Thursday, December 20, 2012

Setting the Table

In the last post I wrote about “happy surprises” and thought I should perhaps give a little color to what that means. I don’t know how to create the magic spark that sets them in motion, but I have learned how to set the table for them and hope they show up.

When I first left my career in finance, I decided I was going to focus on my artwork and family history, but really didn’t know how that was going to happen. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is decide that we are going to do something and announce it to others.

When I turned 30 I realized that I had invested “other people” with a lot of power. I was intrigued by overseas travel, but had never done it. I thought it was something that “other people” did. That was when I resolved to become “other people”. I began to announce to everyone that I was going to Europe that summer. Now at the time I had no idea how to put such a trip together, but as luck would have it I announced it to a new friend who said she had never been and asked if she could join me. Soon another friend joined up and the trip took on life.

Several decades later I found that deciding I was going to focus on my artwork and family history had some of the flavor of that early announcement. I didn’t know quite how I was going to do it, but the mere act of committing began to move me down a road.

I’ve learned over time that if you don’t know how to take the next step it is sometimes important to take any step. I researched what organizations existed that dealt with family history and discovered our local Jewish Historical Society. When I told them I was interested in volunteering, they quickly drafted me into delivering their annual genealogy talk. At the time I was no more fond of public speaking than most of us and soon began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Despite those hesitations, I did the talk and had a great time doing it.

The talk was at the local JCC. After the talk, I walked out the door, my head buzzing with family history and noted that there was a gallery next door, the Tychman Shapiro. My first thought was, “That would be a great place to do a show on family history”. I soon headed to my studio and began a series of paintings on family history.

Now here is where it begins to get strange. One day my husband told me that someone he knew had recommended a show at the gallery and we decided to stop by. The gallery director was in the gallery and advised us that they had an opening later that day as well as an artist talk and we should stop back. The theme of the show was related to family history. When we stopped back, there were my friends from the Jewish Historical Society. They asked me what I was up to and I told them about the series I was working on of family history artwork. In my pre-ipad days I used to carry around photos of my paintings so with some prodding from my husband I shared them. My friends from the Jewish Historical Society gave me an enthusiastic push suggesting that I show them to the gallery director who in turn suggested that I should submit a proposal for a show.

Up until now I had entered paintings in shows, but had never thought in terms of a solo show. Emboldened by our conversation I put together a proposal, submitted it and then put it out of my mind.

I took off on a month-long trip to China. One evening I was checking my e-mail at an Internet cafĂ©, beaded with sweat in the sweltering July evening. Among my e-mails was one from the gallery director. “We’d like to have you do a show in January,” she wrote. In the e-mail exchange that followed I asked, “How many paintings does it take to fill the gallery?” “Twenty” was her reply. At this point I had 7 paintings done. I began to map out paintings in my mind, diptychs, triptychs, anxious to return home and get to work. When I returned, I also began to develop a workshop on family history collage that they had asked me to teach. By January I was ready and in fact had more than enough to fill the walls. The show received a favorable review, the talk I gave went well and I was launched.

So when I examine this experience, looking for the mirrors within the magic trick, I come up with this. Taking the first step was important, volunteering opened up a door and it was important to step outside of my comfort zone. It also formed connections with people who proved to be important to my story.

Next I took action, beginning my paintings as a personal exploration. At the time I was stuck in my family history research and thought coming at it from a different angle might open up a different perspective. Once again I was trying to solve a puzzle.

When I commit to something, a talk, a workshop, a show, I work hard. I often think about a business concept, branding. I want my brand to be that I can be counted on to deliver and to do it well.

I didn’t forget to market my work, even if it was shyly and occasionally needed a push from others. I had photos on hand of what I was doing.

Now I didn’t have control over whether they chose to exhibit my work and it was pure chance that we showed up at that exhibition. That’s where the magic spark came into play. Some call it beshert which is Yiddish for fate. Whether predetermined or not, there is something other worldly, magical about how these things occur.

That pattern repeats itself over and over, always beginning with an exploration. My next journey was to Lithuania to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, again an outgrowth of my interest in family history. There I was disturbed by the rewriting of Holocaust history that I observed. I returned and began a series of paintings that addressed that topic. Again it was an exploration of something that puzzled me. Similar to writing, painting is a way for me to sort things out.

While in Lithuania I had watched a film of interviews with survivors and was very moved. I wrote to the people who had created the film to ask if I could get a copy of it to show with my artwork. Of course I included a link to my website so they could see the work. It turned out that they had a gallery in London and asked me to exhibit my work and speak at International Holocaust Day.

Now the work I was doing was going to be cumbersome to ship so I redid a number of paintings on canvas to make it easier. I had a painting that was six feet tall that I redid on two canvases connected by a hinge. I did intensive research into shipping as well.  It took a lot of work to respond to the opportunity.

Again I had no control over their response and didn’t know that they had recently opened a gallery. That is where the magic came in.

And yet another opportunity.

I had decided to learn about my family that once lived in Poland. At the same time I had begun a volunteer effort of creating a website (a Kehilalink) on that ancestral town for I contacted 400 people who were researching family from Radom seeking content for the site. Then I made plans to visit Radom. I did extensive research before I went and connected with a young man at the Arts and Culture Center to get the key to the cemetery.

In response to those 400 emails, I heard from an Israeli gentleman. He sent me a 1937 film of the former Jewish community. I took stills and put them on the website and decided I needed to be doing a series of paintings based on this.

I then received another email from my new Israeli friend who advised me that he knew someone in Israel who knew someone from my ancestral town who lived in my community. Now here I dropped the ball and failed to follow up, but magic can be persistent. I gave a speech at a local organization about what I was working on and another person came up to me and told me they had just been at a dinner and met a woman from my ancestral town. Same woman! This in itself has become part of the story I tell, fate tapped me on the shoulder and I ignored it, then it came along and poked me in the ribs.

I contacted Dora, the woman who shared my ancestral town. We became very good friends and have done many talks together about my artwork and her experience in the Holocaust. She had shared with me photos that she had of her prior life, hidden in the shoes of family members throughout Dachau.

As I worked on the website I coordinated with my Polish friend at the Arts and Culture Center on photos. When I told him about my artwork and Dora he invited me to show my work at an annual focus they do on the former Jewish community. The idea of showing my artwork in the town of my grandfather’s birth was too rich a concept to pass up, but there was little time to complete enough paintings to round out a show.

I had a brainstorm, what if I included Dora’s photos with my paintings of that former Jewish community. The idea was welcomed and Dora and I traveled to Radom where we showed my artwork and her photos. Dora took me around the town from which my family came and told me of the once thriving Jewish community in which they lived.

Now each of these stories has some common threads. I could never have fully planned for them as they each contain an element of synchronicity that created the spark of magic. Synchronicity is when unrelated events that would not typically occur by chance occur together in a meaningful way. I walked out the door of my talk and saw the gallery, just as I was thinking of family history. I asked for a copy of a DVD to show with my artwork with no knowledge that they had opened a gallery. I connected with a survivor from my ancestral town in my own community, then got to know the Arts and Culture Center in Radom in the course of tracking down a cemetery key. These disparate events began to connect into a meaningful whole to create my story.

Even though I can't create the synchronicity, I can create opportunities for it to occur and be prepared to welcome it. And while I await its often untimely arrival I do the following:

1) Begin an exploration, often as part of a volunteer or learning experience.  In these examples it involved a presentation, creating a website and learning a language in an overseas program. All of my projects involve a lot of front-end work. As you may note, family history is often the engine behind them.

2). Begin a series of artwork. Just as family history is the engine, artwork is the vehicle. The artwork is a continuation of the exploration, sometimes a meditation of sorts. I often read on related topics as well so I am immersed in a topic.

3) Reach out to others, often in connection with the volunteer effort. The important part is widening my network around a topic in which I am actively engaged.

4) Let others know what I am doing.  I do this in part by having a current website. By the way, I learned to do my own website by taking an on-line course to create my ancestral website. One thread feeds another.

