Interview to Ruth Sominsky, "Dor Revii" ("Fourth Generation") Moscow
Part One – Reuven’s Prayer
[Ruth Sominsky] Your album, Reuven’s Prayer, came out quite recently. The album consists of 19 photos. These are a singular effort to illustrate the Jewish prayer “Amidah”, which is also called “18 blessings” (really, there are 19). By the way, where did the name come from?
[Reuven Zukerman] Rav Zvi Patlas suggested the name, for which I am infinitely grateful to him. And the same goes for everyone who helped me and keeps helping me along the way. In particular, I want to express my gratitude to R. Yehuda Ferber, who supports me now, and who helped me tremendously in the past. Besides that, he is the one who typeset the album so very professionally.
[Ruth] Wow, and they say that artists are envious of each other!
[Reuven] What jealousy, what envy?! He treats me with such warmth, there is absolutely nothing that divides between us! I visit him often. We learn Ramchal together. Besides, as artists, we practice completely different styles, and work in different media. My field is fine art photography. He is a painter and a designer. He has a Master’s degree in fine arts. [Ruth] But we’ve wondered off topic. How was such an innovative project conceived? Where did this idea come from?
[Reuven] Oh, it’s so difficult to talk about it! It’s all laden with a whole lot of meaning for me. I lived through it all, I felt through it all. I tried to convey its meaning using the language of photography. But to articulate this, to express it in words… The final rendition took two years to develop. But the original concept that preceded it, I’ve been thinking about it from the very first stages of my tshuvah [repentance, going back to one’s roots], maybe since the year 2000.
[Ruth] Could you help me figure out at least one of the illustrations, just as an example?[Reuven] I consider it completely inappropriate! A person can look and perceive something. He can think about it consciously or subconsciously. But any kind of explanation diminishes the art. Art is an invitation to a dialogue. And the subject of that dialogue has to be determined by the viewer.
[Ruth] Did you especially stage the shots for each of the nineteen blessings, or was it the other way around: you took the pictures first, and then “tweaked” them to conform to the subject of blessings?
[Reuven] I picked 19 best pictures just for business; I had a certain project in the works. Then I had sort of a revelation. I thought that a verse from the Torah should correspond to each photograph. But since I don’t consider myself competent and proficient enough in the Torah – you know, one needs to be a real talmid chacham [Torah scholar] for this type of thing – I decided to ask a professional, a person who’s been learning Torah for many years. So, two serious people who had the necessary skills helped me find Torah verses for each picture. And then, somehow, the pictures juxtaposed with the nineteen blessings from the Amidah prayer, as if the they had been taken especially for that! It was sort of like a bunch of random pieces of scrap metal from a junkyard unexpectedly coming together into an orderly structure and – whoa – suddenly you see a Boeing aircraft taking off! Unbelievable!!!
[Ruth] So it was a sort of free-association with ready material?
[Reuven] Free-association with ready material? I suppose, you could say that… Yes, I guess, that’s true. Then I had a very special Heavenly Assistance – I managed to memorize the whole Amidah prayer. The whole thing. It’s as if the prayer penetrated my heart. And when it entered the heart, it came out in the photographs. It’s like a scribe, who writes holy texts, a “sofer stam”. He has to immerse in a mikveh [ritual bath] before he starts writing. And the quill, the “kulmus”, is a mediator, a transmitter; it’s a tool with which he can transmit holiness. That’s how it works in art as well – all the media are tools, instruments that transmit holiness. For an artist it’s his brush, for a producer it’s the camera. For me, it’s the film and the sensor. When I shared this idea with the religious producer Avraham Vitkin, he said it was worth inviting me for Sabbath just to hear it!
Part Two – the Religious Artist
[Ruth] So, it’s quite possible to be a religious artist?
[Reuven] Quite. It’s a another story that a religious artist has to create in a different framework. There are certain prohibitions. However, the religion itself gives you so much raw material for the art, that the more you learn, the more it can help you be creative. You can develop any topic you want. It says that the gentiles also have wisdom. But if a person knows that what he is learning is the only ultimate truth, then it penetrates his very inner being, his very heart. Then comes the understanding of what life is all about, understanding of what life is. This is a knowledge that no money can buy! And then, a person begins to create from the very bottom of his heart. Then, he begins to sense that he has Divine Assistance in his work – which is the most important part of any undertaking. As Rabbi Elimelech Kuperman likes to say, “when a person does what is desirable to the Almighty, then, without any exaggeration, there is certain ‘kiddush a-Shem’, sanctification of G-d’s holy Name, in it. It’s not a secret at all, that to live in a way that sanctifies G-d’s name, to live in a way that you constantly fulfill His will, is much more difficult that to die for the sanctification of His name. For a person, who is floating in an endless ocean of godlessness, religion is like a long-anticipated bay of happiness!
[Ruth] And how did you discover it for yourself?
