Embracing the freedoms and creative energy of Berlin – the city he now calls home – Benyamin Reich has come a long way from Bnei Brak, a hub of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism where he grew up within a rabbinical family. Just a short few kilometres from the liberal trappings of Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak is a city of ‘black and white’ in every possible sense.
Reich’s journey towards his artistic practice led him away from the strict parameters of this world – initially to France, where he studied at Paris’ école des Beaux-Arts. Despite the problematic implications of leaving such a tightknit community, Reich’s outlook remains deeply influenced by his youth. Today, his projects are united by a sophisticated examination of Jewish identities and histories, seeking out the surprising ‘grey zones’ nestled between the black and white.
Beyond his desire to follow an artistic path, Reich’s homosexuality was another reason to distance himself from his roots. In a city where men commit huge proportions of their time to studying the Torah, traditional literature and strict Jewish laws, Reich followed suit, seeking out space within religious doctrine that would accommodate his sexual orientation. The remnants of these experiences are clear to see in much of Reich’s work, which often hint at what is suppressed by the cloak of Jewish tradition. ‘Where I grew up, there was a lot of homoeroticism and homosexuality beneath the surface, and a lot of people sought to find harmony between tradition and their personal inclinations. People tend to believe that there can be no room for modern, alternative identities within the framework of traditional Jewish culture, but I allow myself to take a deeper look into the society I come from.’
The relationship between Judaism and modernity – and the place of Reich’s own personal journey within it – also lies at the heart of his Aggada series, which draws its name from an Aramaic word for a spiritual legend. A similar Hebrew term denotes a specific book that is central to annual Passover festivities, recounting the origins of the religion. ‘Every year Jewish families reenact this half-mythological, half-historical event of the distance past. I took these ideas as a starting point for my own search for universalism, transcending the very narrow borders of community and nationality I come from.’