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Book Review: Beyond the Forest


Book Review Beyond the Forest By Loli Kantor Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson Beyond the Forest is Loli Kantor’s search for the Jewish communities of Poland, The Czech Republic and the Ukraine. Her search was initiated by her curiosity over her cultural bearings. For Kantor, these photographs began with tracing her family history from the time of her father’s immigration to America, a journey that split her family, leaving a portion behind in Europe.

Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor.
University of Texas Press, 2014.
 
Beyond the Forest
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Beyond the Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe, 2004-2012
Photographs by Loli Kantor
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2014. 200 pp., 68 color and 44 black & white illustrations, 10½x10".


Beyond the Forest is Loli Kantor’s search for the Jewish communities of Poland, The Czech Republic and the Ukraine. Her search was initiated by her curiosity over her cultural bearings. For Kantor, these photographs began with tracing her family history from the time of her father’s immigration to America, a journey that split her family, leaving a portion behind in Europe. In discovering where the rest of her family had ended up, she was led to Eastern Europe and the Jewish communities and culture there.

Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor. University of Texas Press, 2014.

What her photos reveal is a rich subculture among the countries that her search took her too. The faces and places of worship and meeting that she found scattered across, in particular, Poland and the Ukraine, speak of a deep heritage, a nomadic heritage (sadly by necessity) that was able to establish itself in these places. It is a culture that, like that of the Romani people, survived through tradition rather than location. Constant displacement created a culture that was largely dependent not on land (i.e. specific rivers, flora and fauna etc.), but instead a community of people bound together by their long history of injustices and diasporas; a culture, it could be said, that had to retreat into the blood and the stories of its people.

Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor. University of Texas Press, 2014.

Perhaps what Kantor’s photographs make most evident is that culture can be made stronger by displacement, can take deepest root when it is forced to take to the road time and again. It is inspiring beyond comprehension to see what her photos display in their sense of community. Synagogues and former shtetls as well as current Jewish homes in the region take center stage in Beyond the Forest as places of meeting that strengthen and nurture the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Photographs of personal belongings (trinket shelves, books and, often, meals and their place settings) deepen the sense of their cultural foothold.

Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor. University of Texas Press, 2014.

While presenting these locations and belongings, Kantor introduces us to the community that made the meals, arranged the objects and built the synagogues. The people represent all ages from the wizened faces of community elders to the newly born. Kantor shows that this culture, her father’s culture and her own, never dissolved or faded despite any historical or social pressures or injustices.

Beyond the Forest. By Loli Kantor. University of Texas Press, 2014.

Beyond the Forest is, perhaps, an idiosyncratic work, but it is an affirming one. If you want to make a people more communal, closer to one another and more resilient, scatter them to the wind. Like so much seed will they sprout a forest more densely rooted. Kantor gives hope and reverence and background to not only an entire community of people, but the state of humankind; it isn’t easy to unroot an entire people, because people are not so easily disheartened or dissolved. Chances are the moment you strip a people of their homes or regions or loved ones is the moment that you solidify their community, their heritage and traditions. This is what Kantor found on her journey to understand herself.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is an artist, radio host, and poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His reviews, interviews, and essays on poetry can be read in the Philadelphia Review of Books. Johnson also hosts the radio program Collected Words on 101.5 KVSF, where he interviews authors, poets and artists.

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