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Judah Passow's Photographic Exhibition Reveals the Distinct Life of British Jews

Posted: 1/02/2012 00:00

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A gay couple dance at the end of the Simchat Torah service at a Liberal synagogue in West London, 2010

Tolerance is a word I hear a lot when people talk about what it is that defines Britain and the British people. On the London underground it trips from the mouths of countless nationalities, in barely deducible tongues. It is in the sentiment of those who come to live and work and raise a family here, and to feel that they are at home, even though everything is at once as odd and discordant to them as Benny Hill and bagpipes.

There are plenty, too, who think it an altogether too tolerant place, where extremists can take advantage of the soft nature of an overly-democratised people and pay back their goodwill with fear and fire.

But democracy never was cheap.

Adhering to justice and fairness vigilantly can come at a high-price, but to waver, or to abstain from speaking out, is catastrophic.

The word 'tolerance' in fact does not do enough justice to the largely subscribed-to notion in Britain that all men are indeed created equal, and so too women, gays and Jehovah's Witnesses. The word I'm looking for is 'acceptance'. It is an accepting culture, an embracing culture, a friendly, open culture. And it is one that sees diversity and ideas as a strength, not a chink, in the armour of its belief system.

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The bride and her mother moments before the start of an Orthodox wedding ceremony in Manchester, 2010

You can trace a clear line in time from the days when London was a safe haven for escaped slaves, through the Cable Street uprising that smashed the fascist movement's heart out, right up to today and the level of care much of the public feels towards the Occupy UK protesters - even when they don't agree with them. It is a place that helps you to your feet, and the understanding of that tends to generate strong feelings of loyalty and appreciation in the people who come here.

Britain has the second largest Jewish population in Europe, and since the 19th century has been regarded as one of the most welcoming nations in Europe to Jewish immigration. Its community, some 300,000-strong, occupies a distinct niche within society, but it has also adapted to the culture in a very British way.

A new exhibition by the decorated photographer Judah Passow has set out to document Jews in Britain today.

The 63-year-old who lives in Highgate, North London, with his painter wife Alene Strausberg, spent just over a year collecting images of life in Jewish communities in 14 towns and cities across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The finished result, No Place Like Home, contains close to 100 black and white studies of daily life, from London's Maccabi Lions football team heading for the showers at the end of a game, to nervous brides and pious butchers reading the Talmud between customers.

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The owner of a kosher butcher shop in Gateshead studies his Talmud during a break, 2010

Passow, who was born in Israel, grew up in New York and has lived in London since 1978, said the experience had convinced him that British Jews are the most community minded and vigilant of any in the world.

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A woman in her room at a Jewish domestic violence shelter, 2011

He said: "What I found most compelling in terms of how the British Jewish community expresses itself, is in the commitment to social action and social justice, of working in the community to reach out and observe the most fundamental tenant of Judaism - 'I am my brother's keeper' - 'I am responsible for the quality of life in the world that we live in'.

"One of the things that makes this country such an attractive place to live is the sense of justice and fair play that is such an integral property of the British DNA. The contemporary Jewish community is a reflection of all that, and it recognises social action because it wants this notion of tolerance, compassion and charity to remain. They have chosen to carry the torch for this in a very deliberate way and to make these values their own.

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Klezmer Fest in Regent's Park, London, 2009

"The Jews in Britain have really nailed their colours to the mast and that makes them stand out from other communities you see when you travel around the world. It's a community that is constantly re-examining and reinventing itself to keep itself relevant. That self-evaluation is fundamental to Jewish identity in Britain today, and ensures the ability to keep your faith and your responsibility as a citizen relevant."

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Annual parade of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen (AJEX) in Whitehall, London, 2009

Exhibition curator Shiri Shalmy said: "The selection process was a challenging exercise for us. Judah's UK-wide project was extensive - a definitive study of contemporary British Jewish life that ran into a collection of over 500 images, each one beautifully composed, each one with its own compelling back story. The final selection of almost 100 images is, I believe, a true and honest depiction of a diverse and exciting British minority community."

And Rickie Burman, the Director of the Jewish Museu, added: ""The images are a celebration of the many identities that make up this community; one that has had both an impact on, and has been impacted by its host country. I think we can all recognise ourselves and the situations in his pictures, no matter which cultural background we hail from."

A winner of four World Press Photo awards for his coverage of conflicts in the Middle East Passow's career has spanned 30 years.

He added: "Religiously there are more shades of grey in Judaism in Britain, but I think what these pictures show really well is the warmth of the everyday interactions that happen.

"Wherever I went I found certain core themes always presented themselves, serving as a kind of cultural glue holding that particular community together  - the observance of Jewish holidays, the centrality of family life and the importance of humour, education, charity, compassion and personal reflection as forces shaping both character and identity. This exhibition is a visual conversation, exploring those driving forces which define and give meaning to Jewish life in 21st century Britain."

No Place Like Home is showing at London's Jewish Museum until 5 June.

www.jewishmuseum.org.uk

copyright Judah Passow Photography

 

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