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A Gentle Jewish Giant and the Legendary Photographer Diane Arbus

Now on display at New York City's Jewish Museum
Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

I met Eddie Carmel the way he didn't really want people to meet him. He was on display.

It was in New York's Madison Square Garden. Decades ago at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, the traditional side-show menagerie before the show meant walking behind the scenes where you could see and meet circus performers up close and personal. Eddie was on exhibition, described by Ringling on the day I went as 'The Circus Giant.' But he was different, no doubt a rare Jewish star of the circus. I can still remember him sitting uncomfortably in his specially created chair, wearing his giant sized black shoes. He was staring out at me and the others who walked by.

We didn't talk. I don't remember him smiling. I got the sad impression he didn't even want to be there.

Ringling Brothers and other exhibition events that put Eddie Carmel on display for over a decade described him with similar press agent-created, exaggerated public relations hyperbole: 'Come Meet The Tallest Man to Walk the Face of the Earth, The World's Tallest Man, Big Eddie, Over 9 Feet Tall, Size 36 Shoes, Weight 470 Pounds. The Jewish Giant.'

Jewish he was. Orthodox and born in Tel Aviv to Miriam and Yitzhak Carmel. Eddie claimed to be a descendant of the world's tallest Rabbi. He also said his lineage went back all the way to Goliath!

Eddie and his family moved from Israel to the Bronx which is where one of the most creative Jewish photographers, Diane Arbus, created one of her most iconic photographs. Ms. Arbus once said, "I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them." How true that was, and until early August at New York City's Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street) you can get see Diane Arbus's Jewish Giant photograph in a small but emotional masterpiece of a display. The centerpiece photo behind a glass case showcases Eddie Carmel with his parents at home in the Bronx. Talk about a candid camera. Diane shows the family with Eddie's Mom wearing a simple housedress. His Dad wears a suit. Notice the artwork of Jerusalem hanging between the parents as well as the plastic-covered lampshades, slipcovers and long curtains. Sadly, barely a year after taking the photo, Diane Arbus committed suicide. She was only 48. A year later, Eddie Carmel died of heart failure He was only 36.

The unsettling Jewish Museum display features some black and white Carmel family photos. They're so normal looking, they could have been pictures of any family. Then there's a 1961 poster of Eddie, the performer. Take a look at the sports jacket he's wearing. It looks like it was created from a giant piece of matzo! Yes, he's actually wearing a jacket that looks like matzo. The gallery also has a display of two iconic cartoon characters, Andre the Giant, as well as the Incredible Hulk, who was created by Jewish comic book artist/writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Was the Museum curator implying that Eddie was himself a cartoonish character? Certainly the display of the old 45 rpm record of Eddie Carmel singing "The Good Monster" seemed to reinforce how Eddie would look for any way to make a buck.

As I continued walking through the Museum's dynamic exhibit of Diane Arbus's Jewish Giant, I stopped and stood at the display of the giant pair of black shoes. Was Eddie Carmel wearing them the day that I saw him at the circus? Perhaps, but today those shoes were a sad reminder of how one special young man with a difference, and the one inventive photographer who met him, could, together, create such a curiously poignant story that still resonates with such heavy emotional impact, even to this day.

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