Photographs on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum ask the question, “What is Jewish?”
The answer is wider and more varied than one might expect in “The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography,” extended through April 29 at the San Francisco museum.
New York photographer Nikki S. Lee, who is of South Korean descent, dresses herself as a bride at what appears to be a Jewish wedding in a series of provocative images called “The Wedding” at the front of the exhibit. (The image of Lee is also around town on billboards advertising the show.)
“All are staged; some have been seen as on the verge of sacrilegious,” said museum educator Sarah Hromack, who likened Lee’s photos to Cindy Sherman’s conceptual self-portraits during a recent tour of the exhibit.
Chris Verene, a Brooklyn based-artist, takes a different tack, shooting scenes and portraits of his hometown of Galesburg, Ill., in a series called “Prairie Jews.”
Among his subjects is his grandfather’s friend Max, an old man who is pictured at his own self-styled Sabbath meal (a bachelor, he lights his own candles and, taking into account the daylight in the photo, appears to be celebrating before sundown). Other pictures show Max’s cluttered basement, Max on an exercise bike and posing with his housekeeper Marlene and a vacuum cleaner.
Dawoud Bey, a Chicago-based artist, contributes large-scale, almost haunting portraits of young people of various skin colors and ethnicities who have Jewish backgrounds.
Working in collaboration with Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, Bey accompanies the photos with audio tracks in which the subjects talk about their lives and their Jewishness. Particularly fascinating are Sahai and Zenebesh, who, at ages 7 and 11 respectively, were adopted from Ethiopia by Jewish Americans. Raised in their birth country as Christians, they converted to Judaism, but as they have grown (they are 16 and 18 in the photos), they have begun to question the role of Judaism in their lives.
The renowned team of Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, a married couple working at the University of Florida in Gainesville as well as in New York and Berlin, presents images associated with Hasidic Lubavitch Jews in two series in the exhibit. “Brooklyn Abroad, Postville,” shows a community of Jews who moved to Iowa to run a kosher meat-processing plant.
A group of architectural photos, “770,” illustrates interesting comparisons and contrasts between the original Chabad house (places where Lubavitchers congregate) in Brooklyn, overseen by Lubavitcher Rebbe Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, and replications of it around the world built under the guidance of his son-in-law Rebbe Menachim Mendel Schneerson. Chabad buildings constructed in Israel, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Brazil and Montreal are pictured.
Among special programs in conjunction with the show are a lecture/reception with artist Dawoud Bey at 7 p.m., Jan. 18, and Free Family Day from noon to 3 p.m., Feb. 11.
The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 121 Steuart St., San Francisco
When: Noon to 6 p.m. Sundays though Thursdays; closes April 29
Info: (415) 344-8800 or www.thecjm.org