Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lozan Sha

Sometimes an idea for a painting evolves, other times it starts out clearly conceived and the challenge is in the execution.  I've been working on one of the latter.  One of our interviewees in the Jewish Identity and Legacy project shared a number of stories with us from her childhood.  One of her stories featured the old Lyndale shul and went like this…

We went to the old shul on Lyndale, the Lyndale shul.  That was a beautiful building, it was just gorgeous, it really was the prettiest one ever built in this whole state.  It had the columns. When you walked in there you felt you were in a shul, you were in a house of worship.  You weren’t just in a fancy place where this one had candy and this one was serving…No you went to a shul.  And of course the women sat upstairs.  I sat upstairs with my mother.  And I don’t know how anybody would pray there because everybody was talking to somebody else, kissing all the kids and talking to someone else.

And if it got late, they’d go to shul and they’d have services, a week before the holidays they’d have a late service until 11 o’clock at night. It was always later with the orthodox shuls because they had more to say.  It always took more than it said so in the book.  They had more to read, they had more to say, then they would stop and they would talk to somebody here and they’d talk to somebody there and they’d stand there with a big gavel and say, “Lozan shah”. You know people would talk so they would say “Lozan shah”.  Well so that’s what they did so we didn’t get home until late.  The kids, a lot of us, I was a kid then, my mother would give me her coat and I’d cover up and lay down on the empty seats around there and sleep until they were through.  My father would carry me home.

I searched for a picture of the old Lyndale shul and was unable to find any of its interior.  I have been in an Orthodox synagogue on very few occasions and it represented a somewhat foreign world to me.  In fact I realized that most of my experiences were literally foreign and occurred overseas.  On my last night in Vilnius we went to the one remaining synagogue for Shabbat services and sat in the balcony.  I remembered I had some photos of the synagogue from before the service and used that for reference. It fit the description she offered as it had soaring columns.  

In the Vilnius synagogue I remembered feeling rather detached from what was going on below as the women were not active participants.  When I painted this image I thought about the women's balcony as a unique world, separate from that of the men.  I wanted it to be defined while the world of the men was blurred and indistinct.  I pictured it from a child's perspective, being lulled to sleep by the voices and with her mother's hand resting on her creating a sense of safety and security.

In order to create a sense of mystery in the synagogue below I first did a painting with some detail and then did a veil of white paint to make it less distinct.  I used gold and a transparent yellow ochre to literally make it glow, a sense that I imagined must have been heightened for my interviewee when she was a child.  I wanted to create the suggestion of figures in the women’s balcony as it angled around the synagogue interior and random gatherings of men below, both as she described and as I witnessed in Vilnius.
The focal point of the painting was to be the child herself, huddled under her mother’s coat and connected to her mother by a gentle hand resting on her head.  This is one of the rare instances where I had an idea of what the painting should look like when I started and it actually materialized more or less as I’d imagined.  I am always a bit astonished when that happens.

 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.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cherchez la Famille

I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something about the release of the 1940 census. As you may know, this has been released, but is not yet indexed by name. That means to find someone you need to first know where they were living in 1940, then find the enumeration district and then page through about 40 pages to find the entry.

When I went on-line I looked up both of my parents’ families and found no surprises. I did have one mystery I hoped to solve. A few years ago I had done research in the Surrogate Court files of Brooklyn. There I had found a document on the death of my grandmother’s favorite aunt. It listed the married names and addresses of her living children from 1943. I had hoped those addresses might also have been their addresses in 1940 and in one case found that to be true. Unfortunately it was a newly married daughter so there were no children of the marriage to trace.

While earlier census records focused on immigration, the major event of the early 1900s, by 1940 the country had just come through the Depression and the focus was employment and wages. Questions addressed wages in the prior year and duration of unemployment. The census also asked where the person lived five years earlier and highest level of education, information that may be of interest to family historians.

