President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2013

UDH greetingReproduced 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

Serving up Passover on a Pretty Platter

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 Lisa-Delgin---seder-platewere 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.

Continue reading

Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

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

Anne Frank Redux: From Concept to Course

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

Two Benjamins

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan

Military uniform (jacket, epaulets, waistcoat, breeches, tricorn hat, and wig) and leather satchel of Jonathan Bancroft of Massachusetts, 1777-ca. 1789. From the collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

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.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

A historical artifact from my family’s own American story: Danforth Maxcy's canteen.

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

Nice Work, Simon Rodia (An Italian American Who Could’ve Been the Grand Marshal of Any Columbus Day Parade)!

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

From afar or up close, the Watts Towers are visually splendid… and the story of its maker, Simon Rodia, is an inspiration.

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.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

Skirball educators pose for a snapshot in a cozy corner of Simon Rodia’s triangular lot.

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

New Films Added to the Jewish Homegrown History Mix

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.

 In 1929, Peter Vanlaw’s parents, Kurt Weinlaub and Lilly Rayfish, were newlyweds enjoying their prosperity at the Winston apartments in Hollywood, but then came the Stock Market Crash that seriously rocked their world.

In 1929, Peter Vanlaw’s parents, Kurt Weinlaub and Lilly Rayfish, were newlyweds enjoying their prosperity at the Winston apartments in Hollywood, but then came the Stock Market Crash that seriously rocked their world.

Continue reading

Music That Brings Me Closer to Home: La Santa Cecilia

La Santa Cecilia performs this Thursday night as part of the 2012 Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. This is such a great photo of the band! To my eye, the illumination around each member creates a saint-like aura!

La Santa Cecilia performs this Thursday night as part of the 2012 Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. This is such a great photo of the band! To my eye, the illumination around each member creates a saint-like aura!

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles from Sacramento, I’ve tried my best to be independent. But, as much as I hate to admit it to myself and even though I talk to my mom just about every day, I do get homesick and find myself nostalgic for my childhood.

What sparks my fondest memories is the music that I’ve grown up with. As a child, I was exposed to wonderful musicians such as Selena, Marc Anthony, Vicente Fernández, Banda Machos, Chayanne, and my personal favorite, Shakira.

As I’ve gotten older, my taste for Latin music has expanded to other artists such as Carla Morrison, Calle 13, Café Tacuba, Camila, and most recently, La Santa Cecilia, an L.A. favorite that will be taking the stage this Thursday at the Skirball. When I first began my internship here, I knew very little about this band, but once I listened to a few of their tracks, I immediately fell in love. What attracts me most to La Santa Cecilia’s music is their ability to combine different musical genres, not just of Latin culture, to create a type of music that is for everyone.

La Santa Cecilia, named after the patron saint of music, is fairly new to the music industry, but received a lot of popularity after their Latin Grammy nomination for this song, “La Negra.”

I’m so excited that August 23rd is coming up, so I can finally watch the band live! So, to help get everyone ready for this Thursday night’s concert featuring La Santa Cecilia, here’s a quick interview with the talented lead singer, La Marisoul:

A beautiful photo of just one of the vendor booths that enliven Olvera Street in El Pueblo, Los Angeles. © Kevin Stanchfield. As featured on http://dguides.com/losangeles/information/history/.

A beautiful photo of just one of the vendor booths that enliven Olvera Street in El Pueblo, Los Angeles. © Kevin Stanchfield. As featured on http://dguides.com/losangeles/information/history/.

What or who has inspired you to make music?
My biggest inspiration has been my family. Their love of music influenced my early dreams of being a singer/performer. I remember as a kid my mother would sing around the house and teach me her favorite songs. Another fond memory was spending weekends at my grandfather’s shop on Olvera Street in the heart of Los Angeles. There, in the colorful alley ways of Olvera, the sound of mariachi music, trio groups, and norteño bands were never absent and inspired my love for performing. Continue reading

A Special Place for Everyone: A Summer Intern’s Perspective

A simple biblical passage that transformed into an unforgettable lesson for me this summer.

A simple biblical passage that transformed into an unforgettable lesson for me this summer.

It was a Tuesday morning and a group of summer interns and new hires were gathered in the lobby. We were waiting to tour the Skirball’s permanent exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America guided by the extremely knowledgeable Museum Director, Dr. Robert Kirschner. As one of only two Multicultural Undergraduate Interns, funded by the Getty Foundation, lucky enough to work at the Skirball this summer, I had the pleasure of going on this exclusive walkthrough. The tour began with Dr. Kirschner’s passionate remarks about the Skirball’s beginnings, the Skirball’s President and CEO, Uri Herscher (with whom I’ve met on multiple occasions and who is absolutely wonderful!), and Dr. Kirschner’s personal dedication to the museum.

Most importantly, he spoke of the Skirball mission as a Jewish institution that welcomes both Jews and non-Jews. As I enter the final days of my Skirball internship, I am more and more convinced that everyone is welcome here regardless of a person’s culture, religion, or race.

