Carved Memories: Tombstones of the Russian Jewish Pale, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from January 14 through April 30, is the first exhibition in the United States of seventy images of Jewish tombstones from various shtetl cemeteries in the Ukraine and Moldova, taken over the course of three quarters of a century by Russian photographer David Goberman. Goberman, now eighty-eight years old, spent his career documenting these intricately carved tombstones, which contain information about the deceased as well as symbolic imagery from the Jewish faith, such as various animals and flowers.
Carved tombstones occupy a special place in traditional Jewish art, and their manufacture was widespread within the Russian Empire. Many of these works, some of which date back to the fourteenth century, were subsequently destroyed to be reused as construction materials for Soviet factories and even linings of fish ponds. Others suffered vandalism during the Nazi occupation. Those images that remain are a mute testimony to a people who were forbidden to decorate public monuments or contribute works of art to museums.
In addition to photographing these tombstones dating from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, David Goberman has kept meticulously detailed records about the locations of the cemeteries, most of which no longer exist. Included in the exhibition will be a map of the villages in which the cemeteries were found, names of the deceased, and translations from the Hebrew of portions of the text on the carved tombstones.
David Goberman, who lives in St. Petersburg, will make his first trip to the United States to be on hand for the opening of this exhibition of his work. Born in the Ukraine, he was six years old at the time of the Revolution. During the ensuing Civil War he served as a helper in the Medical Corps. Goberman’s photographic documentation of “Jewish themes” often put him at great risk with the Soviet authorities. To defuse such criticism he also photographed Christian folk art of the Ukraine and Transcarpathia. He has published nine books, including three volumes on Jewish tombstones and one on ceramics from Transcarpathia. His tombstone photographs have only been exhibited once in the Soviet Union, during a political thaw in 1966 that lasted until 1967, when the Arab-Israeli conflicts rendered everything connected with Judaism, once again, completely taboo.
Rizzoli will publish a catalogue of David Goberman’s tombstone photographs in conjunction with the exhibition. Together they provide important scholarly information about Russian stone carving, particularly the styles from the Ukraine and Moldova, and present vital documentation of centuries of Russian Jewish culture. Carved Memories also makes historical information about the deceased publically available to their descendants.
The exhibition, which will travel to venues to be announced, has been organized by Barbara Head Millstein, Curator of Photography at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.