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The Bigger Picture

Esther Teichtal

When photographer Joshua Haruni stumbled onto the chassidic courts of Israel, he found a small window of exposure to a shuttered world

Thursday, July 19, 2018

 Mishpacha image

(Photos: Pinchas Emanuel, Courtesy of Joshua Haruni)

The title of Joshua Haruni’s new work, “DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH,” is misleading for a coffee-table book that has little text and where every page is splashed to the margins with large, eye-catching photographs.

But for Haruni, those few words — screaming out in capital letters on the cover — say it all. As a British photojournalist working in the Israeli chassidic community, that blunt injunction, given in a broad Israeli Yiddish, was his most common reaction: “Macht nisht kein bilder….” We may forgive him for coming away with the impression that, for the most part, he was trespassing on a world with little tolerance for snooping outsiders.

Joshua recalls how in one of his earlier forays into a chassidic shul, he came upon a Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, and two distinct aspects of chassidic life. “I got into a discussion with this pleasant guy who seemed genuinely encouraging. He was an American, so there wasn’t any language barrier. After pumping me for information he grew very excited over what I planned to do. At some point, I became aware of the clock, and, picking up my camera, I walked over to the dancing chassidim. Immediately, he cried: ‘No! What are you doing?!’ and I said, ‘What do you mean… we’ve been discussing this for, like, two hours?!’ ”

Joshua had just experienced the huge disconnect between people wanting to act hospitably (at the best of times) and actually allowing him to document their lives.

“At other times,” says Joshua, “I’d walk into places and some of the locals would grow unnecessarily hostile. They’d start using their hands or yelling at me without knowing my name or why I was there. One Erev Yom Kippur, as I watched the Rebbe hand out lekach, a man planted himself on the table in front of me to shout: ‘This isn’t a tourist site…!’ On another occasion someone threw juice at me and damaged my camera.” Other photographers may have slunk away, nursing their bruised egos and casting aspirations aside, but not Joshua.

 

More than any other court, it was Pinsk-Karlin that Joshua was drawn to over the eight years it took him to complete his project. Indeed, Haruni formed a relationship with the previous Pinsk-Karlin Rebbe, Rav Aharon HaKohein Rosenfeld, who died in 2001. 

Though he doesn’t claim to be a chassid today, Haruni says what he observed in the various courts made an impression.

“I suppose you’re communicating with the past somehow,” he ponders. “You’re reaching in and drawing people back 300 years. For instance, there’s an image in the book of a chassid dancing…. Three hundred years ago they were dancing that same dance.”

 

Healing from the Mystics

At the outset, Joshua — a Modern Orthodox Jew of British-Iranian origin — had never intended to work with chassidim at all.

His draw to photography started in his post-IDF days when he traveled abroad and shared his stills with friends and family. Upon his return to England, he enrolled at the London College of Printing, one of the United Kingdom’s leading photography schools. After graduation, Joshua embarked on a number of global projects as an independent freelancer, reporting on areas of interest for the British media. In one memorable venture, he joined the first team of Westerners returning to Northern Laos 20 years after the Vietnam War. A trail of other reportages followed, until Joshua returned to Israel in 1999 and set up home with his wife, Leora.

Joshua’s interest was then piqued by the growing trend of Israelis — secular and traditional — who were visiting kabbalists for healing, advice, and blessings. “It intrigued me. Why would people do this in a modern society? I was also aware that Kabbalah was not meant to be studied publicly, nor taken lightly, and here, suddenly, everyone was going for brachot and asking for kamayot. I wanted to figure it out.”  (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 719)

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