5) Work very hard to seize the opportunity and make it happen.  Sometimes that means taking on something that at first blush seems daunting, but say yes to opportunity and then figure out how to do it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy Surprises

I often write about story, in large part because my artwork is based on story. But there are layers of story that go beyond the artwork itself. When I began to exhibit my work, I realized that part of sharing my work also involved sharing my own story. I found that there is interest in an artist's story, perhaps because it is a path that is outside the scope of most people's experience.

So it dawned on me that I better figure out my own story if I was to share it. Some of the questions I had to be prepared to answer were why I did what I did, what was my process and what led me in this direction. Because my path was somewhat eclectic, I had to also explain how my prior life connected to what I now did. How did a person in finance become an artist? That in turn forced me to think about reinvention, both the new threads of my life and those which were consistent with my past experiences.

When I began to work on my interview series I found myself trying to distill other people's stories to a sound bite description. Now no one's life is quite that simple, but I do think we often have themes that are echoed throughout our life.

Sometimes we need to live enough of our life to see the patterns. What are we consistently drawn to? What factors drive our choices? And we need to examine the flip side as well. When we are drawn to something, does its opposite repel? I started my career with a social work degree and ran nonprofits. I discovered that I was good at creating something out of nothing. The more I had a blank slate, the more creative I could be. The flip side of that was when no one was exerting control over me, telling me how something must be done, it freed me to find a path that made sense to me. Just as I welcomed the blank slate, I rejected being controlled. Now one doesn't always have a choice early in one's career, but I understood early on the environment in which I flourished. I have often said I like rules, but only if they make sense. That means I have to vet them or create them. I found I had a talent for devising systems that worked and what are systems, but rules and structure. I liked solving the puzzle and figuring out a way for it to continually solve itself through a system that made sense. And solving puzzles is a way to exert control over one's life, to make sense of it.

Along the way I found myself in a situation where someone tried to use their knowledge to exert control over me in the realm of finance. I decided I better learn about finance so no could ever take advantage of me. Off I went to get an MBA in finance. I suspect my motivation was uniquely female as I doubt that most men are drawn to finance as a defensive move. Once again, having control over my life became the driver. Or better yet, no one else holding that control. Financial knowledge has proven valuable throughout my life and finance proved to be a career that actively engaged me in puzzles to solve.

The other part of my personal equation has been story. Back in the days when I was running nonprofits I was involved in fundraising. Now fundraising is all about story and it requires you to tell your story authentically and with passion, important aspects of storytelling. When I went into finance I discovered there was also story. On a broader level the story was about the larger purpose of the business and how it fit within society. The balance sheet told a story if one knew how to read it. Occasionally one sees a business that really seems to have a soul, a central core that guides them, not just lip service, but something real. When it does, it is usually because a key person in leadership can articulate the story and engage others in it. They can connect the story of the company to the individual stories of their customers and employees.

Story has always been present in my life, but it was only when I focused on my artwork that I began to realize how central it would be to my work, how powerful it was in reaching others.

So my story is very much about solving puzzles and telling stories, perhaps as a way to understand my world, to make it make sense. First I solve the puzzle, then I explain it to others through story. I've learned there is another element that I didn't anticipate. It is a late arrival to the table and ironically the opposite of control. I have become a believer in surprises. I have found that if one relaxes into life and welcomes the unknown, interesting things will happen. I came to this lesson later in life because I was much too busy trying to force the pieces to fit prior to then. My story since has often been one of happy surprises. Now this doesn't mean that I just wait around for surprises to hit. I am a big believer in maintaining momentum and positioning oneself during those lulls while we wait for the universe to help assemble the pieces. But I must confess that I've become downright mystical about how life unfolds despite the fact that I am a very "feet on the ground" person.

So when I get up to tell my story it is about the common threads that link my varied pursuits, telling stories and solving puzzles. It has a touch of magic to it as well, with things unfolding in unexpected ways. Keep in mind, I am a studier of magic. When I was a kid my brother did magic shows for children's birthday parties. I used to sneak into his room and examine those hidden mirrors that made the trick work. Now I examine my own surprises looking for the mirrors, trying to understand how they happened. And I have learned that while there are things that one can do to help the likelihood along, there is still some magical spark that sets it in motion. Those happy surprises reinforce for me that I am on the right path, doing something that is personally meaningful and contributing on a larger level.



Thursday, December 6, 2012

Getting Started on Everything Stopped

These past few months I’ve been immersed in everything except painting. My time has been consumed with video editing for my interview series, public speaking about my artwork and a smattering of family history consulting. I finally decided it was time to venture back into the studio and begin a painting on my more recent interviews. I’d forgotten about the feeling of anticipation tinged with a little anxiety that I experience when I begin a painting.

I often have people ask me how long it takes me to do a painting. There is no simple answer to that question. Paintings begin long before brush meets canvas. Even then they are started, painted over and begun anew. So I thought I would track the process in this blog and give you a flavor for at least how one painting develops.

Artists begin paintings in very different ways. Some do careful sketches and plan out the composition. Others like my husband start putting paint down until they have an abstract from which they then develop the imagery that they see within that abstract. The first is a careful planner, the second draws more on subconscious. I am at neither end of the spectrum. I begin with an idea so in that sense I have some view of where I am going. I have a story to tell. The question is how I am going to tell it. Sometimes it is representational, sometimes it has elements of free association and veers towards semi-abstract.

My current painting began in yoga class as I lay in child’s pose. My overactive brain never quite rests, but as I slowed my body down I began to think about my interviews and the imagery they conjured. I’ve written about my more recent interviews in these pages and the act of writing and editing them has forced me to find the kernels, the details that best define the story. As I thought about Hanna and her story of coming over on the Kindertransport, I thought of her Red Cross letters. These letters had been her only way of communicating with her family still in Germany. They were transmitted through the Red Cross, but she told me that one couldn’t say much because other eyes were watching. Hanna showed little affect as she talked about her family and the war. She carefully managed her emotions. Her story was best told in what wasn’t said. In answer to the question of how she knew her parents were no longer alive she replied, “everything stopped.” Her parents had been very good about sending Red Cross letters to her, fondly signed Vati and Mutti, until they could no longer send them. Her father, mother and brother all died in Auschwitz and Hanna had to carry on. And carry on she did with strong survival instincts noted by her daughters.

The letters represented a different life and the embrace of family. When they stopped, that life ended and another began. I knew that the name of the painting would be “ Everything Stopped”. So the challenge with a painting about stopping is where to start. I’ve learned it doesn’t much matter as I can paint it out if I don’t like it. The important thing is to start and get things flowing. Then the process will take over. I have also learned that I am an experiential person. I have to do and see things to evaluate them. Some people can picture a dress out of a bolt of cloth. I would need to make it and then remake it if necessary. That is the way I paint as well.

I reviewed the imagery that I had from Hanna. She had many photos of her prior life and all of her Red Cross letters in an album. I had taken pictures of some of them as her granddaughter leafed through them. I had a picture of Hanna’s hands as well. I decided to begin with the Red Cross letters and did a rather abstracted painting of the pages, one folded open and emphasizing the many colors embedded in a seemingly white page. Blues, purples, yellows all tinted the page. The painting looked quite abstract until I inserted the red cross at the top with some identifying print.

So what next? I looked at the picture of Hanna’s hands, very square, purposeful hands. I imagined the many times they had touched those pages longing for her family. Touching the handwritten “Vati, Mutti” thinking of when her parents last touched that same page. With that thought I began to sketch in the hands. After four hours of painting I had a fairly representational painting with hands that still required some work to be captured fully. I took a picture and decided to come back and view it with fresh eyes. I track the progress of my paintings through photographs to remind myself how much they develop and change. Were it not for photographs I could easily forget the stages through which they pass.

When I leave my studio I frequently set up the painting I am working on so it faces the door. This is so I can see it as someone stumbling across a painting in a studio and test my reaction. The next time I entered my studio I was less taken with the hands, too representational. I had just been reading Levin’s book on Lee Krasner, an abstract expressionist, which no doubt influenced my reaction. Before I could second guess myself I painted out the hands.

