Photographer Jay Wolke encountered some serious obstacles during his six-year study of Chicago’s Jewish community. Many of the activities he wished to capture take place at indoor sites blessed with the kind of institutional lighting that bedevils color photographers. He jokes that he almost called his show at the Art Institute “Jews Under Fluorescent Lights.”

Yet taking pictures for “All Around the House: Photographs of American-Jewish Communal Life” was a bigger challenge than merely getting the colors right. “Many times I wanted to abandon this project because of a lack of visual information that I could work with,” says Wolke. “It was all religious Jews praying, and it’s certainly even worse when you have nonreligious Jews who cannot even be identified, say, by clothing or certain rituals. It became very difficult because these people look like everybody else.”

One way Wolke resolved this quandary was to focus on the primacy of text in Jewish life, ranging from a blunt blue neon sign in a deli window in No Traif Here to the more meditative Sanctuary Construction, Temple Sinai, a shot of an unfinished doorway to a new sanctuary on the near north side. “It could be any corporate space in the world,” he says; the secular-looking environs include an illuminated red Exit sign. The only thing that sets this space apart is a long paper scroll taped to the wall. It’s a stencil for a future inscription reading “Do Justly, Love Mercy, And Walk Humbly With Your God.” Wolke also underlines the sacred role of words in Moving In, Temple Sinai, which shows a box of books spilling onto the carpeted floor of an otherwise vacant library in the synagogue. The room’s wood shelves match the cardboard brown of the box, a juxtaposition of transience and tradition.

Wolke employs a similar composition in Baby in Hallway, Jewish Homeless Shelter, which centers on a baby in diapers lying on a black linoleum floor surrounded by six wooden doors, all shut. It so happens the boy was not Jewish, but there’s no way to know this in the chilly and unsettling shot. Jewish and Christian worlds collide in Boxers, Whitney’s Bat Mitzvah, which depicts a dancing kid wearing shiny black boxer shorts, a party favor, over his pants. White lettering on the shorts reads “Whitney’s Bat Mitzvah, June 11, 1994.” Despite the occasion and the season, the boy is also wearing red suspenders decorated with Santa Clauses, candy canes, pinecones, and Christmas tree ornaments.

Wolke, 43, the son of Conservative Jews, grew up in the mostly gentile community of Elmwood Park. He remembers that during one snowstorm he spotted a business opportunity and went from house to house with a shovel; his plan backfired, but there were unexpected benefits. “People thought I was a poor, underprivileged child who was forced out on Christmas Day to shovel sidewalks. I got a lot of business that day and didn’t have to work. They’d just invite me in for Christmas dinner. Or they’d give me money and send me packing. They didn’t want me to work on Christmas.”

At college at Washington University in Saint Louis, Wolke sang professionally, “picking up cash singing in both Christian and Jewish choirs,” he says. One of his earliest art projects involved re-creating vanished worlds. “I would go to a totally burned-out building and make an installation out of what was left, and bring things out and reconstruct them to create these narratives of what had been in the building,” he says. As a grad student at IIT’s Institute of Design, where he now teaches photography, Wolke fashioned diptychs, triptychs, and grids of photos for a project called “Relative Rooms,” an inquiry into “how people acquire their taste by handing down various aesthetics through familial relationships–mothers’ and daughters’ living rooms that looked identical, and fathers’ and sons’ offices that looked identical.”

Themes of devastation, continuity, and community still influence him. The aftermath of a synagogue fire is documented in Burnt Prayer Books, Post-Arson Fire, F.R.E.E. (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) Congregation, which commemorates a wounded community through its ruins and relics. A chorus reflected in a window inspired his most abstractly eloquent comment on the overlapping of Jewish and American identities: Children’s Chorus, Israel Independence Day Celebration was shot at Navy Pier after dusk. We see the city’s south lakefront in the distance, the shoreline garlanded with lights. In the center of the window is a reflection of the indoor stage, where a chorus performs below American and Israeli flags. A long line of spotlights overhead parallels the string of lights on the shoreline. A Jewish celebration is framed by an American context.

“All Around the House: Photographs of American-Jewish Communal Life” runs through September 13 at the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams. Call 312-443-3600 for more information. –Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jay Wolke photo by Bill Stamets; “Boxers, Whitney’s Bat Mitzva”, “Baby in Hallway, Jewish Homeless Shelter” photos.