Zion Ozeri’s photos capture Jewish diversity 3,000 years post exodus

Americans, and even American Jews, are used to thinking of Jewish families as well-educated strivers living a comfortable life in a major city. But for many if not most Jewish communities around the globe, the look is different even if the strivings are what we would expect. Photographer Zion Ozeri, Photography ‘78, knows that better than most. Many of the most evocative images of contemporary Jewish diversity are his, captured worldwide over a career that has spanned more than 40 years.

“Pictures Tell” Photo courtesy of Gefen Publishing

That’s particularly evident in Ozeri’s new book, “Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah,” (Gefen Publishing). The word “Haggadah,” which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to tell,” refers to the guidebook used at a Passover Seder.  A Haggadah typically features traditional songs, prayers, commentaries, and stories that commemorate the exodus of Jews from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago and offer lessons that still resonate today.

“Cave,” Haidan, northern Yemen. Photo: Zion Ozeri

“The Passover Seder is celebrated by Jews all over the world,” says Ozeri.  “It’s something that connects far-flung Jewish communities. At the same time, every community brings its own unique customs, its own spin on the rituals.  So it reflects both our unity and diversity as Jews.  I like to think my photography does the same thing.”

“Holocaust Survivior,” Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: Zion Ozeri

“Pictures Tell” is Ozeri’s second Haggadah. The first, published (Simon & Schuster) in 2005, was “The Jewish World Family Haggadah,” also illustrated with his photos.

“Shepard,” Kfar Zeitim, Israel. Photo: Zion Ozeri

“I was pleased with the first Haggadah, and the way the photographs helped illustrate the stories and songs,” says Ozeri.  “But there was more I wanted to do.  ‘Pictures Tell’ gave me the opportunity to spotlight the photographs as not just illustrations, but essentially visual ‘texts’ in their own right. The photographs are in dialogue with the traditional texts. They can help spark discussion and provide a visual way into the conversation for people of all ages.”

“Setting the Table,” Santiago de Cuba. Photo: Zion Ozeri
“Zion Ozeri’s photographs do more than document the lives of people in the Jewish community. They connect us with this community on an emotional level and, in doing so, help to bridge perceived differences.” – Dean Troy Richards, School of Art and Design  

Ozeri was born in Israel, the son of immigrants from Yemen. He came to New York to attend FIT after a stint as a draftee in the Israeli army. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he was a tank commander.

“Four Mothers,” Mevasert Zion Absorption Center, Israel. Photo: Zion Ozeri

“So much of my perspective and vision as a photographer was shaped by growing up in Israel as the son of Yemenite Jews,” Ozeri says. “The Jews of Yemen, The Last Generation” is among his previous titles.

“Matzah oven,” Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Zion Ozeri
“I learned not just the fundamentals of photography, but also the power of photography as a medium that can engage people, move people, and even motivate change.” – Zion Ozeri

“While many of the earlier pioneers and immigrants to Israel were European, we represented a different face of Jewry.  We brought a different understanding of what it meant to be Jewish, and what it meant to be Israeli.”

“Outdoor market,” Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo: Zion Ozeri

His parents came to Israel during a period when ancient Jewish communities in Arab lands were being pressured to leave ancestral homes. Thus, he was raised and schooled among many diverse cultures. He notes that this gave him a cross-cultural perspective that suffuses his work.

“Twilight Mincha,” Rosh Hay’ayin, Israel. Photo: Zion Ozeri

Ten years ago he launched the DiverCity Lens curriculum and program for public schools, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education (DOE). The program uses photography as a tool to help students reflect on their own cultures and to explore the rich diversity of our city.

“The Secret,” Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center. Photo: Zion Ozeri

The DiverCity Lens program typically works with 12-18 high schools and junior high schools each year, culminating with a student exhibition in the rotunda of the DOE headquarters at the historic Tweed Building on Chambers Street.

“Backpack,” Operation Solomon, Ben Gurion Airport. Photo: Zion Ozeri

Much of Ozeri’s work today involves helping others – especially young people – better understand themselves and their world through the medium of photography. He says his FIT training played an important role in the direction his career has taken:

“Brooklyn,” Photo: Zion Ozeri

“I learned not just the fundamentals of photography,” Ozeri says, “but also the power of photography as a medium that can engage people, move people, and even motivate change.  My work rests on the shoulders of earlier photographers and artists who saw their work as part of a broader humanistic endeavor.”

Zion Ozeri

A copy of “Pictures Tell: A Passover Haggadah” will be on display in the New Books section at the college’s Gladys Marcus Library.

Ozeri’s work has been published widely in major publications. His work has been on exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; ANU Museum, Tel Aviv; Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires; Skirball Museum, LA; 92Y, and The Museum of Jewish Heritage, NYC and many other museums and galleries. He lives in New York City.

To see more of Zion Ozeri’s work, visit his websites: ZionOzeri.com; DiverCityLens.org; JewishLens.org, and follow him on Instagram @ozerizion.

To learn more about the Photography and Related Media program at FIT go to: Photography at FIT.

Photos used with permission.

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