On the first day of this year (1 January 2020), photographer Jackson Krule spent the birth of a new decade in a pretty special way, amongst more than 90,000 other Jews. They had gathered together for a momentous occasion, in a celebratory cycle called Siyum HaShas that takes place every seven-and-a-half years. In the 1920s, the Jewish community began a practice of learning one page of the Talmud every day, the Talmud being the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewis religious law and theology, it is also a lengthy 2,711 pages in total. The practice is known as Daf Yomi, and at the end of the cycle, when all the pages are learnt nearly eight years later, Siyum HaShas takes place to mark the significant occasion.
“Jewish festivities took up pretty much my entire childhood,” the New York-based photographer tells It’s Nice That. As a child, he studied the Talmud in school and knew about the celebrations, but never had the opportunity to attend a Siyum HaShas. Born in Manhattan, Jackson grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, alongside a large Orthodox Jewish community. With regards to his own faith however, the photographer tells us about the first time he picked up the camera, which was, at the same time, the first time he ventured “outside my Jewish bubble in any serious way.” Instead of journeying to Israel to study in seminary like most of his graduating high school class, he enrolled in a programme through NYU which took him to Paris during his freshman year.
Despite the fact he didn’t speak any French, he learned about a different form of community, more namely, through photography. “I had this camera that my sister Miriam gave me,” says Jackson, “and I used it as an excuse to travel to strange parts of the city. I didn’t have any pretension when I shot. In many ways, I was just mimicking what I saw from French street photographers in the 30s and 40s.” Eventually, this interest led Jackson to study photography at NYU’s Tisch School of Art which in turn, led him to work as a photo editor at The New Yorker. After a couple of years, he felt “the itch” to shoot professionally, jumping ship to venture into the freelance world where he has worked for the liked of The New York Times, Vice, Vogue and The New Yorker, just to name a few.
Having shot the series Siyum HaShas for The New York Times, in other work, Jackson is working on a long term personal project, documenting the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in New York. “While Siyum HaShas is not only for Hasids,” explains the photographer, “the project I’m doing helped inform this shoot and made me even more interested in being in that space.” The physical space for the festivities involved a 82,500 seat stadium (fully sold out) and others from all over the world listening in. Struck by the enormity of it, Jackson tells us, “being on the field, photographing it, was remarkable.” Jackson continues: “Witnessing this on top of the recent anti-semitic violence, made this display of unity even more amazing.”
In particular, he was struck by the amount of kids there. “Most of these kids do not go to sporting events and it was probably their first in a sports stadium.” He recalls the resounding reverberations of everyone saying their prayers at the same time, trying to imagine what it would be like for the children in the stands. But on a personal note, for Jackson, shooting the event was key in showcasing Jewish unity and strength in light of the recent anti-Semitic violence. “My goal is to show the outside world what observant Jews are really like,” he adds on his ultimate goal for his work.
“I think a lot of anti-Semitism stems from Orthodox Jews keeping to themselves and outsiders not really knowing how us Jews live our lives,” Jackson continues. “They see the different outfits and peyos and don’t understand why we do the things we do. So for Siyum HaShas, I was hoping to photograph this event as a way of showing what our communal gatherings are like, something that non-Jews would never be exposed to.” Finally, he concludes poignantly, “I hope this windows into Jewish life allows outsiders into our humanity.”
GalleryJackson Krule: Siyum HaShas
Jackson Krule: Siyum HaShas
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.