Thru a Feminist Lens: Joan Roth Photographs a World of Jewish Women

On occasion I travel with a translator. Once in a while I have a benefactor, but usually I take on small jobs back in New York to subsidize my shoestring trips, like I sell photographic prints, or I get small grants.

The scariest thing, traveling alone, is feeling safe. Most photographers have their itineraries all planned, but I never know ahead of time what I’m going to do, who I’ll meet, whether I’ll even meet any Jews. If I do meet Jews, will they be receptive to me or rejecting? How will they perceive me as a woman traveling alone?

Very often I have to ask Jewish men for permission to photograph. In Yemen, the men asked me, “Why do you want to photograph our wives, and not us?” In Buchara, the men were also puzzled—why didn’t I photograph people, instead of women? I think I inspire women when they see me, a 51-year-old woman, traveling alone.

My children, two daughters, are grown now. I started my traveling once they left for college. It would have been nice to have started this career earlier, but. . . what can I say? When I was 18, I came to New York from Detroit because I wanted to be in the theater. But my parents said, “Either get married or come home.” So I got married. My husband (from whom I’ve been divorced twenty years) also said to me, “You can go to New York School of Dramatic Arts, or you can marry me. Choose.” While I was changing diapers (which I loved, but I also wanted to be in film or theater school), my male cousin who is exactly my age (and is a close friend) was at NYU film school, and then was becoming a successful filmmaker. It felt terribly unfair.

So I had to learn my craft the old way, by apprenticing here and there, in dribs and drabs, finding one inspiring teacher, and then another. I was always interested in women’s issues, so my first project, in the early ’70s, was an exhibit and a book called “Shopping Bag Ladies of New York.” Over the course of eight years, I got to know these women who lived on the street. I prepared a report on homeless women for the Manhattan Bowery Project— my work was really the start of consciousness around the issue of homelessness. One of the homeless women, Maggie, I “adopted.” The police were about to kick her out of Central Park, so I said, “Stop. I’m going to take care of her.” My partner Lenny and I got her (and her ten dogs) an apartment. We still subsidize Maggie’s apartment. She came to my daughter’s wedding.

After photographing the women’s movement for many years, my Jewishness began to rekindle. In 1983, at a Sabbath dinner at a friend’s, I heard about the plight of Ethiopian Jews and I said, “I have to go there.” It seemed like a chance to go back into biblical times visually. The woman sitting next to me said, “I know how you can do it,” and she connected me up with some people on a rescue mission. Since then I’ve photographed Jewish women everywhere. Lenny is a wholesale distributor, and he couldn’t travel with me. But even if he could have, it wouldn’t have worked. I would have paid attention to him, and my work wouldn’t have been as focused.

I have a “feel” for a Jewish face—I look for a piece of myself in each woman I photograph. A Jewish face, to me, speaks of the whole Jewish experience. Each of these women could be me, my grandmother, an ancestor, my daughter.

I was given courage long ago by Lisette Model, an extraordinary photography teacher of mine. She told me, “Darling, if you don’t wake up and SEE, you’re going to miss your whole life.” When I’m feeling shy and fearful about traveling, I think of Lisette saying, “It’s easier to do something then to try to do something.”

I had just gotten to Odessa, and was walking down this street and I saw all these brides milling around in front of a building. “What’s this?” I asked. I was told it was a “wedding house.” At that time in Russia, there were no religious weddings—everyone had these ten minute civil ceremonies, one after another, in this great big house.

So I walk into the building, hoping to find a Jewish bride (1). I didn’t know how likely it would be to find a Jew, but God was on my side, and brought me this most beautiful 18 year old. I liked everything about her—she seemed so Jewish and so Russian at the same time. I loved her hair. Her dress felt like something my grandmother would have worn. I liked everything.

At some point I asked, “Are you Jewish?” That’s always hard for me to ask. But, anyway, there’s something that always gives it away—the way they talk, I’m not sure what. So I just attached myself to this bride and her retinue. I followed her into the little room where the “official” photographer took her photo, and then I went with the two families up these grand carpeted, marble stairs to the room where the ceremony was. Under a huge picture of Lenin, a civil servant (wearing a big medal) held a stick and pointed at the line on a document where the couple had to sign.

At the end I asked, “Are you having a party? Can I come?” At a certain point it becomes natural for me to ask to be included, because I empathize so much with whomever I’m photographing. I’m really having a good time, and I feel I’m catching up with some history—my father never talked about his childhood or his shtetl, and it was understood that we children were not to ask.

The wedding party was really joyous. At the end the grandmother, who was a great dancer, invited me to spend the night. She cooked me delicious Russian pancakes for breakfast, and read to me in Russian from her childhood diary. I couldn’t understand the words, but she read and cried, read and cried.

