Art Tells the Story: Zion Ozeri

By Georgina Kolber, Curator

While developing the exhibition 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks, one of the themes that emerged as being important to illustrate was “the contemporary Jewish experience.” What is the experience of being Jewish in the world today? Whether in Denver or in Mumbai, Jewish communities exist within a global matrix of cultural groups with whom they have exchanged ideas, values, musical styles, artistic techniques, recipes, and more for generations. Some communities have held tight to traditional Jewish customs while others have evolved and even assimilated. The result is a vibrant and colorful diaspora that continues to expand. The ability to adapt to their surroundings while preserving a core cultural identity has enabled the Jewish people to survive and thrive.

Artist Zion Ozeri has made it his life’s work to capture the diversity of Jewish communities in photographs. Born in Israel to Yemenite parents and raised in Israel during a period of mass immigration, he interacted with many diverse cultures. Currently living in New York City, he is one of the world’s leading photojournalists, and his mission is to explore the diversity of Jewish life around the world. In his photographs, Ozeri encounters Jewish communities scattered across the world, and in them he finds a sense of home, familiar customs, and shared experiences. His images speak to all who have altered, shaped and reinvented their traditions, fusing old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, creating modern and meaningful views on life.

“Traveling extensively throughout the world and observing the nuances of each Jewish community, it’s striking to discover the common thread that runs through all of them,” said Ozeri. “In my photographs I try to capture meaningful fragments amidst the spectrum of Jewish life, one that helps the viewer appreciate its value, giving it meaning and purpose.”

When I discovered Ozeri, I knew that his photographs would illustrate the diversity of today’s global Jewish communities seamlessly for our exhibition. We commissioned him to create two short films with his photographs. One is a collection of images of Jewish people all over the world; the other is comprised of images of Israel’s people, landscapes, and historic and holy sites. Both films are set to contemporary Jewish songs, which we carefully selected to accompany the tone of his photographs. The films are central to the exhibit, and visitors tend to sit and immerse themselves in the images. Many of the images are quite surprising, including an image of a synagogue in Tunisia, something even our well-traveled Mizel Museum staff had never seen until we viewed Ozeri’s films.

My favorite image is Oil Pressers. This image is typical of Ozeris’ style: dramatic contrast of black and white, rich content and artful composition that appears almost staged. Technical attributes aside, there’s something deeply spiritual and serious about this image, yet this family of oil pressers is simultaneously unassuming, even timid. This Jewish family lives in Alibag, India, a small village outside of Mumbai. Many of the Jews in the towns and villages around Mumbai have worked for generations as oil pressers. In their dark brown eyes we can see years of history and tradition, yet they appear naïve and young. To me, capturing this bit of intrigue, even magic, in every shot is what Ozeri does best.

In this picture, you can see some familiar symbols of Jewish life—the Magen David (Jewish star) and Hamsa (good luck sign in the shape of a hand)—alongside the traditional tools of the oil pressers’ trade. This family is from B’nei Yisrael, India’s oldest Jewish community. According to tradition, their ancestors came to India from the Land of Israel in the second century. Over the years, the B’nei Yisrael maintained the essentials of Jewish practice, including circumcision, dietary laws, and the observance of the Sabbath, while developing their own local traditions.

Each of Ozeri’s photographs illustrates a unique story and, in an effort to broaden the educational scope of his work even further, Ozeri developed The Jewish Lens for students. The project features a wide selection of Ozeri’s photographs, and includes a student-centered curriculum that highlights the concept of Jewish unity. The Mizel Museum and CAJE are partnering to bring Zion Ozeri and The Jewish Lens to Denver next April for an exciting series of programs for youth and adults. Stay tuned for details, and in the meantime come see for yourself the photographs on view here at the museum.

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