Navigate to Arts & Letters section

An Artist of the Yiddish Never-World

A newly reopened exhibit showcases the previously unknown photographer Shimmel Zohar, whose bizarre, arresting historical photos are nothing short of miraculous

Eddy Portnoy
June 10, 2021
Courtesy Stephen Berkman
‘Zohar Studios’Courtesy Stephen Berkman
Courtesy Stephen Berkman
‘Zohar Studios’Courtesy Stephen Berkman

I work at a Jewish historical institute, where I sometimes get strange phone calls. My very first day of work involved one such call. It was shortly after 9 a.m. and I had just settled down at my desk. The phone rang and I picked it up. “YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. How may I help you?” I answered.

A raspy voice at the other end growled, “Portnoy? Is this Portnoy?”

“Yes,” I said, “how may I help you?”

“Portnoy,” the voice croaked, “I’ve been calling you every day for two weeks, why don’t you ever answer the phone?”

“Sorry,” I told him, “Today is my first day. I didn’t have an office until now.”

Two weeks prior, I had appeared on an NPR segment called “What is it?” about the topic of Yiddish. It had been arranged by YIVO and although I hadn’t officially started working there, it was announced on the air that I worked at the YIVO Institute. As a result, my intrepid, scratchy-voiced caller had been trying daily to reach me, to no avail. After I explained all of this to him, he said, “Good—I’m glad I finally got ahold of you.”

“So how can I help you?” I asked.

“Portnoy,” he paused, “you’re a loser.”

I stammered, “Um, what?”

“You’re a loser,” he growled, his voice rising. “You lost the war.”

“Uh, I didn’t know I was in a war,” I said.

“You were: the war between the religious and the secular. You lost it, and the religious won,” he said. “You’re a loser.”

This phone call was my initiation into the sometimes bizarre world of grousers, grumblers, and stalwart investigators, all of whom can be found perambulating in YIVO’s telephonic orbit. Many of them just want some esoteric, Yiddish-related information, or, perhaps, to tell a story about their Uncle Hyman’s notions business. Issues can be wide-ranging and run from queries about shtetl funerary practices to raging complaints about Yiddish orthography. A number of years ago, my phone lit up with fury when the development department spelled Hanukkah with a “ch” in a holiday appeal. There are less irate callers as well. Someone once rang me and asked if I’d help them write a wedding speech in Yiddish and another time a caller asked for examples of “sex talk” in Yiddish. On more than one occasion, I’ve been berated by callers demanding corrections of certain holiday greetings because “that’s not how we say it in our family.”

So when I got a call last fall asking if we had photographs by Shimmel Zohar in our collection, I didn’t think much of it. I hadn’t previously heard the name, but I thought it sounded a bit odd. Shimmel is a Yiddish diminutive of Shimon, and which colloquially means “mold,” as in fungus. This name paired with Zohar, a common Mizrahi family name meaning “radiant” that references the eponymous central work of the Kabbalah, seemed to be an odd combination: a bright, shining fungus.

I quickly punched the name Shimmel Zohar into YIVO’s digital archival guide and came up empty-handed. There are about 150,000 photographs in the archive and most photographers are not identified. I told the caller that we had nothing listed, though it was possible the material was still uncatalogued. We said goodbye, but still curious, I Googled the name. Only then did I begin to understand.

An exhibit of Shimmel Zohar’s photographs had been mounted in March 2020 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, but it was only up for five hours before it was shut down by the mysterious spread of COVID-19. The exhibit dovetails with a book titled Predicting the Past – Zohar Studios: The Lost Years, which showcases the work of this previously unknown 19th-century photographer in a huge tome featuring a selection of his wet-collodion processed photographs, a 19th-century technique that supplanted daguerreotypes and produced deeply textured, sepia-toned images.

Equally as arresting as Zohar’s tonal images are the bizarre stories behind them. Subjects include a forlorn-looking Hasidic puppeteer, whose doppelganger puppet offers a fascinating life story in Yiddish; a lively looking merkin salesman offering his wares; a blind mohel with the tools of his trade; a mute debating society at rest; and a number of curious and frankly bizarre situational scenes. The photographs and their subjects are an exploration of extraordinary figures and phenomena of the second half of the 19th century. His topics aren’t terribly out of place for his time, either, as photographers have been recording strange people and matters since the advent of the technology.

