The Day That Changed My Photographic Life: Part Two

With my beautiful letter and crest from the mayor of Jerusalem in hand, I went off to El Al Airlines to see if I could barter for three tickets to Israel. I had no money, and even though I figured living for free in Jerusalem was probably the equivalent of living for three months in Connecticut, I still didn’t have the money for the airfare.

So I finally made my way up the corporate ladder, letter in hand, to the head of the airline in the United States. He looked very carefully at my work and the letter, and said, “You are a true artist, but you don’t understand what an artist is in the Middle East. An artist is someone who can twist and turn his or her way through the system. The artist is one who can manipulate his or her way through the maze, and you dear boy are not that person.” With that rejection, which I could not figure out if it was a compliment or dismissal, I left the corporate world behind.

Ultimately, I borrowed two hundred dollars from every friend and enemy I could find and on a fateful day a few weeks later, at the very back of the plane, stuck between four Rabbi’s with long beards praying, swaying, and chanting that the plane wouldn’t crash, we left the surly bonds of New York.

When we landed in Tel Aviv (to the roars of the passengers on the plane) I was met by a street full of soldiers with machine guns, and my friend Jon standing there smiling, with his little VW bug with Florida plates. He had been able to avoid arrest, catastrophe and mayhem by pretending not to speak Hebrew and showing only a Florida license. No one knew what to do with him, and just shook their head while walking away dumbfounded.

He took us up the windy drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, from a mixture of Miami and pure glitz to one of the most special, beautiful, and perplexing cities in the world.

Miskenot was extraordinary. It was set into the foothills of Yemin Moshe, a district of Jerusalem overlooking the old city. There were twelve beautiful apartments. At this time it was almost brand new and they were extremely rigorous about its occupants. I understand that as time went on, and as the city received less funding, things changed. But at that time, what an honor it was to be there.

There was Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, and Alexander Schneider who were teaching master classes at the Jerusalem Music Center. Alexander Calder, E.L. Doctorow, the editor of The Economist magazine, the dean of The Yale Law School, and Nicholas Nabokov (and a few others I cannot remember) and little old me.

We all would get together on occasion for dinner or tea, and I became the local moneychanger for the group. As they were all so well known, they would never venture into the deep heartlands of the Arab Quarter of the old city to exchange their money for the best rates, I did this for them. They all treated me as an equal, a friend. And my dear friends, this is where the story really begins and ends.

You see, my in-laws at the time were equally famous, and I had met hundreds of well-known people through them, but this was the first time I began to be considered worthy and valuable on my own right. Sure, I had inklings of success but I could wallpaper my walls with failure after failure.

My family on a daily basis would tell me to get serious and get a real job, and no one, but my wife at the time supported me emotionally in being a photographer. I was on my own emotionally and financially.

Jon Broder had helped give me a gift I would never forget. In the end he never wrote the text, and I ended up writing the small text for the book. Elie Wiesel wrote the introduction, and the book was published by Nan Talese (Houghton Mifflin & Co.) and called In the Land of Light. The photographs are from an earlier, more journalistic me.

What happened to me in Jerusalem changed my life in many ways. The experience of being taken seriously, to laugh, eat and tell stories to others, filled my bereft soul with fullness. It was a turning point where from there on, no matter how many difficult things there have been photographically (and there have been many, many difficult times) I realize photography was the right place for me. Taking photographs has always been as much, if not more, about what lies behind and supports the picture, as the picture itself. The photograph is the kiss, the celebration of so many forces that preceded it.