Over the course of four years, Rabbi Saul Landa, a dentist from New Jersey, spent Passover in the Lower East Side of New York, Purim in New Orleans, Tu b'Shevat in Phoenix and Sukkot in Baltimore. He also attended weddings in Denver and San Francisco, a bris in St. Louis and the 20th annual Kosher BBQ Cooking Contest and Festival in Memphis, Tenn.
He documented his visits to 18 U.S. Jewish communities with photographs, juxtaposed them with archival photographs and compiled histories and accounts of present-day life in these communities through interviews with the community's elders, historians and leaders. The result is "A Timeless People," released this month (Gefen Publishing House, $50 hardcover).
The avid photographer, traveler and hiker - in 2006, he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain - combined his passions of photography and Judaica for this coffee-table book, with a mission to document longtime U.S. Jewish communities that remain viable today.
For more than a decade, Landa, a professor of dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, has served as a photojournalist for Jewish newspapers and maintained a stock photo company called JI - Judaic Images.
In 2008, Landa attended the Orthodox Union's first Emerging Jewish Communities Home and Job Relocation Fair, which brought individuals representing various U.S. Jewish communities to New York. He interviewed several of the visitors to help decide which communities to cover. Initially, he thought he'd cover all 50 states but soon realized that "was going to be an impossible task."
"It was very hard to narrow it down," he says. The criteria he used was that his selections must represent four U.S. geographical areas - the Northeast, South, Midwest and West - and have an interesting history.
The 18 featured communities are: Baltimore; Bangor, Maine; Charleston, S.C.; Cincinnati; Dallas; Denver; the Lower East Side, N.Y.; Memphis, Tenn.; Milwaukee; Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.; New Orleans; Newport/Providence, R.I.; Oakland/San Francisco, Calif.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Seattle; St. Louis; and Washington, D.C.
"Every community has a different personality," Landa says. "It's absolutely fascinating."
Over four years, he traveled to these communities, spending four days in each. He arranged interviews beforehand and made sure there was an event - whether it was a life-cycle event such as a bar mitzvah or a holiday celebration such as Hanukkah - that he could attend during his visit.
One of his most memorable experiences, however, was unplanned. When he was in Charleston, S.C., he attended services at Brith Shalom Beth Israel and noticed the numbers tattooed on the arm of the gabbai, Holocaust survivor Charlie Markowitz. The next day, Landa asked Markowitz if he could photograph him and talk to him about his life.
Markowitz's story exemplifies the theme of the book, which Landa says is about continuity, perseverance and survival: "How does a community survive?"
There are two different types of survival, he says, the first exists in communities outside the United States, such as in Eastern Europe, where survival meant surviving hardships.
"In the U.S., the survival that I was fascinated with was the survival in a community where you have all the freedoms that you wanted. How does the religion survive when you have a plethora of freedom? So from the point of view of emotions, when this gentleman put on his tefillin over his numbers, that shows survival in two ways. That shows survival in his youth and survival now in Charleston. It was so emotional for me that it made it to the cover of the book."
Another memorable learning experience was about how the Jewish community in San Francisco had to rebuild after the whole neighborhood was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and, more recently, the reconstruction of the New Orleans Jewish community after Hurricane Katrina.
During his visit to Phoenix, Landa interviewed Rabbi David and Odette Rebibo, who have lived in Phoenix since 1965; Zalman Segal, founder of Segal's kosher market; and other local Orthodox rabbis and community leaders. He also searched through archives of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and met with Lawrence Bell, executive director of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
"Phoenix was fascinating to me because it was the true West," he says. "It was truly the desert. When I picked Tu b'Shevat for Phoenix - or Phoenix picked me for Tu b'Shevat, as (it was the only community) who had a tremendous event going on for Tu b'Shevat (referring to Jewish National Fund's Tu b'Shevat festival) - it seemed perfect to have Tu b'Shevat in Phoenix, the complete desert and we're talking about the yearly regrowth of trees. It was a perfect match."
Landa photographed about 70 percent of the book's 1,000 photographs and juxtaposed them with archival photos of the same subject matter.
"When I juxtapose pictures of somebody from World War II holding a lulav and then I have somebody now holding a lulav, to me that says it all," Landa says. "Perseverance, continuity and survival, that's what this book is all about."