OK, hands off, now what? I played with the writing, recording it, then covering it with a glaze of medium and white. Scratching into it, then scraping away with a palette knife. I pictured a void of silence. Nothing coming, a black hole and began to paint it in the corner of the canvas. As I painted that black hole it reminded me of an ear, the dark center of it, listening anxiously for word that doesn't come.
It occurred to me that there must have been a long period of waiting, listening, before the finality of "everything stopped" was acknowledged. It would have been a gradual, horrifying realization. By thinking of Hanna's experience at that time, the concept of the painting began to take form. It was to be of that moment before full comprehension of loss, when one anxiously awaits the word which doesn't come.

The form around the hole began to take the shape of an ear, not necessarily recognizable as such because blues and purples seemed like the right colors to balance the painting. And blue is the color of sadness, loss, so perhaps it is fitting in an emotional sense. Above it the scratched in words, Mutti, Vati, Halo, their pet name for her. Because these paintings are to tell a story, I don’t want to let them get so abstract that the story is lost. But it is possible for some elements to be abstracted as long as the story works with them. By now I had spent six hours actually painting.
The painting was beginning to take shape, but it didn't look quite finished to me. I reread the interview with Hanna and was struck by her statement about being careful what they wrote because other eyes were watching. I added eyes above and began to sculpt the ear below. Soon I had the image above.

So how much time has passed? By now I've invested eight hours of painting, but painting isn't the only time involved. Remember I create my own source material so before I could paint, I had to do the interview, transcribe it, video edit and write a blog entry to pull out the key elements. All of that is part of the process by which I internalize the story. So add on another 26 hours before I can even pick up a paint brush. I'm not sure if I am done yet, but to get to this stage it has taken 34 hours of work. Each painting is unique and the time it requires varies, but the various stages and evolution are fairly representative of the process. You can see how much a painting evolves in just a few days. When I live with it for awhile it often invites editing and further changes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lessons from the Past

While in the Chicago area we decided to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum.  The museum is located in Skokie, a community that was the focus of a neo-Nazi march in the late 1970s. At the time the population of Skokie was half Jewish and home to about 7000 survivors.  The march galvanized the community which organized a foundation to support Holocaust education, ultimately leading to the museum.

I have visited many Holocaust museums and exhibitions throughout the years and done much reading on the Holocaust.  Through the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project I have also done a number of interviews with survivors.  I came to this visit with a fair amount of knowledge so was curious if I would find anything new. My test of a good museum  is if I experience new information and insights that cause me to examine my knowledge from a different vantage point.  The Illinois Holocaust Museum passed that test with flying colors.

The entrance to the museum was past bushes with branches that were as gnarly as fingers.Spiky rocks set in the ground at various angles mirrored the larger field of boulders one finds at Treblinka, each representing a town, a lost Jewish community.  The architecture was clearly designed to mimic that of a prison, but also had a reflection room  designed to capture light, the antithesis of the dark prison-like structure.

The exhibition began with a view of those lost Jewish communities, preserved in memory and faded photos.  One cannot fully understand the impact of the  Holocaust without realizing that in addition to countless lives, a world was lost, whole communities erased.

We then moved into a historical view of Hitler's rise to power.  Unsuccessful in his first attempt at political power he decided to use the democratic process to in effect vote democracy down.  I found myself reflecting on the recent political environment in the US and the attempts to suppress access to voting.  As an American Jew I have never believed that any country is immune from the events of the Holocaust, even the United States.  I think that is a fundamental difference between me and my non-Jewish friends and it deeply informs my political views. I believe we must always be vigilant in protecting human rights as each incursion brings us closer to a precipice, a diminishment of our humanity that makes all sorts of evil possible.

As Hitler's power built, many Germans supported him on economic grounds even though they didn't share his anti-Semitic views.  They assumed that once in power he would be forced to moderate his views.  I have heard uncomfortable echoes of such beliefs in our recent political discourse, reminding me once again of the vulnerability of any country once it loses its mooring in fundamental human rights.  I am convinced that there are lessons to be learned in the study of this prewar time in German history.

The museum then began to move into the events which first affected German Jews. They looked at the Jews who escaped Germany before the war, 50% exited as they witnessed the looming dangers up close.    I had interviewed a woman whose parents were able to escape to Shanghai and a woman who was on the Kindertransport to London.  These two stories were echoed in the Shanghai and Kindertransport stories told at the museum. Until my interview with Trudy I had not realized that the early policies of the Nazis encouraged Jews to leave Germany. Trudy had told me that her father was released from a concentration camp on the condition that he leave the country.  He was required to report to the Gestapo each week on his plans.  Documents in the museum told precisely this story.  It was only with the conquering of additional countries with their significant Jewish populations coupled with the unwillingness of other countries to accept the Jews,that the Germans began to concoct the Final Solution to what they  referred to as the Jewish Problem.

The exhibition continues through the early measures against the Jews to gathering them in ghettos and ultimately their extermination in forests and camps.  The initial measures were gradually implemented with an awareness of the world response which in fact proved negligible.  Here again was another point where actions taken could have altered the flow of world events.  When word of the camps was sent through diplomatic channels, the State Department with its anti-Semitic bent suppressed the message.  How can one adequately address  the movement from  bigotry to murder when one is infested with the same bigotry?

Countries fell like dominoes to Hitler's advances.  A telling comment by one of the survivors in the museum video was that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto succeeded in standing up to the Nazis for longer than any country that he invaded.  When I reflected on why that was possible I noted that the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto saw certain death ahead, they chose to fight to the end and die with dignity if necessary.  Countries did not hold that same perspective.

The other fact that the museum noted was that two wars were being fought, one for world domination and one against the Jews.  The US only participated in the first war.  I had not bisected the war into two wars, but that perspective clarifies the role of the US and its failure to respond to Jewish refugees and news of the camps until the end of the war when there was no room for denial.

The museum also goes a step beyond liberation to follow the lives of survivors from Displaced Persons (DP) camps on through immigration into their new lives and new families.  The museum does an impressive job of sharing the full breadth of the story and highlighting aspects that made me consider the gradual erosions in civilized society that can lead to unthinkable horrors.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

We are driving to downstate Illinois. It is a sunny temperate day, lots of sky and land with a narrow band of human existence on the horizon, a delicate etching of silos, barns, houses and trees. In Illinois we will pick up my mother and bring her up to Chicago for Thanksgiving, a holiday she spearheaded until she turned 80. Then my niece picked it up, skipping a generation. She faithfully recorded and recreated my mother's recipes, down to the saved spoonful of frosting from the traditional birthday cake for my sister and me, both November babies.

Last year we had driven this same route hoping to deliver my parents to my niece's doorstep. My father was ill so the plans were rejiggered and it was the first Thanksgiving in many years where my parents were not in attendance. A few days later my father ended up in the hospital and a little over two months later was gone. Thanksgiving is a marker, the last time I saw him in his own home when I finally acknowledged how frail he was, how unlikely it was that he'd survive another year with physical infirmity finally outweighing will.

Just a few weeks earlier I had been amazed that my parents had managed to sing Happy Birthday to my answering machine. This act took a level of coordination of which I no longer thought them capable. First they had to remember my birthday, something challenged by failing memories, my mother no longer able to fill in the gaps in my father's memory. For many years I received birthday cards inscribed with my mother's beautiful first grade teacher penmanship. Often my father picked out the card. Now that was a task that eluded them.

My mother now will no longer pick up the phone to make a call so it took my father to place the phone call, it was likely my mother who retained my subtle mention of my birthday and suggested the call. "Happy birthday" my mother sang, leading off, befitting her central role in matters of family. My father chimed in until the song dissolved into "dah dah dah dah."Most amusing was their dialogue at the end where my mother asks my dad what she should do to which he replies, "hang up the phone". I preserved that call which came exactly three months prior to the day of my father's death. This year I played it to myself, an annual ritual for future birthdays.

I remember yet another Thanksgiving four years earlier. Realizing on a conscious level, if not an emotional one, that my father would not be around forever, I decided I needed to have him do a DNA test to further my genealogy research. I ordered the kit and brought it with me on Thanksgiving. Much to my dismay I realized that three cheek swabs were required. As I read the instructions, I began to understand the difficulty of the task I was about to undertake. Several hours had to pass between each swab, then a period of time without food. At Thanksgiving.

