Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.


Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. Continue reading

EL AL Poster Competition–We Have a Winner!

Chis Kim A., shown here with his poster alongside Liora Avrahami from EL AL Airlines, designer Arnold Schwartzman, and Skirball curator Doris Berger. Photos by Shoshana Maimon.

We have a winner! When we opened the exhibition To the Point: Posters by Dan Reisinger last month, not only were we excited to have the unique and inspired designs of Dan Reisinger on view in our Ruby Gallery, but thanks to his many years of collaboration with EL AL Israel Airlines and the support of the Consulate General of Israel, we were able to offer the opportunity for anyone to share their designs with us and enter a contest to win airfare to Israel via EL AL! We are happy to announce that Chris Kim A. (click here to read how he got the “A” from Andy Warhol!) has won the contest, and excited to share the winning poster as well as the designs of seven other finalists below.
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Tips for a Meaningful Passover Celebration, from Generation to Generation

At Passover this year, my wondrous granddaughter, Sloane, will be two-and-a-half. She is pictured here with me (in blue), her mom (with Sloane in her arms), her aunt, and her great-grandmother at last year’s Seder. I will feel blessed to have four generations seated at our Passover table. Right: Here the family is gathered at Passover many years ago at my mom and dad’s house. I can tell it’s a Seder by the red wine glasses and men wearing kippot.

Left: At Passover this year, my wondrous granddaughter, Sloane, will be two-and-a-half. She is pictured here with me (in blue), her mom (with Sloane in her arms), her aunt, and her great-grandmother at last year’s Seder. I will feel blessed to have four generations seated at our Passover table. Right: Here the family is gathered at Passover many years ago at my mom and dad’s house. I can tell it’s a Seder by the red wine glasses and men wearing kippot.

Following in the tradition of my parents and grandparents, my husband and I have hosted our family Seder for the past twenty-seven years in our home. Some of our guests, numbering anywhere from twelve to twenty-four, do not come from a Jewish background. Our aim is make everyone feel welcome and to have a joyful, memorable experience. Over the years, we have developed some great ways to achieve this through interactive and thoughtful questions, storytelling, song, table setting, and food. Here are some helpful tips and good finds I’ve picked up over the years.



Shopping, cooking, setting the table, and preparing for the Seder service can be overwhelming and challenging. I keep recipes, grocery lists, and a timeline on file, and I start planning and prepping a few weeks in advance to spread out the workload. It’s never too early to make sure you have everything you need to set your table. The following ceremonial objects, available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball, make for an elegant presentation.


60_minute_seder_bookcover p32) THE HAGGADAH BRINGS THE HOLIDAY TO LIFE.

Read at the seder table, the Haggadah recounts the tale of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Each year, we are challenged to retell the sacred story in a way that keeps it fresh while preserving age-old traditions.

As the buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball, I am excited to recommend a new Haggadah that we have reviewed, Sixty-Minute Seder. It’s an easy-to-follow yet sophisticated guide to preparing for Passover and executing the service.



Questions and answers are central to the Seder ritual, which is all about connecting with one another. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Mar/Apr 2014

Building a snowman in Tel Aviv. February 5, 1950. Photo by David Eldan. Courtesy of Government Press Office of Israel.

Building a snowman in Tel Aviv. February 5, 1950. Photo by David Eldan. Courtesy of Government Press Office of Israel.


I was eight years old the first time I saw snow. It was in Tel Aviv, where I grew up and where it never snows. But one day, in February 1950, it did. A layer of white blanketed the city. Everyone came outside to witness the extraordinary event. My friends and I built snowmen in the streets. The grown-ups did, too. And all within view of the Mediterranean Sea. The sight of white snow on white sand—it was so rare and marvelous! Since immigrating to the United States, I have witnessed many other snowfalls, but I will never forget the first one.

In the 1960s, Ezra Jack Keats, the son of immigrants to these shores, wrote and illustrated The Snowy Day, a book celebrating the childhood wonder of snow. His setting was New York City. Snow is not a rare event there. But the book was a rare event, because Keats made the groundbreaking choice of an African American as its main character—the first time a black child was the focus of a popular children’s picture book. Keats did not see himself as a pioneer of civil rights. But it was important to him to depict his beloved neighborhood as it was, and to show that the joys of childhood are universal. Continue reading

Water World

Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

Photo by Bebe Jacobs.

When the rain is coming down during winter in L.A. (like it is today, finally!), the Skirball takes on my favorite look: wet. Much has been made of Moshe Safdie’s signature materials—glass, steel, and water—and how they reflect the sun, sky, and mountains. [To learn more about Safdie’s design aesthetic, visit Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie.] Those of us who live/work in one of his environments know the special secrets of how the concrete walls look wet, the patterns of raindrops on the pond, the sound of a storm against the glass, and the occasional leaf floating in a puddle.

It is with these moments in mind that I decided to create a spotify playlist—a soundtrack, if you will, for those stormy days, when the archaeology dig is closed and the buildings’ exteriors take on a mellowed hue. I invite you to pick up an umbrella and admire the Skirball in the rain with your headphones tuned to this playlist.

