about One Family /
Meir Shalev


You might think you are looking at a collection of photographs, but in fact you are reading a novel, the history of one family, a human landscape in black and white that stretches across four generations. Not the black and white of good and evil, not a black and white that exemplifies the souls of those pictured, but the black and white of classic photography, of a family album with grandfathers and mothers, aunts, uncles, sisters, children and grandchildren.

And just as there is with a novel, here, too, there is a reader, who does what readers do: he fills in what is missing about the characters. He wonders what happened to them beforehand, and where they are headed afterward. He ponders the relationships between them, reflects on what is happening in the spaces between the photos themselves and what lies beyond the frames. And since the photographer herself is a member of this family, the reader can enjoy other speculations of the literary variety, such as which characters are important and beloved to her, and which less so.

In some ways, the writer has an easier time of it than the photographer, not only because of his control over the characters but also due to the vast amount of time at his disposal, which allows him to describe processes of change and development. This is not real time, which serves his work, but rather fictional time, the beginning and pace and end of which are determined by the writer. The photographer does not enjoy this privilege; she has only a fraction of a second, bestowed by the subjects of her photos themselves. Still, in spite of the realism associated with photography, this truth does not detract from the power of the fiction and the imagination since the moment captured in a photograph would not exist had the camera of this family member not been set up in front of her relatives. That same moment would have been lived by her and by them in a different manner. The moment we observe in a photo belongs both to family relations prevailing between the members and to the artistic work, and that is how it has been commemorated.

This is important. Vardi Kahana is not a voyeur and not a spy. She does not use a telescopic lens or a hidden camera. She photographs her family with their knowledge and consent. Those photographed know they will one day meet up, in a collection, with others who have been photographed, just as they meet up at weddings and memorial services. The small dramas and pretenses they stage in front of the camera are absolutely legitimate, even part of the charm of the photographs.

The observer notices immediately that beyond the family portrayed here, other families are hinted at: families he has glimpsed in photographs elsewhere, families he has read about, and, most importantly, his own personal family and their stories, photographs and characters. Whether he wishes to or not, the observer, like the reader, will make comparisons.

My own comparison came swiftly: my family is very different from Vardi Kahana’s. We, like she, have farmers and artists; kibbutz-dwellers, village-dwellers and city-dwellers; the more well-to-do and the less; blue-collar workers and white-collar workers; rightists and leftists. But my family is more homogeneous; there are no fringes – no ultra-Orthodox, no settlers, no Holocaust survivors.

Vardi Kahana’s clan is a religious family that came to Israel from Czechoslovakia. A lone uncle reached the country before the Holocaust; all the others came afterward. Some of the family members remained religious, others became completely secular, and still others are now ultra-Orthodox. The family comprises settlers as well, and these, too, come in the moderate and extreme varieties.

My own family arrived in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century. My future grandparents were then young people who had abandoned religion and became addicted instead to the Zionist socialist revolution. My mother and father were born in Israel to two families who did not pass through concentration camps and did not keep the Sabbath and spoke only Hebrew, since Yiddish was the language of the Diaspora and the Jewish laws were only for religious people and whoever stayed back “there” was murdered by the Germans. But not us. No one in my family had a number tattooed onto his arm, let alone three consecutive numbers on three arms belonging to a mother and two aunts.

But there were photographs on our walls, too. In the home of my mother’s father hung a picture of his parents, who were Orthodox, my great-grandfather with a beard and sidelocks and his wife in a headscarf. In the home of my father’s mother hung a picture of her parents and their ten sons and daughters. Only two of them – my grandmother and one of her sisters – came to Israel. All the others remained back “there.” My father never once spoke of the uncles and aunts he never met. The Nazis may have killed them, but it was we who expunged their names and their memories.

The Holocaust was not present in my life or my home. But when I grew up and began writing books, and these books were translated into different languages, I started traveling to different places as a result. And each time I visit Germany I am asked once again how it feels to look at my book in the German language.

“It feels fine,” I answer. “It is my way of announcing to you that we are alive.”

The announcement that Vardi’s mother and aunts make here is stronger and more important than my own, and, quite naturally, more personal. We – they are saying – have survived. We are alive. The photograph provides them with its most basic function: documentation and proof. Here we are. Photographed. Alive and well. Here are our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These are the facts, here are the photographs.

I look at them and see another family of survivors, that of Shem, Ham and Japheth, who lived through the Flood. Both families survived the terrible catastrophe of annihilation. The three sisters who returned from the Holocaust gave birth to the continuation of the family. The three brothers who emerged from the ark gave birth to the continuation of the human species. But Vardi Kahana’s photographs point to an additional similarity, that of the distinctiveness created in both families, the familial mosaic of faith and opinions, lifestyles, clothing styles, homes, worldviews, facial expressions. From this point on there is no longer the “one language and one speech” that still prevailed after the Flood; like the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth, who scattered from the Tower of Babel “upon the face of all the earth” and split into nations and spoke different languages, so, too, did this family splinter into various streams.

The lack of motion in most of the photographs emphasizes the latent energy of the family members, like the energy of celestial bodies pulled apart and now growing distant to one another as they travel in different directions. They can still understand the words spoken by one another, but their daily existence is already very different and will grow more so in the future. Through her photographs, Vardi Kahana has documented a difficult and interesting stage of history. The descendants of the three sisters may only have scattered across the face of one small country, but in spite of Israel’s small size they will find themselves in different galaxies.

The distances in Israel are very short. In two hours it is possible to travel from Vardi Kahana’s children in Ramat Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, to the homes of her cousins’ children in the Orthodox enclave of Kiryat Sefer or the settlers’ quarters in Hebron. But the mental and conceptual distance between them can be measured in light years, or dark years, depending on who is doing the measuring and in which direction. In fact, the distance that separates family members living in Tel Aviv from those in Copenhagen is smaller than the divide between the Tel Avivians and the Hebron settlers. The scale of Israeli maps includes an immense dimension of time, the coordinates of which meet at the reference points of memories and ideas. In this sense, Vardi Kahana’s family album serves as an additional map of the annals of a land with more maps than any other.

The last photograph in the exhibition is of the photographer’s two children and her mother. The grandmother levels a sharp gaze at the camera, the children on either side of her young and tender. Were they asked to press up against their grandmother? Are they leaning on her for support, or are they protecting her? I do not know. But in their proximity to her there is love that goes beyond the stage directions of the photographer, the daughter who is their mother.

My eyes are drawn to the grandmother’s hand, which grasps her granddaughter’s forearm. Covered is precisely the spot on which the Nazis would have tattooed yet another number, had they had the opportunity, the place where the Nazis tattooed her own number. As noted, this collection of photographs is a novel as well, but few are the authors capable of creating such a picture.

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