We arrived at my niece's home with its bounty of food, the warm up to Thanksgiving dinner. I had done the first cheek swab and awaited the second, but soon had to recalibrate. "Now don't eat anything until I do this," I had cautioned my father. I glanced over at him as he popped a cracker into his mouth. "Aargh!"

I checked my watch for the next opportunity and again reminded him. Again I lost to the food. Take one man with failing memory, put him in a home with tempting food all around and tell him he can't eat. Then try to explain this is so I can get a reading on his DNA. Somehow I managed to get a second swab in the course of a long evening with the third swab postponed until morning.

The hotel we were staying at offered a breakfast so I knew I would have to coordinate with my father before breakfast. We agreed that we would knock on their door at 8 AM, do the final swab and then eat. At 7 my phone rang. "Where are you?" asked my dad. ""We weren't going to meet until 8," I responded. "Oh we're up and at breakfast," he replied. "Have you eaten?" I asked excitedly. "Not yet" he said. "Don't! I'll be right there!" I exclaimed as I grabbed clothes and swabs explaining the urgency to my husband as I hastily dressed. I ran down the stairs to find my parents seated in the breakfast room, juice before them. I did that last swab, not sure I believed their assurances as to food, but hoping it would work. They were able to get a reading and I now get periodic emails advising me of matches for things I don't understand, a project for another day.

This is my mother's first Thanksgiving without my father. She has adjusted well and it occurs to me that failing memory smooths out the sense of jarring absence. I suspect she hasn't retained the memory of last year, the beginning of the end for my father. She is a person of contentment, happy to be awakened by her cat, happy to find her paper at her door on a sunny day. Happy to hear from her daughters each day. My husband and I take the day after Thanksgiving to visit the Art Institute, something that was too complex an undertaking to do with my father in later years. This year my mother looks forward to joining us on this outing. Next year I am taking her to Israel, a lifelong dream of hers. She'll be almost 87 when we go. There is much to look forward to for her even now and for that I am thankful, both for her and for me to be able to share that experience with her.

Monday, November 19, 2012

When the Well Runs Dry

I am a productivity junkie. I need to be productive to justify my existence. There, I’ve said it. I get lots done. I paint, I write, I speak, I exhibit artwork,I edit video. I don’t sleep a lot. That’s the downside of being constantly productive.

So what does one do when the well runs dry? Mind you, it hasn’t yet, but for someone who has a need to produce that is always the fear that lurks. What do I do when nothing comes, be it words from my keyboard or shows or paintings?

When I left my job six years ago, I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to take me. I learned a lot about letting things happen and trusting the universe with a little nudge from me from time to time. I have become an appreciator of process and “beshert” (destiny), of how life unfolds, each action we take feeding the next experience. I am fascinated with the way we each write our own story, most of us unaware that we are doing it day by day. And I must confess to being intrigued with watching my own story unfold, as if I am reading a very interesting novel and want to see what happens next. I often peek at endings, but in this case can only live it out.

I began this blog almost four years ago when I went to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania. I hadn’t envisioned that I would still be writing it. At the time I thought my experience would be of interest to others traveling in that region or attending the Institute. The conventional wisdom of blog writing is that you hew to a specific theme to attract readers who have an interest in that theme. I don’t work that way. I have many interests and many of them interrelate. If you are reading this blog you get a mixed bag from family history, travel, literature, identity and legacy, artwork and the occasional reflection on how it all knits together.That is the benefit of not doing this for a living. I write because I have something I want to say that I think might be of interest to someone else out there in the world.

But lately I have been thinking, “What next?” I recently closed out my most recent interview series. I’ve written about each of the interviews in this blog. There is not much more family research to uncover and I’ve visited all the towns in Eastern Europe that family came from. A few weeks ago I wrapped up an Artist Residency at a local synagogue working with different groups of congregants.

Now lest you fear things have come to a screeching halt, let me assure you I still have a few things on my plate, but I am at a point of reassessment. When I began this journey I framed what I did in terms of areas of interest, artwork and family history. As I moved into it more deeply I reframed it to a broader purpose, that of telling stories. And why stories? Stories are how we understand another’s experience and artwork helps to fix them in our memory. My artwork is one medium through which to tell stories, this blog and my talks are yet another. With story as my larger purpose I begin to think about the many ways one can tell a story and the prospect of a book may lie ahead. My interview series certainly gives me rich material with which to work. Researching some of the themes that arose may take me deeper into the material.

A very different direction has been suggested by friends who advise me to write about reinvention. Reinvention is something that I have done with some success and a lot of conscious thought. I am an observer by nature, identifying the patterns and points of connection, distilling them down to the core learnings. Many of my contemporaries are at that stage in life where they are thinking of how to navigate a transition to a different kind of life, one that feels meaningful and fulfilling. Whether my experience offers broader insights is something I will consider and possibly explore further in this blog.

So I am at a turning point. I remind myself that change often comes out of listening carefully and being open, a lesson I have struggled to learn and often need to remember. There is less certainty about the next step because it is a new one, one that takes me into unknown and less familiar territory.

I am often struck by the irony that in my former work life I succeeded because of my sense of urgency, my need to drive to a conclusion, to get things done. Now I remind myself that the need for immediate results is often a trap. Results come in their own time, not always in response to my sense of urgency. There is a gestational stage in painting where a painting begins to emerge in my thoughts long before I put brush to paint. Then there is an interaction with the idea, shaping and reshaping it as it begins to take form. I think that same process is one we play out at the change points in our life. A time where we must let go of result and open ourselves to the process, feeling our way, testing and reframing until we find our new direction.




Saturday, November 10, 2012

Grandma Zelda

I started yesterday with an open schedule which is always a luxury, a runway of time to take on the bigger projects.  That quickly ended with an email telling me that Zelda, one of my interview subjects, had passed away at age 94.

When I interviewed Zelda in 2011 she told a lovely story about how she came to be known as Grandma Zelda within her Beth Jacob synagogue.  I did a painting of her titled Grandma Zelda which is in a current show and oddly enough I had just connected with her family members who had seen and expressed their appreciation of the painting.  Now, just a few days later, they were alerting me to her death.  Sometimes the synchronicity of events causes me to feel that there is a message to which I should pay attention.

Off I headed to the funeral which was truly moving.  Many of her classic stories were recounted and I realized I had many of them in her video.  Her interview had touched me because there was an edge of sadness in it about her early life.  So often I find that when someone recounts an emotional time many years ago, it still can conjure tears, betraying the deeply felt hurt that still lurks beneath.    Zelda's mother died when Zelda was seven and her father remarried. Zelda’s voice had choked as she recounted that she didn’t really get to know her mother and my heart went out to the motherless child within her.  The second marriage was not a successful one and Zelda spoke of how her stepmother would tell her she was worthless. 

"When the child is told, “You’re no good”, which I was told, and you’ll never amount to anything, but I proved her wrong.  I proved her wrong.  I don’t claim to be better than anybody else, but as good.  I will always say I am as good."

I was struck by the self-talk that helped her to reaffirm her own worth and move forward in her life.  Zelda talked about her work as a nursing assistant at a children’s hospital where her sensitivity to children was deeply felt.  I have to believe that her own experience as a child deepened her awareness of how a child experiences the world.

"I was glad when they went home, the little darlings and I would tell them, “Don’t come back, we don’t have no Disneyland here”.   It’s sad to see a sick child.  It’s very sad.  I went home many nights crying believe me, until one of the nurses said, “Zelda, you have to harden up." I said, “How can I harden up when I see a sick child.  I can’t harden up."

Zelda spoke warmly of her father who she viewed as her best friend.  When he was ill she left school and took care of him until his death.  Zelda never married, but didn’t feel that as a loss.  She found her satisfaction in her relationships with others.  At the funeral the rabbi spoke of Zelda as instinctively sharing an understanding expressed by Martin Buber, that God is found in relationship with others. 

One of the most pivotal relationships in Zelda’s life was with the community of Beth Jacob.  Here her natural connection with children was felt and she acquired the honorific of “Grandma Zelda”.  When I asked her how that relationship developed she responded,

"Through the children.  Because I always love children and they know it.  The kids at Beth Jacob know it.  I’m only known as Grandma Zelda, Grandma Zelda.  