The Taper Courtyard.

The Taper Courtyard.

“Hljómalind” by Sigur Rós from Hvarf/Heim
The organ at the beginning always reminds me of a church organ, but the song is anything but a hymn. It’s written in Hopelandic, the imaginary Icelandic-like language the band has invented to focus their listeners on sounds rather than words, I frequently think that Jónsi is singing “you saw the light” and “you shine on us.” At the same time, for me the nonsense syllables call to mind the interplay of wet flagstone and sky in the Taper Courtyard. The final moments of the song remind me of a toy piano. Follow along with the Hopelandic lyrics, here.

“Eple” by Röyksopp from Melody A.M. (but I most prefer the Black Strobe remix off their Eple 12″ EP)
In Beaux Art architecture, in order to create a successful fountain, one needed to ensure that anyone strolling by would hear the sound of water on water, water on stone, and water on metal. Certainly on a rainy day one can hear that all of that at the Skirball. “Eple” seems to reflect the romance of falling water in at least all three of those states, plus the drama of grey skies. I think here at the base of the mountains and Mulholland Drive we benefit from a very special climate. If you’ve ever watched the clouds roll into the mountains here and become fog, you know what I am talking about. See the Röyksopp music video, here.

“Tinseltown in the Rain” by The Blue Nile
The classic but defunct indie band The Blue Nile knew a thing or two about rain: their home base was Glasgow, Scotland, a city that receives nearly fifty inches annually. While their song is not about Los Angeles but the impermanence of love, I love comparing the idea of the wet Victorian buildings (ubiquitous in Glasgow) to the Skirball’s rain-streaked modern architecture. Plus the song showcases Paul Buchanan’s plaintive voice to brilliant effect. I often sing the song to myself while I walk out the Skirball’s front door towards a rainy Sepulveda Blvd. The repetition of lyrics is a nice accompaniment to watching windshield wipers of cars stopped at the traffic light. Watch it performed live, hereContinue reading

Today is National Chili Day!

National Chili Day_Zeidlers_SkirballHappy National Chili Day! I absolutely love chili. I love the spices, the variety of topping choices, and—since I am vegan—the fact that it constitutes a well-balanced meal filled with protein. Every year for the Super Bowl, I make my own chili from scratch. Most people think it’s difficult, but all you are really doing is throwing everything into a pot. The spices are key, especially cumin, and when I make it myself I can customize the chili to my taste.

The tradition of making chili actually arose from my mom’s chili-layered dip. Using a baking pan, she would spread chili evenly over the bottom and then layer it with sour cream and a healthy portion of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. The dip is then baked until the ingredients are hot and the cheese is melted. However, due to my vegan lifestyle, while I follow the tradition, I focus my attention on making a delicious chili topped with avocado, chopped red onion, pickled jalapenos, and sometimes my own vegan sour cream. While Super Bowl Sunday comes only once year, I crave the dish on a regular basis.

Fortunately, I work at the Skirball Cultural Center and am able to enjoy the vegan chili that is served at Zeidler’s Café whenever I’m at work! Zeidler’s chili is perfectly seasoned, has the precise bean-to-liquid balance, and I can get any toppings that I want. The recipe even contains some meatless crumble, which makes the chili even heartier. Lucky for us, I was able to get my hands on the recipe, which is posted below. I plan on cooking the chili for the first time tonight in order to truly celebrate National Chili Day.


Vegetarian Chili
(Makes 6–8 hearty servings)

1 12-oz. can vegetarian chili beans
1 12-oz. can vegetarian black beans
2 12-oz. cans vegetarian pinto beans
12 oz. marinara sauce Continue reading

Architecture Knowhow!

Every year, the Education department at the Skirball partners with teaching artists and a local school on a series of creative and collaborative workshops centered around an exhibition. For the current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, we created a six-week in-school residency with fourth graders from Annandale Elementary School in Highland Park that focused on design and architecture. Our goal was to encourage the students to engage in problem-solving through a “design-based learning” process that linked to Global Citizen and also incorporated elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). The teaching architects, Justin Rice and Kagan Taylor of the fabrication laboratory and design studio Knowhow Shop, knew just how to excite the students about designing, building, and learning.

Our first step was to figure out what the students already knew about architecture. It turns out they knew quite a bit! Chalkboard circle chart

Next, the students took an architecture tour of the Skirball campus and visited Global Citizen to learn about the center’s architect, Moshe Sadfie.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

We were inspired by Sadfie’s Habitat ’67 and by the natural beauty of the Skirball campus.

On another day, they took a walking field trip to the Knowhow Shop, where Justin and Kagan showed them some of the shop’s projects and special tools.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

Justin carved a pumpkin on the CNC machine while the students watched. And Manny, also from the KnowHow Shop demonstrated how a laser cutter works.

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What’s New in the Museum?

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads. Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield SCC59.97.a,b.

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads.
Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield

The Skirball is proud to announce the recent donation of a very rare Torah ark curtain and valance saved from destruction during World War II.

