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Birkat Hachama: ‘Once every 28 years’ festival in Stamford Hill lends snapper Neil Martinson his ‘most unusual’ pictures ever

PUBLISHED: 09:19 25 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:03 27 July 2018

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

Neil Martinson

A rare Jewish festival which only takes place every 28 years takes centre stage in photographer Neil Martinson’s new booklet. Emma Bartholomew chats to him about his work and his memories of the sun festival Birkat Hachama, which took place in Stamford Hill in 1981

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

Photographer Neil Martinson was working on a book about Jewish life in Britain in 1981 when a rabbi told him about the Jewish blessing of the sun festival, Birkat Hachama.

“The rabbi mentioned it in passing,” said Neil. “He just said, “You might find this interesting tomorrow. We’ve got this ceremony. Why don’t you go along and have a look?”.”

Not knowing what to expect, Neil went along to the school playground the next morning before sunrise. He can’t now remember at which school it took place.

“I got there a bit early. You tend to if you are taking pictures and you want to see what’s going on,” he said.

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

“It was all a bit empty. I thought, “This is a waste of time”.”

But suddenly hundreds of ultra-orthodox Hasidic men and boys converged on the playground.

“They were incredibly excited, all very happy, and suddenly the whole playground was completely full of men and boys looking to the sky for a glimpse of the sun. The fact that was cloudy didn’t seem to diminish the event.

“Some of them were dancing, In one of my photos it looks like they’re doing a conga.”

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

Neil thinks he might have photographed the festival – which takes place just once every 28 years – for the very first time.

The blessing is recited to the Creator, thanking Him for creating the sun, when the sun completes its cycle every 28 years on a Tuesday at sundown. Jewish tradition says that when the Sun completes this cycle, it has returned to its position when the world was created.

But because the blessing needs to be said when the sun is visible, the blessing is postponed to the following day, on Wednesday morning.

From an astronomic point of view, there is nothing special about the dates, and the sun, moon, planets and stars are not aligned in any specific pattern.

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

“They did see the sun, and quite a few were congregated around. They were reading prayers, and basically it seemed like this terrific fun time,” he said.

“The thing I found interesting taking pictures was I was completely ignored. Everybody was so tied up with what they were doing, no one took any notice of me at all, which was fine because I think I got some good photos on the day.

“Only later I discovered this event only takes place once every 28 years so I was incredibly fortunate.

“It was one of the most unusual things I’ve taken photos of.”

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

The event took place again in 2009 and will take place again in 2037.

A collection of Neil’s photographs has now been published by Café Royal Books.

The educational book Neil was working on at the time documented the lives of liberal Jewish families alongside those from the intensely private Orthodox Hasidic community.

“The thing that surprised me was I hadn’t realised the degree of support within the community,” said Neil.

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

“They had their own support systems like Hatzola, their ambulance service, and an informal system of social security for those who are having hard times.

“I thought that was pretty impressive,” added Neil, who comes from a liberal Jewish background himself and grew up in Clissold Road, Stoke Newington.

“Also the community did suffer from harassment and racism on the streets and it took a lot of courage to continue to dress as they do. In a sense they were easy targets for racists. I had admiration for their courage in their beliefs.”

Neil, whose work has appeared in the National Portrait Gallery, started taking photos of street scenes when he was still a pupil at Hackney Downs School. He saved up to buy a camera through a Saturday job working in Stoke Newington’s Woolworths.

Hasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil MartinsonHasidic men and boys celebrate the Blessing of the Sun Festival, Birkat Hachama, in 1981. Picture: Neil Martinson

Many of his images appeared in books published by Centerprise when he was still a schoolboy, and were used by local campaigns on housing, nurseries, education and trade union rights. Aged 20 he co-founded campaign group Hackney Flashers, documenting the lives of working class women and pushing for better women’s rights.

His exhibition ‘Another Time Another Place – Hackney in the 70s and 80s’ attracted more than 5,000 visitors to Hackney Wick in February.

The publication about Birkat Hachama costs £6 from caferoyalbooks.com.

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