UPPER WEST SIDE — A new interactive exhibit at the JCC in Manhattan aims to reinvigorate conversations about identity.
"Casual Conversations," opens Dec. 4 and runs through Feb. 26 at the center's Laurie M. Tisch Gallery. The exhibit revolves around photos artists Alina and Jeff Bliumis took in Brighton Beach of the Russian Jewish community there — and gives viewers a chance to interact with the piece by having their photos taken, too.
The couple asked beach-goers to describe themselves by choosing among three signs reading "Jewish," "American" and "Russian." The dozens of participants, selected at random along the boardwalk one early July morning in 2007, could pick any or all of the three signs or make their own.
What resulted from the process is a portrait of the community in their own voices, said Alina Bliumis.
She and her husband Jeff have been working together since 2000 and are from Belarus and Moldova, respectively, and are both Jewish, so the Russian Jewish identity in America was something they wanted to explore, she said.
"We wanted to present other people’s voices," said Bliumis.
Six of the photos by the team are now on exhibit at the JCC in Manhattan along with an interactive area where participants stand with a picture of Brighton Beach as a background, write their own signs on white boards, and have their photos taken.
Bliumis said she hopes a lot of people will join in the free exhibition in the JCC's lobby.
"We really want people to be free to write what they want. We don’t have any agenda," she said. "We really want participants to be free and we want as much information as we can get."
The exhibit also opens up conversations about an immigrant community whose members are prevalent at the JCC said Megan Whitman, senior director of arts and ideas at the center.
"The exhibit appeals to us because we wanted to show the broader community that the Russian Jewish community is a part of us and amongst us," she said.
Also, "there’s a lot of humor in the photographs and it’s also anthropological," Whitman said.
The interactive portion will spark a lot of conversations too, she said.
To describe oneself in just three words on the whiteboards will be difficult and thought provoking, she said.
"We’re interested to find out what words come up often, which words don’t," said Whitman.
To keep the conversation going, the JCC will be posting photos from the interactive portion on its Flickr page and tweeting them out with the hashtag #CasualConversations.