Picture this. It is early morning a day before Yom Kippur. A Hassid walks into a side room at the synagogue, greets the Rabbi at his chair and the collector next to him. The Hassid quickly scans the room. He also notices me. I am not sure if he is simply ignoring my presence or actually acknowledging it. I cringe at the corner and make an effort to blend with the wall behind me. I disappear. Silently, the Hassid pulls his shirt and Tzitzit from his pants up to his shoulders. He places both arms on a 2 by 4 and starts chanting verses.
The collector picks up a whip and starts lashing the Hassid on his back. This is what I was waiting for. I stood up, aimed the camera and took a few pictures. I embraced the camera to my chest and cringed again. The Hassid took 39 lashes, while continuously chanting. When the thing was done, the shirt went back in the pants, the Hassid murmured a quiet blessing to the Rabbi and left the room.
This rare ritual – 39 lashes, a ritual performed by Ultra Orthodox Jews after failing to comply with one of the negative (dont’s) commandments – was shot at a small synagogue in Jerusalem. The actual shot took a fraction of a second, but preparation was long and thorough.
I grew up in Jerusalem where I was born, and have always had Ultra Orthodox (Hassidic) people surrounding me. In the market, on the bus, the streets and also on demonstrations. It was only in the last few years, after documenting foreign workers, settlers and other communities, that I have realized that my familiarity with the orthodox part of town is superficial. It because clear to me that this society is multi-layered and complex. I started this journey by wandering the neighborhood of Mea-Shearim, but photographically I felt I was only scratching the surface. I entered synagogues, roamed the streets and talked to people on a daily basis. I recognized people by their names. It was only later that I realized what a tremendous value those frequent visits had. Mea-Shearim, like many neighborhoods hosting closed communities, is a place where everyone knows everyone. Any outsider stands out and is immediately tagged. It’s not just a matter of lack of cooperation, but rather a situation where hostility can even escalate to physical violence.
By walking the streets and talking to the people, I managed to build the foundation of any good documentary photographer – trust.
I was always honest in my replies when asked to my deeds. I said I was interested in the community, its life flow and rituals. I was attentive, and was never judgmental about what I heard and saw. My true curiosity and the fact that the camera was often placed aside without a single picture taken, were crucial in helping me gain acceptance.
One day, shortly after the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer, I drove to the tomb righteous Simeon at Sheikh Jarah’ to photograph the Halakh’e ritual – younglings first hair cut. It is a public ritual, and photographing is not an issue at all. After running around for a while, a few young fathers approached me and asked if I could send them some pictures with their kids. I took a small notebook and a pen and diligently wrote their names and addresses [those are physical addresses, the Ultra Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem don’t use the internet, UT]. Some offered payment which I respectfully declined. When I got home, I printed the pictures, put them in envelopes and send them along with a short note reminding them of wi I was and my phone number. To my surprise, a few days later, many called me back to thank me and asked to keep in touch. This led me to the important understanding that once trust is built, people are actually happy to be documented.
Slowly a network was built in the different Hasidic courts (hatserot) and in the cities of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh. This network became a helpful resource for me. Aside the human “intel”, there are many clues available and you just have to know how to read them. Most synagogues have a bulletin board with dates of weddings, Britt Mila ceremonies, bar mitzvahs and dates of visiting of righteous tombs field travels. The Pashkevils on the walls (Sort of Hassidic pamphlets) also provide a lot of information on big demonstrations and rallies.
“Hakol Haharedi” – a special voice mailbox one can call using his phone helped me learn about events such as Holy book Inauguration and burial.
Many of the unique rituals are done in small coves, behind closed doors and in small basements with a tiny hatch. Carefully listening helped me in locating some of those places, like small Tfilin workshops. One time I heard the sound of small kids singing behind a locked a door. I politely knocked and introduced myself to the Heder [Hassidic kindergarten – UT]. I then gained access to the kids inside and was able later to photograph them uninterrupted.
I learnt to identify the smell of Chlorine that is present in Mikvehs [a bath used in some Jewish rituals – UT] and the smells of small bakeries and cooking houses.
After a while of enhancing my “location scouting abilities” the end of the Jewish year arrived – the Jewish calendar month of Elul, which ends the year, followed by the month of Tishrey which starts a new one. These are eventful months in the Jewish community – nights of asking forgiveness in the synagogue and the wailing wall, Vows undoing rituals, Kappores and the unique 39 lashes ritual. It was clear to me that in order to successfully document all those events I will have to both meticulously plan my schedule and gather information.
Just before the holidays I bought a huge Jewish calendar. I called everyone I kept in touch with and asked about recommended events and locations to shoot at. As the number of inputs grew, the scattered details formed a solid plan on the calendar. Those were hectic months. I almost did not leave Jerusalem. Eventually, I managed to shoot everything I wanted.