While I didn't solve any of my own mysteries, I had an opportunity to use the 1940 census to solve a mystery for a client from France for whom I had been doing research. While many of her family members perished in the Holocaust, this branch managed to exit the country in the early 1900s. She knew they had come to Minneapolis in 1910 and asked me to follow the trail. I had traced the family in the 1920 and 1930 census, reviewed birth and death records and located the naturalization record which confirmed that the father had arrived via Canada. I then went to the stacks of the Minneapolis Public Library which has the original city directories and traced the family through each year. The oldest son disappeared from the listings during the war years and I assumed he was away in the service. When I got to 1946 the family disappeared from the city, another mystery to be solved. Ah, but I had found my critical piece of information for the next step. The 1940 directory confirmed the address of the parents as well as that of the oldest son. Armed with the addresses I went to

For those unfamiliar with, Steve Morse, the original architect of the Intel 8086, brought his expertise in computer science to build a better front-end search engine to many genealogy databases. His contribution to genealogy is immeasurable and continues to grow as he takes on new puzzles and challenges. If you go to his site and page down to US Census you will see an entry titled Unified 1940 Census ED Finder. Because the census is not yet indexed by name, it is necessary to first locate the address and then the enumeration district and this site will help you to do so.

Morse makes it simple to search if you have the address. After you enter it, the site will bring up a map. By entering the streets which surround the location you will narrow it down to the correct enumeration district. When you click on that district it will bring up between 30 to 40 pages which you now need to peruse to find the address. The street is noted on the left so a quick glance will allow you to page through until you find the address.

In the case I was researching I was able to find the original immigrants as well as their oldest son. When we last located them in 1930 they had one daughter. Daughters are always challenging to search on because they have that pesky habit of changing their name. Since 1930 they had added two sons to the family, one in 1932 and one in 1934. When I shared that information with my client she quickly did a search on one of the sons and found the great-grandson to our original immigrants on the Geni site. He had outlined his father’s family and it was a match! Now she has reached out to her living relatives, following the trail of the original Russian immigrants and connecting their descendants from France and the United States.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Evolution of a Painting

I often make changes to paintings after they have been considered finished for some time.  I’ve learned that “finished” is a relative term.  That’s why I always struggle to answer the question about how long it takes me to do a painting.  The initial painting can sometimes develop quite quickly, but the incremental changes happen gradually after I live with the work for some time. When I review the series of photos that I take throughout the process, I am always surprised at how much a painting changes over time.

 The first painting that I did in the Jewish Identity and Legacy series was titled Sleeping with the Chickens and told the story of a woman who remembered sleeping at her grandmother’s with a box containing two live chickens by the bed.  They terrified her at night and became dinner the following evening.   I was never quite satisfied with it and decided to change it in two ways.  The original painting is above.

The woman had told me of how she was terrified of the chickens and I thought about what that felt like physically.  I realized that when we recoil in fear, our eyebrows rise and our mouth opens so I sought to get that effect in the painting.

I also had never liked the distinct lines that seemed to segment the painting into separate spheres.  I often use my Ipad to enlarge and crop an image visually.  When I did this, I found that I focused on the connection between the woman's
 gaze and that of the chicken’s.  I thought about how I could emphasize that while minimizing the lines that were less relevant to the story.  I took a wash of white paint and extended the covers, letting the box show through.  The line of the blanket echoed the line between their gaze.  The blanket still was too large of an expanse and needed to be broken in some way.  She had spoken to me of the big feather bed, no doubt filled by the feathers of past chickens so I decided to extend the idea of feathers flying.  The addition of several feathers in this space echoed those above and balanced the image.  I also extended the feathers of the chicken to make it feel more menacing.  The effect of these changes is to further the telling of the underlying story.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reinvention In The Public Eye

Having a blog, an art site and two websites (Radom, Dunilovichi) on ancestral towns means I am pretty accessible on the Internet. I also do talks, workshops and exhibitions of my artwork. Some people would find that a bit too much exposure, but it opens me up to some interesting connections. Between all of those avenues I hear from a wide variety of people.

This week I have been communicating with a woman in France who hired me to research a branch of her family, a woman from Israel who discovered her family in one of my Kehilalinks (ancestral websites) and a woman in England who has a connection to a branch of my British family. Closer to home I connected with a woman through Facebook who is researching the family name of my Ukrainian great-great grandmother and a woman who heard me speak locally who sought some assistance on her family research. I rounded it out with a discussion with a woman who is a writer who sought my input for her nonfiction book involving an escape from the Radom ghetto.

