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by Eleanor J. Bader

Through Her Lens: Documenting Crypto-Jews, Brooklyn Life, and More

gloriagolden.com

gloriagolden.com

When Gloria Golden was growing up in Brooklyn, New York – first in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and later in Borough Park and Gravesend — her father carried a camera everywhere he went. But his daughter did not follow his example. 

Unlike her dad, Golden did not begin to take photographs until 1994, when she took a course at Queensborough Community College during a sabbatical from her job as an elementary school teacher. 

Since then, Golden has taken thousands of shots and has published five books of photos and text: Remnants of Crypto-Jews Among Hispanic Americans (2005); Desaturated Soul (2009); Brooklyn Revisited (2012); Photography: An Intimate Approach (2016); and Metallic Metropolis (2019). 

Now living on Long Island, the award-winning photographer discussed her career with Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in early November.

 

Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start by talking about your early years as a public-school teacher, before you found a foothold in photography. Did you like teaching?

Gloria Golden: Let’s go back even earlier. I was born in the 1940s and attended New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. When I began studying there, I was in the commercial education program, training to be an office worker, because I did not think my parents could afford to send me to college. When I explained this to one of my teachers, she was shocked and called my parents in to discuss my future. After this conversation, I was put on the academic track.  When I graduated, I enrolled at what was then called the Uptown City campus of City College. I’d originally assumed I’d teach business classes since that was what I’d focused on during high school, however, I ended up taking classes in elementary education at Uptown City to prepare me to teach elementary school. Martin Luther King spoke at my college graduation. Can you believe it?

EJB: Wow. That’s incredible!  You must have been so inspired by him. Did you start teaching right away?

GG: Yes. I taught for five years, but then my husband and I started our family. In those days – the late 1960s and early 1970s – middle-class women stayed home with their children. I was home for about 15 years although I subbed twice a week before I went back to work full-time in 1983 and ended up teaching at PS 95 in Queens from 1988 until 1999. My students were predominantly Guyanese and Latinx. I loved them and I loved the job.

EJB: How did you get involved in photography?

GG: I went on sabbatical in 1994 and took a class at Queensborough Community College with instructor Jules Allen. I actually took several courses with him and since I lived in a conventional split-level suburban home, I had enough space to set up a darkroom. I hired someone to help me set it up and vent it properly. Very quickly, taking pictures and developing film became my passion.

As I said, photography was a new medium for me, but I’d always gravitated toward art. I would draw whenever I had free time or was home sick.

EJB: What happened when the sabbatical ended?

GG: I absolutely loved photography, but I went back to teaching when the sabbatical was over; I left the job 11 years later, in 1999, and began doing photography full-time. By then I’d gone digital. This gave me the ability to click a button and see the image right away – there’s immediate satisfaction. A digital camera also makes editing and printing easier and avoids the chemicals needed in the darkroom developing process.

EJB: Your images are exclusively black-and-white. Why?

GG: I convert everything I photograph from color to black and white. I find it more soulful, more emotional. When I photograph people, their eyes stand out more dramatically in black and white.

EJB: How did you come to photograph the Crypto-Jews living in the southeastern United States?

GG: After studying at Queensborough Community College, I took additional classes at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan and in workshops in Maine and in New Mexico. I first heard of the Crypto-Jews — people who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 500 years ago, but who still observe some small, atypical rituals that trace back to their Jewish roots – in an article in the New York Times, so when I travelled to New Mexico I was on the look-out, hoping to meet some of them. When I voiced my interest, people I met introduced me around. A book store owner in Santa Fe, who was not a Crypto-Jew herself, suggested people and one person led to another. I ended up interviewing 80-odd people and included 60-some in the book. Some of these people still identify as Catholic, others converted back to Judaism, and some became Messianic Jews. The book shows the diversity of the population.

EJB: How has the book been received?

GG: Many people have told me how beneficial this book has been to them and I’ve given lectures about the Crypto-Jews all over, in synagogues, Unitarian churches, libraries, Jewish Community Centers, and on university campuses. Many people had no idea that Jews had been forced to become Catholic and hide their true identities. Sharing this history has meant a great deal to me and I’ve donated a lot of my materials — interviews and many of the photos — to Rabbi Stephen Leon who runs the Anusim Center of El Paso, Texas. 

Anusim is the Hebrew word for forced converts and Rabbi Leon has helped many anusim, regardless of whether they wish to convert back to Judaism or not. The Center organizes events throughout the year so that anusim in and near Texas can meet one another and share information and stories.

EJB: Why do you think the situation of the anusim resonates with you so strongly?

GG: I am very Jewish minded. I’m not Orthodox, but Judaism has always been very important in my heart. I wanted to know more about the anusim, their history, their heritage, their way of existing in the world.

EJB: Your other books have focused on urban life, including your birthplace, Brooklyn. How do you choose themes?

GG: It’s instinctive. I love the city of New York and enjoy taking pictures of things I love, random scenes or random people who grab my attention or have some quality that appeals to me visually. When I go into Manhattan, I can feel the excitement; it’s as if I’m in a foreign country. If someone has a look that strikes me, I’ll want to take a photo. I have a three-year-old grandson and am constantly taking pictures of him. I was in Borough Park and a hotel manager caught my eye and I took his picture. I’ve photographed my 101-year-old uncle in his tallis. I went to China in 2010 and took hundreds of photos. Last year my husband and I took a cruise to Bermuda and I took photos of the woman who seated us for dinner. I’ve taken photos all over Europe and in Morocco and Turkey. On Halloween I was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and saw a girl playing an accordion. I liked how she held her head. I took a picture of a man playing a saxophone on the street in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I see a beautiful bird and I want to snap a photo.

EJB: You sound really proud of your work and of how diverse your interests are.

GG: I am! It makes me proud to have work in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza and to be in the archives of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society. I’m also thrilled to have work at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Brown University.   

EJB: What’s next?

GG: I haven’t decided on a next project yet. Right now, I’m really into genealogy and have found a lot of distant cousins. I want to map this for my children and grandchildren. My goal is not to turn this into a book or exhibition since these people live all over the world and this would be a huge undertaking, but you never know.

 

Golden has 11 photographs on display at the Roslyn Savings Bank, 2 Muttontown Road in Syosset, New York through November 30, 2019. For information about exhibition hours, please call 516-677-5300.

 

 Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer living in New York City.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine