Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Acclaimed photographer Bill Aron won his first camera as a 10-year-old playing a roulette wheel while wandering on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Since then, his interest in photography has never wavered. Through his photography books, From the Corners of the Earth, New Beginnings and Shalom Y’all, readers can note his love of vivid images, animated people and unique, poignant stories.
I first became familiar with Bill’s photography when my mom handed me Shalom Y’all after I accepted my first job out of college, as an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). The book is an incredible photographic documentation of the Jewish South; if you attend a synagogue in the South, chances are that Bill has visited and photographed your congregation – and even some of your fellow congregants.
When I arrived at my new job in Jackson, Mississippi, at the ISJL, I noticed that the walls were decorated with black-and -white images of Jewish life around the South. I really enjoyed these photos and loved chatting about the details with co-workers. My personal favorite was of a woman holding a large tray of fluffy challah, with a huge grin on her face.
I moved to Los Angeles after my two-year fellowship at the ISJL, to continue working in the Jewish world… which somehow brought me right back to the portraiture of Bill Aron.
I had the privilege of attending a photography lecture, hosted by Bill, about the images in his books, and what went into his photography journey. I was starstruck! After working in an office that was filled with the images of Shalom Y’all, not only was I seeing them again, but this time I got to hear the story behind each of them. I introduced myself to Bill after the presentation and we shared some anecdotes about traveling throughout the Jewish South.
The part of Bill’s presentation that struck me the most, though, was the highlighting of his most recent book, New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors. Quickly, the presentation went from the familiar black-and-white photos of Southern Jewish life that I know, to colorful photos of cancer survivors. The projection screen was filled with images of people of all ages, genders, races, and more — all of whom had survived cancer. We heard their stories through Bill’s words and learned of their triumphs.
New Beginnings, and some of the personal stories therein, struck me. I think it struck me so because I became aware of the diversity that a photographer can possess in their work. From Shabbat dinner at the cotton fields of northwestern Mississippi to a synagogue in LA where a rabbi who has survived cancer is hugged by 25 kids, Bill Aron has photographed it. And now I can say that I am the lucky owner of all of Bill Aron’s photography books!
Bill seeks out and photographs what interests him. On the Lower East Side of New York City, his first project, he was fascinated by the survival of the old Jewish immigrant community alongside the rebirth of the Jewish community. In the South he witnessed the rebirth of a new South alongside the struggling older regional rituals and customs; a “new beginning,” if you will, of Jewish renewal.
Sometimes inspiration is surprising. Bill was aghast when an acquaintance of his remarked, “getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” As he talked to other survivors, he heard similar themes reflected in their conversations. A friend of his then commented, “I don’t wish for cancer, but I do wish that something would happen that would be a catalyst for me to make some fundamental changes in my life.”
Wow, he thought, how many people feel this way?
He thus became interested in this subject of how life-threatening adversity could become a doorway to a new future. It took a very specific experience and made it applicable to so many.
This too reminded me of the Shalom Y’all photo series. Thanks to Bill’s images, Southern Jewish life has been preserved and shared not only for Southern Jews but for so many people who are able to view this world through his lens. And for so many people, New Beginnings is now shedding light on another vital human experience of survival. As one of those people impacted by the images, I’m so glad my life has been intertwined with Bill’s photography!