An American paratrooper during World War II, Seymour Linfield, found this Torah ark curtain in an abandoned synagogue in Austria, which had been in use as a stable. He rescued the curtain and passed it on to his son, Michael, who recently donated it to the Skirball Museum for conservation and posterity.

The curtain depicts the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. The curtain and valance feature hand-sewn silk construction and intricate metallic thread embroidery. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the curtain, above the decorative fringe, reads “sound the shofar at the new moon,” which is derived from the New Year liturgy, when the scriptural reading from the binding of Isaac is read. This suggests that the curtain was specially made for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Hebrew abbreviation “Crown of Torah,” as seen on either side of the embroidered crown, refers to the sovereign authority of the Torah (the five books of Moses), which Jewish tradition ascribes to divine origin. The Hebrew inscription below the scene identifies the congregation of origin: Tagendorf (possibly a transliteration of Techendorf, a lakeside village in the south of Austria). The Hebrew numerical abbreviation just below that states the Jewish calendar year 5638, which translates to the secular calendar year 1878.

Before agreeing to accept this object as a contribution to the Museum collection, the Skirball contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (USHMM), for guidance on accepting items brought home by US soldiers during World War II. According to the USHMM, both they and the Library of Congress accept such items as long as the object is fully documented and thorough provenance research is conducted. Items looted by Nazis or their sympathizers, on the other hand, are repatriated as a matter of policy to community, synagogue, or family of origin. Continue reading

Valentine’s Day Playlist

Beth Lapides on stage—one of her great loves.

Beth Lapides on stage—one of her great loves

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is almost here—again! At the Skirball, we have a tradition of commemorating this special yet infamous (and totally made-up) holiday with a comedy storytelling event hosted by Beth Lapides from Uncabaret: Say the Word: Bleeding Hearts. This year’s show is on February 7 and features humorous and heartfelt stories from writers/comedians Merrill MarkoeCindy Chupack, Richard Kramer, Stirling Gardner, and Lauren Weedman.

So many of our memories of love and relationships are associated with songs that uncannily illustrate our experiences and thus become part of the soundtrack of our lives. I asked comedy maven and goddess of love Beth Lapides to share some tracks from her own life soundtrack by creating a Valentine’s Day playlist. It’s not your typical list of sappy love songs, which is just what we should expect from Beth.

1. Best song to listen to… if you are a senior in high school thinking about taking the next step with your new not really yet a boyfriend, parked outside his dad’s loft, where he is house sitting, while his dad, whose name is Ken, is out of town with his girlfriend named Barbie, and you are thinking about how you are totally not a Barbie, but how you really like this new boy a lot better than the last boy, who did sort of want you to be a Barbie. And you are feeling hopeful but a little melancholy because in the best-case scenario it goes amazingly and you end up falling in love and then having to leave each other at the end of the year. “Suzanne” by James Taylor

2. Best song to listen to… if you are lying in bed weeping from unbearable heartbreak and can’t imagine a time when you will ever feel differently and yet you know you will feel differently, but maybe you won’t, but you definitely will, but you might actually have to change and figure out a way to make yourself feel better, but you are admitting that feeling pain is at least feeling and you have been trying to numb yourself for the past decade. “Prayer of St. Francis” by Sarah McLachlan

3. Best song to listen to… if you are driving south on Laurel Canyon in the late afternoon light with the thrilling feeling of leaving a dead relationship and the excitement of starting over. “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield

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Peace in a Polar Vortex

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was determined to augment my usual schedule of visiting dozens of museums and eating a gigantic pile of Ethiopian food with an architectural adventure: a visit to a Moshe Safdie building that I had never seen in person before. As the managing curator of the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie at the Skirball, I had been singing the praises of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Headquarters, one of my favorite Safdie designs, in tour after tour. Now I wanted to see it for myself. So on my last day in the District, I braved a polar vortex that plunged temperatures below zero degrees and set out for USIP, located next to the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

After a quick ride on the Metro from Logan Circle, I took a ridiculously cold walk on 23rd Street toward the Mall. Along the way I passed several office buildings, including the staid facade of the Department of State. As I approached USIP, I immediately noticed that the structure both blended in with and stood out from its bureaucratic neighbors. The windows facing 23rd were not altogether different from many office buildings, but the warm color of the stone was a nice contrast to the grey tones that dominated nearby facades. I reflected that this was a nice example of “progressive contextualism,” Moshe Safdie’s philosophy of using cues from a building’s physical and cultural surroundings in its design.

Arriving at the front of the headquarters, I caught sight of one of its best features: translucent glass sails held aloft by a steel frame. Skirball_safdie_Institute of Peace 2Safdie intended for the sails to bring to mind the wings of a dove, symbolizing the USIP’s mission of promoting peaceful resolutions to international conflict. To me, they exemplified one of my favorite things about Safdie’s work: while his buildings blend in with their surroundings, they are entirely unique entities. The USIP Headquarters was definitely unlike any other building or monument on the Mall.

I hurried to the entrance excitedly, ready to see those sails from the inside. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by reality, however, when the guards informed me that I couldn’t go inside without an appointment. Continue reading