The World That Was Meant to Disappear… But Didn’t for a Reason

Exhibition is open until 31 May 2015

Photographs of Hasidic Jews at the Nikon Photo Gallery in Mala Strana cause viewers to question if the photographer of this exhibit is praising the Orthodox Jewish community, or if he is criticizing this known to be distinctly different society. The photographer of “The World That Was Meant to Disappear” is Vladimir Zelezny, and he has devoted the last twenty years of his photographic career to capturing Jewish life, specifically the Orthodox communities. His exhibition focuses on the poor Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe – from the area between Belarus and Bukovina and between Poland, Galicia and southern Ukraine, where in the 18th century there was a renewal of stiff Rabbinic Judaism.

This Hasidic movement was meant to create a sense of togetherness, in which common man could share salvation of the world through his everyday actions. Zelezny, intrigued, captures the significance of their day-to-day culture through his photographs. For instance, one photo captures a Jewish boy’s radiant facial expression as he prays, conversing with the Almighty and removing himself from the present, placing himself into a different world. Below the photo, Zelezny then comments, “Nobody watches them, nobody admires them, they don’t show off for anybody. They don’t notice that I am taking pictures of them. They are alone with the Almighty, and praying passionately.” Another photo depicts a young boy struggling as he is dragging a heavy container filled with oil. He turns around to the photographer, while Zelezny’s text proclaims, “You take this photograph while I carry the weight of the whole world.” However, through Hasidic cultural tradition, he actually will one day carry the weight of the world, given to him by his father. Zelezny’s text explains that this world will be a lot heavier than a canister of oil, as he (the boy) carries the weight of salvation of the whole world.

Throughout the exhibition, Zelezny points out how the majority of people today view Hasidic Jews as strangers who cannot be confronted from the outside. “They are different, they live differently, they look different, and they dress differently.” Their main focus is to study, pray, and longingly await the arrival of the Messiah, he says. However, Zelezny wants to show each viewer that it isn’t impossible to confront and photograph the Hasidic Jews as an outsider without getting a fiercely negative reaction. In order to do so, he has sat with them for extended periods of time in their prayer or study room, shares their fun, drinks wine during Purim with them, and even dances their Hassidic dance with them at 4 am. It is not about capturing what people believe to be a constricted, different, and unapproachable community; it is about trying to understand their life, not as an outsider, but as a trusted insider celebrating with them.

As you look around, most of the photographs are not just of Hasidim in prayer. They are also of Hasidim in actual celebration, praising life. One photograph shows a Hasid lifting his long hair straight up, exclaiming, “Do we look ridiculous to you? So be it. In moments of exciting prayer, we sometimes spread our payot and proudly display them for the world to see,” and for the Lord to see. Apparently, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said to Zelezny, “Song and dance are the most direct ways to the Lord”. Out of the blue, exciting and happy atmospheres come about and they begin to dance, drum, and sing to the Almighty above. Zelezny’s texts explain that they are proving to the world that they are not just a solitary society.

It is a man’s society, though, since all religious acts are for the men only. Women should not even be present or visible. Women bear children, look after the family, and take care of the household. They are seen as a distracting element to the men who need to focus on salvation. Zelezny depicts the stark difference of girls vs. women. A young girl carelessly runs around with her hair down, completely oblivious to what her life is going to be as a grown woman. Next to this girl, there is a woman somberly standing still, not running around carelessly. Her body is covered from top to bottom, as she takes the new rabbinical order very seriously.

Although the photographer Vladimir Zelezny does display the limited life of women in this community, he also seems to push the viewer to question such prejudice. If his work has influenced prejudice in the viewer, then he wants the viewer to “pick up [their] prejudices and throw them far away. Or ask for [their] entrance fee back and go see another exhibition instead.” Vladimir Zelezny wants viewers to look past the many judgments made against the Hasidic Jews and truly witness and understand their life: yes, a life filled with prayer, but one also lived in devotion and celebration. This exhibition is open until 31 May 2015.

“The World That Was Meant to Disappear”
Vladimir Zelezny
The Nikon Photo Gallery
Ujezd 19, Prague 1 - Mala Strana.
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 12 to 19, with free admission

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