While planning is important, luck is certainly a factor in the documentrey genre. One time I was photographing a local abattoir processing turkeys. One of my favorite photos was shot there. A Hassidic mom arrived to buy a fresh chicken and while she and her children were waiting she nagged her little boy inside so he can watch and learn from the Shochet [the Shochet is considred a highly prestigious profession in the Ultra Orthodox community. UT]. The little boy complied but was stunned by the strong smells and turkey body parts flying all over the place.
As my project evolved, I feverishly lookied for interesting visual anecdotes, some took great patience and tolerance.
On orthodox weddings, for example, there is a ritual called Mitzvah Tantz (or the mizva dance). This is when the Admor (community leader, the high Rebbe) is dancing with the bride with his Gartel (belt). This is a high moment in the wedding and the Hassidic crowd waits for this moment during the entire wedding. It is quite an ecstatic event. The wedding ceremony itself is kind of a long event starting at sunset and ending early morning the next day. The Mitzvah Tantz can occur at any given time during the wedding between midnights and 6am. To document this brief ritual, I needed to stay alert during the entire event. As location also makes a huge difference, I would usually ask people if they knew “When the Mitzvah Tantz is going to happen?”, “When is the bride coming?”, “From what entrance will the Rabbi be coming from?”. I would then position myself accordingly, sometime climbing the high constructed platforms or hooking up with the band so they’ll allow me to stand on their elevated stage, which is often close to the Rabbi honorary stage.
Another event where I had to practice great patience was right after the passing of the Admor of Viznitch, one of the biggest Hassidic courts in Israel. I remembered a story someone had told me where after another righteous Rabbi passed away. Hassidic jumped in the freshly dug grave as they believed it is a blessing for long prosperous life. I assumed that a similar behavior will be displayed and arrived at the grave promptly after the notice was given. The location was already busy with few workers digging the grave. There were several hours left until the funeral arrived at the cemetery. I spent about half a day in the blazing sun when suddenly a young Hassidic man arrived running and jumped into the deep grave.
I jumped after him and stood on a small hill of dirt to get a good angle into the grave. I managed to take a shot as I was almost burying the poor guy with the dirt that rolled of the small hill. After a few seconds of lying in the grave, the young man jumped out and disappeared running.
I felt that this project will not be complete without documenting some of the more extreme fractions of the Hassidic movement. I was looking for an opportunity to shoot a Hassidic group called Neturei Karta – a radical anti Zionists who are considered provocative and riot inciting group. I learned the location of some of their classes and one day I simply opened the door at one of the classes, entered the room and sat down among them. I placed the camera, lens covered, on the table. They were a little startled but after directly approaching them and asking a few questions, they put their business aside and started to answer. After an hour of talking I picked up the camera and assertively announced: “and now I will shoot your portraits”. They did not refuse or try to avoid me and simply posed. This is where I learned that a bit of chutzpa and a lot of insistence can definitely do the job.
When documenting a certain community and its rituals, you can’t avoid the fact that some events only happen once a year and last only a few seconds. Miss it and you have to wait another year.
Such event was the Passover cleaning by candle light ritual. I wanted to shoot this for a long while but my network was not yet sufficient. Last year, I asked all my friends, to help me locate this ritual performed by “an important and known” figure. Usually this is a very intimate ritual done at home with only close members of the family. A week after asking for help, the expected phone call came through. The caller said 7:30 pm at Rabbi Avika and Hazon Ish intersection. Wait on the bench at the cross. We’ll signal you. Sounds a bit over dramatic, but what wouldn’t you do for a good photo. That address is the address of Rabbi Meir Zvi Bergman, the great student of Hazon Ish. He is a well known and important figure in the Ultra Orthodox community. I arrived on the hour and waited where I was told. After about 20 minutes of eager anticipation, my phone rang and the voice said. “Second floor, now!”. I ran up the stairs and the Rabbi’s grandson opened the door for me. The Rabbi already lit the candle and started to walk the room. I quietly followed and took five pictures. Then the grandson waived at me – “this is it”, and politely showed me to the door. It felt extremely gratifying to obtain this picture which I have worked so long to achieve.
To conclude, the tools I gained while documenting the Hassidic community proved useful on other documentary projects as well, especially when dealing with closed and hard to access communities.
The ability to build a strong network of human resources, to build trust and to accent or reduce my presence proved invaluable. It is clear to me today, that it takes a lot of patience, curiosity and persistence as well as planning and thinking to reveal those unique moments that documentary photographers work so hard to expose.
About The Author:
Dror Garti is a photo-journalist based in Israel. He is involved in documenting diverse communities in Israel such as the settlers in Bat-Ayin, the ultra-orthodox Jews in the Hassidic courts, the Samaritans and foreign Chinese workers. Dror works for the Flash90 photo agency.