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

Conversations and Connections: A Teenager in his Native Habitat and at the Skirball

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

Living with my fifteen-year-old son, Arlen, is like living with a wild animal. A non-verbalizing, hedonistically hibernating, ragingly ravenous animal. The palate craves only that which is smothered in cheese. The wild mop of hair has been known to cause strangers on the street to nag (or, to my dismay, compliment and rave). The clothing is monochromatic. The vocabulary is monosyllabic. Parenting a teen is like living with a beast whose sole mission in life seems to be to eat more groceries than I can afford and to thwart my efforts at planning quality family time.

According to a great article I recently read in National Geographic, my son’s qualities could probably be attributed to the intense brain reorganization that kids his age experience. Nonetheless, I desire more connection with him, and I’m willing to try almost anything. Since many of my conversations with Arlen involve overwrought pop psychology on my part, and a series of grunts and somewhat base gestures on his, it has come as a huge relief to find things to do at the Skirball that inspire genuine communication. The Skirball is well known for our programs for young families (I am itching to sleep overnight inside Noah’s Ark at the Skirball), dynamic adult education, and thought-provoking and beautiful exhibitions. But did you know that there is a mélange of meaningful moments to be had at the Skirball with that favorite teen animal/angel in your life? I am so happy to trumpet to you all that there is. THERE IS!

I spent my first six months working here as a timid observer, wondering if my son would like our offerings—or if he could be coerced into showering for any of them. Then, I signed up for the Skirball’s Teen Parenting Seminar, hoping it would give me techniques to foster open communication. The seminar was full of eager parents and brave new ideas—and the most simple yet profound of these zapped my brain like a laser: do new things with your teenager.

So, we tried doing a few things. We went to the Huntington Gardens, but my own mom and I enjoyed their gorgeous rose gardens a teensy bit more than my son—although he did get in some quality texting time. We have now been to Disneyland more times than

probably anyone you know, and frankly we are both bored of the “happiest place on earth” (how much is there actually to say about Space Mountain?).

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

It took me a while to realize that some of the Skirball’s offerings might suit my son very well indeed. So, I signed us up for a Skirball Member preview of a documentary film called Bully that has been at the center of much media attention. It was a stealth invitation, meaning that I just texted him that I had scheduled an activity. I didn’t give him any details. This turned out to be a brilliant plan on my part: I hadn’t given him any information, so there was nearly nothing to which he could object.

After watching Bully together, something incredible happened: we really talked afterwards. We talked and talked for over an hour about the film, as well as my son’s own experiences with bullying. For the first time in a long time, we had an organic, genuine conversation. The experience was transformative, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We were transformed from a mother and son who barely recounted the banal happenings of our day to each other… into two people who felt substantially closer to one another. And the best part is that we now have a way to keep that closeness going. Continue reading

Paper Mates: Phoebe and Henry Ephron

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.


In thinking about the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History and the impact that Jewish individuals and communities have had on the fabric of Los Angeles, I immediately thought, “Hollywood!”

Most of us know the great Jewish men of Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Danny Kaye, MGM Founders Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, and the four brothers of Warner Bros. We also know Jewish women who found fame on the silver screen, like Lauren Bacall, June Havoc, and Molly Picon, to name a few. But what’s less known are the behind-the-scenes contributions that Jewish women have made to the industry and to the culture of L.A. Perhaps this is because of a gender-bias in “the biz,” or an oversight by historians. Whatever the reason, I was happy that a quick search on the Jewish Women’s Archive led me to a plethora of information about the important and well-known films either written or co-written by Jewish women.

The Skirball’s new, upcoming film series The Write Stuff celebrates these hidden gems, the great films of the Golden Age of Hollywood penned by Jewish women screenwriters. In these early days, i.e. the 1930s to the 1950s, women were mostly relegated to acting roles. Thankfully, some were able to break through this glass ceiling to become not only great screenwriters, but also directors, producers, editors, etc.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel <em>Humoresque</em>, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel Humoresque, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Some of the women who won early renown as screenwriters were: Sonya Levien (Daddy Long Legs [1931], which was remade in 1955 by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, and Interrupted Melody [1955]); Fannie Hurst (Humoresque [1920] and Imitation of Life [1934]), and Betty Comden (Singin’ in the Rain [1952], The Band Wagon [1953], and The Barkleys of Broadway[1949]). These films went on to win prestigious awards for best screenplay and best writing, not only attesting to these writers’ achievements, but also paving the way for future generations of women screenwriters, many of whom remain on our “favorites” lists today.

Continue reading

Researching My Mexi-Jewish Homegrown History

A portrait of my great-grandma Sarah “Sally” Goldbaum, which is now part of the Jewish Homegrown History online archive. The companion exhibition is now on view at the Skirball.

A portrait of my great-grandma Sarah “Sally” Goldbaum, which is now part of the Jewish Homegrown History online archive. The companion exhibition is now on view at the Skirball.

My name is Sarah Goldbaum, and Goldbaum is my great grandmother’s maiden name. Does that make me Jewish? I guess it depends who you ask.

For a long time, all of us in our family were unfamiliar with our Jewish roots. As far as I knew, my mother and grandparents were Catholic. Growing up, I’d heard the story of my grandfather Al changing his last name from his father’s surname, Molina, to his mother’s, Goldbaum. It was part of family lore.

Two summers ago, I began sorting through a box of old family photos. I talked to my mom, aunt, and grandmother, eager to find out who the people in the pictures were, where they came from, and so on. I was hoping to piece together whatever we could from memories, scribbled photo captions, and Ancestry.com. Based on information from the U.S. Census and the University of Arizona Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives, we discovered that we were Mexican on my maternal grandmother’s side and Prussian Jewish on my maternal grandfather’s side.

Soon we were able to fill in some of the blanks. After just a couple of months, I was contacted by another Goldbaum on Facebook. He lives in Ecuador. “I think we’re related,” he wrote in a direct message. There are so many Goldbaums that I figured we probably weren’t, but sent him a link to some family photos anyway. I was amazed at his response: “We are definitely related!”

My family tree, from the Prussian Jewish brothers listed up top, down to me and my new Facebook friend, Roberto Goldbaum.

My family tree, from the Prussian Jewish brothers listed up top, down to me and my new Facebook friend, Roberto.

Continue reading

Home Movies: Then, Now, Forever?

Jewish Homegrown History

Skirball visitors watch some of the many home movies screened in Jewish Homegrown History, organized by USC’s Labyrinth Project. Bring your own home movies to Home Movie Day at the Skirball this Sunday, April 22, and find out how best to preserve them for the future. Photo by Daniel Bydlowski.

With the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History now on view, there’s something I’ve been wondering about: When you hear the term “home movie,” what comes to mind? I dare say that the image will vary considerably based on when you grew up.

If you were a Depression-era kid, born in the 1930s and 1940s, most home movies were an elaborate affair shot in 16mm film and screened using a large projector much like the ones used in school classrooms back in the day. It was an expensive undertaking that only a few could afford and was reserved for special occasions.

Baby Boomers remember small 8mm handheld cameras, which could shoot about eight minutes of footage and whose images had no accompanying sound. In order to shoot indoors, the camera operator had to mount a gigantic light bulb, which, in addition to providing the necessary lighting, could also blind and burn its subjects! Dangers aside, we would gladly dance in front of the camera—run around like wild animals, leap off furniture, dive into swimming pools. Continue reading