Two little boys came up to me and one said, “Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?" 

And the other one looked at him and said, "She your grandma?"  

And the first one said “Yes she’s my grandma and she’s everybody’s grandma." And he goes like this (pointing) "And listen, she could be your grandma too if you want her to". 

So the second one says, “Do you think she would be?” 

And the first one said, “All you have to do is ask her”, 

So he comes up to me and he says, “Can I ask you something?” 

 And I jokingly said, “Is it going to cost me money?”

And he said , “No, would you be my Grandma Zelda?”   

I almost…I had tears in my eyes.  I said, “I would be happy to be your Grandma Zelda, but when you see me what are you going to say to me? "  

“No problem, if it’s on Shabbos I’ll say Good Shabbos Grandma Zelda.  If it's on any other time I’ll say, Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?”

Kids to me are beautiful, I love children. I’ll take all the time in the world to talk to them and if they have anything to say that they want me to help them, I’ll be there for them because I love kids."

And you didn’t have children?

I was never married, but I have a lot of grandchildren.  I have a lot of grandchildren. They call me Grandma Zelda and I love it.

(Hear Zelda tell her story)

While I can’t tell this as effectively as Zelda who acted out the different parts in the retelling, I hope it conveys the flavor.  My painting of Zelda is one of a few portraits in the series. I had decided I would only do portraits if they were important to the story I was trying to retell and in this case Grandma Zelda was absolutely central.  I of course had to surround her with children and include a feature from the Beth Jacob building to represent the community which she embraced and which in turn embraced her.

So what happened to that previously open day?  I spent the balance of my day doing video editing on the interview with Zelda as I felt it needed to go to her family.  At the funeral I ran into a friend who attends Beth Jacob who also asked if I could share a copy with the synagogue.  So that open day was devoted to the memory of a warm and giving woman who I had the good fortune to encounter through my interview project.  And synchronicity of events introduced me to her family so I could share the result of that interview with them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's All About Story

I've been hard at work getting ready for four talks that I am giving this weekend at an artist residency at Bet Shalom, a temple in Minnetonka that is exhibiting three bodies of my artwork.  The show is titled "It's All About Story" because I've realized that is the central theme in what I do.  We spend so much of our lives figuring out our own story and then how it connects to other people's stories.  Much of my recent work has been focused on stories related to Jewish heritage and how they connect.  It is a journey through both geography and time, beginning in pre-war Poland, then moving to war-time Lithuania and how that history is dealt with today and then finally settling in Minnesota where I gathered stories from elders that often interwove with those earlier stories.

Recently I wrote an article about the show that was just published in TC Jewfolk so rather than reproduce it here, I will refer you to It's All About Story in their on-line publication.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Legacy of Shared Lives

My last interview in the cross-generational series was with a gentleman who I had interviewed previously.   Walter is a tall courtly gentleman in his 90s with a faint accent.  He speaks slowly and thoughtfully.  At our first interview he had recalled being in Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded. He had taken the last train from Czechoslovakia to Romania, later taking the last boat from Italy to the US with his family in 1940. His mother had grown up in the US which allowed her to gain entrance and bring the family in. After Pearl Harbor he had been drafted and sent to Camp Ritchie where he was trained to interrogate German prisoners because of his fluency in German and other European languages.

At the second interview we were joined by his daughter and his son and daughter-in-law.  I began our interview by playing the video from the first interview.  They watched with interest and I asked them if there were any surprises in it.

“He never talked about this when we were kids”, replied his son.  He was referring to Walter’s  history as what was known as a “Ritchie Boy”, a name that was given to the group of mostly Jewish soldiers, immigrants from Europe, who were trained to interrogate the Germans because of their language proficiency,  A film came out about them in 2005 and it was only then that Walter spoke of this experience and the tightly-knit group within which he spent his early years in the US.

As we spoke, his children recalled him saying something when they were growing up about interrogating German prisoners. It had seemed so unlike their father with his quiet demeanor that they hadn’t known what to make of it.  He had never added any color and it remained a vague recollection until the movie came out and he became involved in telling its story.

When we continued our interview, Walter and his children offered memories of his wife and her mother, both of who had even more harrowing survival stories.  His wife had been in France studying nursing during the war and had successfully crossed into Switzerland when France was no longer safe.  Her mother was not so fortunate and ended the war in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  The rest of her family perished in the camps.  This history lingered over Walter’s children and was perhaps the source of their active involvement in human rights.  His daughter was deeply involved in her work in support of human rights and dignity and palpable emotion underscored that passion.  Their Jewish heritage was best reflected in this deep commitment to the values of human rights.

I asked Walter’s children what they recalled that best reflected their father’s legacy.  His interest in people and commitment to family they replied, sharing examples of his active efforts to stay connected with his family that was spread around the country.  They recalled that each week for decades he had written a letter to family on carbon paper. Copies were sent to family around the country even as they each wrote their own letters.  They recalled grandparents and siblings all participating in this pre-email round robin.  His daughter still has many of the letters, an amazing legacy of shared lives.

And so I have concluded my series of interviews, seventeen in total.  When I began this project I was in search of source material for my artwork.  I found far more than that.  Even as I was to be a dispassionate interviewer, I felt an emotional connection to each of my interviewees.  A similar thing happens when I paint someone.  It is as if our boundaries become more porous when we connect to someone else and it stirs something inside of us.

I have learned a great deal from this project.  Some of those lessons were practical ones on interviewing, video recording and video editing.  I have also had an opportunity to reflect on Jewish identity and the various forms that it takes, from the “yiddishkeit” of which Fannie so eloquently spoke, to the movement from oppression to freedom of religion experienced by Liana and Raychel, to the expression of Jewish values through Walter’s children.  The Jewish experience may be religious, but just as often it is expressed through values embedded both in the religion and in the Jewish experience within society. 

As I reflect on these interviews I am struck by the way in which the experiences of our parents and grandparents continue to reverberate throughout our lives.  They can easily become disconnected from their origin, yet reverberate nonetheless.  We remember the survival skills, the values and the resourcefulness, but forget the circumstances that bred them into our heritage.  It is story that provides the connection; that reminds us of why we hold these beliefs and attributes that have become our legacy.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Citizens of the World Part 2

Harold told me that he came to Minneapolis when he was offered a position with a large food products company.When I came here I knew nobody. All the big companies go around to the graduate schools and interview those who are about to leave. I was about to get my PhD from Northwestern, and they make me an offer. It was not so easy for Jewish boys to get offers, but it got easier all of a sudden because this is during the war(1943) and the government is giving money to companies who start research operations. So these companies wanted to start research operations and they needed researchers so all the graduates had no trouble getting jobs. 
He confided that he was the second Jew to get a job at that company. The first was Mr. Goldberg who was the janitor. In the end he became a Vice President, something that he believed was unique as far as Jewish employees.

This was at a time when Minneapolis had a reputation as highly anti-Semitic and finding employment as a Jew was challenging. Harold related how over time acquisitions brought in new Jewish employees. So they had to take them too. But today of course no company would dare to say they have such a policy, but they can still have it. But I think it’s changed, a good deal.

When Harold came to Minneapolis, Dorothy was a young widow. Her husband had been killed as an aviator in WWII one month before their son Ralph was born. Many in the Jewish community were happy to play matchmaker and when Harold entered the community he was encouraged to connect with Dorothy. They recalled meeting through several different organizations within the Jewish community which they happily attributed to "beshert" (destiny).

Son Ralph remembered vividly when he acquired a father. When his mother and Harold returned from their wedding Ralph greeted him as Hay-rold, his childhood pronunciation. He remembered Harold picking him up and saying “I’m not Hay-rold anymore, I’m your Daddy”.

Harold and Dorothy raised two children together and took in a foster child as well, a ten year old boy from the displaced persons camps. What was to be a temporary arrangement soon became permanent. He stayed until he married and was considered a third son. Dorothy noted that, “the reason (he) escaped was he had practically white hair and blue eyes so he was able to pass." Their son looked up to this new brother who “at the age of ten was in the underground smuggling people and weapons in and out of the camps. He was the guy who was passing as a Polish peasant lad on the haystack with partisans buried underneath.”