The first thing I did in Bucharest was go to the synagogue on shabbos and introduce myself to Rabbi Rosen. He gave me his “blessing,” as it were, to photograph the community. After services, everyone— maybe 50 of us—walked up the street to this kosher lunch hall run by the Joint Distribution Committee. It turns out there were no restaurants in Bucharest where I was willing to eat—the food had this frightening quality—so I ended up eating three meals a day at the kosher lunch hall. It was really good food, and cheap.

So one day I’m finishing up lunch and in comes Seidy Gluck (2). How could you miss her? Such personality and exuberance all over this face. Well, she was “Seidy Gluck.” I had such a feeling about her—she was something! I sat down and ate lunch again.

It turned out it was Seidy’s birthday, she was 75, and she was feeling very lonely. Her husband had died; she was sad. She invited me to her house, it took over an hour to get there. Bucharest is polluted, ugly, congested—concrete slab high-rises, windswept, lots of unfinished buildings; everything beautiful has been torn down. The city feels like it was reconstructed without people in mind. And Seidy’s days were spent just getting in and out of the city for lunch—the kosher kitchen also gave her dinner to take home.

It turns out that Seidy Gluck was the former star of the Yiddish theater, a Romanian Molly Picon. Yiddish theater was born in Romania. I spent all afternoon with Seidy, I was fascinated, I was madly in love with her. She took out her old albums—stage and family albums, theater posters—I was trying to explain to her how valuable these posters are, original theater posters. She was feeling that her time had passed. I felt so honored; I was in the front row. I was a great audience. Seidy didn’t have a lot of days like this one.

In Budapest I found out about this Jewish cultural event—an evening of Jewish poetry and music. So I went, and while I was there I met a therapist, a Holocaust survivor, who is well-known for her work with other Holocaust survivors. She told me about a client of hers, someone very important to her, who lived in another town far away. So I got on a train and knocked on this client’s door.

As we talked, this “client” took a big yellow Jewish star from a drawer—she was very proud of it—and pinned it on her blouse (3). It turns out she had worn this star in front of the Hungarian Parliament, and had tried to immolate herself— she was ready to die to protest the invisibility of Holocaust survivors. But the police grabbed her, and took her away to a mental hospital, and it was there that she first met her therapist.

Part of this woman’s therapy (she’s doing very well now) is to go to this nursing home every day where she feeds this old woman, with such love, as if she were her mother (4). The old woman is a Holocaust survivor, too. Neither woman has any family, no children, no siblings, no cousins, no spouses. It was both beautiful and painful to see this old woman, so frail and thin in her bed. To see these two women together—the beauty we can create in the world. These two were reconstructing a missing love; it’s not so simple to do.

In this photo the younger woman was being a little stern so that the older woman would eat. After lunch the younger woman put the older one back in bed, and then she cradled the old woman’s cheeks in her hands, and kissed her forehead.

I went to Kiev in 1991 because it was the 50th anniversary of Babi Yar. For a long time, Jews weren’t even allowed to visit the site. This was the first time that the government allowed an official memorial service.

Thousands of Jews, a huge sea of people carrying candles and flowers, all walked from the train station to Babi Yar—the same route as half a century ago. There was a blown-up photo at the site, of naked women. It never occurred to me that you had to take your clothes off to be shot. I’ve never been able to get that photo out of my mind.

Everyone there had a mother, a father, a grandparent or some relative who was murdered at Babi Yar. This woman [center of photo] (5) was a survivor, one of only four or five. She was thrown into the canyon as a child, and somehow crawled out. She crawled to the house of non-Jews she knew. Here she poses with these non-Jews, brother and sister; she
was brought up with them. The three of them are together a lot. They were moved that I thought it was important to photograph them—so they’re crying. Still in pain after all these years.

After I visited Babi Yar, I went to synagogue in Kiev. That’s where I started this kind of prayer I say—to my grandfather, to God—thanking my grandfather for having had the courage to leave Russia. My aunt used to tell me how beautiful Kiev was, the cherry blossoms in spring. She used to say, “If I had stayed, it would have been so easy for me to become a doctor,” and I used to think, “What are you talking about, you’d be dead.”

This great, maniac driver in Kiev—I’d gotten him through the synagogue there— took me to the village my father came from; Taraseha, near Kiev. It’s a really pretty town on a creek, with a big farmer’s market. It’s a tiny town, with an expansive feel. We were just driving up and down little streets—I knew I had a great-uncle who didn’t come to America; I wanted to find a house, a family, a grave, something with my family name, Altman. I didn’t really expect to find an Altman, it was just kind of an exercise in possibilities. A hunch.

