Floored at the Skirball: The Severan Synagogue Mosaic Replica



As her Communications and Marketing internship comes to a close, Jenna Lomeli reflects on a defining moment during her time at the Skirball.

I don’t recall exactly what I was expecting when I went on a staff tour of the Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America exhibition earlier this summer. I’m sure I went into it hoping to learn some things about Jewish history (and given my rather sparse knowledge about the subject, there was a lot to learn). I may have even expected to connect with the latter sixteenth of the 4,000 years that the Skirball’s core exhibition covers. I definitely did not foresee being emotionally invested in a replica of an approximately 1,600-year-old mosaic on the floor of the Severan Synagogue in Hamat Tiberias, Israel. But then, who does?

The door leading to the mosaic replica at the Skirball looks like the sort of door visitors aren’t supposed to go through. I didn’t realize it led to another section of the exhibition until Museum Director Dr. Robert Kirschner opened it and led our tour group outside. After exiting the gallery, I found myself looking at a very large tile mosaic set into the ground, with mock ruins above it. A handful of times in my life I have had the happy experience of seeing a painting or sculpture and being completely swept up by it. This was not one of those times. My initial reaction was about as blasé as anyone would expect, considering I was looking at the floor. But then Dr. Kirschner, who has been with the Skirball Cultural Center since its beginning and who led the development of Visions and Values, began to explain the mosaic and its greater significance to the exhibition. Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah Recipes from Petit Takett Creator Orly Olivier

Rosh Hashanah at my relatives’ house in Israel, 2005

Rosh Hashanah at my relatives’ house in Israel, 2005

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Orly Olivier of Petit Takett: Love, Legacy, and Recipes from the Maghreb  muses upon the holiday she learned to love in Israel.

Growing up at home with my parents in Los Angeles, the High Holidays meant going to synagogue in the evening, and again the next morning, followed by a big dinner. I mostly remember the services never quite grabbing my attention the way the Tic Tacs and gum my mother provided to keep me quiet did. But I do remember those services being very important to her. It wasn’t until, at the age of sixteen, I moved to Israel that I began to fully understand the High Holidays and what kind of wonderful experience they could be.

I gained an understanding of Jewish culture by living in the land upon which it was created. My experience wasn’t particularly religious; I attended services once during the three years I lived there. But I discovered a profound personal connection to the rich traditions of the Jewish people that changed me forever.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are my favorite examples of this connection. During Rosh Hashanah, Israel’s cities are decorated with signs and banners wishing people a “sweet and happy New Year!” Decorative photos and pictures of apples, honey, and pomegranates are everywhere. People send cards and gifts, and it’s actually a much bigger deal than Hanukkah. Dinners are bountiful, with fruits and flowers everywhere. It’s a truly joyous occasion.

I have three Israeli aunties, each of whom has had three or more children. Those children now have children of their own, which means the High Holiday family dinners are often twenty or more at the table! The cooking is divided amongst my aunties, and each year they take turns hosting from house to house. The men also have their roles as sous chefs, dishwashers, and expert grocery shoppers. There’s a lot of coordination involved, Continue reading

La Chiva Gantiva: Remixing Music and Identity

From the wild energy of their Afro-Colombian rhythms to the exuberant sound of their horn riffs, the West Coast debut of La Chiva Gantiva will be a stellar kick-off to the Skirball’s nineteenth season of Sunset Concerts this Thursday, July 23.

The Brussels-based ensemble emerged from three Colombian students who wanted to incorporate more of their roots into their favorite contemporary genres, like rock and Afrobeat. To make this Belgian-Colombian fusion even more enticing, they recruited additional Belgian members along with musicians from both France and Vietnam. Thus began their journey into a multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-genre music movement.

I have a special affinity towards this group as they evoke in me a certain nostalgia for my study abroad experience, specifically my time in French bars with Colombian housemates. All of La Chiva Gantiva’s funky songs will get your head banging, but the song “Pelao” (which translates to “kid”) and its music video were what hooked me. The video juxtaposes aggressive French and Spanish verses with a paper-constructed scene of Brussels. With the French I am able to decipher, it seems the song is a dialogue on Colombian identity, displacement, and the deconstruction of stereotypes. This was an all-too-familiar conversation for my Colombian housemate, as he often felt excluded abroad and would always have to fend off the stereotype of Colombians as cocaine traffickers. But like La Chiva Gantiva, he overcame adversity by tackling it head-on through restless song and dance.