[Reuven] To be absolutely honest with you, I myself don’t know what it was that I did to deserve it. Tshuvah [repentance] is like winning a lottery. How did I merit it? Maybe because of some ancestors of mine. That fits into the idea of dor revii [“the fourth generation” – name of the organization that is taking the interview] perfectly. I guess it was the merit of my great-grandfather’s prayers. He clearly was observant. In Moscow we still had his old tefilin [phylacteries], and a siddur – prayer book with a Belorussian translation. There was even a time when I made indecent pictures with phylacteries… That’s how it all started – it wasn’t so appropriate; or, rather, it was completely inappropriate, to be exact. But now, you see, it all turned around. Today I make completely different pictures of phylacteries. I am ecstatic that I got a winning ticket in this tshuvah [repentance] lottery! I’ve been here in Israel for 23 years myself. Now I see people arriving here from Russia already after they did tshuvah [returned to their roots]. I don’t know how it happens OVER THERE. I suppose it’s no lesser miracle when it happens there, than when it happens here.
Part Three – In Search of Spirituality
[Ruth] But all these are only very general musings. Can you recall specific events, connected with your tshuvah [repentance], the milestones of the glorious journey? Did it all begin when you came to Israel?
[Reuven] No, it began a whole lot later. I came with my family, my mother, grandmother, and my sisters. My dad stayed in Moscow, and we lost all contact with him. The process of being absorbed in the Israeli society was a difficult one for us. We didn’t have anyone here who could help us. We were all very secular. The truth be told, my family is still secular today. But we have beautiful relationship. One of my sisters is a clinical psychologist, the other one is a businesswoman. My mother is a musician, a teacher of highest qualifications. She also gave an interview recently. Her students get accepted into the best institutions of higher learning without exams. So, it seems that all the difficulties are behind us, and everything is fine. Only they didn’t discover “the bay of happiness” for themselves yet. [Ruth] How old were you when you came here?
[Reuven] I was 12. I don’t hesitate to say that my childhood was cloudless and colorful. I lived in a kibbutz with a group of other teenagers. “No pressure”, as they say. Once in two weeks I went back to visit my parents at home, or to different cities. I didn’t think about photography then. In fact, as a child, I didn’t do any visual arts. I only did the standard set of activities for a good Jewish boy: music and figure skating. I also played hokey, and almost made it into the Israel national team. I remember that after a training session, when, finally, I got rejected, I just busted out and ran a few miles – I felt so horrible! But then it turned out that it was all for the best. Some of those kids who went abroad with the team ended up not so great… But I was saved. Then, all the guys got drafted into the army. There, it was hard. Most of our people went into fighting units. At first I served in a regular unit, but then I got transferred into military engineering corps. We were sappers, we blew thing up. Then I sustained a minor injury while in training, and went back to a regular unit as a corporal, a junior commander. The last six months of my army service I spent in propaganda trips to different high schools – trying to raise school kids’ motivation to join the armed forces, telling them how much fun it is to serve in the Israeli army.
[Ruth] But the truth is…
[Reuven] The truth is that it really was fun for me! I saw a lot of interesting things, did lots of traveling. The only thing that I didn’t understand then was that the main point of it all was missing – there was no spiritual basis to it. Since childhood I had a nickname – they called me a “philosopher”. I always liked to talk about life in general, to look for meaning. In the army, there were self-realization and psychology courses. I took notes on human happiness. It all developed simultaneously. I had some sort of spiritual understanding, on my level. Towards the end of the army service, I had this revelation. I went to Moscow to visit my father. I took a camera with me.
[Ruth] A simple camera, for amateurs?
[Reuven] Yes. I was an amateur! I took pictures while in the Boy Scout camp, like all the other kids. By the way, in the camp I used to be the bugler, since I played the trumpet. I still have a picture of that. So, after the visit to Moscow was over, I developed the pictures that I took there. And suddenly, I realized that they were bizarre. They were interesting. I don’t even know how to explain it. For example, there was a picture of the crowd, and, like an apparition, there is a young woman staring straight into the aperture of my camera! But when I shot this picture, I didn’t see her at all! In short, what do Israelis do after they finish the army service? They either go India, or to Canada. They go to cut down forests, or to lead the live of the homeless, or to work as movers in the New York City.
[Ruth] And which item of this honor roll did you choose?
[Reuven] I went to a private photography course in Tel Aviv, then in Haifa. I also did an art-director course. I worked with advertising agencies and with private clients. I moved to Tiberius. My mom lives there. I lived in a beautiful Arab house, built in the beginning of the last century, with twelve-foot ceilings and a view of the Sea of Galilee. I had lots of companionship, but also a lot of solitude. There were celebrations and there was spiritual search. I felt myself being pulled in different directions – not only toward Judaism. Maybe because my dad has mongoloid roots.
