The Ten Commandments in the façade of a supermarket, a Star of David above the entrance of a Baptist church, a Hebrew date in the cornerstone of an apartment building. My photographs are images of Jewish traces, remnants of a once thriving Jewish culture. But these images were not taken in Poland, the Ukraine, or other countries that today are places of pilgrimage for American Jewish heritage tourists. These pictures were taken in New York City, the home of the largest Jewish Diaspora in the world.
My fascination with formerly Jewish neighborhoods stems from my own upbringing. Growing up Jewish in Germany, I felt that I was, myself, a remnant of a once thriving culture. I was surrounded by former synagogues, forgotten cemeteries, and other places with a Jewish past. This legacy was my heritage and I was its keeper.
When I moved to New York City in 2003, I was fascinated by the diversity and richness of Jewish life this city has to offer. At the same time, however, I was shocked to discover that in this city that continuously reinvents itself, recent pasts were so quickly forgotten. Here, too, I found abandoned synagogue buildings, forgotten Jewish cemeteries and apartment buildings with traces of their Jewish past. I decided to document this heritage in neighborhoods such as Harlem, the South Bronx or Brownsville — neighborhoods that very few people would consider Jewish places, but were once home to vibrant Jewish communities.
The project has been a race against the clock, as many of the buildings are in bad condition and the threat of demolition looms. Other Jewish buildings have been reinvented as churches, community centers and residential apartments. The photographs show synagogues without Jews, neighborhoods with a Jewish past, but not a Jewish present. The black-and-white of the images gives the photographs an historic character, they seem to be ‘images of the past,’ but were taken in the present.
My photographs are a re-discovery of (nearly) forgotten Jewish history, but they also examine the way Americans approach their own heritage, as well as the way culture is reborn and reinvented in a city in permanent transition.
The full ‘Forgotten Heritage” exhibit can be viewed at the Bronfman Center at NYU until January 7th. It is co-sponsored by PresenTense magazine.
Julian Voloj was born in Muenster, Germany, and grew up in a Jewish community of just 80 members. His grandparents, Holocaust survivors, had immigrated to Colombia but returned to Germany. His personal background inspired him to explore issues of identity and heritage in his work as a photographer and writer. Voloj immigrated to the United States in 2003. The same year he was awarded with the Second Prize at the Washington Post Annual Photography Contest. In 2006, the Forward commissioned Voloj to photograph prominent New Yorkers such as Ed Koch, Edgar Bronfman and Abe Foxman for its anniversary book (to be released in 2007). Voloj was also commissioned for the exhibition “Germany, Land of Ideas” at the Deutsch-Historisches Museum in Berlin, one of Germany’s most prestigious museums. His photographs appeared in the New York Post, the Jewish Week and other publications. Julian Voloj lives and works in New York City. To learn more about his projects, visit the website at www.julianvoloj.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.