Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Okay, I admit it. I like taking pictures. I enjoy looking into the small screen on the back of my camera and setting up a photograph. I like waiting until I get my prey exactly in the center of the lens and with the right expression on their face. I like zooming the focus in and out and capturing the moment perfectly.

Faces are my thing. I love taking shots of faces. I don’t get much of a chance to practice my hobby here at home, but when I go to Eretz Yisroel, I can stand forever on a street corner in Geulah or Meah Shearim where I’m anonymous, and just snap away. The people there are so colorful and so full of personality that picture-taking is usually a highlight of my trip.

I love just standing there taking my pictures. Look at this guy, look at that one, let’s see if I can get him, zoom, zoom, click, click. Got him. Oops, he was walking too fast for me.

I have a rather large-sized camera. It is very heavy and bulky and too conspicuous for my taste. So, before my most recent trip to Eretz Yisroel, I called my friend Mendy in J&R and he sold me a nice little camera that I can fit in my pocket - a camera with ten mega-pixels, extra zoom and all the rest. With this camera, I can be unobtrusive. I can take my pictures without feeling self-conscious or making people feel uncomfortable as they go about their daily routines on Rechov Malchei Yisroel.

Another place I love taking pictures is at the Kosel. I know it sounds strange. You are at the holiest place in the world that we have access to and there you stand with a camera taking pictures. It ought to be sacrilegious.

Of course, there are those who scoff at the picture takers, and I can understand them. If it is just a picture of another “tourist spot”, sandwiched in an album between pictures of the elephant at the Biblical Zoo and the cable car at Masada, then it really isn’t appropriate.

But when we visit the Kosel, we are overwhelmed at the experience of being so close to the makom haMikdash. We see our fellow Jews pouring out their hearts to Hakadosh Boruch Hu mere meters from the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim and we are inspired to do the same. Suddenly, this small plaza and the wall rising above it dwarf all of the towering edifices in the cities we call home. We desperately think, “If only I could capture this minute in a bottle, if only I could take this feeling home with me, if only…” And out of this desperation, we snap the picture that days, weeks and months later we pore over, remembering and savoring that experience. In some way, we are able to reach out from the tumah of chutz la’aretz and touch the kedusha of Eretz Yisroel. And we take pictures of the kids, of bubby and zaidy, and the collectors, futilely trying to capture every minute detail of the amazing experience.

No, our pictures aren’t just postcards bought as mementos. If we have taken the time to experience the places and sights and contemplate their meaning, the photographs can help us remember that feeling. Where others see a picture of some kids walking down the street, we see the purity in a Yerushalmi child’s eyes. Where others see stones, we see the gates to Heaven. For us, looking at our vacation pictures is a spiritual experience.

In the past, when I had my large camera with me, I’d feel like a tourist snapping pictures at the Kosel, but I did it anyway. Now, with my small, palm-sized picture taker, I’m more comfortable practicing my hobby. And so there I was two weeks ago looking for people to capture on film. Well, not really film - the camera is digital, but you know what I mean.

It was a Thursday morning and there were a couple of Sephardic bar mitzvahs at the Kosel. The pictures were fine, but the sounds were special. As good as my little camera is, it cannot capture the sounds of a Sephardic celebration. The Sephardic davening always touches me in a unique way. It is so special how they all daven together in unison, singing and chanting together. Maybe that’s why they don’t talk during davening. The experience is so moving and inviting, there is no way they would want to interrupt it with idle chatter.

The first time you go to daven at the Kosel and you see people talking during davening, it really bothers you. The second and third time you visit the Kosel, it still rankles. But eventually you get used it. Zeh hachayim; that’s the way people are. It’s hard to change human nature and people don’t always appreciate where they are and/or what they are supposed to be doing there.

When I was at the Kosel I was noticing how people use the Kosel as a backdrop for their pictures. It is the holiest place we have. In our day, this is one of the ways we show respect for it. People treasure it, so they photograph it. They want to have a picture they took of the Kosel hanging in their house; they want to have a picture of themselves at the Kosel. It is the 21st century translation of “liros v’leira’os.”

When you have a picture of something, the experience never leaves you. You look at the picture and you remember being there. Your mind fills in the colors, smells and sounds and you relive it. When you are looking at people because you want to photograph them, you see into their souls. When you are just walking down the street going about your business, you don’t look at anyone and there are so many things and people you don’t notice. You miss so much of the color and flavor that is out there and by the time you get back to your starting point, you have forgotten the experience forever.

Perhaps you have children or grandchildren who you adore. If you take pictures of them as they grow, you will be able one day to look back and remember how cute they were and mark their dramatic progression from young babies into grown people.

Those who fail to appreciate picture-taking don’t have the benefit of flipping through photographs and remembering the places they visited and experiences they accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

We are fortunate in having the ability to take pictures for posterity not only for the memories inherent in each and every photo, but for the myriad lessons we can learn from photography. As we appreciate the nuances and individuality of every person and scene which make the photo unique, photography allows us to comprehend the idea that we are being recorded by the One up above, as he looks down upon his handiwork.

A picture is worth a thousand words – and much, much more. Take a look at any one of the photos of people you may have in your home from a previous generation. So many subtle messages about their ideals and the way they lived are conveyed by their expressions, the way they are dressed and the backdrop of the photo. The stories they tell record a legacy that otherwise would have been long forgotten.

As I write these words, I look at the pictures I have hanging in my room of my grandfather and great-grandfather zichronom l’vrocha.

From the time I remember my grandfather, he was an old man. The picture shows him as he arrived for the Knessiah Gedolah in Eretz Yisroel. He was standing tall, proud and regal as he stepped off the plane and had his picture taken. His rabbinic bearing and pride to be in Eretz Yisroel shout out at you and proclaim the greatness of the photographer’s subject. The picture is a constant inspiration for me.

The picture of my elter zaideh stares out at me. Bedecked in his kapotah, his Volozhiner rabbonisher spodik, beard and payos, he looks out with an austere, serious gaze, reflecting his serious view of life and the deprivation he experienced in his poor shtetel. I never met him, but through the one photograph I have of him, I feel as if I know and understand him.

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, the act of taking the picture has immeasurable value. It forces you to think into and appreciate the beauty G-d has placed in this world, and retain it in a way that future generations can also learn from it.

Pleasant memories are the sweeteners of life; pictures add to that sweetness and deepen one’s appreciation of the special moments one has recorded. Photography turns the prose of life into poetry.

Even if you don’t have a camera, you can still be more cognizant of what goes on around you. You can still look at people with an eye to appreciating their inner beauty. Appreciate what is going on around you. Be grateful for who you are, where you are and what you are doing.

Life is picturesque if only we would look at it in the proper light and with the right eye, camera in hand or not.


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