Alina and Jeff Bliumis never thought much about their identities as Russian American Jews until a group of Brighton Beach visitors in NYC proved finding the right label can be a challenge.
So, the husband-and-wife artist team, both Jews from Russia, took their cameras and art supplies to Brooklyn’s notoriously Russian neighborhood to ask their Russian-Jewish counterparts: are you Jewish, Russian or American?
What they found was a split in identities between people who had, presumably, the same immigration experience as themselves. And what started as a portrait of a beach-goer holding a various combination of signs reading “Jewish,” “American” and “Russian,” grew to a nationwide photoshoot featuring the elderly, the young and everyone in between.
The two compiled the stories of their participants into a book, titled “From Selfie to Groupie,” which Alina will speak about at the St. Paul JCC’s Twin Cities Jewish Book Series March 20.
Alina left Minsk right after high school, and Jeff came to the States from Moldova right before, Alina said. In both cases, the two struggled with the idea of changing their cultural surroundings in lieu of educational opportunities in the U.S.
“When we’re coming from Russia, we can’t be Russian, Jewish and American at the same time,” she said. “The Russian communities, in reality, aren’t really Russian — they’re Jewish.”
What the couple thought would be a one-day photo op turned into a photo series spanning communities from New York to Philadelphia, Miami, Sonoma Valley and St. Paul — from all walks of life.
“Instead of sitting in a studio and coming up with my own answers to these questions, we went out and, as artists, we did a survey,” Alina said. “Almost everyone said yes to being photographed and the more we questioned them, the more questions we had.”
A few years after starting their project at Brighton Beach, Alina said she and Jeff left cameras, posters and markers at each location they traveled to speak, and at the end of their presentation, hundreds of people had consolidated their identities into two or three words and taken “selfies” and “groupies” with their self-definitions.
The sheer number of participants — 600 at their stop in Philadelphia — made the experience rewarding, Alina said
“You’d ask me to put a list of what I think people would say,” she said, “and I’d never come out with what people actually said.”
And though she hoped the project would narrow her own self-identity, Alina said it only made her question how each person’s life definition fit into her own.
“When I look at every photograph, I can relate almost to all of the written identities, if I think about it. Mother. Artist. Daughter,” she said. “But does it matter how we identify?”
Read more about Alina and Jeff Bliumis and their book, “From Selfie to Groupie,” here, and get your tickets to the Twin Cities Jewish Book Series here. You may even recognize some familiar faces in the pages of the book!