In his documentation of Polish minority groups, Kraków-based photographer Gregory Michenaud came across the handwritten memoir of a child born from levirate marriage. This discovery spawned ‘Yibbum’, a photo series that looks closely at history and identity through Hasidic tradition.
Yibbum, or levirate marriage, is one of the most complex types of relationships mandated by Torah law in Judaism. Levirate marriage obliges the eldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his deceased brother. The first-born child is then treated as that of the deceased brother. Though no longer practiced today, it was widely accepted across cultures (the British royals were particularly fond of it), as it granted a level of protection and support to women in restrictive patriarchal societies. When Michenaud discovered the story of a man he had known — a yibbum child whose grandfather had been a yibbum child, and whose grandfather’s grandfather had been a yibbum child — he felt the need express his story, and to look further at the world of Hasidic Judaism. We spoke to Michenaud about ‘Yibbum’, his relationship with those that he has photographed for the series, and what explorations of identity through minority groups have taught him.
How did your ongoing project, ‘Yibbum’, begin?
I have been working for some years now on the concept of identity. In my last project, I photographed the historical minorities of Poland. I tried to define them through family portraits and archives. My interest in those old photos and documents brought me to an old autobiography handwritten by a yibbum child, reading his story gave me the need to tell it through photography.
At the same time, I met Patrick Zachmann, a Magnum photographer, during a workshop he led in Krakow where I am living. Through speaking with him, and showing him my work, I understood that what I needed was to speak about searching for identity, and not only the particular story of a yibbum child. Having worked on identity on a large scale, as I was in my former project, I also felt the need to work on an individual one — to delve further into the complexity of defining ourselves.
‘Yibbum’ is an attempt to define a Jewish identity. A journey bringing us inside religion, family values, history and a certain sense of attachment of the land — all aspects that could help to define what it could mean to be Jewish. This Jewish tradition of levirate marriage — which obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother — is not practiced anymore.
Do you know who the ‘yibbum child’ was whose memoir you found?
I knew him, and I knew part of his story, but his memoir was very rich in detail and contained stories that I had never heard. Unfortunately, he passed away without having finished it. The memoir is from his birth until he was 16 years old, and there is no way now to know any more about his story.
Are you Jewish? If not, how have you gained such intimate access to the community that you have photographed?
What does it mean to be Jewish? That is exactly the question my project is asking. A simple answer to that question would be ‘according to birth’. But the process of creating our identity is, of course, more complex than that. The Hasidic community I photographed for my project is a perfect example of this. They are not representing the Jewish identity, they are only one specific part of it.
I chose this community to speak about the religious aspect of Jewish identity. This community is very closed, very hermetic from the rest of the world — even to their own non-Hasidic family. To gain access and trust from them was a long process. I began by taking religious courses, which was a basic necessity to be able to speak about this aspect of the Jewish identity. I also met “the right people in the right places”. You have to invoke these chances, but it is still a kind of luck. My best luck came was when I was asked to be a guide for Hasidic groups coming to Poland for religious pilgrimage. I could not have thought of a better way for intimate access. Besides that, it is all about human relationships. Spending time with the community will create affinity with them.
What has their response to your presence been?
The response always differed according to the situation. When I am with the same people for a while — for example, when I am a guide — that I am taking pictures seems natural. It is harder when I am photographing huge pilgrim meetings, or when it is my first time with a group of people. Reactions can be negative. In every case, it is interesting to me as I am documenting the way we define our identity, and rejection from a group is part of the process.
Have there been learnings or failures during your project?
I think that failures are learnings when you can still move forwards from them. As this project is in progress, the failure would be, at the end, not to be able to make it readable in a kind of linear way. It is a challenge, as all aspects I want to speak about can be very distant from one another. What I am learning from this project is so huge that it seems to me not possible to list it.
All images © Gregory Michenaud