One of my earliest, most haunting memories is of being woken up in the middle of the night and, with my younger brother, put in the back seat of our grandfather’s car and taken to the airport outside of Tel Aviv. It was December 19, 1974 and I was 7. We were moving to America. It was my father’s will. He was suffocated by the Israeli reality, damaged by the army and didn’t want his sons to be soldiers. He wanted the promise of America. In 1934 he was born in Czernowice, Romania, and with his family survived World War 2 in a camp. In 1948, after 3 years in refugee camps they made it to Israel. 3 years later he was taken into the army and given the job of clearing land mines. My mother was fortunate to have been born at all. Her Polish father, had a job in Bucharest when the war started. Romania sided with the Nazis, and he left to Sofia, Bulgaria where he met my grandmother. As the threat to their existence grew, they fled to Istanbul where in 1941 my mother was born, as they waited for permission to emigrate to Palestine. During his lifetime, while Poland was still under Soviet domination, my grandfather hunted for, but never found any information about what happened to his mother and brother. He held on to this picture, of him and his brother, his whole life.
I don’t remember how, at the time, I felt about the move to New York. In Israel I had a sunny Mediterranean childhood – the sea, a house with a big garden, fruit trees, flowers, dogs and cats, grandparents (whom we left behind). I was a child ignorant of the past and sheltered from the political reality of the present. Once, at the start of war in 1973, my father came home early from work and rushed us to the neighborhood bomb shelter. We sat there for a while but nothing happened. To a child it was a thrill, a game. Soon after I was in an ugly New York suburb in the winter with big buildings and in a school with a language I didn’t understand. It must have been tough but I quickly got into American life. A lot of sports, television and bad food. For my mother, leaving Israel was a catastrophe. She loved her home, her country her language. She tells me that it was so bad that she doesn’t remember her first year or 2 in New York. It’s blocked out. And, 43 years later, she is still eaten up by the guilt of abandoning her parents. Me, a little less so. I left New York for Europe over 15 years ago. I try to remember to call my mother once a week. And I wonder from where my daughter will, years from now, interrupt her busy day and force herself to call me.
A phone call that is burned in my memory – Soon after the move to New York, my mother, brother and I returned to Israel for the summer holidays and stayed in our old house. I was 9. Some of my former school mates came by and asked me questions about America, like was there television there and ice cream? One night I woke up in the dark and got out of bed, left my room and saw my mother on the telephone, crying. She was telling my father that we are not coming back to him. He was pleading with her. I returned to bed and we never spoke about it. At the end of the summer we did come back. When I recently asked her about this phone call, she also had no memory of it.
My life as a photographer started at the end of high school. During the last term we were obliged to take one practical course. The choices were carpentry, electricity and photography. The first 2 sounded really difficult, so I chose photography. This sounded easy. At home there was always a camera around. My parents took a lot of pictures of each other and of my brother and me. I took their Yashica rangefinder. I remember the old teacher, showing us step by step the basics of black and white photography. The correct way to expose film, develop film, make a contact sheet, make a test strip and make a nice print. I couldn’t follow. I couldn’t then and can’t now do anything by recipe. Cooking, putting together a piece of furniture with instructions, finding the way on a map - I’m lost. In the photo class I did everything wrong and it infuriated the teacher. Once he humiliated me, telling the students – “if you want to know how not to do something, look at Ackerman”.
I was not defeated and something was born - I remember a slight sense of power, as I hid behind the camera and looked at my friends and the cooler kids to whom I felt inferior. Teenagers who, unlike me, read books, drank beer, smoked, knew how to drive and had girlfriends and boyfriends. Next year at University I joined a student photography organization and was taught again the basics by older students. I became obsessed and just wanted to take pictures. I took every bad boring cliché beginner picture. After 2 months I returned home for Thanksgiving holiday with about 200 black and white prints, very excited to show them to my parents. My mother looked at every one and kept repeating how beautiful they were. My father looked at a few and walked away, totally bored.
5 years later I didn’t manage to finish university but my photography improved. I told my parents I’m leaving school and coming back to New York to be a real photographer. My mother was scared for my future and begged me to graduate. My father, who didn’t finish high school, said that I know what I’m doing. He didn’t understand my pictures but he understood the need in life to do what you believe in. He didn’t care about career or status or respectability. After a childhood like his, the only thing he cared about was freedom.
When I was young I felt some allegiance to Israel but I lost it. There are places where I love to be, where I feel connected, where it’s a pure pleasure just have my feet on the ground – New York, Napoli, Krakow, Varanasi, some street, some village, a mountain, a sea, a particularly fragile tree that somehow survives. Places where I’ve felt a little less alien. People and landscapes that I see myself in. But I’ve given up the idea of finding a home. Photography is an act of profound recognition. When I take a picture I have the brief illusion to belong.
These are my parents, getting married in Tel Aviv in 1959. I write this today November 10 2020 in Berlin, where I live with my wife and daughter.