Saturday, February 08, 2014

How Steve Rosenfield's 'Jews Of New York' Got Young Orthodox Jews Talking About Taboo Topics 

ben faulding

"Imperfection is beauty."

This statement, expressed by Yeshiva University student Dasha Sominski, is an underlying theme in Steve Rosenfield's photography series "What I Be," a version of which was recently rejected by Yeshiva University.

When Yeshiva University students Mati Engel and Dasha Sominski, set out to exhibit Rosenfield's work at their school, neither of them knew exactly what they were getting themselves into.

Engel first encountered Rosenfield's work while visiting Princeton University where the show was exhibited as part of the school's Mental Health Week 2013. Upon learning the photographer was Jewish, Engel felt compelled to bring the exhibit to Yeshiva.

Rosenfield's portraits are vulnerable and daring, depicting subjects close up, brightly lit with their deepest insecurities written across their faces, necks and arms.

"The images were kind of uncomfortable but so real," Engel said. So she pitched it to YU, and the administration agreed to work with her. Engel highlights the positive tone of the early phase of negotiations, "They could have said 'no' from the get-go."

Ultimately, Yeshiva rejected the project after months of negotiation. However, Engel, Sominski and other students involved in the project continue to affirm loyalty to their school. The students insist that the Modern Orthodox university wanted to work with them but didn't know how to embrace a controversial photography series that focused on issues such as sexual abuse, homosexuality, racism and identity.

The school offered the following statement from Dean of Students Dr. Chaim Nissel:
As a university based on Torah ideals, Yeshiva University supports and encourages the artistic exploration of diverse ideas by its students and offers robust programming in dramatics and the arts—all while keeping in line with our values. After close review and much discussion of this event with the student organizers, and taking the sensitivities of all of our students into consideration, we determined that a YU venue would not be able to showcase the project in its entirety.

Engel, Sominski and Rosenfield all agree that there are certain topics the school likely does not feel comfortable with, and this reflects larger taboos within the Orthodox community. Engel was particularly sensitive to the tension from the beginning saying, "I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "I wasn't sure if we were doing the right thing." In Sominski's mind, though, Rosenfield's exhibit is particularly relevant for the Jewish community. "It's important to bring the work to this audience, which needed it perhaps more than any other audience."


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