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Black and White

Aryeh Ehrlich

Although most Meah Shearim residents are camera-shy — holding their hands up to their faces when interlopers invade their privacy with the camera lens — Reuters photographer Gil Cohen-Magen has softened their hearts and gained access to their daily lives. The walls of Meah Shearim are high, yet for the last ten years, Gil has been let into the inner sanctums of some of the most insulated chassidic courts, creating a pictorial of life most Israelis can only speculate about

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It was the summer of 2001, and Gil Cohen-Magen had recently been hired as Reuters news agency’s first Israeli photographer. Now, before Rosh HaShanah, Reuters wanted a supply of photos showing Jewish religious and traditional life.

Gil, a native of Jerusalem’s (then) secular Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood who had little contact with Orthodox Jews, first tried hunting for such pictures in the Machaneh Yehudah market, capturing images of market stalls where zucchinis and esrogim sat side by side. He found Jews choosing their esrogim the way most people select a watermelon, building lightweight succahs made of fabric, and performing kaparos at the Central Bus Station with a bundle of coins. But his instincts whispered that this was not the “tradition” that he was looking for. He understood that if he could succeed in crossing the impassable border into Meah Shearim, he might have some best-selling pictures in his hands.

So Gil decided to be brazen. Decked out in a bright red shirt, a pair of jeans, and white sneakers, he began exploring the alleyways of Meah Shearim. Every closed shutter behind which a local resident was lighting a Chanukah menorah drew his attention. Every sign warning that it was forbidden to take photographs raised his level of motivation. Every closed function taking place in the inner courtyards of Meah Shearim whetted his appetite.

Well, how hard could it be to look religious and really get into the neighborhood? he thought. So he put on a crocheted yarmulke, but that didn’t much ingratiate him to the locals, and his pictures still lacked the intimacy only an insider can get.

“I grew up in Jerusalem, just meters away from chareidi enclaves, yet here I was, 30 years old, and my concept of everything relating to the chareidi world was limited to religious coercion, modesty patrols, and blocking roads on Shabbat,” he says. “Suddenly I was encountering something entirely different — a world revolving around G-d, Torah, a vibrant community life marked by acts of kindness and altruism.”

Gil Cohen-Magen gradually developed connections with some of the local youth who were intrigued by his project, secretly aiding him in circumventing the barriers and teaching him how to lose himself in a crowd or among protestors. Gil understood that if he didn’t want to stick out, he would have to dress in line with the scenery, and while he didn’t grow peyos or don a long coat, he did grow a short beard and began to dress in black and white, topping his short haircut with a large black yarmulke.

Still, a photographer in their midst is anathema to many Meah Shearim residents, but with time, and with the recognition that Gil was sincere and that his interest was genuine, their attitude began to soften.

Throughout ten years of photography, his pictures manifested his pure intentions. It was obvious that he was not another scheming journalist in search of sensationalism or looking to blacken the neighborhood’s reputation; he was curious, eager to learn and to capture the precious moments of Meah Shearim, hidden as they were behind media ignorance, for digital eternity. He wasn’t looking for burning dumpsters, flying stones, or riots; he wanted the dancing flames of Chanukah candles, the building of succahs, and the redemptions of firstborn donkeys and other mitzvah events surrounded by festivity. Eventually Gil was ushered into the homes of rebbes and the inner chambers of prominent communal leaders where even a regular chassid was not permitted unrestricted access.

Eventually Gil’s camera produced an impressive collection of award-winning pictures of the chareidi street. His now-famous photo of a chassidic man blocking the path of a bulldozer about to obliterate ancient graves, selected as Israel’s entry in a prestigious worldwide picture-of-the-decade competition, took first prize.

“It symbolizes David and Goliath. The puny chareidi against the massive metal monster. The judges chose this as the picture of the decade for Israel. For America, they chose the destruction of the Twin Towers, and for Iraq they chose a combat picture. But Israel’s picture was not of the intifada, or terror attacks, or the security wall or the Disengagement. It was a young chassid stopping a bulldozer. A chareidi victory.”

His most recent international award winner was a picture he took this year, of a yungerman dragging pots to a soup kitchen.

And now, even the secular can get a glimpse of what many consider the mystery of Meah Shearim — the human, spiritual, elevated side of this insulated chassidic world. After a decade devoted to capturing the community with his flash, Gil and his wife, Efrat, have created and self-published a richly appointed coffee-table tome entitled Hassidic Courts. The book, he says, has made the hard-nosed Reuters photojournalist into a goodwill ambassador for the chareidim.


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