Jews on the move

Matthew Krouse speaks to Jewish studies guru David Shneer about his visit to the controversial Limmud conference and the role of Jews in the early years of Soviet photojournalism

The South African Jewish community hosts its third Limmud Conference in Sandton this weekend. In the rather conservative Jewish community the conference — devoted to such diverse subjects as spirituality, gender, social activism and the controversies surrounding Zionism — has stirred mixed emotions.

From its inception it has been discouraged by the local orthodox rabbinate and last year pro-Palestinian groups protested outside Limmud against the presence of invited speaker Israeli Leiutenant Colonel David Benjamin, accusing him of orchestrating war crimes in Israel’s war on Gaza in early 2009 during Operation Cast Lead.

This year’s conference has been more sedate.

A speaker, this year, with an interest in history is David Shneer. He is associate professor of history and director of Jewish Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder.

Called a “taboo-breaking scholar”, Shneer’s work concentrates on modern Jewish society and culture. His books include Queer Jews; Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture and New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora. His work has sparked discussion in publications like the Economist and the Jerusalem Post. His newest book project, the one from which his talk at Limmud comes, is titled Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, & the Holocaust.

Other sessions he is conducting at Limmud include a look at radical Yiddish poetry and the life of Dutch Jewish Yiddish Singer Lin Jaldati who was instrumental in building Jewish Culture in post war East Germany.

MK: Whats your sense of the local Jewish community?
DS: To date I have only seen the Cape Town community and to be fair this is the community that is opting to come to Limmud and I have been to conferences in New York, in the United Kingdom, in Sweden, in Colorado and now this one here in South Africa and each one is a little bit different.

The politics of the conference is different in each place. In South Africa, I have discovered that the Limmud conference has challenged the established community. This is especially true of the Johannesburg Limmud that I will be at this weekend. There is apparently major friction between the established community and Limmud to the extent that most of orthodox individuals will not attend because the rabbis have said it is not good to attend Limmud.

MK: I think it may now be a little more nuanced than it used to be. I think they have relaxed their proscription and left the ball in everybody’s courts, whether they want to go or not. What will happen this year will of course be seen when we get there.
DS: Everybody has made me a bit terrified of the Johannesburg community. So, regarding Cape Town, the Limmud was lovely. There were between 450 and 500 people as well as fantastic conversations. I was primarily invited there to discuss contemporary Yiddish culture in contemporary Jewish society.

I did this interesting pannel with some locals called “What’s next for the Jewish People?” There were probably 150 people in the room, looking for the answer; and of course no one gave them an easy answer to the question.

But it was an interesting commentary. We were all frankly pretty much suggesting similar things. But as a community I found it lovely, I found it engaged, I found it more secular than I had expected and that could be because I was at Limmud in particular which may attract a more secular audience.

I had heard that South African Jewry is supposed be classically orthodox in the sense that everyone drives to their orthodox synagogue on the Sabbath (if that makes sense). That was my impression and this crowd at Cape Town Limmud seemed much more secular than that. That was enlightening.

I am here now in Durban and I worked at the Holocaust centre this morning. I worked with local educators — Jewish and non-Jewish — and I had an interesting experience there too. My goal, when I do these projects, is to learn as much from the people I am working with and I hope they get to learn something from me. So far that has been the case.

MK: Do you find, in an environment like this, that you have to begin explaining the Holocaust from the beginning?
DS: No. These are teachers who are mandated to teach the Holocaust at Ninth Grade. And many of them have been doing that as a result of the mandate and they come to these trainings to get a little bit more depth, a little more expertise. I presumed that most of the people in the room had a basic understanding of the Holocaust and the workshop I did with them was about the use of photography in teaching about the Holocaust.

MK: This reflects the title of one of your books.
DS: In November the book on Soviet Jewish photography will come out. But I have been fascinated by photography in general, and how it is used, for a long time. I did this workshop with them and they were on it. They had good historical context in the back of their heads.

I was led to believe that their knowledge level was lower than it turned out to be. People are always worried saying, “don’t speak over our teachers’ heads; it makes them feel bad.” That wasn’t my experience. They were right there.

MK: What is the genesis point of your commitment to Jewish studies?
DS: I got into it through the back door. I was raised in suburban Los Angeles, in a conservative synagogue — a “white bread” conservative synagogue, not overly rich. “White bread” refers to a sort of bland Jewishness. I started going to Russia in high school in 1988, and my experience of travelling to Russia generated more interest in me for Jewish studies. I studied abroad in 1992 and actually watched the authorities take the sign that said Leningrad down and put up the sign that said St Petersburg, when I was living there.

I had a sense of living history and, at some point, I recognised that going back to Russia — which had been about a fascination with communism — was ultimately a homecoming because all of my grandparents were from the Russian Empire, from Poland and the Ukraine and that area.

At some point it occurred to me that my fascination with Russia had something to do with me going and exploring my own roots. My first languages were German and Russian and then I learned Hebrew and Yiddish to actually start working in Jewish Studies.

The individuals I study all worked and lived in all four of the languages I just named, relatively easily. My grandfather spoke eight languages. The photographers I studied weren’t the smartest cookies (in Russian they are called the semi-intelligentsia, which means they weren’t educated) but they were fluent in Russian and knew some Yiddish. They produced images of concentration camps and mass murder sites in Ukraine and Belarus. The field of photojournalism was built by Jews.

I came to the field via the Soviet experience; but then I kept digging and found it is actually a global phenomenon. If you look — in the 1920s and 1930s — at who the emerging photojournalists were you will find that 50% were Jewish names. Names like Robert Capra, Moholy Nagy and Man Ray. I could play the Jewish apologetics card and say how great we are. But the question is, what is the social history behind Jews becoming photographers?

The answer lies in entrepreneurialism. Photography was a new technology and art form that did not have academies that could accept or reject people. It was an art form that didn’t require professional training. You could just pick up a camera and play around with it. And you could make a living out of it.

For all of these reasons Jews really flocked to the field.

In the Soviet case, which is the one I have been studying, I start in the 1920s and 1930s asking these questions: who are these guys? What kind of training do they have? Why do they do what they are doing? Why are they working for the Soviet state? Why is the state employing a bunch of Jews to create its own visual history?

These guys ended up doing all that during the war period, which ultimately means that they were photographing the Holocaust.

Limmud South Africa was held Cape Town on July 30 August 1; in Stellenbosch on August 1 and 2 and in Durban on August 1 and 2. The Johannesburg conference happens on August 8 and 9. For more info email [email protected], call 072 553 0164 or log onto

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Matthew Krouse
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