SkirBLog_La Chiva Gantiva_Sunset Concerts - pelao
Among the commotion of the piñata smashing and flamingo hats, I was able to spot the Vietnamese saxophonist Tuan Ho Duc, who sports a Vietnamese flag shirt that is also found on their Pelao album cover. Being of Vietnamese descent, I never feel like my culture is represented in the larger music scene, so witnessing Duc’s full-blown pride makes me appreciate the band even more.

With the rising popularity of Pelao, La Chiva Gantiva was able to tour throughout Europe and even hopped the pond to the US for a South by Southwest appearance. They have since released a second album, Vivo, which is spearheading festivals from Canada all the way to Benin. The Skirball is proud to present La Chiva Gantiva at Sunset Concerts this coming Thursday, their single West Coast stop this summer.


Arthur Pham is the 2015 LA County Arts Commission Intern for the Program Department. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he studied geography and was a producer for JazzReggae Festival, so he particularly enjoys seeing the impact of music and art in different cultures. In his free time, he can be found photographing portraits or thrifting a new outfit.

How I Found the Skirball By Way of a Missing Painting

<i>Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years</i>, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Lyon(s) at the age of 101 Years, John Constable, 1804. Gift of Mr. Ben Selling.

When I first met my son-in-law’s father, George, we instantly bonded over our shared interest in family history. One of George’s most interesting ancestors is Sarah Lyon, who lived from 1703 to 1807. A notable fact about Lyon is that she was painted by the great English Romantic painter John Constable when she was over 100 years old. However, George didn’t know where the painting now was. Intrigued by the story, I asked a friend in England to contact the National Gallery in London and see if they had any information. The next day, my friend called me back and told me that the painting was actually right here in Los Angeles, at the Skirball Cultural Center, just a short distance from where I lived. The timing was fortuitous because the location of the painting had only recently been discovered. Immediately, I called the Skirball and asked if they could send me a picture of the painting. Shortly thereafter I received a phone call from a docent, David Welsh, who told me he had been instrumental in gathering information about Lyon. David said he would be happy to meet me for lunch and give me a copy of his notes.

I was excited to visit the Museum, see the painting, and discuss genealogy with David Welsh. And I was not disappointed—it was a marvelous experience. Here is what I have learned about Sarah Lyon and her family: Continue reading

“The Lost Tapes”: Things I Learned from Knowing and Remembering Bill Graham

In the exhibition, be sure to stop at the final “Remembering Bill Graham” section. There you’ll hear excerpts of many interviews and well as excerpts from the radio tribute, which I called “Laughter, Love & Memories,” which I produced in 1993.

In the exhibition, be sure to stop at the final “Remembering Bill Graham” section. There you’ll hear excerpts of many interviews as well as excerpts from the radio tribute, which I called “Laughter, Love & Memories,” which I produced in 1993.

When you visit Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, you will find a listening station towards the end of the exhibition. If you put on the headphones, you’ll hear excerpts from one-of-a-kind audiotapes that I have loaned to the Skirball for the exhibition, all recorded for my radio show after Bill Graham tragically died in 1991. You’ll listen to John Popper, Blues Traveler frontman, calling me from a payphone off Bleecker Street (in New York City) to share memories of Bill. You’ll hear Richie Havens performing “Dreams” by Stevie Nicks in Bill’s honor while talking to me about the early days with him. You’ll catch the late legendary Phil Ramone telling me how Bill recommended to The Recording Academy that they give Phil an award based on his many accomplishments (that became a reality a decade later when Phil was honored with the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award). You’ll hear those audio segments and so much more.

Here’s a preview of the clips of John Popper calling me from a payphone in downtown NYC, and of Richie Havens in the studio with me telling me about the first time he met Bill Graham.

I was especially happy to be able to share these treasured tracks because for many years I didn’t know the recordings still existed! Here’s what happened. Continue reading

The Old and the New: Making Passover Your Own

Tiered Seder Plate, Franz Strobl (?),1814.

Tiered Seder Plate, Franz Strobl (?),1814.

