While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.
The Lincoln Spotlight is on view now through February 17.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.
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 Skirball’s Learning for Life program is always looking for new and fun ways to engage adult learners. When UCLA instructor Marc Milstein approached me about teaching a course explaining the science behind TV crime shows, I was hooked. I have always wondered about the accuracy of the crime-solving science on these shows. Entertaining Science: Simply Explained will explore forensics, DNA evidence, cloning, and much more. Hopefully, this interview with Marc Milstein will whet your appetite.
If I take this course, will I be able to identify the killer on TV crime shows?
Great question! We could do an experiment and see if detective skills improve after taking the course. I’ll get back to you on the results of that one. You will definitely have a greater understanding and appreciation of what your favorite TV characters are talking about when they discuss the latest DNA-based and fingerprinting technology. You will also be able to catch when your favorite TV characters are talking about using a technology that doesn’t quite work in the way they are discussing it!
Can we do anything to improve short-term memory?
Absolutely! In just the last few years there has been a lot of extremely exciting research on how our memories are made and formed. We are going to discuss that, as well as the most effective methods researchers have found to increase one’s memory. One tip is to learn new things and challenge your brain in areas you might not feel completely comfortable with. Whether it be learning a new language or learning about science, that type of brain workout seems to be the most beneficial. We are also going to talk about some fascinating studies of people who have lost their ability to make any new memories. These are people who completely live in the present moment, much like the main character in the film Memento. There is one famous case about a man who couldn’t form any new memories, yet he could still remember how to play the piano. Continue reading →
Champagne and roses may be synonymous with Valentine's Day, but this year, we recommend celebrating with Say the Word!
There’s a bit of a lull after the flurry of celebrations and activities of the holiday season, until suddenly, thoughts of Valentine’s Day begin to come into mind (or loom ahead, as the case may be).
At the Skirball we’re excited to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special edition of our popular Say the Word comedic reading series entitled Bleeding Hearts, a little twist on the typical hearts-and-flowers motif. Whether you love Valentine’s Day or dread it, there’s something for you in this show. Say the Word: Bleeding Hearts is February 8—about a week before Valentine’s Day—so you have time to find a date!
I asked our Say the Word host, resident comedy maven, and goddess of love, Beth Lapides, to share some of her insights into the holiday and the Bleeding Hearts program.
Valentine’s Day: fake holiday or important day dedicated to expressing love?
Totally fake. But also, a very important day for expressing love! So, both. And that’s what keeps us interested in Valentine’s Day or any of the other Hallmark holidays—the contradiction of the authentic urge and the repulsive fake commerciality. The trick is to find ways to satisfy the one part while making fun of the other. And Say the Word is all about combining the heartfelt and the ironic twist. So, speaking of Cupid, it’s a match made in heaven!
I have one theory about Valentine’s Day. It’s actually a manifestation of our desperate longing for red in the midst of winter bleakness. Continue reading →
The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.
Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California
I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading →
This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.
The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.
Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!
My colleague Doris Berger, Skirball curator, explained that she chose the Ruby Gallery as the exhibition space for Voices & Visions in part because “this gallery is a communicative space that is open to all the visitors free of charge. It is a space that is being walked through by staff and visitors alike and literally invites you to stop for a moment.”
When I first learned about the exhibition Voices & Visions and took a look at some of the names involved in the project, I geeked out a little bit. Just as there are celebrity architects like Moshe Safdie (who designed the Skirball) and Frank Gehry, there are celebrity graphic designers like Milton Glaser (of the famed I <3 NY logo), Ivan Chermayeff—perhaps best known for designing, together with Tom Geismar, television network logos like the current iteration of the NBC peacock—and Pentagram Partner Paula Scher. All of them have poster designs on display in the exhibition. Scher designed, among other things, the identity for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where I worked as an intern and assistant on web projects before I joined the Skirball. Because of this connection, I was especially interested to see her Voices & Visions poster design.
Paula Scher, Master's Series 2012. Quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.
For Voices & Visions, the creative brief was straightforward: The Harold Grinspoon Foundation sought out contemporary Jewish artists to visually interpret the words of great Jewish thinkers. Each artist was to create a thought-provoking poster based on the Jewish text for a universal audience. As Doris Berger put it, the series “highlights humanistic values that are rooted in Judaism.” They are values and ideas we can all relate to, whether we are Jewish or not. The creative director of the project, ad-man and designer Arnold Schwartzman, was the Foundation’s connection to all of these amazing graphic designers.
The thinker for Scher’s poster? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the few in his family to narrowly escape the Nazi invasion of Poland, he was a great philosopher and writer who stood up for spiritual freedom, civil rights, and an end to war. In his book The Prophets, Heschel describes prophets not simply as individuals who can foresee the future, but as “the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.” Heschel could have easily used this definition not only to describe himself, but to describe the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the Civil Rights Movement, Heschel courageously supported King and marched by his side to Selma in 1965. [Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball carries a great children’s book about Heschel and King’s common purpose, entitled As Good As Anybody.] Continue reading →
Beginning in January, we present a new music series entitled “Journeys and Encounters,” featuring an eclectic line-up of global talents. Though they hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds and artistic traditions, their music-making demonstrates the beauty that emerges from openhearted cross-cultural exchange.
My son Gideon and I in Rwamagana, Rwanda.
In 2012, I journeyed to Rwamagana, in rural Rwanda, and enjoyed firsthand the joy of connecting across cultures. I was visiting Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (the Kinyarwanda-Hebrew name, agahozo–shalom, translates roughly to “a place of peace where tears are dried”). Co-founded by my son Gideon Herscher, it is a residential community for orphans emotionally scarred by the genocide in Rwanda. One evening, Gideon brought his guitar to a gathering and sang a traditional Hebrew lullaby. The young teens listened attentively. Gideon invited them to sing a Rwandan lullaby, which they did at the top of their lungs. Continue reading →
Come rain, come shine, the Skirball’s annual Hanukkah family festival always draws a crowd of diverse generations, backgrounds, and smiles. Photographer and first-time festival attendee BeBe Jacobs was impressed with this year’s Hanukkah festival, Americana Hanukkah, which took inspiration from our campus-wide “Democracy Matters” initiative to celebrate the Jewish holiday. “No matter what activity [people] were doing,” she told me, as we looked over the images she shot that day, “the fact that families were spending time together made all the difference.”
For both of us, the Hanukkah festival not only brought families together but also brought out creativity that visitors did not realize they had. There was plenty to do all day, like watch Marcus Shelby and his quintet perform beautiful freedom songs… or hear Story Pirates act out original Hanukkah tales on stage… or join a tour focusing on the Skirball’s collection of Hanukkah lamps (the last couple of these Lights of Hanukkah Family Tours take place today and tomorrow, so be sure to swing by this weekend). But it was at the hands-on art workshops where people got a chance to create something themselves.
Here, BeBe shares ten of her favorite photos from that fun-filled day with reflections on the people and moments that made them so special.
BeBe was amazed at how each visitor could create beautiful art pieces out of plain materials. Here, a young visitor displays a menorah he made out of plastic tubes, colorful tape, and stickers.
This young girl patiently waited as her brother finished his art project. In a moment of silliness, Bebe placed a tiny menorah on the glue stick in front of the girl. Immediately she looked down and started to blow out the “candles”.
This young visitor was very proud of the Hanukkah pin she crafted. The glee that shines through in this photo makes it an easy favorite!
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.
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 →