Photographer captures spirit of gay, Jewish retreat

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For a performance art piece at U.C. Santa Cruz, Esther Greenburg wrapped herself in plastic bubble wrap and projected a series of slides on a piece of white butcher paper across her stomach. Flashing across her midriff, a slide show of her own photographs depicted a fairy tale romance between two women.

Since Greenburg, 22, came out as a lesbian last year, much of her art work — including paintings, photographs and multimedia pieces — has explored gay and feminist issues.

So when she heard about the Members of the Tribes Conference, a weekend for gay, lesbian and bisexual Jews sponsored by local Hillels and synagogues, Greenburg knew she wanted to attend.

She also decided to bring her camera to the Saratoga retreat, which attracted young, gay Jews from across Northern California for workshops, meetings and prayers.

The images she captured are now a photo exhibit, "And You Shall Be a Blessing," showing until June 12 at Santa Cruz Hillel.

"I just shot what caught my eye with no specific theme in mind. But, when the pictures came back to me, it was about people building relationships and community, celebrating being both gay and Jewish," says Greenburg.

As both a photographer and participant in the conference, Greenburg says she sometimes found it difficult to decide when to capture the moment on film — and when to experience it. The religious segments posed a particularly challenging dilemma.

"Havdalah was incredible, there was this great feeling happening. I said, `You know what, I'm putting the camera down, I need to be part of this.'"

These days, however, Greenburg spends much of her time looking at life through a lens. She says it helps her focus on her environment, providing her with a new way of seeing the everyday images that pass through her life.

Just puttering around the house, Greenburg says she is often "shooting random weird things, thinking, `oh, that's cool lighting,' goofing around, taking pictures of anything and everything." These days, she even photographs her breakfast for a project on eating disorders.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, when Greenburg enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz, she dreamed about being a dancer.

After a back injury, however, she was forced to change her plans. She dropped out of school to figure out her next step, teaching for a year at Temple Beth El pre-school in Aptos. That summer, she worked at Camp Swig, where she made the decision to go back to school and study art.

"I was really inspired by the Jewish artists working there. The energy of Swig is intense. That's when I decided, I'm gonna be an art major," she recalls.

That was only two years ago. Since then, she has come out as a lesbian and explored this part of her life and other issues through her work in oil paintings, nude self-portraits, photographs layered with original text and live performance pieces.

She talks with ease about her transition from being "freaked out" when she fell in love with her best friend in high school, to dating men in college, to "questioning" her sexuality and finally finding a home in the lesbian community.

The shots from the conference are Greenburg's final women's studies project. She will be returning to Santa Cruz next year, however, to complete her second major in art.

Next year, having gone from oil painting to photography, the artist will concentrate on what she calls "multimedia production," art works that use more than one medium.

Recently, Greenburg submitted a grant to make a video called Femmes on Film, in which a narrator will show scenes of violence against women in feature films, and then demonstrate the self-defense techniques that would have protected the female characters.

She hopes the video will be part of a larger installation. The project, like Greenburg's artistic horizons, continues to grow.