Photography exhibit presents life of Turkey’s Jewish community

Published 21.06.2015 21:51
Updated 22.06.2015 11:43
A Jewish-Turkish resident working on a Sefer Torah, which is a handwritten copy of the Torah
A Jewish-Turkish resident working on a Sefer Torah, which is a handwritten copy of the Torah

Alberto Modiano, an Istanbul-born Jewish photographer, portrays the life of Turkey’s long-rooted Jewish community to show how different religions and cultures can coexist

Alberto Modiano attended the opening ceremony of his exhibition "Judaism within Time and Place" held in the Gama Gallery in Beyoğlu's Turnacıbaşı Street.

It was a three-and-a-half year journey for experienced Jewish-Turkish photographer Alberto Modiano to capture the Jewish population of modern Turkey, which is currently recorded at about 20,000, for his book and namesake exhibition "Zaman ve Mekan içinde Musevilik" (Judaism within Time and Place). Born in Istanbul in 1960 and engaging in photography for 28 years, Modiano invites us to see the daily life and religious traditions of the Jewish society, once composing a significant portion of the former Ottoman Empire. "My aim was to tell the story of the customs and traditions of Jews, the members of the first monotheistic religion in the world," Modiano said in his exhibition review, adding that he wants to provide accurate information about Judaism to the public and resolve the mysteries surrounding an ancient culture.

Curated by Aylin Bartınlı at the Gama Gallery, a small art gallery and design workshop next to the historic Galatasaray Turkish Bath in Beyoğlu's Turnacıbaşı Street, the exhibition showcases around 80 black and white photographs divided into four categories - "religious holidays," "religious practices," "concepts" and "traditional practices." The shots closely witness religious celebrations like "Passover" - commemorating the liberation of Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and "Sukkot," also referred to as "the Feast of Tabernacles" when they pray to God with four different plants in their hands - along with scenes from funerals, weddings and other important days when family members come together. "We have lived a symbolic Passover Day with Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva and his family who have opened the doors of their house to me a few days before the holiday. On a Friday evening, the extended Kalora family has let me experience the joy of welcoming Shabbat ...," said Modiano in his diligently prepared book.

A group of adolescent girls in white dresses at Bat-Mitzvah ceremony after which they are considered accountable for their religious actions

From opulently decorated "Seder" dining rituals to "Vijola" ceremonies, during which newborn girls are introduced to the community with prayers and from the "Bat-Mitzvah" celebrations with adolescent girls in bridal-like white dresses to handwritten "Sefer Torahs," all the photographs demonstrate the fact that Turkey's Jewish community pays particular attention to safeguarding their religious culture and rituals. "I believe these photographs are powerful frames showing that the members of this shrinking community of Turkey were closely connected through religious bonds and that religion was a constant element in their daily life," Modiano went on to say. Written in both English and Turkish, the book quotes emotional words by Turkey's Jewish residents as well. "Before miracles come true, the only reality in our lives is the power of our faith ... Hanukkah is a period when people experience the bonding faith and miracle. I believe everyone can seize this happiness in their lives and has the chance to enjoy thousands of Hanukkahs," said Luna Bildirici, while describing Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights when Jews light candles for eight days.

What makes the exhibition more intriguing is that it portrays Judaism to Turkish and international audiences from the eyes of a Jewish photographer, someone belonging to this community. "The most important guiding rule of documentary photography is the uniqueness of the scene. The photographer is there, he is the person who acts as a witness and documents ... He should never interfere with objects, events and people," he stressed.

Speaking to Daily Sabah, Ganimet Atalay from the Gama Gallery said the exhibition documents the religious practices of mostly Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews residing in Istanbul and Edirne.

Modiano's photographs are set in numerous synagogues like the Etz Ahayim Synagogue in Ortaköy, the Maalem Synagogue in Hasköy, the Yüksekkaldırım Ashkenazi Synagogue and the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Galata.

For the last 10 years, Modiano has recorded the religious rituals of Istanbul's Jewish community with his camera. Having started photography in 1979, he has held solo exhibitions and participated in group shows. Since 1992, he has written articles on photography for different arts magazines like Gösteri, REFO Photography Magazine and İFSAK Photography and Cinema Magazine. Modiano gives lectures on photography and the history of visual art at established institutions. He is a member of the Royal Photographic Society based in the U.K. He also published a poetic album "Yarına Ümit" (Hope for Tomorrow) in 1993 and a biography book "Bugaristanbul" in 1998.

"Judaism within Time and Place" was displayed at the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews in Istanbul's Karaköy district last year. Modiano's work is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to get familiar with Turkey's Jewish community.

Opened on June 6, it will remain on view until Friday this week.

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