After raising her boys Dorothy returned to work as a medical social worker. As the director of social work for an area hospital she trained other social workers. Following a lengthy career Harold had no plans to retire. Dorothy had always wanted to make aliya in Israel so they picked up and moved to Israel. Harold continued to work as the director of research for an Israeli company and they lived in a small town in the desert. Several years later they moved to NY when Harold was sought for a position with a consulting firm. They lived there for some time and then did a stint at the London office. His job involved the development of a course in industrial chemistry that was quite unique. Harold taught that course all over the world, in Bangkok, Beijing, Africa and South America. While Harold taught chemistry, Dorothy taught English. She recounted how China was the most interesting teaching experience as they entered just as it opened to Americans. She told us, “They were so tremendously eager to learn and they would learn ahead before I was even there. That was a tremendous experience.” I was struck by her willingness to roll up her sleeves and jump in as she related assessing the range of knowledge in the class and then going to the main drag in China and getting books with which to teach.

I felt great admiration for this modest, yet accomplished couple who both shared a deep interest in the world around them. As we explored their legacy their son related his path as a community organizer, fed through his parents’ involvement in Labor Zionism. He cited their love of learning as a thread that continued to influence his life. Harold and Dorothy were citizens of the world, actively engaged and contributing wherever they went. This also clearly extended to their granddaughter who traveled widely with ease, not as a tourist, but with the sense of active engagement modeled by her grandparents.

As we concluded our interview commenting on their long and rich life together, Harold noted research that indicates that couples who live many years together live longer. I was very struck by the fact that they shared a sense of adventure and engagement in the world and have no doubt that plays a role in both their longevity and the satisfaction they have found in their lives.

"This project has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota through the Minnesota Historical Society from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Citizens of the World Part 1

This post continues to share the interviews I have completed in the Jewish Identity and Legacy interview series.*

Some interviewees are difficult to draw out, others are natural storytellers. After 17 interviews in this project, I have learned that each story is an interesting one. Along with that realization, I have also developed a special appreciation for those who know how to tell a story. My interview with Harold and Dorothy offered some complexities. It was the only interview I had done with two primary subjects as well as a child and grandchild. How was I going to assure that I gave each subject sufficient focus? Logistically could I even fit everyone into the video frame?

I was quickly relieved to realize that drawing out the story would not be one of my challenges. Both Harold and Dorothy were storytellers and they had many stories to tell. When they were too modest to share their accomplishments, their son prodded them. And while each was accomplished in their own right, they took pride in their partner's successes and helped to elicit their stories.

Our interview began with them sharing that they had been married for 66 years. Both in their nineties, it soon became evident that they had shared a wonderful partnership that took them all over the world and used their talents fully. Their sense of humor also soon became evident adding a leavening to our interview.

Dorothy came from a well-known family in Minneapolis. Her father started the first kosher grocery store that also sold Jewish books and tallisim. The store served as a community center and Dorothy recalled when Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weitzman came to the Twin Cities, they did a stop at the store.

Dorothy recalled being a small child, but her father told her “You should go and say hello because these are going to be hugely important to the Jewish community.”

Dorothy shared the immigration story of her parents who left Russia because of pogroms. They decided they didn’t want to raise a family only to have them killed by pogroms. They did not tell their parents they were leaving for fear they would try to dissuade them. Once safely ensconced in Minneapolis with friends they let their parents know they were safe.

After settling in Minneapolis they raised a family of seven children. All of the children had Hebrew names which soon got Americanized by their kindergarten teacher. Dvora became Dorothy, Shoshana became Ida, Shear Jashub became Joe and so on. Their son Ralph chuckled in amusement as he imagined Dorothy’s brother being asked “What’s your name little boy?” “My name’s Shear Jashub”, he replied. “Right, you’ll be Joe.”

Harold grew up in Marion, Indiana and as he relates,”Marion, Indiana isn’t the best place for Jews to be born; It’s in what is called the Bible belt. The Ku Klux Klan had an office right next door to my father’s tailor shop. And so, they would have parades on Washington Street in their sheets and headdresses…. So there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. And you found it in places like the schools … some of them (the teachers) were just openly anti-Semitic.”

Harold too absorbed the stories of his parents’ immigration to America. His mother was raised by an older sister who shipped her to America when she discovered she had gotten involved with the Communist party. Having the 100 rubles for passage was just part of the challenge. One also needed an exit visa and those were not readily available to Jews. Instead one had to sneak out at night over the border, the “grenz”. His mother crossed the border into Germany, but an innkeeper, recognizing what was going on said, “For you we have no place”. Undeterred she slipped in behind another wayfarer and slept under a table until she could take the train to Hamburg the next morning.

Arriving in America, she found her way to relatives in Passaic, New Jersey who promptly took her to the Manhattan Shirt factory to find a job. She soon made the rounds to various family members in search of a husband. Her journey led her from New Jersey, to Massachusetts, to Cincinnati, Ohio and finally to St. Louis, Missouri where she met Harold’s father.

His father was one of nine children. Harold related, “When one (a Jew) was inducted into the army he could stay there his whole life and was always given the worst jobs. For the first two or three boys, when it came time for them to go they were able to borrow, beg or get enough money to buy them off. By the time it got to my father, he was the fourth; they couldn’t keep him out of the army so he went into the army. This was 1900 or 1901, the Russo-Japanese war was aflame and he was shipped to the Pacific. If you were caught escaping the penalty was death. But he did, he made his way to Odessa, that’s the southern part of Russia and he apprenticed himself to a tailor and pretty soon he saved up the 100 rubles and got a ticket to the United States.”

I am always intrigued with immigration stories as it often solves some of my personal family puzzles. I have stories of my grandmother being shot at crossing the border and never fully understood the circumstances of her exit. The difficulty Jews encountered in receiving exit visas began to make sense of this saga. Similarly my grandfather fled the Ukraine lest he become fodder for the Russo-Japanese war.

We had yet to learn of what brought Harold to Minneapolis and brought the two together. More to come…

* This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Monday, September 17, 2012


I always find the development of a painting to be an interesting process. One often thinks that the artist knows where it is going, but as in life they may start out with an idea that changes and evolves. I’ve learned to watch the process with interest as it often takes me to surprising places.

My process begins with story. In my current series on Jewish Identity and Legacy I review the interviews that I’ve done and see what speaks to me. Fannie, who I referenced in the earlier blog entry is very much a story teller and also deeply involved in her Jewish heritage. She speaks with energy and passion so her stories drew me in.

During my first interview with her she began to expound on Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit is defined as Jewish character or a Jewish way of life.

Because if you’re Jewish and you don’t display or tell or show that you are Jewish, you’ve lost it and then we’ve lost it, we’ve lost something. I don’t like people who are ashamed of being Jewish.

Here she referenced someone who she knew who she felt was uncomfortable with being Jewish as she mimicked, “Don’t act like that, act nice, act normal.”

What is acting “like that?” I asked.

Well you see, you don’t flip an accent, and you don’t say a joke and you don’t say a Jewish word, you don’t say Oyyyyy. You don’t use expressions like that. And when you’re with me you walk straight, you don’t wiggle around. And you don’t sort of show so that they know you’re Yiddish.

I would use my hands, I still do today, I use my hands. And maybe I don’t walk just prim and proper.

I was amused at the energy with which she expressed these sentiments, but understood that she was speaking of that very energy and spontaneity as Jewish characteristics. I often have reflected on the fact that I have always had many Jewish friends, even when I was not actively engaged in a Jewish community. The common thread was often the very traits that she referenced.

But it was more than personality traits. She explained, “It’s everything, it’s everyday. Yiddishkeit is everyday. You can’t just put it aside before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yiddishkeit has to be spontaneous, it isn’t locked in little cubby holes.

It’s a way of living, it’s a way of living.

It’s part of being part of the synagogue, no matter which one it is, it’s part of being body and soul of everyday living and believing of what they do and knowing what it is Tzedakah and Mitzvah. Those are natural words and natural things, they are things that happen and you make them happen and you learn to give from the time you’re that high. It just comes naturally and it has to and that’s Yiddishkeit.

