In the late 1980s, Crown Heights locals going about their daily routine—rushing to farbrengens (Hasidic gatherings) with their Rebbe, or running errands down Kingston Avenue—might have glimpsed an anomaly in their midst: a Japanese woman, camera in tow, capturing the scenes around her. That woman was Chie Nishio, who spent a few years photographing members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, New York. Now, over 20 years later, her collection is finally receiving recognition at an exhibition in the Centreal branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, just a few blocks away from the community she so lovingly documented.
I met Nishio at the library last month to get a personal walkthrough of the photographs on display, 43 from the total collection of over 200 black and white prints. (Color would take away from the subject at hand, she insisted). Now 84, with silver hair framing her face, Nishio hasn’t lost any of the energy, wit and candor of her younger days.
As we scanned the prints she told me how she came to turn her lens on the Hasids of Crown Heights. Her interest was initially sparked by her Jewish husband, the acclaimed author James Trager. Though he was firmly atheist, Trager, now deceased, descended from illustrious lineage; his great-grandfather was one of the founding rabbis of the Jewish community in South Carolina. His grandfather moved to a Reform congregation interstate and the family, Trager included, eventually all assimilated.
Eager to learn more about her husband’s heritage, but with Trager unable to offer much insight, Nishio headed to Brooklyn to learn more about the people of the book. She didn’t have much luck with the strongly insular Satmar community in Williamsburg, where most were unwilling to engage with a foreigner and her camera. But in Crown Heights, a community unique among Hasidic sects for welcoming outsiders, Nishio was welcomed, and over the years she and her camera become a fixture in the Brooklyn enclave. She developed deep friendships with many of her subjects, and to this day she occasionally treks from her home in Manhattan to visit them in Crown Heights.
“I would say it all happened by accident,” Nishio laughs, “but with these people, there’s no such thing as accidental.” She points her finger heavenward. “It’s all arranged by God.”
Her photos offer an expansive yet deeply nuanced glimpse of Chabad life. Centered around the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, they portray a community of believers entrenched in ritual and practice. A one-month old baby laying on a silver tray for his pidyon haben ceremony, draped in cascading jewelry; a Bar Mitzvah boy checking the position of his tefillin in the mirror; a young bride trying on wigs in the salon before her wedding day.
Most notably, perhaps, the photos show the community’s reverence for its beloved leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson—known amongst his followers simply as ‘the Rebbe’—in the last years of his life, right before his death in 1994. Though women were not allowed into the main sanctuary of the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, Nishio captured the Rebbe from their vantage point in the women’s gallery upstairs. And if the community’s acceptance wasn’t enough, the Rebbe himself seemed to overtly support Nishio’s mission by blessing her on more than one occasion.
In one image the Rebbe uncharacteristically turns aways from the men in the Synagogue, towards Nishio in the women’s gallery above, and hands her a roll of coins. The Rebbe used to hand out dollar bills, and less often coins, with a blessing, as a symbolic gesture to encourage his followers to in turn give the money to charity and pass along the blessing.
“Everyone said I was special,” Nishio told me, “they came up to me after asking for their share in the coins.”
On another occasion, when the Rebbe was handing out honey cake before Rosh Hashanah, he again called over Nishio who was photographing from a distance, giving her a piece of cake and blessings for a sweet year. And Nishio—by her own admission an ardent non-believer—seems to get excited recalling the memory. “Somehow, I don’t know how, he recognized me!” she smiles.
Though ostensibly an outsider, her photos reflect a deep sensitivity and keen understanding of the practices of daily Hasidic life, and also the individuals behind the portraits. They also show the diversity of a community committed to reaching out to and welcoming newcomers to the fold. There’s the bewigged lawyer who gazes out through the frame, the artist surrounded by his artwork inspired by Jewish mysticism, and the mother of six who also edits a magazine.
“I came with no prejudgement,” said Nishio. “Maybe that’s why they were so open to me.”
Nishio, a firm feminist who contributed regularly to Ms. Magazine, hints to a certain kinship with the woman of the community.
“When I came to the United States, people said to me, ‘Oh you’re not typical,’ because they have their own imaginations of what they think a Japanese woman is like. But they don’t know too much about it. Maybe based on a book, maybe they visited Japan and just saw the surface. So what I found in Crown Heights is that, yes, as an outsider walking in, the women are wearing a wig, long skirts, they’re supposed to cover their legs, but you walk in to talk to each family, each woman is different, each individual is different.”
“From the outside and from the inside it’s a completely different story most of the time,” she observed.
Perhaps Nishio is not, after all, an “unlikely portraitist,” but actually the ideal observer of this community, and the perfect person to document the color of its activities—in all the glory of black and white.
The exhibition, ‘The Hasidim of Crown Heights, Brooklyn: A Community Study by Chie Nishio’, is on display at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch through February 1, 2015.
(Image: Chie Nishio)