The collection of photographs in "Custom, Prayer and Ceremony" exposes only a small part of the spiritual activity taking place in Israel, and most of which is far removed from the camera's lens. As an Israeli-born Jew with a secular up bringing education, I became familiar with and learned to appreciate and respect the people who lead a religious lifestyle while photographing them. This book documents that meeting between secular and religious without trying to explain the lifestyle and customs of Judaism. Many books have been written by Israel's great sages, Rabbis, spiritual and academic leaders and they explain, interpret and reveal the origins of these customs and ceremonies. As a photographer, it was important for me to show the religious experiences of Israeli Jews from my personal point of view.
My journey into the realm of the customs and ceremonies of Charedi (strictly religious) and traditionally observant Jews in Israel started on Lag B'Omer, 2004 in Meron, during the annual mass Hilulah (festive commemoration) at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Along with hundreds of thousands of celebrants, I arrived to the site with my camera. I was curious to observe this gathering from up close and to experience one of the largest and most spectacular religious ceremonies taking place in Israel.
I was captivated. Over the next four years, I traveled around the country to the various outposts and locations where Jews perform their mitzvot (commandments), ceremonies and prayers. Some of the ceremonies and customs are not well-known. Many secular Jews have never even seen, experienced or are totally unaware that these ceremonies exist, as they take place in the courtyards of the Admorim (Chief Spiritual Leaders), at kivrei tzaddikim (tombs of saintly persons), yeshivot (religious academies) and batei midrash (houses of study), in religious neighborhoods and in closed and private enclaves.
The taking of photographs was not always permitted in every place or at any time, and I was also obliged to respect these restrictions, particularly as these religious ceremonies exemplify the great reverence and awe that are felt by those who perform them. I arrived to these places as a photographer, as a bystander observer and yet as someone participating in the experience. It was so, because that's how I was received, and it was important for me to respect the occasion and its adherents.
In the course of a year, "religious" life is replete with a continuous series of holiday customs as well as individual customs and ceremonies. Standing out among them are birth rituals, bar mitzvah, marriage and funeral ceremonies. On these occasions, there are times when the participants are focused on the ceremony or prayer and they experience moments of intimacy and deep emotion. The challenge for me was to express these feelings through photographs. It often happened that I had to return and search for additional opportunities to recapture the moment in order to satisfy my goal. I remember, for instance, a ceremony of beating the aravot (willow branches) on Hoshanah Rabbah (last day of the Feast of Tabernacles) that lasted for only a few seconds. My drifting attention during those fleeting moments resulted in an unsuccessful photograph and I was drawn back to that same ceremony the following year.
The photographs presented in this book were taken over four cycles of holidays and intermittent days between 2004 and 2008.
The friction between secular and religious Jews which has existed for so many years in Israel also stems from the lack of desire and interest of both these factions to become familiar with each other. If these photographs can contribute even slightly to help unite Jews through exposing a beautiful side of the world of observant Jews in Israel, I will have reaped my reward.