New photo book of U.S. Jews includes a Bay Area chapter

Over the course of four years, Dr. Saul Landa, a dentist from New Jersey, spent Passover in the Lower East Side of New York, Purim in New Orleans, Tu B’Shevat in Phoenix and Sukkot in Baltimore. He also attended a wedding in San Francisco, a brit in St. Louis and the 20th annual Kosher BBQ Cooking Contest and Festival in Memphis, Tenn.

He documented his visits to 18 U.S. Jewish communities with photographs, juxtaposed them with archival photographs and compiled histories and accounts of present-day life in these communities through interviews with the community’s elders, historians and leaders.

The result is “A Timeless People: Photo Albums of American Jewish Life,” a coffee table book released May 15.

Landa is an avid photographer, traveler and hiker — in 2006, he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain — who combined his passions for photography and Judaica in this book.

He was also on a mission to document longtime U.S. Jewish communities that remain viable today.

For more than a decade, Landa, a professor of dentistry at the University of Pennsyl-vania, has served as a photojournalist for Jewish newspapers and maintained a stock photo company.

Initially, he thought he’d cover all 50 states in the book, but soon realized that “was going to be an impossible task.”

“It was very hard to narrow it down,” he says. He decided to make sure each of the areas he visited had an interesting history and that the Northeast, South, Midwest and West would be represented. The Bay Area is one of the 18 featured communities.

“Every community has a different personality,” Landa says. “It’s absolutely fascinating.”

Over four years, he traveled to the communities, spending four days in each. He arranged interviews beforehand and made sure there was an event — whether it was a lifecycle event such as a bar mitzvah or a holiday celebration such as Chanukah — that he could attend.

One of his most memorable experiences, however, was unplanned. When he was in Charleston, S.C., he attended services at Brith Sholom Beth Israel and noticed the numbers tattooed on the arm of the gabbai, Holocaust survivor Charlie Markowitz. The next day, Landa asked Markowitz if he could photograph him and talk to him about his life.

Markowitz’s story exemplifies the theme of the book, which Landa says is about persistence, resilience and survival.

“In the U.S., the survival that I was fascinated with was the survival in a community where you have all the freedoms that you wanted,” he says. “How does the religion survive when you have a plethora of freedom? So from the point of view of emotions, when this gentleman put on his tefillin over his numbers, that shows survival in two ways. That shows survival in his youth and survival now in Charleston.”

Another memorable experience was learning about how the Jewish community in San Francisco had to rebuild after the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Similarly, he learned how the New Orleans Jewish community stayed together and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

Landa photographed about 70 percent of the book’s 1,000 photographs.

“When I juxtapose pictures of somebody from World War II holding a lulav and then I have somebody now holding a lulav, to me that says it all,” Landa says. “Perseverance, continuity and survival, that’s what this book is all about.”

“A Timeless People: Photo Albums of American Jewish Life” by Dr. Saul Landa (360 pages, Gefen Publishing House, $50).