Having survived thousands of years facing frequent persecution, can Jews preserve their traditions and religious practice in an America that offers almost unlimited freedom?
That question prompted East Brunswick resident Saul H. Landa to embark on an almost five-year journey across the country, interviewing community elders, taking photos, and searching through attics, libraries, and synagogue basements for letters, articles, documents, and old photos.
The result is a 380-page coffee table-sized book, A Timeless People: Photo Albums of American Jewish Life, released in May and nominated for two National Jewish Book Council awards. Landa used 700 of the 7,000 photos he shot in the book as well as another 300 archival photos.
“The impetus for this book came to me after I read a few years ago that it was the 350th anniversary” of the first Jewish community arriving on American soil, Landa told a Jan. 15 gathering, sponsored by the men’s club and sisterhood, at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
The anniversary commemorated the arrival in 1654 of 23 Sephardi Jews, originally from the Netherlands, who arrived in New Amsterdam — New York City — after leaving the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil.
A dentist with a practice in Howell and a professor of dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, Landa began to wonder about those settlers, direct descendants of Jews who had been expelled from Portugal and Spain during the Inquisition just several generations earlier.
While there had been much “achdut,” or community, in the shtetls and ghettos of Europe, in America, he reasoned, arriving Jews faced “the obstacle of freedom.”
Initially, Landa said, he hoped to portray communities from all 50 states, but abandoned that idea after spending four to five months in Philadelphia alone. Instead, he chose 18 communities that had been in existence at least 100 years.
Those communities ranged from Charleston, SC, where residents spoke of ancestors who fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War, to Rhode Island’s Newport, where the oldest synagogue in the country is located and family roots stretch back to colonial America.
“Every Jewish community in the book was chosen for its historic ability to survive and persevere for over 100 years and still be a viable and active Jewish community today,” said Landa.
Descended from a chain of Orthodox rabbis stretching back 500 years on their father’s side, Landa and his anesthesiologist brother both chose to also earn rabbinical ordination.
Landa attributes Jewish survival to “the eternal experience of every Jew who came before us and is implanted in our souls.”
And yet he discovered differences along the way.
“We are very spoiled on the East Coast,” said Landa. “Here we have everything we want, but if you go to the South, Midwest, or West you’d be surprised how different things are. Yet, we all have a commonality.”
No place was more moving than New Orleans, where the Jewish community suffered huge losses during Hurricane Katrina, including the complete destruction of its only Orthodox synagogue. Congregation Beth Israel was left with 10 feet of water in its interior, lost all seven of its Torah scrolls, and had thousands of holy books ruined. The building has been condemned and the congregation’s rabbi has left the area.
The shul’s gabbai died in a nursing home during the storm; Landa visited the cemetery where he is buried next to the destroyed Torah scrolls he had acquired.
Arriving to capture the community’s celebration of Purim, Landa said he “was moved to see the new rabbi, Uri Topolosky, come to rebuild this community with miraculous enthusiasm.”
Deep in the Bible Belt in Memphis, Tenn., where “barbecue is king,” Landa viewed cooking preparations for Rosh Hashana and Sukkot.
He said he was “stunned and moved to see the largest kosher barbecue contest in our country, all with an Orthodox rabbi observing the kashrut of all contestants, Jewish and non-Jewish.”
Landa said Phoenix’s annual community-wide Tu B’Shevat festival has become one of the highlights of the year for the Jewish community.
Landa wangled an invitation to a wedding in Denver during Hanukka. He captured the bride, dressed in her wedding gown, lighting a menora before the ceremony.
“The candles represent the oil that was lit in the Temple after the Maccabees defeated the Greeks,” said Landa. “The huppa represents the building of a new home and temple by the bride and groom. The stories of survival and Hanukka by people whose great-grandparents came by covered wagon is what this book is all about.”