A depiction of daily life rooted in tradition and undiluted by centuries.
Words by Meryl Fontek
Photos by Abir Sultan
To photograph, by definition, is to remove one’s self from the collective whole and stand at the scene as an intentional observer. Positioned behind a lens, a photographer is immortalized on the other side of the frame, motivations and private thoughts frozen in time. Drawn to the outliers of his own religion, EPA photographer Abir Sultan provides a glimpse into a world simultaneously foreign and familiar as he documents the daily lives, ceremonies and holidays of Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men and women. Blending into the fabric of the public and private domains, Sultan is both subject and photographer as he captures others; causing him to reflect on his own beliefs.
What drew you to the various sects of Ultra-Orthodoxy?
Abir Sultan: The Ultra-Orthodox maintain and embody the ancient traditions that have looked the same throughout history. Their homogeneity in dress is very strong graphically, and visually captivating. In photographing various Haredi sects, I’ve come to realize there is so much I don’t know about my own religion. It’s been fascinating to discover and reacquaint myself with Judaism. I grew up in Tel Aviv in a secular but traditional household. We celebrated holidays and Shabbat, but I never knew the depth or the reasoning behind the things we did. For me, observing the daily lives of the people in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, was like peering through a time capsule at what Judaism must have looked like during the Middle Ages.
Can you talk about each of the six photos in the series?
Abir Sultan: Mitzvah Dance was taken in 2018 in Bnei Brak during the wedding of Rivka Zirel, the granddaughter of the Vizhnitz Rebbe. The Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty is named after Vyzhnytsia, a town in present-day Ukraine. The customary Hasidic Mitzvah Dance allows for close male relatives to celebrate the bride on the eve of her wedding by dancing for her in front of thousands of onlookers.
Wedding was taken in 2012 in Bnei Brak. The bride in the photo is part of the Nadvorna Hasidic dynasty which originated in Nadvorna, Ukraine. She sits with her mother and mother-in-law watching her new husband dance with his friends and family.
Pidyon HaBen (Redemption of the Son) was shot in 2016 in a Lelov Hasidic community in Mea Shearim. Pidyon HaBen is an ancient ceremony performed at the birth of a first-born male child. The ritual act, uses a coin as a type of barter to exempt their son from having to serve in the Temple as a priest, as was customary for first born males during the Temple periods. Nowadays, coins are symbolically given to redeem the child of the obligation.
Tu B’Shevat was shot in 2016. The holiday is celebrated by eating the new fruits that are blooming in Israel during the time period. The photo shows a group of Belz Hasidim reaching for oranges that have been blessed by their Rabbi.
Burqa Sect was taken in 2017 in Mea She’arim. The extreme-fringe group follows a strict code of modesty that has no basis in Jewish scripture or Halachic law.
Diving was shot in 2018 in the Nahal Prat nature reserve during Bein haZmanim (between the times), which refers to the summer vacation of the Ultra-Orthodox community. This particular photo is a metaphor for the whole body of work. The man in the photo is depicted in the water, which can be considered as “another world”. He is submerged, fully dressed and looks as though he’s drowning, but in reality, he is exuberant, jumping into the water unphased about getting his clothing wet. The series considers perception and what it means to look in from the outside and feel like an explorer in a foreign land.
Wave was taken in 2014 during a protest held by the Ultra-Orthodox against the draft into the Israeli Defense Forces. The March of the Million is said to have drawn nearly one million Ultra-Orthodox individuals from all over the country. The onslaught of peaceful protestors claiming the Israeli government’s requirement to serve in the army (currently Ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt), will impede their desire to live like their Biblical forefathers, devoting themselves to a life of Torah study. They don’t want their children to be affected by modern Israeli society, and believe a Jewish military presence can occur only in Messianic times.
Many Israelis believe there should be one law which requires all citizens to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. On the one hand, that makes a lot of sense. But on the other hand, a community such as this one, wholeheartedly committed to living just as their ancestors did are entitled to make their own choices. I think as a society, we have to respect their choices and practices. I do believe that if the Ultra-Orthodox did serve, Israel would have the best army in the world! The Ultra-Orthodox are masters at problem solving. The community living in Mea Shearim functions seamlessly. They take care of their own, give tremendous amounts of charity, have their own school systems and institutions. They have created a self-made society that thrives.
Was there any particular moment that had a lasting affect on you?
Abir Sultan: Shooting the Burqa image was very difficult for me to wrap my head around. I went home that evening feeling uneasy. I think I was in shock. Seeing little girls wearing burqas was very disturbing for me. The concept of covering up at such a young age is hard for me to understand. The group believes that completely covering their bodies will lead to salvation, and think matriarchs of Judaism dressed in this manner. The women, following the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (referred to as the Rambam) claim the 12th century great sage said to adhere to modesty, Jewish women should cover their bodies when in the street. Modern Jewish Rabbinic leaders argue the Rambam absolutely was not referring to this type of dress.
Did you feel you had a connection with the people you photographed?
Abir Sultan: In a way, yes. It felt like I was peering into the past. There is something that draws me to them. Maybe the fact that there is so much they aren’t aware of, in terms of what is happening in the world today. I like how they aren’t connected to my reality at all. It makes me want to learn more about them. The people I photographed, were unaware of my presence. During my time visiting the community, my liaison was Yoelish Krois, a spokesperson and representative for his Mea Shearim community. Since my series began, we have become friends. Yoelish has 17 children and lives in a 2 room apartment. We couldn’t be more different, but despite our differences, we are able to connect as two humans. I put our differences aside and was able to learn from him and his way of life. His modesty, frugality and the way in which he and his family spend their time, are things I attempt to implement in my personal life.
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