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The Land I Will Give You to See: An Archaeology of Fear and Desire

Frederic BrennerFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2014

There is no other Promised Land, it belongs to no one and to everyone. Listen to my talk and go on a journey with me. Discover who I am, what I do and why.

Born in Paris in 1959, Brenner attended the Sorbonne, where he received a B.A. in French Literature and Social Anthropology in 1981. He later studied at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and earned an M.A. in Social Anthropology awarded by the Sorbonne.

In 1978, at the age of 19, Brenner embarked on his first photography project, an exploration of Mea Shearim, an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. The project, which portrays how these Jews from Eastern Europe recreated diaspora in Israel, became Brenner’s first book, Jérusalem: Instants d’Éternité, published in Paris.

In 1981, Brenner began photographing Jewish communities around the world, exploring what it means to live and survive with a portable identity and how Jews adopted the traditions and manners of their home countries and yet remained part of the Jewish people. From Rome to New York, India to Yemen, Morocco to Ethiopia, Sarajevo to Samarkand, he spent 25 years chronicling the diaspora of the Jews. Along the way, he published five books and directed three films (Marranos, Madres de Desaparecidos, Tykocin), brought together in one DVD also called Diaspora. He also began to show his work in museums and galleries around the world. He has been represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York since 1990.

Brenner’s opus Diaspora: Homelands in Exile was published as a two-volume set of photographs and texts by Harper Collins in 2003. It won a National Jewish Book Award for Visual Arts in 2004. It also appeared in four foreign editions. Diaspora was also a major exhibition, which opened in New York at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2003 and traveled to nine other cities in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. In reviewing the book, The New Yorker wrote, “Brenner’s work—elegiac, celebratory, irreverent—transcends portraiture, representing instead a prolonged, open-ended inquiry into the nature of identity and heritage.

Everything started in Jerusalem, I was just fascinated for something I really didn’t understand then but something which I believe understood me. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking I was going to undertake a journey, I believe I was undertaken by this journey. I believe that we do what we do not because of what we know about ourselves but because of what we don’t know by what we keep not knowing about ourselves. So it was an intuition, an inner call, it was in 1978, I was 18 years old and it has been a journey of encounter, a journey of self –exploration. Encounter with questions and my camera was just a tool, I was not a photographer. And everything started as I say in Jerusalem, more precisely in Mea Shearim, and what fascinated me was not so much Jerusalem in the late 70s but how a people recreated a shtetl in the heart of the Middle East, in the heart of Jerusalem and how these people truly live in diaspora, how they live in exile at home. And Mea Shearim was in fact the matrix of my entire journey which unfolded over thirty five years, forty countries. I said it was truly a fascination for something I didn’t understand and so I was wrestling with my history, this history which had been unspoken at home, buried, dissimulated, overcome and it took about 10 years for the contour of this portrait to start appearing. And what I did in fact was piece together, a puzzle, an amazing puzzle made of all these many fragments which make the fabric of the Jewish people. My own puzzle retrieving and reclaiming the many threads which weave the complexity of who I am, listening to the many voices which speak within me and the more I was looking, searching for the common threads among the Jewish people, the more I was forced to recognise the discontinuity among the vast spectrum of expressions and representations of Jews and Judaism. What do all these people have in common but their differences? Kafka in his diary in 1904 said, ‘what do I have in common with the Jews, I hardly have anything in common with myself’. The further I got the closer I was getting to myself. Without knowing it I was answering an injunction I had never heard, “Lech Lecha, Lech Lecha mearttzcha, mbeit avicha”, “go forth, leave your land, your kindred, the house of your father, and go the place which I will show you”, and the place is never named as though it belonged to each of us to name it as we go there. And this is what I have been doing all along. But I got out of this journey in the diaspora totally confused but on a higher level and after I had questioned what it means to live in diaspora with a portable identity I decided to question sovereignty as a new paradigm for the Jewish people, Israel as the great experiment for the Jewish people in the 20th century but Israel as place and metaphor. Israel as the place of shared origin, Israel as the place where three monotheism which gave birth to three major narrative have been in conflict for last 2000 years. In other terms, Israel as a place where the maps of the sacred overlap,  compete and ultimately exclude each other. And to try to look at Israel beyond a  dual  perspective, for, against, victim, perpetrator, to try to look at Israel beyond the political narrative, not to ignore it or bypass it but really look at the archaic stakes before it becomes political and religious. And when I say Israel as place and metaphor, the first metaphor has to do with Israel as a place of radical otherness; a place where every single person is the other of somebody else, close and far others, an Ethiopian for Russian, a Moroccan for a German, an Arab Christian for an Arab Muslim an Armenian for a Jew etc. etc. And now and only now it became clear that this initial journey through diaspora was in fact an exploration of the diaspora within, my inner geography of my many selves. Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet says, “each one is various, many an overflow of selves, in the outstretch colony of our being all kind of people exist who think and feel in various ways”. I needed to return to Jerusalem not to undertake a mapping but an archaeology, an archaeology of fear and desire, my own archaeology, the archaeology, an archaeology of myself and as any good archaeologist I needed to find a working hypothesis in front of the dig and at the core of my working hypothesis there is a promise, a promise attached to this land from tiny immemorial for all inhabitants. What have we done with this promise? What can we do with this promise? What will this promise do with us? “The land I will show you”, it is mentioned, “The land I will give you to see”, say the commentators, not the land I will give you to possess. The land that should reveal you to yourself and to others, if not it will maybe swallow us, this land which is at the edge where the particular and universal meet. This land where the personal and the collective merge and what is this promise about? It is a promise of redemption. Again it is, “the land I will give you to see”, it is about an inner space, and it is about an inner place. How could we think that it is only about a territory? It is about another field of consciousness which has to be stretched in order to accept and to embrace. To embrace the unknown, to embrace the strange, to embrace the stranger, to embrace the stranger within. To embrace what I do not understand, to embrace the other. But before that we need to recognise that we are multiple within our self, strangers even to ourselves. This is the ultimate promise and the only possible redemption, there is no other redemption other than embracing our own plurality, the cells that may be hostile, contradictory, exclusive, strong, vulnerable, enigmatic and mysterious but always moving, changing in flux. This is the true meaning of intimacy. Intimacy as redemption and redemption as intimacy. Co-existence starts within, it starts by creating enough room, inside us for all our inner and outer conflicts, for all our contradictions and that is the great challenge that Israel imposes on us. Israel is a place of radical otherness and unbearable dissonance. For me otherness is the philosophy of metaphysics, it is in each of us, it is in each one of all of you. An awareness of otherness begins by listening, listening to the polyphony the polyphony in each of us. Listening to the human polyphony on stage in Israel. I remain deeply grateful to all those who have triggered, stimulated and nurtured my journey, this inner journey. Will we dare to believe the possibility of love? This is our only obligation and responsibility today. Love as the ultimate act of resistance, repairing the world, begins by repairing the world in us. There is no other Promised Land, it belongs to no one and to everyone. It is everywhere awaiting for our return.


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