Part four – “Camera Obscura”
[Ruth] So, when did you finally arrive at a decision?
[Reuven] I started out with a group leadership course under the aegis of the Sochnut organization. They invited me to an interview through the Internet. I didn’t know anyone in that crowd. I liked it. The whole system was well-financed. The people were top-notch, well-bred, graduates of the best schools of higher learning in Israel – such as Technion and Bezalel. It was sort of a melting pot. And there I started to develop my first basic notions of what Judaism is. Before that, everything that I read about it was totally random, it brought up weird images in my mind… But here we were being taught Jewish topics, and the idea of disseminating the Zionist ideology. All kinds of interesting things were sounded out. And, at length, they sent me to Novosibirsk. To camp. In addition to my role as a group leader, they offered me to run a photography workshop. It was and old-style camp on the Ob River. Our theme was the Seven Days of the Creation. The children built two towns – the “Upper Town” and the “Lower Town”. They were building houses out of scrap materials, cardboard. They put little men in there, and decided on the rules of conduct and the communication stereotypes in our “city”. We took different verses from the Bible, and each of us built his own “program”. We looked for spirituality by the “random guess” method. It wasn’t easy. There were sleepless nights and many draining hours of continuous play. On the Sabbath, I suddenly remembered how to make a Camera Obscura. It’s as if the whole room turns into a photo camera. It conveys the outside reality through a small aperture. So, we transferred the game into a room that was completely isolated from the light. And then some trees and a flying bird appeared in this pitch-dark room. It was something unreal! There was a sensation of creating something. I reached a breaking point, which sparked off a prayer. There just happened to be a prayer book there. That was the first time in my life I got an inkling of what a prayer is. I realized that there was something there besides the game, something real.
Part Five – in the Beginning of It All
[Ruth] So, here too it all started with a prayer, a “Reuven’s prayer”? And what happened then?
[Reuven] Then I went to visit my dad in Moscow. I bought some kosher wine and some non-kosher chicken for Sabbath. I prepared a Sabbath for myself as best I knew, as best I could. And then I went back to Israel to continue my studies. This time I wanted to take a degree in plastic arts. And then a remarkable new neighbor moved into our building – a religious guy. Little by little, we started to communicate. I came to him for Sabbath on my own. He started to “pull me in”, and I willingly let myself be “pulled in”. Then I received David Grossman’s phone number. I had enough time to finish the first semester. Then, during the intersession, I managed to become immersed in the atmosphere of our Yeshivah – Toldos Yeshurun.
[Ruth] Are you still learning there?
[Reuven] Yes, I am still learning there. I learn in the morning hours every day – that’s the first seder [study session]. I also try to make it there at nights – that’s partial third seder. Afternoons are devoted to creative work – travel, meetings, work, study. I am constantly busy refining myself. I take courses all the time, including distance learning. I don’t stand in one place. There is no limit to perfection – and I am still far away from that limit.
[Ruth] Do you have any specific plans for the future?
[Reuven] Well, I published my album. I have a website. I am now looking for a venue to have an exhibition. Little by little, it’s all coming together. I also have some ideas for the next project. It’s also going to be something Jewish. I talked it through with people – and it seems to work. But it’s going to be something more serious. It will be conceptual. It will include video and some producer work. But all this is going to happen when the there is a basis, a foundation, a place. And it wouldn’t hurt to get married. But now, I am still in the very beginning.
Part Six – Art and Prophesy
[Ruth] What about taking pictures of regular events – do you do that?
[Reuven] Yes, I do. But that’s also fine art photography, it’s not your run-of-the-mill cheapo stuff.
[Ruth] You are saying that there is demand for fine-art-photography of events?
[Reuven] Right, I am saying that there is.
[Ruth] We looked at your website, http://www.reuvenzukerman.com, and besides absolutely stunning photos, which we wholeheartedly recommend to all our readers, what we discovered there were some journals. Some personal diaries, sketches. Doesn’t this openness scare you? Not everyone is ready to allow every passerby free access into his inner self.
[Reuven] Here is a quote of what I heard at a seminar. I jotted it down for myself. “Art is intended for everyone, just like prophesy is intended for all times”. This is very powerful! Art is part of our existence. There should be spiritual search. The journals that are posted on the website reflect my personal search for the spiritual, the very essence of that search. The truth of the matter is that I chose the most positive path. There were other possibilities, you know. Who knows, maybe there is someone out there, who’ll reach the “bay of happiness” through that. Our task is to use everything for the greater good. Including the Internet, and everything that surrounds us. At least, that’s the way it seems to me. Of course, I could be wrong. Man is not perfect; he has a tendency to make mistakes.
Not everybody is going to read it. Most are just too lazy. But the one who undertakes to read it, is probably interested. He might appreciate it, and it might take him somewhere, and maybe he’ll arrive at something worthwhile. This is extra material for those, who perceive things their own way…