JCC photo exhibit captures Orthodox in offbeat jobs

It's no surprise when an Orthodox Jew labors as a kosher butcher, Hebrew teacher or scribe. But when one works outside the domains of the highly observant, as an FBI translator or a clown, people notice.

Walnut Creek photographer Yves Mozelsio's exhibit of 34 black-and-white images and brief narratives entitled "Fruits of Our Labor: Orthodox Jews at Work," on display at Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael through March 15, portrays how Orthodox Jews apply thoughtfulness and purpose to jobs that fall outside the religious realm.

"Whenever I get discouraged or feel like maybe getting into another profession," said Gary Zuckerman, a self-employed Chicago-area recycler, "my wife reminds me of the importance of my work — that I'm doing a mitzvah."

David Sockoloff, also known as Menschy the Clown, said, "I would like people to value each other more. It's a mitzvah to be happy in our special Jewish way because I think the main thrust of the Jewish mission in the world is to raise the level of awareness of the value of our fellow human beings."

Some find, however, that Judaism literally transcends their work. "Once you start learning Torah," said Simcha Leah Wilens, a mother and a commercial airline pilot, "you realize that it's timeless — it's so far above. You could say it's higher than flying an airplane."

Rachel Biale, the exhibit's curator and the director of community education at the OMJCC, originally scheduled it for spring 2004, but in early January, after photographer Joan Roth's display fell through at the last minute, she asked Mozelsio to put his exhibit together in a week.

"This exhibit dovetails with the original two-year theme of our programs, Jewish women shaking the world," Biale said, "because Yves has portraits of Orthodox women breaking stereotypical roles that they are often seen in."

One of the subjects, though, Meira Leahy, an African American convert to Orthodox Judaism, views homemaking as an enlightened decision. "The stereotype of Orthodox women is that we stay home and have babies every nine months. Well, I am educated, but I personally choose to stay home."

Mozelsio's window into the lives of Orthodox Jews has been on display locally at the Magnes Museum, the Spertus Museum and the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, the Yeshiva Museum in New York and elsewhere. It has garnered Mozelsio, the non-Orthodox son of Holocaust survivors, two museum awards. One portrait, of a neonatal intensive room nurse, received an entire page in historian Martin Gilbert's most recent book, "Jews of the 20th Century."

Mozelsio, a native of Belgium who came to the United States when he was 5 years old, began the project in 1996 while living in Chicago.It took him nearly five years to complete it. After spending Shabbat with Orthodox artist Pearyl Basha Moskovits and her husband, Mozelsio was drawn to the community because "everyone supports one another and is so family-oriented.

"I learned that rather than living in a cloistered community, many of the Orthodox are fully integrated into mainstream life. The Orthodox Jewish community has long been subjected to misconception and stereotyping. When we think of the Orthodox, we think of the past."

Another picture shows Abraham Schlesinger, a car broker, amid a cluster of motorcycles he buys and sells. His black hat is tipped forward, while his kippah rests on the back of his head. He holds a cigar in his left hand as he talks on a cell phone.

"My exhibit gives Orthodox Jews the opportunity to share their experiences of working and living in a society of immense diversity, while maintaining the rituals and traditions of their faith," explained Mozelsio, who studied fine arts at Long Beach State and the University of Illinois and has a background in painting. "I had my own stereotypes. I never really thought there was so much diversity among the Orthodox in secular occupations."

"Fruits of Our Labor: Orthodox Jews at Work," photographs by Yves Mozelsio is on display through March 15 at the OMJCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Information: (415) 444-8000.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.