Exploring soul of the holy city


Jerusalem is known not only for its religious history, but for bringing out a level of reverence from its visitors.

But when Asher Bar-Lev visits Jerusalem, he discovers the landmark city’s soul.

With the help of his artistic partner, Ilana Eva, Bar-Lev traverses the Middle Eastern city in search of special sites, spots and people that reflect the heart of Jerusalem and its true essence.

“It makes me very sensitive to the people I’m shooting,” Bar-Lev said. “I’m not intrusive and genuinely engage with them before I photograph them. It’s as if I’m meeting and greeting a new patient.”

Bar-Lev found his way to psychoanalysis — the discipline originally established by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century — after a colleague thought the way Bar-Lev spoke to people had the resolve of a psychologist.

“I enjoy the narratives and the personal histories that people reveal, and I like the connections with people,” Bar-Lev said. “I like to see them grow and become stronger.”

However, Bar-Lev was into art way before the mind. He lived in the Bronx until he was 20 before setting off overseas, living in Israel for a year and even spending some time on a kibbutz, an agriculture-based community. From there, he continued on to Paris and other parts of Europe.

He had a chance to study under the late street photographer Lisette Model when he returned to New York. “I was very, very young,” Bar-Lev said. “And she was very helpful.”

He also studied photography and film at the City College of New York. It was a long way to get there from his childhood home in Tremont. Although his parents’ idea of adventure was a meal at a kosher deli, at 12, Bar-Lev was hanging out in the Village and cutting school to roam the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now instead of sneaking out of school to view exhibits, Bar-Lev’s work is being shown in one.

His collection, “Israel 2018,” runs at Fed House in Harlem, on 307 W. 121st St. His exhibit is open until Oct. 5.

Although Eva and Bar-Lev have different styles, both try to convey something beyond the photograph. Eva, a Riverdale resident, typically photographs landscapes and even has a garden design business with local clients.

It’s a little different once the two get to Jerusalem, however.

“We go out and we park the car and we start walking,” Bar-Lev said. “And then we say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to take this shot, and want to take this.’”

It was that carefree and casual method of scouting that trapped Bar-Lev in the middle of a protest where a sea of Hasidic schoolboys acted out against military enlistment. No cars could move and Bar-Lev couldn’t even open his door, so he settled on taking pictures instead.

“I study the engagement,” Bar-Lev said. “I see what’s going on and I see the interaction between people, and I make my decision.”

Whether it’s a patient or his art, Bar-Lev incorporates his Jewish values into the character and construction of work. In his daily life, Bar-Lev also makes sure those ideals ring true.

He worked security for a soup kitchen that had no fights under his watch, and implemented the Youth Emergency Service Project, which helps runaways and those living on the street in New York City.

The program is funded through the New York-based Jewish Child Care Association. Based on a verse from the Torah, Bar-Lev explained his Jewish values inspired his service.

“It means that one should extend one’s self to the people,” Bar-Lev said. “Especially people who are in need, and one should not treat them in a hostile fashion.”

But between, helping his patients and serving others, Bar-Lev already has his next artistic expedition planned out. This time his focus will be on Jerusalem’s artistic side.

“I’ve rented a three-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem, and Ilana will be in the apartment and my assistant Beth will be with us,” Bar-Lev said. “We have quite a few musicians, painters and actors lined up.”

The hardest part about working on “Israel 2018” was choosing which photos to display. Ultimately Eva and Bar-Lev plans 30 for the exhibit over a period of two months. Bar-Lev also chose to bring his Jerusalem photographic techniques into the Bronx at some point, too.

“I focus on character,” Bar-Lev said. “I try to have an understanding of people in their environment, and I try to convey that and what the world really consists of.”