Jewish Women: A World of Tradition and Change

Jewish Women: A World of Tradition and Change
by Joan Roth
[Jolen Press 217 East 85 St., Suite 263, New York NY 10021]

There has never been a book like this one. When we look around the room at any gathering we know Jewish women don’t all look alike. But these faces?

The work of photojournalist Joan Roth is familiar to LILITH readers from a recent cover photo and story on Ethiopian Jewish women, and from her photos of the Jewish women of Eastern Europe, but even the powerful images we’ve seen before haven’t quite prepared us for the intensity and diversity of the faces—and lives—she gives us in this new book.

Roth, who has traveled the world with her camera, brings us into intimate contact with women who are simultaneously sisters to us and strangers—in Ethiopia, Morocco, India, Bukhara—lighting Shabbat candles, getting married, cooking, reminiscing. Roth’s special magic is that she is able to present these women both as the exotics they sometimes seem to us, and as our familiars—an Indian Jewish bride whose hands look tattooed by the delicate Paisley-like tracery of the henna ceremony; “the best caterer in Bukhara” taking an axe (yes, an axe) to a mass of animal flesh; two women who, miraculously, survived the slaughter at Babi Yar.

A lovely introduction by our own Susan Schnur describes Roth, with her shopping bags of photos, as looking like a bag lady from one of her own photo exhibits. Roth says of herself, “If I was good with words, I wouldn’t have to take all these photographs.” But Roth’s talents are not only with her Leica. She had to enter worlds often closed to strangers, especially in North Africa, often alone and at great personal risk, then penetrate the lives of the individual women to whom she introduces us. Jewish Women is testimony not only to the photographer’s skill, but to the empathy of the person behind the lens. Roth allows us to perceive our differences from the women in her book, even as she gives us the thrill of recognizing our common Jewish and female identity. Susan Schnur calls this Roth’s “creed of personalism—an understanding that we find ourselves through others, and others through ourselves.”