The book is a project of the artist Stephen Berkman, who explains in its foreword that he unintentionally discovered an old trunk that contained Zohar’s Yiddish diary, a rare artifact that unfortunately went missing during the translation process. He appreciated how the wet-collodion prints offer a window into a world that feels bizarre but also somehow historically familiar. The unusual subjects, with their distinctly antique appearances and their anachronistic occupations, exude the sense that they could only have lived and been captured in Victorian-era New York.

The photographs themselves are stunning, almost mesmerizing, offering a peek into the mind of a zany, wildly creative photographer with an eye for the oddest and most unusual human phenomena. Fascinating on their own, the images are augmented with detailed histories, apparently compiled from Zohar’s lost Yiddish diary.

Photography is a kind of magic, a process that stops time dead in its tracks and conjures striking moments that the human eye never actually captured. As author and historian Luc Sante sagely comments, “In the 19th century, photography presented the world with an existential conundrum: a preserved slice of a moment in time that would survive time and thus death.” Photos are marvelous visual fakeries, and they can be reproduced innumerable times in any number of formats and sizes. Is it any wonder that some deeply religious people refuse to be photographed because, they believe, their souls will be stolen?

This book proves just how pervasive this photographic illusion can be. The more one reads, the clearer it becomes that Zohar himself is an invention, that there was no ancient trunk or long-lost diary or mysterious photography studio full of strange and exciting subjects. An illusionist if nothing else, Berkman masterfully misdirects the viewer by creating a visual and historical simulacrum that feels so real that it’s hard to accept that Zohar never existed.

I, for one, very much wanted him to be real. Zohar’s photographs, and the lives of his subjects, feel wholly authentic, augmented by interviews, memoirs, documents, and advertisements that speak to the purported origins of these strange figures. Berkman uses historical distance and the awestruck way that someone from the future perceives the past to make it all feel believable. Surely a blind mohel who has performed thousands of brisses could feel his way to perform the mitzvah! How miraculous! One imagines the mute debating society emerging victorious from a debate without having uttered a word.

History is full of odd and unusual characters. It may not be readily apparent, but Jewish history also has many strange personalities. Peppered with false messiahs, shtetl prostitutes, Talmudic illusionists, drag kings, and one-eyed scribes, among many others, Jewish history is far more colorful than it may seem. Much of this has been neatly obscured by historians, but a quick peek into 100-year-old Yiddish newspapers can offer everything one expects—and doesn’t expect—from Jewish history. There are many images in YIVO’s own photographic archive depicting late-19th- and early-20th-century occupations that would undoubtedly strike the modern viewer as equally strange as the jobs in Shimmel Zohar’s collection. Basket weaver, haroset vendor, shtetl klopper, reefer maker … all of these very real occupations would be at home in Zohar’s illusory world.

But do photographs, even real ones, help us unlock history? Or do they send us off in the wrong direction? Perhaps they elicit misplaced emotion. What do we really know about the frozen people staring at us unsmilingly in century-old photos? We already know that, for example, Jewish Daily Forward editor Ab. Cahan demanded photographs of traditional-looking Jews for the Forverts photo section in order to generate feelings of nostalgia and pity. Famed Russian American photographer Roman Vishniac did the same thing, even inventing stories to accompany his images. As a result, such “historical” photographs present a false, or simply incomplete, impression of what Polish Jewry looked like in its final years.

Looking at old photographs, we can only wonder what was really going on in them. Unsmiling faces of apparently unhappy people peer at us with stern looks, a phenomenon that makes life in these eras seem more miserable than it may have been. What viewers may not consider is that sitting for a 19th-century photographic portrait could take up to 30 seconds, so it was easier for the sitter to keep his or her mouth shut than to potentially ruin the image with a wobbly smile.

Photographs were once considered remarkable things. When they first appeared, they were perceived as miraculous. Today, photography is so pedestrian that billions of pictures are shot every day. Everyone now has the power to stop time and alter themselves and others in multiple ways. There are even photo apps that mimic the appearance of old photographs, although none of the resulting images will ever be as compelling as the work of Shimmel Zohar and his wet-collodion prints.

In the hope that the current pandemic is winding down, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco has reopened the Shimmel Zohar exhibit after its ill-fated, five-hour opening in March of 2020. Stephen Berkman and Shimmel Zohar’s Predicting the Past fuses real and imagined histories with a remarkable dedication to a lost photographic art, dusting it all with their own wry senses of humor. A project that conjures histories and chases fugitive worlds, its images lead viewers down imagined routes with some fantastically shocking subjects, and conclusions, at their ends. It’s worth a look.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).