In painting this I began with the idea of cubby holes, compartmentalization versus spontaneity. I built up a background of color and squares. First with words spilling out of them, then painting over that early effort to create a waterfall of words, only later noting that it resembled a prayer shawl. The words I used are the words that have meaning to me and are very much about Jewish values. You can find the words Mitzvah (Good Works), Tzedakah (Charity) and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) spilling forth from the waterfall that pools at the bottom of the painting. What else conveys spontaneity? Hands, those hands that gestured throughout her riff on Yiddishkeit. The irrepressible energy she couldn’t contain. So I painted them in, but they seemed a bit disembodied so I sketched in her face as well. I hadn’t planned on a portrait, but Fannie’s energy found its way in, almost as if her hands parted the painting and the rest of her followed.

Is it done yet? I'm not sure. Normally I like to live with a painting for awhile before I decide it is finished, but I hang a show tomorrow and would like to include it. So for now it's done, always subject to future revisions.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Two Women Take Charge

Fannie was one of our original interviews and one of our natural storytellers. You can read some of her stories from our initial interview in Fire, Light and Legacy. For this interview her daughter Miriam joined us.

Fannie is petite and attractive with an elfin charm. She quickly takes command of a room. At 95 she still has an energy that reminds me that she was an active force in the Jewish community.

In our prior interview, Fannie had told us a story of how her mother had sat her down as a child and told her stories with the instruction to "Shreibes arupt", write it down. She began to do that in her 70s, subsequently publishing several books. I asked her if she had shared her stories in a similarly purposeful manner with her daughter.

Fannie replied, "I tried in my way. It was not like my mother. My mother used to say, “Ich vill zuchen epis” . I’m going to show you something. And I just blurt things out as I go along, as we live and I say, this is what happened and this is what happened so they …."

Miriam: So when we’re together, inevitably…
Fannie: I talk

Miriam: She talks about different times, different events and different people that are all in the books and …

Fannie: If they’re not in one, they’re in another
Miriam: Exactly

One of the most delightful aspects of this interview soon proved to be the interaction between our interviewees. There was a rhythm to the way they jointly told these oft-shared stories, like a ping pong ball batted back and forth between them. It was more than finishing each other's sentences, it was as if they jointly told the story, each one contributing a sentence followed by the other. I've tried to preserve the flavor below.

We began by asking Miriam if there was a favorite story of hers and she told us that the most exciting story was that of how her grandparents got together and immigrated to the US.

Miriam began,"When Mariam wants to marry Shimon, but other relatives of the family have other plans for Shimon so Mariam’s mother, my Bubbe Ruchel, gets together with Shimon's mother and they have a plan to sneak Mariam to …"

Fannie: America

Miriam: Well to America

Fannie: They have to get down to Bucharest

Miriam: They have to get down to Bucharest first and Mariam doesn’t have a birth certificate so she takes her best girl friend’s birth certificate because her best girl friend is married, she’s not going anywhere, so her name is Mary Greenberg. So she took Mary Greenberg’s birth certificate and she goes with

Fannie: She went alone to Bucharest and when she got to Bucharest she wasn’t well received of course, but Shimon was there

Miriam: And Shimon was traveling with another aunt.

Fannie: No Shimon was traveling with this group.

Miriam: Yes, but it was an aunt, right?

Fannie: Yes, yes

Miriam: Not his mother, an aunt, and the aunt had other ideas. She wanted her daughter to be with Shimon. Gittel.

Fannie: Gittel, that’s right.

Miriam: She wanted Gittel to be with Shimon.
Fannie: They all went there

Miriam: She’s not happy, but she’s traveling with Shimon and Gittel and the aunt and whoever else was there and they get to America. They get to the port and they look at everybody’s papers and her papers have a different last name. And so they didn’t let her off the ship when they let everybody else off the ship.

Fannie: They let her off and they put her in…

Miriam: A holding place, a detention place. So anyways, because she had a different last name, they didn’t let her off with the family. So Shimon had to come back a day later…

"Four days," interjected Fannie.

"Four days later to retrieve her, " said Miriam.

Fannie informed us, "If you’re not picked up in four days, you’re shipped back. So Shiman promised her, I’ll be here in four days. Don’t worry. On the fourth day, he did come and she will tell you to the day, that it was after fourth of July. It was on the fifth of July. Why do you say that? Because all of the streets were covered with confetti and they had a parade, it was the fourth of July the day before. And the streets were still dirty on the fifth of July and that’s when they came for her. And she asked specifically, “Why are the streets so dirty?” Because it was the geboyrn tog (birthday) of the country."
"Imagine how frightened she was," exclaimed Miriam sympathetically.

Fannie confirmed, " She was frightened, absolutely."

We asked Miriam what she loved about that story and she replied," Well that the two mothers got together to sneak her off."

They then related how Mariam's father opposed her marrying Shimon, but the mothers put their heads together and snuck the daughter out on a stage coach to Bucharest and then to America while the father napped. Strong matriarchs definitely populated this family.

The stories of Fannie's mother were very colorful and held a very dominant place in family legacy. I asked Fannie and Miriam if they had new stories in America that became part of a new legacy.

They began by telling me of Fannie's son who is a world traveler and related how he stopped in Iran to meet the family of their Persian kid.

"Persian kid?" I queried.

" We brought a kid home, a family of ten children. He stayed with us from ninth grade to…well he forgot to go home.." replied Fannie wryly.

She then related the story of his older brother who was a resident doctor cajoling her into sponsoring his 14 year old brother. It was to be a one year stay, but he stayed until he went to college. Fannie continued in the role of Mom.

"He lived on campus, but where did he come? " Fannie asked. "He came to me. Who was Ma? I was Ma."

Gradually his other brothers started coming as well.

Miriam related waking up and coming downstairs to find the floor covered with Persian rugs, their Persian kid and fourteen family members.

Fannie reported, "The Shah had come to town. And they came home from the shindig and they grabbed me and took me back to the Lemington Hotel and I sat right across, eye to eye with the Shah of Iran. He was handsome."

In the space of our interview we had covered two very different immigration stories. This was to be a theme for several of our interviewees, reaching out to help a new immigrant make their way in America. Is this a form of passing it on I wondered?

I asked Miriam what she thought of as her mother's legacy and she spoke to her long history of community involvement both within the Jewish community, but also in the community at large. Whether it was community relations, food shelves or youth programs, Fannie had been in the vanguard. Often she drew Miriam in as well.

Our interview closed on a forward looking note. Fannie had told us of her granddaughter who is studying to become a rabbi. Fannie was of course very proud of her and touched at the thought that she may have played a role in that choice.

Well she says to me, “It was because of you Bubbe”.

What did I do? I didn’t do anything.”

And she said, “Oh yes you did”. That’s all she said.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

And Then Everything Stopped

“I never bothered the children with the Holocaust and all that. I never told them anything,” said Hanna. 

For our interview we sat with her two daughters and two granddaughters as she told us about her escape from Germany on the Kindertransport. Her parents and brother stayed behind and perished in Auschwitz.

Hanna had a comfortable life in a wealthy family in Germany. Her father was in the grain business and the family lived in a large home with a cook and housekeeper. She talked of their vacations at the Baltic Sea and skiing in Switzerland. In our conversation she frequently came back to the wonderful life she had with her family, a life documented in photos sent by her parents and lovingly preserved by Hanna. That life began to change as the Nazis came to power.

Hanna’s children had in fact heard some stories from her that were quite vivid. They remembered her talking of the family buying her father out of a concentration camp. He went in with black hair and came out with gray hair. She had also talked about the Nazis pushing their piano out the window. Thrown out of their home they had gone to stay with a friend of her father’s so were not at home when it occurred. They lived with the friend for a year. As the climate worsened Hanna was sent to a Jewish boarding school, one she described as “for kids who don’t have parents or can’t go home anymore.” She recalled the beautiful country in which it was located, but that they closed the whole thing down at the time she left. “No Jews, so that was the end of that,” she said.

“When I was sixteen I immigrated to England. I was all on my own already. My mother packed my suitcase and whatever she wanted me to take to America later on. I went to England with the children’s transport. I went to a very nice family who needed help for their kids and taking care of the house. A Quaker family. I went to church with them on Sunday. A different life.”

