By Rick Nahmias
I am of the firm belief that every one of us carries something within that is marginalized: some piece of personal history or trait that has been, or that we wish would be, left behind or cast off—the emotional scars or shame left by an abusive mother, the malformed foot, a poor immigrant heritage…
This belief combined with Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious has led me to conclude that those whom who society considers or relegates to has cast off as “them” are, in reality, “us.” It has also inspired the creation of “Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited.”
Beit T’Shuvah was the first community (of which there were ultimately eleven across California) to participate in this book and traveling multimedia exhibition, generously opening their doors to me starting back in 2003 when the project began.
In assembling this work as the new book that I will be discussing at Beit T’Shuvah on October 10th, I have hoped to create something of a contemporary visual and interfaith prayer book—one composed of sacred people, places, and things. In the three years it took to gather the images, text, and audio for “Golden States of Grace,” and two years it took to write and assemble the book, I had a lot of time to think about spirituality and where it fits in my life.
Beit T’Shuvah figured prominently in this ruminating. Not just because it was where the first frames of the project were shot. More so, as someone born and raised a Jew, with each interaction I have with Beit T’Shuvah, I am confronted with my own decision to live as a secular Jew rather than as the more observant one some of those in my family and daily life would prefer me to be. In this community I see an alternate way to be a Jew, to find authentic community and self, things I was not readily exposed to growing up just a few miles from here.
Following my bar mitzvah, when the mandated Hebrew School was completed, I could not have bolted quicker from the San Fernando Valley Jewish experience: the politics of Israel I felt ambivalent about, and the grainy black-and-white horrors of the Holocaust.
It was the rare five minutes of absolute quiet at the back of the darkened chapel at the conclusion of Sunday prayers, when we were asked to self-reflect (surely not the term at the time), when I actually connected with something more profound, and saw the possibility of something sacred, even if I couldn’t put a name to it at the time. Even then, at age ten or twelve, I could go deeper there, into the silence, a place I never could go at school, or with friends, or in the process of my normal day. It was prayer, yes, but it was silent and because of that, for me, more intense.
As I headed off to college in New York, I carried with me memories of those quiet moments and the solace they brought. At the same time I tried, with little success, to forget the judgment and disdain I felt for “Jew-titlement”: growing up amongst incredible privilege with those I saw as tone deaf to the concept of service or reaching out beyond their comfort zone. Indeed there was deep judgment on my part then, and in all honesty, some of it still lingers today.
But even through those college years there was also a spark of curiosity about the peace I felt in the small darkened chapel at Valley – and how that might be touched again, maybe even deepened. That happened in the years that followed, both through the simple exploration of life, and more formally via the unlikely double major of religious studies I combined with my film and TV degree. It was something I was as surprised to pursue as my family was to see on my diploma a few years later.
In that time, and the years that have followed, I was lucky enough to travel extensively and in doing so, have a chance to explore the rituals, ceremonies and the search for the Divine – the sacred moments which fuel each of us viscerally. “Golden States of Grace” grew out of the curiosity, out of this time, and of my growing connection to those on the outside looking in, those who found dignity, community and, yes, strength in making choices which were far from those that were expected of them but which kept them true to themselves.
Even after working on this project for a cumulative seven years, I can’t deny the deep ambivalence I have towards organized religion, but I have found a way to look deeper into it and the questions it brings up, and to let it fuel me creatively. Even with the prevalence of mainline religious institutions and -class America continuing to exclude and even vilify those they view as beyond the pale – the addicts, the ill, the fallen, those – there are still reasons to be hopeful that we, as a society, can see beyond our religious tunnel vision.
If I have one singular hope for this body of work, it is that our collective eyes remain open long enough to simply acknowledge every human being’s need and right to come to some profound understanding about his or her own connection to a higher power. Be it in a prison cell or in the darkened corner of a small suburban chapel, in the end, “Golden States of Grace” is a study of otherness—the otherness out there, the otherness within each of us, the otherness that begs us to bind together as human beings to celebrate, contemplate, and find meaning in our lives.
I feel honored to be returning to Beit T’Shuvah not just as a documentary photographer, but as a Jew. And to have Harriet Rossetto’s profound oral history be a permanent part of this project is both an honor and an inspiration. Beit T’Shuvah is a community which has welcomed me with open, authentic and non-judgmental arms repeatedly over the years. As the first of the “Golden States of Grace” communities I have the honor bringing this book back to, I look forward to completing the journey of sharing this work with the unique and powerful community it has become in my life and the lives of many. Amen.
Rick Nahmias is a photographer and writer living in Los Angeles. His work can been seen at Goldenstatesofgrace.com or Ricknahmias.com. His new book, “Golden States of Grace” is available as a softcover and a limited edition hardcover (with slipcover and signed/numbered signed print.)