Next to Passover, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. I think it always was, but it became even more so when, sixteen years ago, I invited a gentleman named Burt to join me and my family for dinner in my sukkah. I don’t think it was the brisket or homemade round challah, but later that year we were married and Burt has joyfully been building that sukkah ever since. A win-win.
My tradition of building a sukkah began forty years ago when my youngest daughter, a student in a local day school, said she would like to invite her classmates to enjoy some juice and cookies in our sukkah. Didn’t I think that was a great idea, she asked? I agreed, but surely she must have noticed that we didn’t actually have a sukkah. Not a problem. She quickly and enthusiastically suggested that it would be great fun to build one. She was right, and so began a wonderful and very meaningful tradition.
We designed it, according to Jewish law, in the shape of one of the Hebrew letters found in “Sukkot.” We selected the “hey,” a square letter that is wide open on one side. Oh, the symbolism! A trip to the hardware store to buy the decorative wooden lattice sides, a talk with the gardener to request some palm fronds, and a call to my synagogue to order a lulav (closed palm frond) and an etrog (citrus fruit), Continue reading
Ever had a picture come to life before your eyes? Recently, while sitting at the admissions desk, I had the opportunity to speak with a mother and daughter visiting from New Jersey. After several questions about our Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America exhibition and the docent tour, I came to understand that these ladies had journeyed a long way to see a particular photograph on display. It was precious to them because they are the descendants of the family captured in the image.
If you’ve ever visited the Liberty Gallery in Visions and Values, you’ve probably seen this photo reproduction near the Statue of Liberty torch. And, like most of us, you’ve probably wondered about this family. I asked Karen Humphreys and Ann Riley, great-great-granddaughter and great-granddaughter of matriarch and patriarch Sylvia and William Mirkin (seated in front of the bride and groom), to pose in front of the photo and it really brought it to life! Ann’s grandparents, Jacob and Sarah Schneper, or “Bubbie and Pop,” stand to the bride’s right-hand side. Karen’s strong family resemblance to her great-grandmother Sarah and great-aunt Bertha (peeking her head through between the bride and groom) is almost magical.
Pulling in our docent coordinator Noga Sherman to capture as much of the family story as possible, we learned that six of the Mirkin children are included in the wedding picture of son Jacob (Jack) and his bride, Anna (née Danzig), taken June 13, 1911. All had recently arrived from Russia (a seventh child stayed behind), and they were celebrating this marriage in the new land in high style. Note William’s traditional skullcap and the younger men’s top hats, accessorizing the family’s already grand fashions.
Reproduced on the cover of the May/Jun 2013 issue of At the Skirball and the April 25–May 2, 2013 issue of the L.A. Weekly (pictured at left) is the new painting The Door Is Always Open, by celebrated artist Gary Baseman.
The title of this work—like that of our major new exhibition on the artist’s life and career—borrows a phrase from Gary Baseman’s own father. Ben Baseman used to tell his son, “Gary, the door is always open.” It was a reminder that the Fairfax District four-plex that he called home would always provide protection and loving kindness. Continue reading
The Jewish holiday of Passover is not celebrated in temple, it is celebrated at home. On the first (and often the second) night of Passover, families and friends gather for a ritualized meal or “seder” during which they drink wine, sing songs, and tell the Exodus story—with the goal of reminding everyone at the table that freedom is a gift to be cherished.
Every family’s seder is different, from the Haggadah they choose to read from to the seder plate on which they present the holiday’s symbolic foods. To celebrate this uniqueness, a few members of the Skirball staff share the story behind their seder plates, starting with mine!
I have always liked the bright and cheery design of my mother’s seder plate, and assumed for all these years that she had gotten it as a newlywed when she and my father were married. I discovered this year that she actually purchased it herself when we moved from New York to California when I was a child.
Until we moved, my mother never needed her own seder plate. In New York she attended first her grandmother’s, then her aunt’s seder—large family affairs conducted mostly in Hebrew that continue to this day. When we moved to California, in search of warm weather and business opportunities, we were forced to leave that family tradition behind. I know the move was bittersweet for my mother, as she was very close to her family, but I think this plate represents her hopefulness about starting a new tradition with her children. I have to say, she has done an excellent job, because Passover at my mother’s house is something we look forward to every year.
“Our seder plate has great personal meaning since it was made by friends, Leslie Gattmann and Eugene Frank, who operated a ceramic Judaica business for many years. Each piece was lovingly handmade and hand-painted. We use it every year at our family seder, which includes many great traditions from beating each other with green onions during the “dayenu” song (a Persian custom that we simply had to adopt) to raucous searches for the afikomen (dessert matzoh) by the youngest guests, who are now grown men.
I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.
A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”
The Man Behind the Myth
My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.
Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading
I am a cultural consumer. I like to attend movies, concerts, plays, and museum exhibitions. I read multiple publications, both print and online, in order to know what is happening around town. All of this cultural consumption helps me as I plan for the courses offered through the Skirball’s Learning for Life program. These courses do not emerge from thin air—there is a lot of thinking, researching, discussing, and planning that goes into the offerings. So when I come up with something out of the box, such as our upcoming course Anne Frank Redux, I thought it might be interesting to share a little bit about how this course came to be.
First, I love the writing of Shalom Auslander. I have read all of his books and have listened to him on This American Life. Auslander is certainly an acquired taste. He can be caustic, angry, and hilarious at the same time. One of his common tropes is exploring how he, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew, navigates America’s freedoms without getting caught up in feelings of guilt for abandoning his faith. He worries about how to raise his children and seems to spend a lot of time dissecting his own neuroses. He raises questions about contemporary society with a unique voice that may at times sting, but always leaves me ruminating. Not for the faint of heart.
Hope: A Tragedy (2012) is Auslander’s first full-length novel. It presents the reader with the absurd notion that Anne Frank didn’t really die but is living in the attic of a New York farmhouse, trying to write a memoir that will outsell her famous The Diary of a Young Girl. Auslander’s book forces deep consideration of how contemporary American Jews and non-Jews think about the Holocaust and its aftermath. There is even a series of trailers for the book in which Auslander calls some of his fellow writers and asks if, in the event of another Holocaust, they would allow him to hide in their attic. Continue reading
The day I planned to bring my eleven-year-old son, Benjamin, to Creating the United States, I called my dad. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, just a few towns over from where the shot heard ‘round the world rang out (this is how Schoolhouse Rocks memorialized that event, remember?) and only a short trip from where Paul Revere rode his famous ride. Dad, who grew up in Lexington, MA, is a man who has always been surrounded by—and fascinated with—history.
In fact, it was my dad whom I thought most about when I first walked through Creating the United States. I looked closely at the old documents, the artifacts, and the photographs, and took a journey through the American Revolution. As I stood in front of the uniform of a Continental Army officer (which also caught the eye of The Family Savvy, in this enthusiastic write-up), I thought of Dad and the stories he told about Revolutionary War muskets that our family once housed as part of a collection.
The old satchel displayed alongside the uniform reminded me of things that men carried to war, like the Civil War−era canteen that still sits in my parents’ living room. It once belonged to Danforth Maxcy (my great-great-great-great-uncle), who was injured at the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the train ride back home to Maine. He was twenty-one. Continue reading
Of all the famous L.A. landmarks—the Capitol Records Building, the Hollywood Bowl, the Santa Monica Pier—perhaps none has a more fascinating origin story than the Watts Towers. This monument to one individual’s creativity and community activism is a fascinating place to visit, both because of the physical scale of the towers and their importance to L.A.’s art community.
For these reasons, a number of us in the Education department took a field trip to the Watts Towers to see them close up, learn about the community programs presented there, and find out more about Simon Rodia (1879-1965), the Italian immigrant, construction worker, and self-made artist who built the towers all by himself over some thirty-three years.
Ten of us ventured to Watts on a sunny Friday morning. The towers are tucked in a neighborhood filled with houses, schools, and nearby Metro tracks. We parked and entered the Watts Towers Arts Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, located in a building adjacent to the towers. The center serves as a space for art workshops, gallery exhibitions, and school programs (one of which was underway when we entered). First we watched a video about Simon’s life, which helped us understand the nature of his unusual undertaking: an immigrant from Serino, Italy, feeling far from home and missing familiar cultural traditions, who took it upon himself to express that longing through the creation of an ambitious work of art.
Examples of how the immigrant experience inspires artistic expression pervade our culture: novels by E.L. Doctorow, songs by Bruce Springsteen, paintings by Jacob Lawrence. As our Education team explores in many of the Skirball’s school tours and school performance programs, the immigrant story is one of the universal experiences in American life. Simon did not express his yearning for Italy or his relishing of opportunity in America in couplets written in a notebook or by painting a watercolor of stars and stripes.
Instead, Simon went big, creating a seventeen-part structure that includes three towers connected by interlocking arches. Continue reading
Just nine days until Jewish Homegrown History closes! And now’s a great time to come back or see the exhibition for the first time. Three recently remixed and newly added films are now on view, thanks to The Labyrinth Project team that created the installation. These new home movies came to Labyrinth’s attention through contacts made at our Home Movie Day at the Skirball in the spring.
Here’s a quick rundown and a few screengrabs of the new films:
FAMILY SECRETS: EVADING HISTORICAL TRAUMA
Peter Vanlaw did not discover that he and his German émigré family were Jewish until he had a heart attack in his fifties. His story is driven by unsolved mysteries concerning his grandmother’s suicide, his mother’s mental breakdown, and his father’s repeated attempts to escape family history. Combining melodrama and historical trauma, this story supports scholar Michele Citron’s claim that “home movies were powerful and necessary fictions that allowed us to see and explore truths that could only be looked at obliquely.” Edited by Daniel Bydlowski.