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Indepth Arts News:

"Shalom Y'all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South"
2002-12-12 until 2003-02-09
Skirball Cultural Center
Los Angeles, CA, USA United States of America

Award-winning photographer Bill Aron, chronicler of Jewish communities around the world, and writer Vicki Reikes Fox, a native of Mississippi, have dedicated the past fourteen years to capturing the convergence of two distinct but surprisingly interwoven communities-one Southern, one Jewish. The result of their creative collaboration is Shalom Y'all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South. Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and based on an original project by the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Jackson, Mississippi, this exhibition of nearly 40 black-and-white photographs is the first comprehensive look at the contemporary Southern Jewish experience.

Bill Aron and Vicki Reikes Fox will discuss what they learned traveling together on back roads through five states to gather stories and photographs documenting Southern Jewish communities at a public panel discussion, Smile Y'all: Documenting Jewish Communities in the South, on Wednesday, December 18, 7:30 p.m., one of five exhibition-related public programs. See below. They will also sign copies of the companion book about which Publishers Weekly raves, "For those who prefer their latkes deep-fried and who daven with a drawl, there's Shalom Y'all...There is so much warmth and love in this book that it feels like challah fresh from the oven-served with grits, of course."

Shalom Y'all began when Vicki Reikes Fox, the founding project director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in Mississippi, made a disheartening discovery at a thrift shop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Tossed haphazardly into a box was a musty red velvet ark curtain, something very sacred to her Jewish heritage. Inspired to preserve the unique tie between Southern and Jewish cultures, she recruited Los Angeles photographer Bill Aron (From the Corners of the Earth: Contemporary Photographs of the Jewish World) to work with her.

Aron's photographs, accompanied by stories compiled by Reikes Fox, introduce Southern Jews, descendants of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish settlers who arrived in the South, some as early as the 1700's, seeking freedom, opportunity, and adventure. Enterprising and industrious, these immigrants and their descendants revered the beauty and character of the South. They embraced Southern hospitality and acquired Southern accents while maintaining the ritual and traditions that bind them to the Jewish people. From fighting for the Confederacy and serving in political office to playing football and entering beauty pageants, they participated in all facets of Southern life. At the same time they built synagogues throughout the region and established a Jewish communal network from Charleston to Lake Charles, from Durham to Dothan, and from Jackson to Jacksonville.

"When people ponder Jewish life, they tend to think about big city life--New York, Chicago, Los Angeles," explains Associate Curator Tal Gozani, Skirball Cultural Center. "The South is rarely what comes to mind. At the Skirball, we are committed to exploring all the connections between Jewish heritage and American democracy. Through the artistic and sensitive lens of Bill Aron, whose photographs are also part of our permanent collection, we unearth and share little-known aspects of Jewish life in America."

Individually and collectively the photographs in the exhibition, divided into five sections, portray the dual legacy of Southern Jews, revealing the rich texture and vitality of Southern Jewish life. Road Trip pays tribute to individuals who were hard working and dedicated to community. Jewish names on street signs, public buildings, and even towns are evidence of the generous and pioneering efforts of Jews on behalf of their cities and towns. Lox, Bagels, and Grits celebrates the tasty convergence of two distinct culinary traditions. Peddlers, Planters, and Politicians attests to how broadly engaged Jewish citizens of the South are in all aspects of community service, civic life, and economic growth. Magnolias and Menorahs explores the importance of the synagogue to the Jewish community due in part to the church-going nature of the South. Southern Ties depicts the exceptional characteristics of Southern Jews who embrace their dual traditions and cultures.

Like his influences, renowned photographers Robert Frank, André Kertész, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, all of whom succeeded at documenting ordinary life, capturing expressive details and telling moments, Aron turns his lens on the ironic and amusing experiences of a people who have long settled in the Bible Belt. Wholesaler Michael Shackleton, a Russian Jewish immigrant, bares his hands filled with shrimp in New Orleans, Louisiana, with a bemused grin and shrugged shoulders. Shabbat in the Mississippi Delta depicts a beautiful spread of traditional elements--candles, challah, a kiddish cup--next to pecan pie and juxtaposed with the blurred expanse of cotton fields beyond.

Aron's striking photographs of abandoned cemeteries and synagogues (one now converted into a church and another to a hardware store) portray a community in transition and display a fascinating range of 19th-century architecture, from plantation to chapel style. In contrast, additional photographs capture the buoyant energy, joy, and pride of families in the midst of celebrating Jewish holidays and customs, illuminating emphatically that Southern Jewish life continues to thrive where least expected.

Ruby Gallery exhibitions at the Skirball are always free to the public.

About the photographer and writer

Bill Aron's work is part of many permanent collections including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center for Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jewish Museum, and the National Museum of American Jewish History. He has had over 20 solo exhibitions and has contributed to a number of books. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Vicki Reikes Fox has worked in museums for over 20 years as a curator and educator, and was the founding project director of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience. Born in Savannah, Georgia, she was raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Supported by grants from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation and the Betty and Ben Lamensdorf Family.

Bill Aron
Black and White Photography
Bob Cahlman, Mardi Gras Masquerade Co., Inc., New Orleans, Louisiana

Mardi Gras has always been an important New Orleans tradition. Many businesses in New Orleans, Jewish and non–Jewish alike, support the activities of the carnival season.

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