Tal Niv- Quality time
Fathers and sons at Bat Yam seashore, August 2010. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen
Text size

The sweet little boy in the tank top clutches his father's hand, but is entirely engrossed by something he sees that he finds most peculiar and amusing.

In this photograph of fathers and sons on the Bat Yam beach on August 2, most of the people are dressed. People always look a little more vulnerable and accessible and equal to one another and similar when they are undressed; the sea, for its part, bathes and envelops the entire body. But in this modest photograph by Gil Cohen Magen, whose modesty stems in part from the way the photograph was shot from the side - as if seeking not to disturb, even if that means sacrificing some perspective - most of the figures are clothed. And yet, they are still exposed to the degree they can permit themselves. And they are crowded together. Bunched up. Bathing as a community, as a collective.

They are yeshiva-student fathers, whose leaders have lately been seeking a special regulation that would provide them with a small daily stipend; men with children who live by the laws of their community and adhere to certain social customs and rituals, like this one - father-son bonding, bein-hazemanim, at the seashore.

Linguistically, bein-hazemanim ("between the times" ) is not a summer vacation, but rather a stretch of time whose existence derives from what preceded it (a period of study ) and what will follow it (the Hebrew month of Elul - traditionally a time of repentance - and then another period of study ). The heat and the sun also play their part. This time period is set aside for closeness and a focus on the family, with what little means one has.

The father at the center of the photograph holds the hand of his child, who stands behind him; the man's round, full, "pregnant" bare belly stands out amid the mostly white-clad crowd. The father on the left side of the photograph, squatting in the shallow water, is speaking, close-up, to his toddler son, who wears a sun hat and is protected within a black inner tube. And then of course there is another father in this photograph - the one pretending to be asleep.

Cohen Magen, a freelance photographer who works for Reuters and Haaretz, among others, won the 2009 Local Testimony award for news photography and has devoted the past decade to documenting Hasidic courts. Like many of his photographs, this one is shot from a low angle. And as always when he photographs children, he captures their sense of wonder: The sweet little boy in the tank top who trails after the man with the round belly clutches his father's hand, but is entirely engrossed by something he sees that he finds most peculiar and amusing. And so the photograph first draws the observer's gaze to the child's gaze, and then gently from there to the sight the child finds so enchanting.

But the moment the boy in the tank top turns his attention to the odd sight, a chasm arises between the gaiety and busy-ness of the boys - for almost all the children seen here are at play - and the unsettling, eerie silence of the skinny dad wearing a blue shirt and a wristwatch, who lies motionless beneath a pile of sand. Like Holbein's anamorphic skull at the bottom of his great painting "The Ambassadors," here, too, all of a sudden a story is told that contains no joy, as if this man has no one to giggle at him, as if he is showing the children how one returns to dust, as if to say that the sea does not heal anything, that it is not really full. But this has nothing to do with yeshiva students in particular. It's just the sandman's sense of humor.