For almost six years I have been busy reinventing myself with a focus on my artwork and family history. I’ve found that one of the fundamental principles of reinvention is visibility. It is hard to reinvent yourself in a vacuum. You have to let people know what you are up to. I remember thinking enviously as a kid about the people that moved to a new high school. They could be whomever they wanted, leaving their awkward old self behind, no longer useful in their new and popular life. When I went off to college I decided to perform the feat of reinvention and found that it is a much more gradual process than I had hoped. Years later, when I left my career in finance, I didn’t seek to deep-six who I had been. I had finally gotten to a place where I was comfortable in my own skin. Instead I sought to let some other sides of me flourish. I was smarter this time around and I realized that who I was will always be part of who I am. That analytic part of me that I used in finance is the part that helps me write these blogs and is often called upon in my genealogy research and even my artwork. The balance between artist and analyst gives me some challenges, but also some gifts.

I often reflect on what has enabled me to perform this reinvention more successfully than my early college attempt. When I first left my job I contacted the Jewish Historical Society to volunteer. When they learned that I was deeply involved in genealogy they suggested I give their annual genealogy talk. My first thought was a resounding NO!!! Public speaking was not the direction I had anticipated. Then I caught myself and that inner voice said, “New life, new ways”. I did the talk and discovered much to my surprise that it was fun. This was a revelation to a self-described shy person. Had I never risked that exposure, I would never have discovered the joy of speaking about something I love.

When I did my first solo art show I also felt exposed. There is something about putting your artwork out there that is rather scary. I don’t like everything that I do from one day to the next so how can I expect someone else to. I still fight the urge to bring a paint brush into a gallery where my paintings hang and do a little touch up. I frequently will rework paintings between shows until there is that magical moment where I am pleased with the result. It doesn’t always happen. Paintings evolve just as I do and sometimes they need a bit of reinvention too. Putting them out before they are fully reinvented is not too different than putting myself out there before I am fully reinvented. You start with where and who you are and let the process work.

When I started a blog I again experienced that sense of being exposed. I started out keeping a shield of privacy and gradually have begun to reveal more of my own views and my own experience. Having left my career, I feel a greater sense of freedom to reveal who I am, to expose myself to scrutiny and worry less about others’ judgments. I hadn’t realized how much having an employer caused me to rein myself in until I no longer had to.

I was struck by a sentence in a book I've been reading, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. He writes: "We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all, the silence of the scared imagination." So being “out there”, taking the risk that people won’t like my artwork, my talk, my writing, me, is all part of reinvention and embracing creativity. Along the way I am always deeply grateful for the people who enjoy what I paint or say or write and offer their encouragement to continue taking those risks.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Stream of Yiddish Fish

I am involved in many pursuits and often have people ask how I can keep them all straight.  I am convinced they all inform each other and thus are part of a cohesive whole even if not readily apparent to the outside eye.  Lately I have been reading the book Imagine, How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer .  I am finding that it validates much of my own observations with information on the brain science behind creativity.  The fundamental premise is that creativity involves the combination of disparate information in new ways.  Our ability to hold disparate information in our working memory increases "intelligence" by increasing the ability to make these connections.  The author writes about the creative process often involving having to face a barrier.  Achieving a relaxed state of mind is important to allow our brain to find the less obvious connections.  If we try to use our analytic selves we bring too much focus to it and miss those connections.  When we retell the story of our creative insight we often omit the struggle that preceded it and in doing so leave out the germ of the creative process.

I think a lot about those different approaches because I am such a blend of analytic and creative.  In the studio I often have to trick myself into letting go of my more analytic active brain.  You know that brain, the one  that doesn't want to shut down at 3am.   When I am struggling with a painting, I often will take a brush and smear the paint or add a light coating of white or gold paint.  Sometimes I use reflected images as source material.  The common thread behind these approaches is that they force me to see in a different way. They take me away from the precision of my left brain into a more suggestive right brain.  Even when I start with an idea, I need to distort it to allow the free associating to kick in.

