When Miriam Seidel was looking for an artist to exhibit in the Gershman Y’s Open Lens Gallery in February, she had one special criterion. “I was looking for someone dealing with Sephardic themes,” says the gallery curator for the Gershman. Specifically, she wanted someone whose work would complement another exhibition she was mounting, Micaela Amateau Amato’s works focusing on the Sephardic Jews of Mallorca.
She didn’t have to look too hard. Laurence Salzmann, the Philadelphia photographer who has spent much of the past five decades documenting marginalized groups of people around the world, had an extensive body of work dedicated to the Sephardi community in Turkey. The timing was good: Salzmann was in the process of organizing his archive for a future show in Turkey.
The result is “Another Look,” photos of Turkey’s Jewish community, from the 1980s to 2012.
The images present glimpses of Jewish life in small towns and in Istanbul, where most of the country’s estimated 17, 000 Jews live. They encompass everything from ordinary life to rarely seen Sephardi life-cycle traditions like the kortadura de fashadura, the ceremonial cutting of cloth to make a baby’s swaddling clothes; and the kezada, where a happily married woman breaks marzipan birds (representing peace and good luck) over the heads of a bridal couple.
Seidel notes that because the photos go back almost 30 years, the exhibit sometimes functions as a memorial to something that has been lost. “One of my favorite photos is of Yusuf Asaz, a shopkeeper in the town of Çanakkale — he was a fabric merchant,” she says. “On his trip back to Turkey last year, Laurence found that there were no more Jewish shopkeepers left in the town.”
Salzmann, during a series of email conversations from his current project — documenting new converts to Judaism in Colombia — says that what happened to the Jewish merchants of Çanakkale is not indicative of anything more than times changing.
“The shift in Turkey’s politics” — moving from the Kemalist secularism so prevalent in previous decades to an Islamic-oriented government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan — “has affected all levels of Turkish life, not only for Jews but for a good number of people who are not so religious,” he says.
The negative shift in relations between Turkey and Israel, which were once strong but have soured — especially in the wake of the 2010 incident when a Turkish ship attempting to break the blockade of Gaza was stopped by Israeli forces, resulting in the death of eight Turkish nationals — has led to increased tensions for Turkish Jews, who largely thrived in the country for centuries.
But Salzmann says that if people are leaving the country, they are “doing so for reasons other than the bad relationship between two governments.”
Among the more sobering changes Salzmann has noticed since he first began chronicling the country’s Jewish community for Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot Museum in 1985: accessibility, due largely to security concerns. “In the past,” he recalls, “the congregants of a synagogue would sit outside its doors drinking tea. Now, you need to pass through several thick doors to gain entry to the synagogue.”
After a 20-year absence from the country, Salzmann now returns to Turkey frequently, including twice in the past three years. He is often accompanied by his wife, the Turkish author, Ayse Gursan-Salzmann, who contributed the text to his latest volume of photography, Travels in Search of Turkish Jews.
He is also making video documentaries of the changing Sephardi culture and life in the country. “I wish to tell their stories, and to have the chance to record some of these stories in Ladino, a language that fewer and fewer people are speaking as time goes on.”