Darkroom veteran shines light on Jewish life in Marin

To snap the perfect photo of a bar mitzvah celebration, it helps to have experience as a sports photographer.

That rule of thumb applies to San Rafael photographer Norm Levin, who shot UCLA sports teams in action when he was going to school there.

In sports photography, he says, “You learn to anticipate the action: the arc of the ball, the flight of a running back, how high the jump. That translates to any human activity. When two people are about to meet at a reception and the arms are coming out, I can anticipate the moment they embrace each other.”

Norm Levin

There is plenty of embracing in the 40 framed photos included in Levin’s new exhibition, “Celebrating Jewish Life in Marin,” now on display at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

And his observation about arms is on the money. Shooting Jewish simchas, Levin seems to go for the arms. In most of his photos, arms are raised, doing their part in Jewish rituals.

It could be Congregation Rodef Sholom’s Rabbi Stacey Friedman clutching havdallah candles. Or celebrants at a San Rafael bar mitzvah hoisting the 13-year-old high on a chair. Or kids from Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon holding up their plush toy Torahs on Shavuot.

In Levin’s photos, everybody looks happy.

“My tagline is ‘Photography with spirit,’” Levin says. “I make my aesthetic one that seeks out and grabs that passion people have when they’re in the joyous, rapturous celebratory moments in their lives.”

Ellen Demel Deck carries the Torah during a dedication ceremony for a new sanctuary at Kol Shofar in Tiburon. photo/norm levin

Shooting professionally since 2008 (and an avid photographer most of his life), Levin says he and Joanne Green, the JCC’s director of the Koret Taube Center for Jewish Peoplehood, together came up with the idea of capturing Marin Jewish life on camera. About 100 people turned out for the opening of the exhibit Sept. 18, Green said.

Already a regular bar/bat miztvah and wedding photographer at Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, to which he belongs, he expanded his scope for this project.

“It was very illuminating to see the array of Jewish expression here in Marin,” Levin says. “People let me come into their homes, their shuls, their yards. I’m fortunate they are demonstrative and exuberant. People may think Marin Jews are laid back. That’s not the case at all.”

For the exhibit, Levin tried to cover the breadth of Jewish life. The images on display include a Chabad upshirin (first haircut for a boy) and preschoolers serenading seniors at a JCC Shabbat luncheon.

A native of Los Angeles, Levin grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, and was spoon-fed a healthy appreciation of the arts. His mother was a painter, his father a chemist in a Hollywood film lab.

He took to photography back when the hobby meant spending hours in the darkroom, and then studied fine art photography at UCLA.

Though he eventually went into the field of marketing and publicity, he never stopped shooting, and four years ago he took the plunge and became a professional photographer; he owns Natural Portraits and Events. And though he’s gone digital, he appreciates those old-school years of developing his own photos by putting them into chemical baths.

“Any photographer who cut his teeth in the darkroom has an advantage in some ways over young folks who never did the slow and wet process,” he says.

Levin sees himself as an artist first, and a documentarian second.

“I wanted to elevate the imagery for people,” he says. “[For] a once-in-a-lifetime event, I want people who see my pictures to say ‘I know what it must have felt like to be there.’”

“Celebrating Jewish Life in Marin: Photography by Norm Levin” is on display through Nov. 23 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. Information: (415) 444-8098, or  www.marinjcc.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.