Photographs celebrate diversity of Britain's Jewish population

Maurice from Hampstead

Maurice from Hampstead is a Sephardi Jew whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in the 15th century and became part of the Jewish community in Gibraltar before being evacuated to Britain during WWII. He manages and is responsible for the museum of the Bevis Marks Synagogue - Credit: Robert Stothard

Keith Kahn-Harris is a Muswell Hill author and sociologist who has written books on Judaism, language, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

His latest What Does A Jew Look Like? (Five Leaves Books) is a collaboration with photographer Robert Stothard to capture the wide diversity of Britain's Jewish population.

Paul

Paul, from north London, says: "Our family makes Shabbat dinner every Friday. We all wear hats, mine’s an old British pith helmet I bought in Jaffa 30 years ago. We have a good sing song round the table and even the cats get a ‘big up’ in the opening number. When I blow out the candles just before going to bed, I hold mum's silver candlesticks, shut my eyes and feel her close by." - Credit: Robert Stothard

Q: The book sprang from a stock image of an Orthodox Jew repeatedly used by media outlets for Jewish stories, why did it set you off on a journey to interview British Jews?

A: For some years I have been interested in the use of stock photos of strictly orthodox Jewish men to illustrate newspaper stories about Jews. I started posting them on social media and eventually became fascinated by one particular photo which has been used dozens of times. I tracked down the photographer, Rob Stothard, who had taken the photo and was also uncomfortable with the endless reuse of it. So we decided to team up to produce a broader set of images of British Jews. 


Q: You point out that many British people won't have met a Jew...

A: There are only around 300,000 Jews in the UK and the Jewish population is heavily concentrated in a few urban centres. Than means the media is one of the only spaces where British people encounter Jews. If you don't personally know any Jews, it can be easy to accept stereotypical images and see them as representative of all or most Jews. That's why the use of images of strictly orthodox Jews is so significant: They are a minority (albeit a fast-growing one) within the British Jewish population and there's a tendency to treat them as the 'proper' Jews because they are so recognisable. Yet Jews come in many varieties, some of which are rarely represented. For example, Jews who have Middle Eastern (Mizrachi) backgrounds are often ignored, which is how simplistic ideas of Jews being 'white' get around. 

Q: How did you choose your subjects and work with the photographer?

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A: Rob isn't Jewish so he came to the project without an agenda and was able to look at the subjects with fresh eyes. My role was to choose people to photograph and then put them in touch with Rob. I also collected the interviews that are printed alongside the portraits. I tried to pack as much diversity as I could within the limited number of portraits we had time for. I didn't choose people because they were 'representative' of an entire demographic. In any case, the way people want to be represented in a portrait is sometimes not what we expected. The book brings out the complicated ways in which people construct their identities. That's not unique to Jews but the way that Jews do it is specific to Jews. 

Rachel from Golders Green

Rachel 91, lives in a Jewish Care home in Golders Green and was born in the Carpathian mountains in former Czechoslovakia, now Ukraine. Her mother and three siblings perished in Auschwitz but she and a brother survived. She ended up in south London where she joined the synagogue. "I'm not religious religious, I go to a survivor's centre regularly and I'm part of a group that speaks Yiddish together." - Credit: Robert Stothard

Q: You also make the point that Jews are more visible and outspoken than ever before and yet there are persistent stereotypes. Are they antisemitic, lazy or a bit of both?

A: Stereotypes aren't always antisemitic, but they can certainly become antisemitic. The case of stock photos of strictly orthodox Jews has a lot to do with the time pressure in the online age to find an illustration to put a story online as fast as possible. Ignorance is also part of it, particularly the assumption that strictly orthodox Jews are the 'most Jewish'. But even if Jews are in the news in quite a public way, it's often a limited slice of the Jewish community that we see. We rarely see Jews who are not white for example. Even the strictly orthodox Jewish community is treated as homogeneous when it is also diverse. While 'exposing' the fact of Jewish diversity won't end antisemitism, it can at least mean that antisemites have a harder time. The more you know about who Jews are, the harder it is to make sweeping generalisations. 

Michael from Hampstead Garden Suburb

Michael, from Hampstead Garden Suburb, was born with cerebral palsy and his parents were instrumental in establishing the Village Shul. He's planning to make Aliyah (visit Israel) and says 'I find it easier to talk in Hebrew than English because there are fewer words!' - Credit: Robert Stothard

Q: The book makes a plea for nuance in public discourse. Are you hopeful about that? 

A: Well this is only one book so there's a limit to what it can achieve. I do think the discourse about Jews has become more nuanced in the last few years. Certainly, the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party showed that Jews often disagree amongst themselves. I hope the simple fact of seeing different kinds of Jews looking different to each other - in terms of dress, ethnicity and so on - will help to complicate people's understanding of who Jews are - and maybe lead editors to think twice before automatically reaching for stock photos of Jewish men with beards and black hats. 

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