Arts » Art & Museums

Naftali Hilger’s photos put Jews of Yemen into spotlight

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Naftali Hilger’s photographs of Yemen’s Jewish community reveal a seemingly ancient world. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Naftali Hilger’s photographs of Yemen’s Jewish community reveal a seemingly ancient world.

Israeli photojournalist Naftali Hilger’s photos of Yemen’s long-isolated Jewish community take viewers on an odyssey through a time tunnel.

His images, on view through April at the Katz Snyder Gallery at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, also vividly capture Yemen’s rich traditions and landscape in general. Pictures of houses in Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, reveal how the architectural style there has remained the same for some 2,000 years.

Hilger, a photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic and the Financial Times, first visited Yemen in 1987 on a trip to celebrate the completion of his MBA from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, a city east of Tel Aviv.

Among few outsiders to witness the Yemenite Jewish community, which had been cut off from the world for decades, he experienced a transformation. Instead of moving into the corporate world, he became a photographer, and he returned to Yemen six times between 1987 and 2008.

Hilger, who will host a gallery tour and talk March 19, creates images of depth with a picture-perfect sensibility and brilliant simplicity.

One intriguing photo shows an elderly gentleman preparing for the Sabbath, lying on his backpack, reading a book.  The affecting details — his lack of clothing and full white beard — give the viewer an impression that he is poor.

Another impressive photo — which, according to the caption, is of a family watching a video of the marriage of a relative in Israel — points to an interesting contrast. In the picture, the Yemen family’s traditional clothing, jewelry and decor appear to be centuries old; there seems to be nothing modern about them.

In another equally ancient-looking image, a single woman in her kosher kitchen cooks on a stove in an otherwise bare room.

One nondomestic scene is a picture of a man standing by a rock in the desert close to the Saudi Arabian border. According to the caption, Jews who left the area in the past 130 years wrote their names on the rock before their departure.

Jews of Yemen: Photography by Naftali Hilger

  • Where: Katz Snyder Gallery, Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.
  • When: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; closes April  30
  • Admission: Free
  • Contact: www.jccsf.org
  • Note: Hilger will lead a gallery tour and lecture at 7 p.m. March 19.