It was a difficult adjustment for Hanna who mourned for the life she left. “I was very lonesome. The only person having to go from my house. Lots of other kids went too, and different ages. For me it was awful.”

Hanna also faced the language difficulties of every immigrant. While she spoke French and German, she spoke no English.

“I learned English with my dictionary. I had a German-English dictionary. I still have it. I had that with me all the time. The lady was very nice, that couple was very nice and the child, so they taught me. You learn. When you’re young, you learn easier than when you’re older.”

Suddenly she was thrust from a world where she had everything to one where she was responsible for caring for a house, a responsibility of the housekeeper in her childhood home.

 “It’s not easy living in somebody else’s house either, being the second dog….the English people are very fussy. The bricks in front of the fireplaces, they have polished bricks and they had to be polished every day.”

She eagerly awaited any word from her family which came in the form of Red Cross letters, letters sent by the Red Cross on their behalf. “You didn’t write much because you knew somebody else was in between.”

Hanna pulled out her photo albums in which she kept her Red Cross letters. She told us that her parents were very good about writing, “and then everything stopped.”

Her granddaughter asked in puzzlement, “ Did you get any news? Did you get any notice that your parents had died, your brother?

Hanna replied, “ No, I never did. The only thing, I found out because I didn’t get any more Red Cross letters.”

After three years in England she decided to become a nurse. She had a choice of nursing or working in a munitions factory, so she chose nursing. She cared for soldiers in an Army hospital in England during the war and later was able to come to the United States where she finished her training.
Her mother had a brother who had gone to South Africa. He later joined his girlfriend in Minneapolis. They took Hanna in and recreated the family she once had.

 “The couple was the best thing for me,” Hanna said. “ They took over my parents. They made everything for me. I stayed in their house for the first six months when I was here.”

When I asked her daughters what they had learned from their mother, they replied, “Survival skills. She’s a tough lady. You don’t want to be a whiner around her. She taught us to be tough. She doesn’t show her emotions really. Only, when talking about the Holocaust we don’t see any emotion from her, but in other areas the emotion comes out. She cries at weddings or somebody winning something on a game show but when it comes down to the real thing that is beneath what the tears are all about you’ll never see the tears.”

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In America We Become Russians

One of our most interesting interviews was with Rakhil, a 94-year-old immigrant from Kiev, and her daughter Liana. I had interviewed Rakhil with an interpreter in my first series of interviews and was quite charmed by her. Even with a language barrier her warm personality came through. She had told me stories about her mother and sang me songs that her mother would lead them in at Pesach. Rakhil told me about a time when Jews lived in friendship with the Ukrainians and shared holiday treats with each other.

That all came to an end in 1933 when the Soviet government began a program of forced farm-collectives. A famine resulted, killing an estimated seven million people. This was an effort to destroy Ukrainian nationalism and the capitalism implicit in the success of small farmers. Homes and livestock were confiscated, people who resisted were deported or executed. Grain was expropriated or sold on the international market while the people starved. It is a horrific story of which I knew little.

Rakhil told me that the Jews were tradesmen and craftsmen and they survived better than did their Ukrainian neighbors. Rich Ukrainians who had shops in the middle of Kiev often hired them. Jealousies resulted and fed the anti-Semitism we often associate with the Ukraine.

During the war Rakhil and her family evacuated Kiev and worked on a collective farm. Twenty-eight members of her mother’s family sought shelter in Kiev and were killed at Babi Yar in the largest single massacre of the Holocaust.

Rakhil enlisted and worked in communications. Her ability to understand German made her valuable as a translator. She made it all the way to Berlin during the war and won many medals. Her daughter later told me that she entered Majdanek and Auschwitz with the Russian army, horrified at what she found.

On this second interview I was relying on her daughter to translate for her as well as to share her own story. I had found that the elderly Russian immigrants I had interviewed, typically came to the US to follow their children. While I knew of antisemitism in Russia, I had never talked with a contemporary about their experience.

We began by asking about their decision to immigrate in 1989. Liana talked of the antisemitism in the Soviet Union which prompted it.

 “You just kind of learn with years, you learn to live with it. You just know that you are second-hand kind of person and certain fields, certain places, you will never be able to get to.”

 She told of seeking to enroll her son in a school which specialized in English. Those who graduated received an interpreter’s certificate and it is usually for military interpretation. The director told her that while her son could enroll he would never receive the certificate. “Why?” she asked. “Because you are Jewish, don’t you understand,” replied the director. Ultimately the decision to immigrate came in search of more opportunity for their son and themselves. Her mother followed three years later.

When I asked about the family’s experience being Jewish, Rakhil replied that her mother was not religious, but kept kosher and celebrated the holidays. Rakhil was born at the time of the revolution so she knew what she learned from her mother. Liana was reliant on what her mother had learned from her mother, but could not practice Judaism. There was one synagogue for 4 million people. Generally older people who had nothing to lose attended. Attendance was monitored and penalized at jobs and universities. Ironically Liana’s daughter-in-law has since become an Orthodox Jew so her grandchildren are now being raised in the Orthodox tradition. Rakhil proudly related how the oldest grandson led them through the Pesach service.

Liana spoke of something I observed in Lithuania, that being Jewish is treated as a nationality, not a religion. If one is Jewish that is noted on your passport rather than Russian or Ukrainian. It is on line 5 so people would say, “Is your line number 5 OK?” It means, “Are you Jewish or not?” In the US we think of ourselves as Americans and Jewish. Imagine living in America, but not being considered an American because one is Jewish. This is essentially what Liana experienced in Russia.

She commented on the oddity of now being labeled as Russians because that was their geographical home.

 “You see we’ve been all of our lives Jews. In America we become Russians. We’re Russian but we’re not. We’re from Russia, but we’ve never been Russian. We’ve always been Jews. Jews here and Jews there. But here we’re Americans, American Jew. Over there we were just Jew. Period.”

I especially enjoyed the Russian jokes that Liana used to illustrate the duplicity of the then Soviet government.

 "When one Jewish man was crossing the road and it was green light and policeman said, 'you can go now,” he said,“I don’t believe them.”

"He doesn’t believe in the country he lives, it’s like a gang. So he doesn’t believe whatever they say to him. Because they say it should be one thing and their knowledge is completely different. We’ve always said, “if you want your refrigerator to be full of food, you have to plug it in the radio”. Because on the radio and on the news this (Russia) is the best country in the world."

I asked Liana if it has changed. She said she thinks so, but isn't sure how much.

When we spoke of her father’s history I felt as if I had stepped into a novel, a rather tragic one. Her father along with his brother and sister were orphaned when their parents were murdered during a pogram. The children hid, but saw the murder. They then walked through the winter to get to an orphanage. I just read the wonderful book The Little Russian where the author, Susan Sherman, paints vivid pictures of such events. I was able to visualize it all too well.

“How does one make sense of that experience, of that history?” I asked.

She replied, “It makes me look different on a situation in the country, be very politically involved, be very pro-Israel, be a huge supporter of our country. You know to feel that you can be fair citizen here, everybody treats you like equal. And that’s what I’m grateful for and appreciate so much. And like I said, have all this legacy with us. It makes us stronger, and it makes us bring different views to United States. Makes us hard workers, makes us people who not spoiled by having everything.”

Some of our lighter moments came when I asked about food and Rakhil began to describe how to make gefilte fish. A family recipe that came from Rakhil’s grandmother has yet to make it to Liana, but we witnessed the promise to pass it on. Using hand gestures Rakhil illustrated how it is made as Liana translated.

 “You bring the fish and I make it,” Rakhil told us.

 “It’s a long procedure.” said Liana. “ People don’t have time anymore. It’s better to go to Costco to buy it.”

When Rakhil came to the United States she decided she wanted to become a citizen. At age 80 she went before the official and told him her name and age in English. She then shared with us the English spoken sentence, “Me-morial Day ees holiday” that got her citizenship. Very somberly she recited the sentence and then illustrated the amazement of the judge at this elderly Russian woman.

Our visit ended with Rakhil singing Yiddish songs for us with a vigor that belied her age. Her joyous spirit affected us all and we told her we hoped to return with a Klezmer musician who will accompany her singing.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.