By CURT SCHLEIER
NEW YORK CITY (JTA) – A photography exhibit entitled “Hanukkah in Mea Shearim (Jerusalem).”opened recently the 14th Street Y in Manhattan. The photos offer a window into Chasidic life in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, offering an intimate glimpse of men, women and children celebrating the holiday. Behind this exhibit stands a most unlikely creator: Agnieszka Traczewska, a Catholic woman from Poland who has made photographing Chasidim part of her life’s work.
“The exhibition of Traczewska’s work is just one of several planned in the United States in the coming months. Traczewska recently published a book of her photographs, Returns, and her next exhibit is scheduled for January in Palm Beach, Fla, to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These are the latest steps of a journey that Traczewska embarked upon 14 years ago: to remind people of the once-vibrant Jewish life in Poland, and to document visits by Chasidim to Jewish sites in Poland like cemeteries and old synagogues. Now she photographs Chasidim around the world.
“We live in the 21st century, and these people seem to be frozen in time,” Traczewska said of her subjects. “But they are modern people living in the 21st century, using computers, cellphones and cars. Yet their tradition and faith is the most important aspect of their lives.”
Adrian Kubicki, director of the Polish Cultural Institute New York, said that Traczewska’s ability to gain the trust of her subjects and access to their normally insular community is a testament not just to her talents as a photographer, but to her interpersonal skills. The Polish Cultural Institute is the organizer of the exhibition in Manhattan, which will run through Jan. 20.
Weisblum Yahrzeit Pilgrimage
“This is sort of a symbol, a bridge we build between Jews of Polish descent with their homeland,” Kubicki said. “It is to show how we appreciate their traditions and how Poland is involved in preserving this culture.”
Traczewska’s journey began when a nonreligious Jewish friend told her about an annual pilgrimage made by some Chasidim from around the world to Lezajsk, Poland, to honor the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Elimelech Weisblum, a renowned 18th-century rebbe. The yahrzeit had become a pilgrimage because Chasidim believe it marks an occasion when the soul of the deceased returns from heaven to earth and may answer the prayers of those gathered around his burial place.
Traczewska recalled being shocked and entranced by what she witnessed.
“I’m very well educated. And I thought I knew Polish history. But Jewish-Polish history was erased. We were not taught anything about Chasidic traditions and other aspects of Jewish history,” she said. “It was as though these people were living in another world totally unknown to me. They looked like the photographs I saw from before the Second World War.”
Learning A Culture
“What was most impressive to me was how tied they were to their tradition, how they performed the same rituals that their fathers, grandfathers and even great-grandfathers performed,” Traczewska said.
Using her camera lens, Traczewska became determined to “excavate the Jewish history of my country.”
She began to learn more about Chasidic life, and to gently approach her subjects on their visits to Poland — often standing in the snow over the course of hours while Chasidim visited neglected cemeteries in winter. Traczewska learned their rules, such as the strict separation of sexes in certain circumstances, and abided by them.
Over time, she says, the work became easier.
“Never easy. Just easier,” she said. “Every time they need to judge if they let me stay there.”
She Feels More Spiritual
Like most Poles, Traczewska was born Catholic, but practiced her faith less and less as she grew older. Being exposed to the Chasids’ faith turned her “back to a religious path,” she said —
not organized religion, but belief in a higher being.
Being a non-Jewish photographer of Chasidim has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, she is an outsider and has had to work harder to gain her subjects’ trust. Because she’s not Jewish, she says, Chasidim may be more open to her, and men give her more leeway in photographing in their spaces than they would if she were Jewish.
Traczewska now photographs Chasidim not just in her native Poland and in Israel, but in Chasidic communities throughout the world, including in Australia, England, Belgium and Brooklyn. The 11 photographs on exhibit at the 14th Street Y are the fruit of work she began in 2014, when she started taking photos in Mea Shearim. Earlier this year, her works were exhibited at the United Nations building in New York.
“Somebody told me at one of my shows, ‘You are not just taking pictures. You’re telling stories,’” she said. “That captures what I’m trying to do.”
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute New York, a diplomatic mission of Poland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry that promotes comprehensive knowledge of Poland, Polish history and national heritage. This story was produced by JTA’s native content team.