Last week I received an email from a Rabbi asking me for my phone number so he could call me with a time sensitive question. Intrigued, I sent him my number and a time that I would be free to talk. I looked up the Rabbi on the internet and found out he had moved to Spokane from Brooklyn to run a Chabad. Later that afternoon the Rabbi Hahn called and as soon as I answered he asked, “what is the spiritual meaning of photography?”
I think that is a great question. I responded with the idea that beauty elevates the spirit towards the divine. However photographs of hard subject matter can create a monument of meaning and understanding that gives us a sense of purpose for having gone through those trials. The Rabbi seemed to like the answer and then got to the question he really was calling about which was if I knew a student that might want to help him by photographing a jewish festival. I asked him to email me the logistics and told him I would get back to him in a couple of days.
As I thought about the event I wondered whether or not I should do it myself. I have never stepped foot in a synagogue and I have never studied Hebrew or attended a jewish festival. Most people are surprised by this as my first and last name are very common jewish names.
I have grown up with people assuming my family was Jewish. This benefited my father’s business in Los Angeles, but it also came with a bit of a stigma when we moved to Spokane at a time when the Aryan Nations were staging public marches in North Idaho. The antisemitism has been so palpable that there have been times when I have been driving in the mountains and been approached by strangers with guns who ask me my name and why I am there I usually respond with my middle name for safety purposes.
Ironically one of my very closest friends is from Iran and comes from a heritage of Shiite Islam. He used to tell people his name was Tom whenever we were out in public together.
It took many years before he could invite me over to meet his family. I used to joke that we met at summer camp… Camp David! I came to absolutely love my Persian friends family and their wonderful culture. I especially love the music and food and the joyfulness among their friends and extended family. There have been many wonderful feasts with lots of dancing. They are my adopted family.
With all of this floating through my mind my curiosity about experiencing a jewish festival prompted me to volunteer to photograph it myself.
I showed up at the appointed time and location and immediately thought I had the wrong day because it looked like I was walking into a Japanese cultural event. As I walked up to the Woman’s club event center, I reread the email exchange with the Rabbi to confirm I was at the right location. As I entered I saw people dressed up on Asian attire and the room was filled with large Japanese photographic murals. I asked if anyone knew of Rabbi Hahn was there and they pointed me to a jovial man who was wearing a wig in the shape of a samurai top knot!
It turns out Rabbi Hahn chooses a new theme each year and had chosen Japanese culture and invited the local Japanese community to join the festival. I was indeed in the right place which felt like a bit of an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere. It turns out Purim is often celebrated by wearing of costumes and exchanges of gifts.
As they finished setting up for the dinner there was background music in Hebrew that reminded me of Persian dance music. It was festive and joyful. At one point in the night Rabbi Hahn spoke of what he felt was the highest purpose of our life which is to be happy. He even hired a comedian for the event as a means of inspiring joyfulness in the crowd.
After everything was set up and the guest had arrived, the Rabbi announced that it was time to wash hands and take bread. One by one each person washed their hands and took some bread to their table.
Then the magic happened. A young man who had traveled from Champlain Illinois recited the Megillah in what I think may have been Aramaic. He later told me he had spent five years learning the text.
The Megillah is an ancient scroll that tells the story of Esther who is a Jewish woman that becomes Queen of Persia and saves her people. The presentation of the story was like listening to a chant and I felt a deep sense of interconnectedness even though I couldn’t understand the words.
I found it interesting to be experiencing a historic connection with my best friends Persian culture and was reminded of his stories of how there had always been a strong Jewish culture in Iran. While countries and governments may be at odds and start wars, there is always the hope of love and peace between people who can come together and share some bread.
I have grown to appreciate the Persian New Years festival that happens in March and now I will add the Purim festival to my spring calendar along with St. Patrick’s day.