Purim in Jerusalem
by Benedicta Cipolla
Yankl Conzen spent his life straddling different worlds. Born Peter Conzen to a Catholic family in Hamburg at the close of World War II, he was known in Jewish circles as Yankl, the Yiddish diminutive of Jacob.
Though Conzen was not Jewish, he became enamored of Jewish culture when he lived on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s. An accomplished amateur photographer, he later bought an apartment in Jerusalem, where he usually visited once or twice a year. After mastering modern Hebrew, he threw himself into Yiddish literature during the last decade of his life and studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City.
When he died last summer in his native Germany at the age of 59, after spending five months in a coma brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage, his New York friends couldn't make the funeral. As a tribute and memorial, they organized an exhibition of Conzen's photographs at JTS.
Fittingly for a non-Jew who embraced Jewish culture and history without ever converting to the faith, the photographs focus on Purim, a holiday that plays with themes of identity and masquerade through its tradition of dressing in costume. On display at the JTS library through March 31, "Purim in Jerusalem" features 45 works from the late 1990s depicting children from the city's Orthodox Me'ah She'arim neighborhood.
Purim, which begins March 13 at sundown and ends the following evening, commemorates the deliverance of the Jews from a plot to destroy them, as recounted in the book of Esther. On Purim, Jews listen to the Megillah, the story of Queen Esther, who worked with her adopted father Mordecai to save her people from Haman, an adviser to the Persian king. Charitable gifts and exchanges of food are also customary.
Conzen's photographs offer an unflinching look at children in military and police uniforms, princess outfits, masks, and more traditional roles like Esther and Mordecai. Others mimic their elders with fake beards, long black coats, and wide-brimmed hats. Some are smiling, but many appear troubled. In effect, they serve as a microcosm of childhood itself, with its rapid emotional swings among fear, sadness, and happiness.
Naomi Steinberger, director of library services at JTS, was drawn to the pictures immediately, she says, "because they are not just interesting characters. They had a poignancy to them that was not necessarily joyful."
When the library's conservation staff matted and framed the photographs, "They said, in a very conservative way, 'They're all off center,'" says Steinberger. "He catches a mood. They are off center. There's something going on here. [The children are] not the way they usually are."
In one photo, a girl dressed in a purple bodysuit with a sequined overlay, her cheeks and temples shiny with glitter and her eyes darkly rimmed with kohl, leans into another girl similarly made up, her arms defensively up and back. The image leaves the viewer unsure whether the situation is threatening or playful.
A contemplative girl, her forehead decorated with face paint, looks away from the camera, deep in thought. Another in an elaborate purple dress, long gloves, and feather-decked hat poses with an ambivalent gaze that seems both serene and discomfited.
"This is Jewish art seen by someone who was very immersed in Jewish culture but also very conscious of the fact he had not grown up in it," says Carol Zemel, professor of art history at York University in Toronto. Zemel first met Conzen during a Yiddish summer program at Columbia University in 1997. "There's an exoticism and fascination to the work, but there's also an edginess that makes it more unusual than tourist snapshots. I don't find them innocent. There's a bit of the grotesque in them, certainly mischievousness. At first they seem like cute pictures of children, but I think they go deeper than that."