November 20, 2019

Cancer obscura

If a feel-good book about cancer sounds like an oxymoron, just pick up a copy of “New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors” by Bill Aron (Skyhorse Publishing), a tour de force from one of America’s most accomplished photographers.

Aron is best known for eye-catching and heart-winning photographs that focus on the Jewish experience in America, ranging from the Lower East Side to the more surprising stretches of the Deep South. “Shalom Y’all,” for example, offers a rare glimpse of Jewish life in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. But he has also documented victims of the Shoah in “Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit,” and he ranged through Cuba, the Soviet Union, Jerusalem, New York and Los Angeles in search of current and former Jewish communities in “From the Corners of the Earth.”

Aron’s new book is not specifically Jewish in content but, almost inevitably, it is deeply infused with the same menschlikayt that is on display in his Jewish-themed work. “Bill Aron sees,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes in his preface to “New Beginnings.” “What you hold is both an exploration and an inspiration.”

Wolpe, as it happens, is one of the 120 men and women whose images appear in “New Beginnings,” all because they are cancer survivors. Starting in 2006, Aron sought them out in the hope of showing how cancer can be fought and defeated, how lives can be extended and even enhanced. “ ‘You have cancer’ are three terrifying words, but our culture does little to ease the fear,” he writes by way of introduction. For the men and women in his book, however, “Those words were the start of a new beginning, not an end, to their lives.”

One of the glories of “New Beginnings,” of course, is Aron’s skill with a camera. Ranging from Sophia Colby, who was diagnosed at the age of 15 months, to Sally Craig, diagnosed at 64 and now a centenarian, his photographic portraiture is sensitive, insightful and yet somehow suffused with joy — “energetic” is the word Aron himself uses to describe the photos. These men, women and children come from all walks of life — actors and writers, doctors and nurses, real-estate brokers and attorneys, teachers and rabbis, and even a “satellite launch salesman” and former Los Angeles Laker Coby Karl. Often, they are pictured with family, friends and loved ones, and always in a state of either serenity or jubilation; Chelsea Kauffman, diagnosed at 15, poses with no fewer than six of her girlfriends, all of them laughing and smiling, and Rabbi Ed Feinstein beams at us from the happy embrace of a dozen or so of his youngest congregants.

The images are accompanied by first-person musings and reminiscences from the survivors and, sometimes, from their families. For example, it is Alana, Chelsea Kauffman’s twin sister, who explains how Chelsea’s illness affected them both: “I have always been the nurturer and she has always been the fighter, so it was perfect how this worked out,” she says. “If it would have been the opposite, I can’t even imagine what would have happened.”

That’s not to say that Aron overlooks the fear and pain that accompanies a diagnosis of cancer. Indeed, he is careful to tell us not only the date of first diagnosis, but also the dates of each recurrence. Significantly, Aron is himself a survivor of prostate cancer, and he admits that “chemotherapy and radiation may have been difficult, but they were nothing compared to how I felt emotionally.” His book, which is meant to succor and inspire cancer patients and their families, is a kind of medicine that was unavailable to him: “I wish that this book had existed when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993, when I was fifty-two years old,” he writes. “The survivors portrayed in this book are vibrant, fully alive in spirit, mind, and body.”

To his credit, Aron does not hold back the bad news that can accompany a diagnosis of cancer. Barbie and Marshall Zolla, for example, were both struggling with cancer when Aron photographed them for “New Beginnings”: “I am not going to RSVP to the pity party,” Barbie said. In a postscript, we find out that she passed away in the same hospital where Marshall was recovering from cancer surgery. Even under such dire circumstances, however, Aron finds a hopeful outcome: “Five months later, I was invited to study for a week at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and then spent a week in the desert,” Marshall reports. “I came back renewed and healed. Two years later, I met someone and fell in love again.”

The highest and best use of “New Beginnings” — and the one that Aron clearly intended in undertaking his heroic work — is to ease the shock and pain of someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis. For that alone, he has distinguished himself once again as an artist of vision and compassion, and a real mensch.