Photographer Moy Volcovich was born in Mexico City in 1963 to an Ashkenazi father from Poland and a Mexican-born Sephardic mother. At the time, this was a highly unusual pairing among Jewish couples in his country, Volcovich says.
And to some extent, he adds, it still is.
Volcovich has spent much of his adult life capturing images of Jewish communities across Mexico. He suggests a divide still remains among Mexican Jewish sects.
“In Mexico, most Jews want to keep their community very close and avoid conversion or assimilation,” Volcovich says from Canada, where he now lives. “But things are starting to become more open.”
He believes Mexican Jews are realizing that “we need to have respect for all of the Jewish communities in the country.”
With more than 45,000 Jews in Mexico and some 30 synagogues in Mexico City alone, there’s plenty of variety to be found. Volcovich makes this easy to see in his exhibit, “Mexican Synagogues — Sinagogas de Mexico,” opening Tuesday, Sept. 1 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
The exhibit, containing 30 photographs of Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues, is part of the JCCSF’s upcoming El Camino Judio program focusing on the Jewish roots in Latin culture.
Volcovich first became interested in snapping pictures while attending a Jewish high school in Mexico City. He moved to Israel after graduation to study photography while living on a kibbutz.
After college he returned to Mexico and began setting up art exhibits with his painter brother. Volcovich would manipulate dreamy photographs meant to resemble paintings, while his brother would paint canvases to look realistic, like photographs.
Eventually, Volcovich opened his own studio in Mexico City, and about six years ago, moved with his wife and three children to Toronto.
His study of Jewish buildings began 12 years ago, when a graphic design agency asked him to take some pictures for a project on the local Ashkenazi community. The following year members of the Sephardic community called him to shoot their buildings for a calendar.
“I always end up bringing the Jewish aspect to my photography. I like to connect the two things,” he says.
Many of Mexico’s early synagogues were built in a similar style to those in Poland or Syria, where some of the émigrés were born. In the 1970s, Jews began moving outside the limits of Mexico City and experimenting more with modern Mexican architecture for the synagogues.
Volcovich’s exhibit, which was turned into a book of the same title in 2002, took years to complete. Volcovich believes the photos may open some Americans’ minds about what it is to be a Jew.
“It is important for people to know there are other Jewish communities in the world outside of American and Israeli,” he says. “Mexico has a nice, strong community.”
“Mexican Synagogues — Sinagogas de Mexico” is on display Tuesday, Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 in the Katz Snyder Gallery at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Moy Volcovich will speak during the JCC’s “Shalom From Mexico” program 7 p.m. Oct. 20. For details, visit www.jccsf.org.