President’s Greeting: Nov/Dec 2014

The Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958

A rare photograph of the extended Herscher family, San Jose, CA, 1958.

Memory is meaning. It is how we understand existence. It is how we locate ourselves in time. It is what we learn and how we learn. Amnesia is a tragedy, for in severing us from the past, it severs us from ourselves. Who are we without that frame of reference? How can we know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

The debut of the Skirball’s new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 prompts these reflections.

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Welcoming America at the Skirball

Whether our families are recent immigrants or our ancestors journeyed to this country 200 years ago, sharing our stories helps us learn from each other and build bonds with one another. During the week of September 16–21, 2014, as part of National Welcoming Week, the Skirball hosted an interactive event where visitors shared their family immigration stories in the Noah’s Ark gallery.

The Skirball partnered with the online storytelling group Immigrant Nation to create story cards that visitors filled out with their family histories, their ideas about the meaning of home, or details about their family traditions. Once the cards were completed, staff members snapped photos of the visitors and displayed the cards in the gallery for others to read and enjoy. Below is just a sampling of more than 100 cards that were created over the course of the week, highlighting the rich cultural diversity of Skirball visitors.

Where does your family’s story begin?

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Hollywood: The War Years

Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s potent anti-Nazi film Hangmen Also Die!, co-written with eminent playwright Bertolt Brecht, came out in 1943. After Jan-Christopher’s Horak’s illuminating lecture on German exile cinema, stick around to watch a screening of the film.

In anticipation of the opening of the new exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, we asked Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak, UCLA Film & Television Archive Director and expert on German exile cinema, a few questions about how and why Europe’s exiled filmmakers (most of whom were fleeing Nazi persecution) made such an indelible impact on Hollywood’s history, throughout the war era and afterward. Arriving from their war-torn countries, filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch found American audiences to be a receptive market for their perspectives on the dangers of German Fascism. The unique styles they brought to the States, influenced by both the dark and light aspects of their experiences, directly affected the development of the film noir genre. The enduring effects of that genre are explored in the complementary exhibition The Noir Effect. 

Learn more about the relationship between Hollywood and European émigrés at Horak’s informative talk “Hollywood: The War Years,” on Thursday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. The talk is followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943).

You are a veteran in anything concerning German exiles in Hollywood. Can you talk a bit about the notion of German exile cinema?

German exile cinema refers to films made by German-speaking—mostly Jewish—refugees who were blacklisted after 1933 in Germany by the Nazis and then moved abroad, producing work in France, England, Holland, Italy, Spain, and, of course, Hollywood. In Germany they lost everything, usually having to forfeit all their personal wealth, and often had to start from scratch in their new homes. Some, like Robert Siodmak, reestablished themselves in France, then had to flee again when World War II broke out. Continue reading

Harvest and Hospitality

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Stop by the Skirball’s sukkah October 8–16, except October 9 and 13, to enjoy some snacks from Zeidler’s Cart or to just spend a quiet moment.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins this evening. Lasting seven days, Sukkot commemorates the fall harvest and the desert sojourn of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Like many Jewish holidays, it also connects Jews to the cycles of nature. During Sukkot, Jews traditionally spend time enjoying meals with friends and family in temporary shelters called sukkot (sing. sukkah), the Hebrew word for “tabernacle” or “covering.” The sukkah is built of natural materials such as bamboo, wood, and tree branches. Its temporary, fragile nature reminds us that the bounty of summer is behind us and that the autumn season will soon bring the shedding of leaves and the dying of greenery. As summer turns to fall in Southern California, we can also take this opportunity to focus on what it means to live in a drought-stricken area—hoping that nature will bring much-needed rains to us soon. Sukkot is a time to acknowledge climate change—be it the annual cycle or the pressing issues facing the world’s population today. Continue reading

Go Ask Alice (Russell)

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Photo by Kenny McCracken.

Alice Russell’s most recent album, To Dust, is a collection of soulful torch songs about unwavering tenacity in the midst of spurned love. Her live shows are raw and gritty affairs—her vocal acrobatics flying effortlessly across funky grooves and R&B beats. In celebration of indie label Tru Thoughts Recordings’ fifteenth anniversary, Russell performs live at the Skirball on October 24, with openers Lost Midas and The Seshen. I asked Russell to share some thoughts about her music career, her songwriting process, and where in L.A. she’ll be visiting while she’s here.

It’s been ten years since you released your debut album, Under the Munka Moon. How has a decade affected your music? 

Time has sprinted past. I have opened up over time. Over this decade I toured a lot, and that, bit by bit, forced me to really open up on stage and, in turn, in the studio. I have had the privilege to visit amazing places to perform and record, and these experiences can’t help but affect the music that I am now making. Continue reading

Words from the Heart

How do we express love? What does it take to have a lasting relationship, friendship, or marriage? What did your parents or grandparents teach you about unconditional love? These were just some of the questions posed to the public by Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) as they explored the meanings of love and commitment for Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, a multi-phase exhibition on view through October 12 at the Skirball. Sorting through hundreds of responses, Fallen Fruit realized that three different voices emerged—representing wisdom, reason, and guidance on everyday actions. The artists then carefully selected and organized these key words and phrases (using three distinct font styles) to create a commitment document called Love Score. The document is a contemporary take on the ketubbah, a traditional Jewish marriage contract. Densely designed in a style reminiscent of visual poetry, the Love Score provides a unique set of instructions on how to love someone.

Fallen Fruit, Love Score, 2014. Co-authored with the public, this dense text piece takes a few minutes to “decode,” but eventually the words form a harmonious statement about how to love others.

Fallen Fruit, Love Score, 2014. Co-authored with the public, this dense text piece takes a few minutes to “decode,” but eventually the words form a harmonious statement about how to love others.

