A photographer’s search for meaning is the seed of an exhibition opening Sunday on the campus of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center.
“Legends of the 36 Unknown” is a display of 36 photographs suggesting faces and figures in rocks, railroad ties and crumbling bricks.
The title references a portion of the Talmud, the Jewish oral tradition, that suggests the world must contain 36 righteous people in order to exist, according to New York photographer Todd Weinstein.
“When the world is in great peril, they find some way of helping the world find some sense,” Weinstein said. “Then they revert back to their identities, like the shoemaker, the baker, the teacher.”
Weinstein said these ordinary citizens can't let anyone know about their special roles in the world.
He began working on "The 36 Unknown" 20 years ago while taking pictures in and around Polish concentration camps. The gravity of his surroundings prompted him to focus on something positive.
“I was looking for hope,” Weinstein said.
‘Opening myself up through seeing’
Weinstein wasn't looking for phantom faces and figures when he conceived "The 36 Unknown." Instead, he let himself relax into the project.
“I almost get into this trance state,” he said. “I’m sort of opening myself up through seeing, to allow these things to appear before me.”
This endeavor and other related projects immersed Weinstein into the Holocaust and the subsequent return of Jews to Germany. It was a period of learning, sharing and recovering as he traced his own history.
Weinstein and his nephew found two cemeteries in what is now Ukraine, one of which he believes contains the grave of his great-grandfather.
"And we said Kaddish at the two cemeteries," he said. Kaddish is a traditional Jewish prayer to honor the dead.
Then Weinstein found out something shocking: one branch of his family went silent during World War II, making him think they likely perished during the Holocaust.
"I never knew that I lost family in the Holocaust," Weinstein said.
As Weinstein worked on the project, he kept in mind that the idea of good people righting the world in times of turmoil is something that transcends any single religion or heritage.
“Other cultures examine this idea about righteous people, helpful people,” he said.
Weinstein will speak at the opening reception, 2 p.m.-4 p.m., Sunday, April 3 at the Jewish Federation on the JCC campus, 12 Millstone Campus Dr. Musicians including James Stone Goodman will also perform. The event and a dessert reception are free but reservations are required.
“The 36 Unknown” will be exhibited through mid-May.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL