Photographer Bernard Mendoza encountered the blond, angelic-faced little boy one Saturday evening outside Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn on La Brea Avenue. “His eyes were wide and bright, his suit just one size too large — room to grow into,” the Venice photographer recalls.
The photo is one of several dozen pictures in Mendoza’s acclaimed photo-documentary, “From Generation to Generation,” which captures the lives of Chassidic Jews in modern America. Inspired by the pre-Holocaust photos of Roman Vishniac, the images depict the shtetl transplanted to Williamsburg and beyond: An elderly, stooped Satmar gazes at the camera with haunted eyes; a Chassid rushes to morning prayers past peeling, Yiddish-language storefronts; a man on a battered bicycle ignores the sexy magazine covers at a newsstand on Fairfax.
The series began when British-born commercial photographer Mendoza, 56, discovered he hated directing TV commercials and decided to embark upon a personal project, one prompted by his reexamination of his Anglicized Jewish roots. Over the next 14 years, he slowly, painstakingly gained access to communities from L.A. to Miami.
“The world of the [Chassidic] Jew is a world that is guarded tenaciously,” Mendoza explains. He blended into the scenery for days at a time at a shul or community center, holding his camera well below face level.Mendoza believes there is a powerful difference between his photographs and those published in Vishniac’s book, “A Vanished World.” “When you look deeply into the eyes of Vishniac’s subjects, there is a sense of fear,” he says. “But the American Chasidim project confidence. … [My] pictures hold testimony that Vishniac’s world did not totally vanish but continues strong and vibrant here in America.””From Generation to Generation” is at the University of Judaism, (310) 476-9777.