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A Show of Love

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Now on view in Fallen Fruit of the Skirball: a selection of portraits of people who love each other, all submitted by the public. In making the selection, the artists looked for candid moments that were personal but also spoke to the broader public—smiles, hugs, hand-holding, kisses, and other gestures of affection that everyone understands. Photo by Timothy Norris.

Since May of this year, the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) has been in residence creating Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, a multi-phase exhibition exploring the meanings of love and commitment. For the central part of this project, the public was invited to submit photographs of themselves with someone they love. A selection of these would then be displayed salon-style over the custom-designed pomegranate wallpaper covering the walls of the Skirball’s Ruby Gallery. People from Los Angeles and beyond, including several from our own Skirball community, responded to this call for participation.

With the proliferation of smartphones, with which we can take and post snapshots and selfies on social media at any time, we are able to capture moments with loved ones and express ourselves more easily than ever before. But there are also photographs from old family albums and archives, studio shots and wallet-sized prints. Fallen Fruit embraced all kinds of portraiture to explore complex expressions of love—friendships, marriage, familial ties, and nuanced social messages. They carefully sorted the submissions and chose images to construct a collective portrait of a lifetime, from birth and adolescence through adulthood and old age.

Once the portraits started pouring in, so did the amazing stories behind them. The images portray weddings, both recent and long ago; couples celebrating anniversaries; grandparents sharing special moments with their grandchildren; mothers holding newborn babies; a young dad napping with his toddler children; and a gay couple getting married on the day the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned. Continue reading

A Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

“Do you remember?” That’s a question we often ask visitors to the Skirball, be they school kids, adults, or seniors. Skirball exhibitions—both permanent and changing—look back at moments in American history that have served as fulcrums of social and cultural change, encouraging people to trace their own personal stories through history. Through this reflection, our memories connect us to one another.

The National September 11 Memorial Museum, which opened this year in New York City after a lengthy development process, uses personal narrative to describe the history of an event that is still, for many of us, vividly etched in our memories. Most of us remember where we were when we heard the news of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center; can recall the frantic phone calls to friends and loved ones; still see the images of the Twin Towers crumbling into dust.

I approached my first visit to the new museum with slight apprehension, worried the imagery might be more than my daughter and mother (my companions for the visit) would be prepared to handle. My mom had been in Manhattan on 9/11 and has strong memories of the panic and the dust and the trauma. And my daughter is only fourteen. But the museum person in me was interested in what emotional resonance the experience would bring. The Skirball likewise makes use—in its Holocaust memorial and in the exhibitions—of first-person narrative, immersive experience, and evocative objects. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Sep/Oct 2014

Torah Orah. It is a memorable phrase, even if you don’t know Hebrew. Torah means the Five Books of Moses, and in a larger sense, all Jewish learning. Orah means light. The words rhyme, and their meanings rhyme, too. Jewish tradition equates the Torah with light. Both give life; both shed light; both enlighten. Like the rays of the sun, the Torah warms and sustains us; like the glow of a candle, it guides our way even in darkness. So the ancient rabbis have taught, and so generations of Jews have believed. Torah Orah, the Torah is light.

Here at the Skirball Cultural Center, enlightenment is our motivating force. Our doors are open wide to learning, knowledge, and culture. We celebrate the ideas and the ideals that civilize society. Civilization begins with education, and education begins with conversation. Every day at the Skirball is just that: a conversation between teacher and student, parent and child, volunteer and visitor, old friend and new friend. Our halls and galleries and gardens overflow with conversation, encounter, engagement. That is our purpose and our passion.

When illustrator and author Maira Kalman spoke at the Skirball to a sold-out crowd, the program concluded like most Skirball lectures do: with a Q&A. This young fan was thrilled to engage directly with the artist. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

When illustrator and author Maira Kalman spoke at the Skirball to a sold-out crowd, the program concluded like most Skirball lectures do: with a Q&A. This young fan was thrilled to engage directly with the artist.
Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

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Fiddle Me This: 7 YouTube Videos That Re-imagine “Fiddler on the Roof”

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Barbara Isenberg reads from and discusses her new book, Tradition!, on Wednesday, Sep. 10.

Shalom Aleichem’s most famous character, Tevye the milkman, is probably more associated with the word “fiddler” than anyone who actually plays the instrument. The Broadway musical about the Everyman in conversation with God and his changing times predicted the turmoil of the 1960s, but it also outlived the tumultuous decade it anticipated—to this day scarcely a bar mitzvah or Jewish (or non-Jewish) wedding has occurred without the inclusion of the strains of “Tradition!” or the father of the bride dancing with his daughter to “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Truly, starting from Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the original Broadway production fifty years ago—and whose very personality became the template for all Tevyes who followed—the musical has had an unbroken reach. You can literally spend hours on YouTube watching amateur productions, professional ones in other languages (I highly recommend looking for some of the Japanese ones), and much more general weirdness that is vaguely related to Fiddler on the Roof.

Below are some of my favorite clips, because they show the breadth of the phenomenon that is Fiddler. From a performance by Zero himself to marching bands, from foreign whistlers to contemporary casts giving us the “Anatevka Shake,” Fiddler is only halfway through its first century and is poised to remain a part of the cultural conversation for many years to come. And if you’re not convinced of Fiddler’s cultural entrenchment by a series of increasingly bizarre YouTube videos, check out Barbara Isenberg’s excellent new book about the musical’s historic rise, Tradition!, which comes out today. [The Los Angeles Times published this excerpt.] Then be sure to attend a lively talk by Isenberg at the Skirball, Wednesday, September 10. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy some choice Fiddler clips. Continue reading