Here is a photo of the beautiful handsewn “Proclaim Liberty” Torah mantle. It was made by Peachy Levy in Santa Monica in 1991. Wool, embroidered and appliquéd with cotton and metallic thread. HUCSM 60.138.

Here is a photo of the beautiful handsewn “Proclaim Liberty” Torah mantle. It was made by Peachy Levy in Santa Monica in 1991. Wool, embroidered and appliquéd with cotton and metallic thread. HUCSM 60.138.

When Dr. Kirschner guided us to the entrance of the exhibition, I stood face-to-face with a simple yet powerful statement: “Go forth…and be a blessing” [The writer of this LA Times article about the opening of the Skirball in 1996 took note of this detail as well.] He urged us to look beyond the biblical context of the passage (it’s from the Book of Genesis) and to view it as a philosophy about inclusivity and universality—a philosophy by which all of us should aspire to live, one that encourages people of all cultures to be a blessing in the world and to all humankind. What I loved most was that this message is physically and philosophically ingrained into the Skirball’s foundations.

We walked a few steps ahead and there I saw one of the Skirball’s most prized possessions. A beautifully sewn object displayed behind glass beckoned me to take a closer look. Dr. Kirschner explained that it was a Torah case. When I was close enough to read what’s embroidered in the fabric, I became even more fascinated. Similar to the passage engraved in stone at the entrance, this object carried a biblical passage (this time from Leviticus) with a universal message: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” These words, it turns out, are also written on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a truly American treasure.

Recently I had the opportunity to learn more about this Torah case when I spoke with Adele Lander Burke, VP of Learning for Life, who oversees the Skirball docent program. She told me that in place of the object currently on view, there used to be a Torah scroll open to the exact same verse. But the Skirball decided that the Torah case, with its red, white, and blue motif and message about freedom, was more symbolic of the American values and ideals that are central to the Skirball mission. I also learned that the light tan color of the scroll image was meant to represent the lyrics “amber waves of grain” from “America the Beautiful.” All of these details underscored the Skirball’s deep interest in the American story, which brings me to my favorite part of the exhibition: the Liberty Gallery. Continue reading

The Wheels on the Bus: From Boyle Heights to Beverlywood

The ark at the Breed Street Shul, one of several stops during our recent Jewish Homegrown History Bus Tour.

The ark at the Breed Street Shul, one stop during our recent Jewish Homegrown History Bus Tour.

I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many Angelenos, I came here as an adult. At this point in my life, I have lived in L.A. much longer than my first eighteen years in Chattanooga. I have come to love the story of Los Angeles—my husband is a big hometown booster—and I have visited and learned to appreciate all that Los Angeles has to offer, from San Pedro to San Fernando to San Gabriel to Santa Monica.

A fascinating piece of the L.A. story is the history of the Jews who have settled and thrived here. From its earliest days, Jews have helped to build L.A. as we know it—whether as bankers, merchants, performers, teachers, builders, or Hollywood producers—and they continue to contribute to the fabric of the city through the arts, civic life, industry, and education. This ongoing story was brought vividly to life on a warm Sunday in June when fifty curious souls boarded a touring coach at the steps of the Skirball to spend a day exploring Jewish Los Angeles.

The catalyst for this day trip was Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage, on view at the Skirball for just one more month. The exhibition presents personal stories of growing up in Los Angeles and California through the use of cleverly edited home movies and wonderful added audio commentary. Visitors quickly learn of the challenges of moving to California in the 1930s and 1940s, adapting to a new environment, and encountering the various cultural groups that were also settling here.

The bus tour was ably conducted by Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College and Senior Research Fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Bruce is a demographer: he studies patterns of settlement, affiliation, intermarriage, and immigration. He gathers the raw data and then attempts to deduce from it the stories of our lives. The ways he finds information are amazing. For example, by browsing the 1930 Los Angeles telephone directory, he was able to learn where Jews lived by pinpointing the houses of worship.

To prepare for the daylong bus tour, Bruce and I took the telephone directory records and headed out to find the long lost synagogues. We ended up as far south as 42nd St. and Grand Ave., where today we find the Greater Faith Temple, which was once called Congregation B’nai Amuna. Many of these old synagogues are now churches, but they all retain the original cornerstones with Hebrew dedications, as well as distinctively Jewish ornamental decorations on their facades. We were excited to bring our bus tour to these landmarks of Jewish homegrown history.

Our first stop was Greater New Vision Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, where Pastor Lucious Pope welcomed us. This building was the former home of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, which now sits proudly in Westwood on Wilshire Blvd. The church has retained the original designs in the sanctuary as well as the name in Hebrew on the front. As we peeked inside on a Sunday morning before regular services, the Greater New Vision congregants were warm and welcoming. Our visit to their church also gave us insight into the changing demographics of our city: the African American church now shares its space with a Spanish-speaking evangelical congregation. Continue reading