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Camera Eyes Some Unusual Journeys

April 9, 2009 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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At the Open Lens Gallery: Exhibit of Ehiopians' world
"Besa: Albanian Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust" is the title of an exhibition at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim -- and the subject that has occupied photographer Norman Gershman for the past five years.

The exhibit at the synagogue in Wynnewood (www.mlrt.org) opens on April 13.

Through his camera's lens, Gershman -- who was born in New Jersey and now resides in Colorado -- most often finds his way to the human face, and it is through portraiture that he articulates his visual stories.

I spoke to the photographer by phone to gain some insight into this specific project. He was in Santa Fe offering a workshop on portraiture to art students.

How did Gershman discover the story? He did so at the suggestion of contacts he has at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Recalls the artist: "Of course, finding subjects was not always easy. I was a stranger to these people, communication was sometimes difficult, and many of those who directly took part in the rescues were long dead. But what I found fascinated me."

During World War II, when the Nazis held Europe and much of the world in terror, the people of Albania acted on Besa, their highest code of ethical honor. They put aside religious differences -- endangering their own lives -- in order to save the lives of local Jews. No Albanian Jews were handed to the Nazis.

"But it was not an organized resistance movement. Only individual Albanians, acting alone. Whenever possible, I sought out people who sheltered the Jews. Many, of course, had died, and in those cases, I photographed their spouses or their children," explains Gershman. "My portraits of these people, and their stories, are meant to reflect their humanity, their dignity, their religious and moral convictions, and their quiet courage."

The fact that the "Besa" exhibition is at MLRT is a result of some fortuitous circumstances. Last spring, some temple officials attended a seminar at the Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. While there, they saw Gershman's striking portraits in the HUC gallery.

MLRT has no dedicated gallery space, but the synagogue officials were so moved they formed a committee. This exhibition is a test run for a possible ongoing gallery program.

Gershman is a fine-art photographer with representation in various museums throughout the world. The extent to which members of MLRT were willing to go to in order to bring his story of "Besa" to this community is a testimony to the power of one artist to tell a story. The exhibition was first shown in this country at the United Nations in January 2008, and is now traveling the world under the auspices of Yad Vashem.

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"From Tesfa to Tikvah: From Hope to Hope," an exhibition of 20 photographs by Irene Fertik about Israel's Ethiopian community, will open at the Gershman Y's Open Lens Gallery (www. gershmany.org) on April 23.

Born in Philadelphia, Fertik is the daughter of the late Fannie Fertik, who wrote about kosher cooking in the pages of this newspaper for many years. The photographer, who now resides in California, travels to Israel every year, primarily to follow their Ethiopian community.

Tesfa means "hope" in Amharic; Tikvah is "hope" in Hebrew. The transition from the language of their former homeland to that of their new home is just one small indication of the many changes and adaptations this community has faced since moving to Israel almost 20 years ago. The move from isolated agrarian mountain villages in Ethiopia to a modern technological culture in the Jewish state has meant incredible sacrifices for the older immigrants and enormous challenges for their children.

For a photographer such as Fertik, this transition offers a veritable cornucopia of images.

According to Fertik, "The visual contrasts are extraordinary -- an ancient African people in a mostly white modern society. A young boy who was a shepherd in Gondor is now a computer jockey in Tel Aviv."

Fertik's photographs show both aspects of the Ethiopian reality in Israel. An intimate family moment -- an obvious reminder of the old ways and traditional clothing -- is juxtaposed against a group of 21st-century kids in T-shirts and jeans leaning against a modern bus.

Israel's Ethiopian community now numbers 85,000. From this pool of possible subjects, Fertik has managed to create an intimate portfolio that has caught the attention of galleries and museums from Israel to Europe, as well as throughout the United States. 

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