Casual Conversations project explores the variety and intricacy of Jewish-American identity. We began our visual survey in the Russian-Jewish immigrant enclave of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach before expanding to the wider Jewish-American community in locations from New York to Philadelphia, Miami, Sonoma Valley, and St. Paul.

Early one morning, on a sunny July weekend in 2007, we asked beachgoers in Brooklyn’s predominantly Jewish, Russian-speaking Brighton Beach to define their identities. Each participant was asked to pose for a photograph with any or all of three signs reading “Russian,” “Jewish,” and “American,” or to come up with his or her own self-definition by creating a unique sign. By the end of that day, 52 people had posed, and 44 portraits were taken.

From 2012 to 2014, we expanded on the project with new subjects through interactive stations installed at various exhibitions and public events. Participants would write their own identifying phrases with markers on poster boards and pose in front of a backdrop depicting Brighton Beach, photographing themselves with a tripod-mounted camera. 

1870 people participated in the project in six locations: the National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, PA 2012; the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, New York, NY 2013-2014; Limmud NY, New York, NY 2014; Jewish Funders Network International Conference, Miami, FL 2014; Limmud Bay Area, Sonoma Valley, CA 2014; and the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area, Saint Paul, MN 2014. 

In total, 1,922 people participated in creating a portrait of the community—in its many shades, shapes, and sizes—and a collaborative statement about collective identity. Participants ranged from a two-year-old girl who identified herself as a “future president” to vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who identified himself as “a proud and grateful Jewish American.” 

The project resulted in the book of photographs and essays From Selfie to Groupie by Alina and Jeff Bliumis; Joshua Ellison, editor; David Shneer, Anya Ulinich, Joshua Ellison, Jenya Gorbatsevich, Konrad Bercovici, authors; Hard cover, 9 x 11 in, 240 pages, 245 color and 14 black-and-white photographs; Release date: May 2015; ISBN 978-0-9797248-2-4

Casual Conversations, 2007-2014, Series of 1914 photographs, C-print, 4 x 6 inches each, Edition of 3
Casual Conversations in Brooklyn, New York, 2007, Series of 44 photographs, C-print, 40 x 50 inches each, Edition of 3