Having been a docent since the Skirball opened in 1996, I have had numerous opportunities to talk about the many objects in the core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. One of my personal favorites is the seder plate shown above, on display in the Holidays Gallery. Made in Vienna in 1814, this beautiful silver plate has three tiers for matzah and seven screw-on cast figures who hold the ceremonial Passover foods. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the figures are different sizes and are wearing clothing from different eras. The reason for this is unknown. Continue reading

Light & Noir: A “True Hollywood Story”

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in <i>Light & Noir</i>

These ten Declaration of Intent documents are on view in Light & Noir.

For the European exiles and émigrés featured in our exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, Hollywood was much more than the glamorous place of fame and fortune we often think of now. During those years, in juxtaposition to the turmoil brewing in Nazi Europe, Hollywood was a place where these émigrés could take refuge and start their lives anew.

This clip from the PBS documentary Cinema’s Exiles gives some context about what émigrés were fleeing from. You can watch the full film on the big screen here at the Skirball on March 1.

But, as is still the case, immigrating to the United States was no simple task. In addition to the geographical distance they had to overcome, émigrés also had to comply with the United States’ strict immigration laws. Many of them came on visitor visas that would expire after a certain amount of time. If they wanted to legally extend their stay—and, unsurprisingly, many of them did—they needed to file a Declaration of Intention. Not unlike what is today called a “green card,” the Declaration granted permanent residency in the U.S. And while it wouldn’t automatically grant these émigrés citizenship, it was the first step they had to take if they wanted to acquire it.

On loan from the National Archives at Riverside, the original Declaration of Intention forms currently on display in Light & Noir reveal some lesser-known facts about people we know well by different names. For instance, actress Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express, A Foreign Affair) and director Henry Koster (It Started with Eve, Harvey) were actually born as Maria Magdalene Sieber and Hermann Julius Kosterlitz. Marlene_Dietrich_Declaration_of_Intention

Not every category could be answered as matter-of-factly as one’s name… Continue reading

When Bauhaus Meets Judaica: A Unique Hanukkah Lamp

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamp, Ludwig Y. Wolpert, ca. 1960. From the Skirball collection.

Hanukkah lamps come in all styles and materials. Here at the Skirball, the permanent collection of lamps is as varied as the artists who crafted them, each piece a reflection of the generation and the community for which it was fashioned. For example, lamps from countries surrounding the Mediterranean were demonstrably influenced by Sephardic traditions and style. Others reveal inspiration from modernist innovations popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

The lamp pictured above, currently on display in the Skirball’s core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, was designed by German sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. Born in Hildesheim, Germany, Wolpert began his artistic studies at the School for Arts and Crafts in Franfkfurt. He then worked as a sculptor, specializing in metalwork. Artistically, Wolpert was inspired by the Bauhaus slogan “form follows function,” and also by Leo Horovitz, a silversmith and designer of Judaica. Under Horovitz’s guidance, Wolpert became involved in creating modern Jewish ceremonial art. One of his signature practices was to incorporate an abstract of a Hebrew letter in his pieces. The design of this lamp recalls the Hebrew letter shin.  Continue reading

The Cameraman Always Shoots Twice: Enter to Win

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

Old-school signage (and hey, look, a pay phone!) can add a retro feel to your photos. Submit yours to the Skirball’s “Shoot Your L.A. Noirscape” photo contest today!

I knew I was in trouble the minute this contest walked through my door. Suddenly my random, obsessive photography of my surroundings acquired a sinister focus. I saw shady characters everywhere—thick-necked loan sharks chomping cigars, aspiring starlets with murder in their eyes, barflies in disheveled suits with a story to sell, stage-door Johnnys, short-order cooks, ex-boxers with prison tattoos, nosy landladies, guys with five o’clock shadows who spent all day studying the daily racing form—the city was chock full of ‘em, and I got them all in front of my camera, one way or another. I prowled the city at night, getting lost in a twisted warren of steam-shrouded back alleys, on the hunt for fresh material. Two filters fought tooth and nail for dominance in my photo stream—Tonal, Noir, Tonal, Noir, Ansel? No, Noir! I was spiraling out of control, shooting everything at Dutch angles, falling headlong into the crazy, disorienting shadows I once composed artfully from a safe distance. I was a goner, a stiff, a patsy, and then at the very last second I was pulled back from the brink. By a dame, no less.

“You’re not eligible for this contest. See right here in the contest rules? It’s not open to relatives of staff.” Continue reading

House Party with Noura

Noura and me at the party in Timbuktu.

Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.

Umm Kulthum performing “Baeed Anak” in Paris, November 1967.

I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading