with an entry point to Jewish learning, skill development, and an opportunity to share their voice — their lens — with others.”

Designed by Ozeri and professional educators, TJL courses teach students how to analyze the deeper meaning of photographs and connect them to Torah teachings and rabbinic texts. Students are also encouraged to make photographs that reflect their own Jewish experiences. At the end of the course, students are given the opportunity to exhibit their work in local galleries, synagogues and The Jewish Lens’ website.

Financially sustained by fundraising efforts and private donations, TJL has trained teachers and implemented their curriculum in over 200 schools across the United States and 50 schools in Israel.

“Seeing Jewish communities from India, Yemen and Jerusalem exposes [students] to a whole different perspective on what ‘Jewish’ looks like and what ‘Jewish’ means,” said Sheridan Gayer, a teacher at Temple Israel Center in Washington D.C. who used Ozeri’s curriculum.

Zion Ozeri continues to thrive as a significant artist and documentary photographer in the Jewish community, but his work transcends religious and cultural boundaries.

Ultimately, Ozeri’s work is about humanity and what it means to live in today’s world. His images illustrate the continuity of Jewish-Indian oil pressers who have been working and living in the same neighborhoods for millennia and the tumultuous political changes sweeping across the Middle East. He captures young children whispering secrets to each other in
Hebrew school and aged Rabbis retreating to study in dusty synagogue attics stacked floor-to-ceiling with books.

“Oil Pressers” by Zion Ozeri, taken in Alibag, India, 2001.

His panoramic landscapes capture the environments where people live and thousands of microcosms where intimate moments between loved ones take place. Between every subject and photographer is a dismantled defensive wall that has been gradually deconstructed by trust and mutual respect. It is this invisible pile of rubble that really allows Ozeri’s work to radiate brighter than some of the most accomplished photographers.

Zion Ozeri reflects what binds Jews to their faith and to one another in his artwork and educational service to others. He encounters Jewish communities scattered across the world and discovers in them a sense of home, familiar customs and shared experiences.

Sources

  1. Jewish Lens. 2009. The Jewish Lens, Inc. 1 Nov. 2012 http://www.jewishlens.org/about-the-jewish-lens
  2. Feldman, Lindsay. “The Power of Photography.” Jewish Lens. 2012. The Jewish Week, Inc. 1 Nov. 2012. http://www.jewishlens.org/the-power-of-photography
  3. Lipman, Steve. “Zion’s World.” The Jewish Week. 2012. The Jewish Week, Inc. 1 Nov.2012 http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/zion%E2%80%99s_world
  4. Zion Ozeri Photography. Zion Ozeri. 1 Nov. 2012 http://www.zionozeri.com/index.html
  5. Zusman, Charles. “Learning to see through a ‘Jewish Lens.’” New Jersey Jewish Standard. 2010. The Jewish Standard. 1 Nov. 2012 http://www.jstandard.com/index.php

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Polina Rosewood

Polina Rosewood

Educator, art lover & adventure seeker