Eyes on Israel: Photographer, feminist to spend year exploring Jewish state

Nili Yosha’s Tel Aviv is captured with her camera, snapshots that show a city rarely seen in the media.

An alley lined with boxes of unsold produce, purposely left out by the market’s vendors to feed the city’s homeless each night; an Arab man who appears to be a father playing in the sand with his swimsuit-clad children, but who is actually just a friendly stranger.

The photos tell a story, but one that remains incomplete, Yosha said. That’s because she has been able travel to Tel Aviv only in the summertime.

That’s about to change.

As a recipient of the Haas/Koshland Award administered by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Yosha will live in Israel for a full year, photographing the city’s diversity and culture that she says creates both a unity and tension in the metropolis.

Yosha is one of two college students who will spend the upcoming year in Israel, thanks to the Haas/Koshland Award, which annually funds a yearlong independent study in Israel for one graduate or undergraduate student. This is the first time two students have been awarded the grant simultaneously.

Summer Jackson, a senior at Stanford, also received the Haas/Koshland Award. She will study feminism among Palestinian and Jewish women — Ashkenazi and Sephardic — with a professor at the University of Haifa.

The award, now in its 26th year, has funded a wide variety of individuals: a scientist, an organic gardener, a doctor, a teacher and a transgender Jew-by-choice.

Yosha and Jackson join the ranks of award winners with unusual personal histories.

Jackson, who is not Jewish, was born in the United States. She moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when she was 4 years old. (Her father, a mechanical engineer, worked for oil refineries there.) The family stayed there until Jackson was 16.

Upon moving to Arizona and then to the Bay Area to attend Stanford, Jackson realized just how different her worldview was from that of peers.

“The news coverage of Arab women shows these helpless, poor veiled women who need to be rescued,” she said. “But having grown up there and seeing how much initiative women have, how they work to create their own spaces of empowerment, well, it’s a lot more complicated than the media” reveals.

When Jackson travels to Israel in September, it will be her first time there. She plans to examine how socioeconomics and ethnic identities of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Palestinian women shape feminist ideals. She also wants to work with feminist and domestic violence organizations to learn more about women’s daily lives.

She expects to chronicle what she learns with women’s video diaries and a research paper, but “I don’t want to say, ‘This is what I’ll write,’ without seeing what Israel is really like,” she said.

Yosha, on the other hand, was born in Israel and moved to Los Angeles with her filmmaking parents when she was 2. The 26-year-old considers both California and Israel home. Though it is challenging to live between two worlds, she says it makes her a better photographer.

“Growing up in more than one culture makes you realize that the place you are in is not the only place on Earth,” she said. “It’s good for an artist.”

She studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, and spent one year teaching at a public school, since “teaching and art is two sides of the same coin. You teach anonymously through art; in schools, you actually interact with group of students.”

Yosha enrolled in graduate school at San Francisco State University, where she’s studying comparative literature. But she still teaches a once-a-week class, called “Radical Jews,” at Oakland’s Temple Sinai religious school, which brings together her work as an artist, educator and activist.

The San Francisco resident is serious and thoughtful. When she talks about injustice in the Middle East and in the Bay Area, it is with heaviness, as though she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. But her freckled face breaks into a grin when she talks about lighter ways she connects to her American Jewish Israeli upbringing — like hosting a big potluck Shabbat dinner every Friday night at her apartment in the Mission.

She speaks and reads Hebrew fluently and is currently enrolled in Arabic classes. While in Tel Aviv, she wants to live in Jaffa to improve her Arabic skills.

The grant will also give her time to work on her thesis. Instead of writing a research paper, she hopes to translate “Jericho” by Amos Kenan from Hebrew to English.

Kenan is a social critic, novelist, playwright and journalist born in Tel Aviv in 1927. He was a member of the anti-British military underground; in the 1970s, he co-founded the Israeli-Palestinian Council. Yosha interviewed the 80-year-old author last summer.

“This award will allow me to pursue several projects that impact others,” she wrote in her application for the Haas/Koshland Award, “as much as it will impact myself.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.