I don’t know why I yelled “Stop!” to my driver when I saw this woman standing by her house (6). I thought she looked Jewish, and it turned out she was. I said to her, “Do you know any Altmans?” and she said, “Yes.” She went into her house to get her sweater and scarf, and I took this photo as she came back out—running to take me to the Altmans’. It turned out they lived at the end of the block.

So the Altman family and I (and this woman) spent all afternoon together. Their great-grandfather was a rabbi; so was mine. The Altmans had been noted Torah scholars in the village; I had heard that, too, from my brother. They took out lots of photos, but it was hard. My driver translated; I imagined we were related, but I didn’t really know; they didn’t really know. There were too many missing pieces, too much lost, too much forgotten.

At the end of the visit, I walked this woman back home and said good-bye. I’m not good at good-byes—I never think it’s the final moment. Well, I guess it’s not the final moment, since I get to see everyone again—all the time—in my photos. Isn’t she adorable? She’s a real part of my heart.

From Moscow I flew to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, over seven hours. There I met a friend’s cousin named Ahuva; we drove four hours to Samarikand, and then on to Buchara. There’s still a Jewish ghetto in Buchara—these wonderful little curved streets. Each house is surrounded by a stucco wall, and has a gate and an enclosed courtyard.

I don’t know why, but I was haunted by this question: “Are there any witches in Buchara?” It was a ridiculous question, but I thought, I’ve come all the way here, what the heck. So I asked someone, and they said, “Oh, yes.” In my wildest dreams, I never expected to find this lady with fire and knife (7).

Ahuva and I visited the witch in her little shed in her enclosed yard; outside in the courtyard, other customers were waiting for their turn. Ahuva and I go into the shed— there’s this closet full of mysterious rags, bottles with things on shelves, bags full of things, a trunk full of things.

Ahuva tells the witch that she has a headache. In this photo, the woman has just covered Ahuva” s head with a rag, and she’s taking a knife and poking Ahuva’s forehead with it several times, then swinging this torch around Ahuva’s head. Ahuva says, “It worked.” Then the healer does my head, too. I didn’t have a headache, but it felt good, who knows?

The witch told me: “My magic comes from the highest sources—God and my mother.”

Zoli—she’s in her 50’s, but she looks older; with gold teeth. She’s like the “Caterer of Buchara.” This is no small task, since Bucharan Jews have a celebration every night, with a minimum guest list of 300 “close” family members. I love Buchara very much; it’s such afreilach community, lots of spirit, strong family life; they’ve kept so much tradition.

So I’m wandering around the Jewish ghetto and I see this door—I would just pop into people’s homes—something about Zoli’s doorway seemed friendly. This kitchen (Zoli has two) is outside in her courtyard; stone floor, an outdoor oven. She chops all her meat with this ax. From a whole side of cow, she makes the most delicious litle kreplach; they’re phenomenal. And all with an ax.

The skirt she’s wearing here—(8) all the women in Buchara seem to have the same clothing; it’s as if one huge bolt of cloth arrived in town and everyone made something out of it the same day.

Well it turned out that I spent lots and lots of time with Zoli, and went to many of her “catering events.” I even returned to Buchara from the U.S. for Zoli’s daughter’s wedding. Zoli looked very glamorous at the wedding. She’s a great dancer, the life of the party.

You might not think of her as attractive—you know, she’s not like a movie star—but she’s the one. She’s so dynamic, such strength. She doesn’t just cook for the town, she fixes women who faint, she comes forward in every crisis, she takes care of the community, she feeds husbands, sons, sons-in-law, she keeps the peace, she makes everything from scratch.

I got to the point where I showed up at Zoli’s house regularly around lunch time— I wanted to eat all the food of hers that I could. She’s the one.

In Tashkent, the women and men are buried in separate cemeteries—with engraved portraits; (9) it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen any of this anywhere else. I really liked the visual feeling of all these women together; there was enormous energy, a feeling of women’s power—it took their deaths to get them this room of their own. It’s like a little museum—it connects you up.

But I wondered about the women who had been married a long time—how did they feel being separated from their husbands?

One of the things I like best about my partner Lenny is his cemetery plot. I met Lenny just after his mother died, and we went together to her unveiling. It was in a beautiful cemetery on Long Island, with lots of room. I asked Lenny if I could be buried there, too—the idea that our souls would be together forever seems quite nice to me.

Lenny said yes, but we had to ask his mother, and we haven’t gotten there yet. This was only, like, ten years ago.

Looking at this photograph, I think—it’s funny what becomes important to you as you get older.

Joan Roth’s photographs are currently on exhibit (through August) at Mizle Museum in Denver. During the spring of 1995. her work moves to Brandeis University. She is also publishing a book of over 100 of her photographs.