The second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai delved so deeply into the mysteries of Kabbalah and the universe that upon his death, or so his followers believed, many of the broken fragments of creation were at last reunited. Hasidim celebrate the anniversary of his passing as Lag B’Omer, a day-long respite in the traditional period of mourning between Passover and Shavuot. Rabbis and yeshiva students in Israel enjoy a day’s outing to a forest near the sage’s tomb, where they say a blessing and eat a sweet.
The Israeli photographer Barry Frydlender was lingering nearby on that day last year, when he took the first of many shots that together would compose The Blessing, a panoramic photograph of bearded men in black coats and boys with long side locks clustered in small groups and chatting in a rustic picnic area in a pine forest. The image is disconcerting, and not merely because these are faces more easily imagined poring over Torah pages, and figures we are used to seeing scurrying along city streets. The sense of dislocation provoked by the Hasidim’s 18th-century-style garb and modern accoutrements like cell phones is magnified by the photograph’s multiple lines of perspective, by the uncanny repetition of individual figures, and by their shadows, whose angles change erratically, as if the sun were wandering across the picture plane.
The effect is something like history painting, rich in allegorical possibility. Rather than capturing a split second (Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”), Frydlender’s digitalized images are painstakingly pieced together via computer from shots taken minutes, hours, or sometimes months apart—they’re photographs with time woven into them. His method is particularly suited to the complexities of life in Israel, a place the news media tend to present in flashes of violence, but where millennia of history may be brought to bear on the meaning of each instant.
“One might speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote. “That predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim unfulfilled by men, and also a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance.” Frydlender (like Benjamin) is a secular Jew, and his vision is quite reasonably a dark one, yet there is also in his pictures a faint yearning for redemption, as if by knitting together moments otherwise lost to history he might help make a broken world whole again.
His second New York show includes pictures taken in various Israeli venues—a makeshift nightclub, for example, with Elvis enshrined on the wall, where a middle-aged crooner serenades a room half filled with Tel Avivan slackers. The spliced images make the club’s floor curve like a boat’s hull—a Noah’s ark or ship of fools, carrying the tattered remnants of a counterculture.
A picture of dreamy innocence—the photographer’s teenage daughter, asleep on a sofa beside two friends—provokes a similar anxiety. What events will shatter their youthful reverie? A partial response is provided by a trio of works addressing, however obliquely, the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations. One, over 10 feet long, shows the forced evacuation of a seaside settlement during Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. A ragged band of settlers stands atop a crude barracks, waving banners and playing the guitar, hemmed in on one side by a line of Israeli soldiers and on the other by the sea. (The enclosed space recalls the shape of the country reduced to its green line borders.) The entire scene feels at once biblical and ultra-modern, though we don’t know if it’s deliverance or Armaggedon.
Facing it is a picture Frydlender made the same day, by turning around, of a group of Bedouin men and boys in modern garb watching the evacuation—members of a formerly nomadic culture mesmerized by the alien spectacle of occupation.
Estates shows a swimming pool (an inordinate luxury in a land where water remains scarce) belonging to a Western-style resort whose walls abut an ancient cemetery—leisure and death, side by side, each ignorant of and destabilizing the other. “Get out of our land,” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish famously intoned, “our continent our sea/ . . . our everything, and get out/of the memory of memories.” In a region rife with such sentiments, whose purchase on the land is certain?