Let me give you an example. I am working on artwork that captures the stories collected in an oral history project from Jewish elders, now in their 90s.  One woman told me about "those damn fish" in her father's butcher shop that she was scared to pick up for customers when she was a child.  She also told me about how all the records were kept in Yiddish and she spoke Yiddish to all the customers.  I started with the idea of "those damn fish" and Yiddish.  My analytic side went out on the Internet and pulled pictures of Jewish shops.  I started with imagery from a fish market with a young woman behind tins of fish and a scale hanging on which to weigh the fish.   Over a portion of it, I wrote out several names in Yiddish.  Up until now my analytic side was in the driver's seat.

But  I didn't like the strict lines of the tins so my right brain said "move over" and took the wheel.  It covered much of the painting with white paint, but left the young woman and the suggestion of the writing.  Around the writing I drew a much larger fish and in the foreground I draped a fish over a much larger scale.  Originally I had included the top of the scale that identifies the weight, but decided it became too much of a focal point.  Exercising my right brain's artistic license,  I decided to omit it.

I had struggled for some time with a not bad, but not quite right painting.  Now that I had destroyed the original structure, free association began to work.  When I think of a butcher shop I think of butcher paper that they might use to wrap the fish.  I hadn't liked the rigidity of the tins, so what if I unroll a sheet of figurative butcher block paper.  I added a swath of white sweeping around the now enlarged scale on which a flopping fish resides and up above to cover the form that had been the top of the scale. Rigidity was exchanged for fluidity.   And how do I know this fish is flopping?  I added an echo in white of fish tails in movement with color framing the actual tail.   The young woman is now quite small relative to the fish which seemed somehow appropriate as seen through her child's eye.  The butcher block paper reminds me of a stream and a stream would have fish in it, but Yiddish fish.  The word for fish in Yiddish reminds me of fish scales so I fill the stream with Yiddish fish by writing the word over and over.  Across the central fish, I write an excerpt of her comment in English about "those damn fish".    Some paintings survive in their more analytic form, others get reworked by my free associating right brain.  I'm not sure if this is done yet, but I am much more pleased with its direction.

As described in the book, I had to achieve a relaxed state of mind where I stopped forcing it.  For me, the swath of white paint frees me from the structure I had imposed.   Choosing fluidity over rigid lines allowed me to free associate from butcher block paper to a stream filled with Yiddish fish.  And by changing the proportions, I changed the emphasis to "those damn fish".  Now my right brain hands the wheel back to its more analytical brethren who makes sense of it all to explain it to you.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Power of Kehila (Community)

A few days ago I got one of my favorite kinds of e-mails. A woman in Israel contacted me because she had discovered the Kehilalink that I had built for Dunilovichi. On the site she had found the tombstone of her great-great grandfather."Who are you?" she asked. "And do you have more on these names"?

Dunilovichi is a shtetl in Belarus that is about 75 miles outside of Vilnius. It is the town from which my grandmother and great-grandparents came. In 2009 I visited it when I was in Vilnius. Upon my return I built a Kehilalink on the town, a website for, as my volunteer effort for people who were researching family from there. When I was researching the town prior to my visit I had connected with a woman who had a transcription of the cemetery and photos of the tombstones that enabled me to locate my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. She gave me permission to include the tombstones on the site and to submit them to the Jewish On-line Worldwide Burial Registry.

Building Kehilalinks is a wonderful activity for those of us who have already progressed pretty far in our own research, but aren’t quite ready to relinquish the search. offers an on-line class to learn how to construct them which doesn’t require a high level of technical expertise. I’ve found the knowledge quite useful in building out my art website as well.

When I can assist someone in finding their family member, it reminds me of why I do this. I then took her question about whether I had more on her names to heart. I had created several finding aids on the Kehilalink. I have a tab titled Family Names and I went there to see if her name was listed anywhere else. There I have a link that lists out who lived in the town in 1939. There were two entries with her family name. But were they hers? I returned to her family tombstone for more information. There I noted that her great-great grandfather who died in 1918 was named Ben-Zion and his father was Dan. One of the 1939 residents with her family name was also named Dan, quite likely the son of Ben-Zion. Ashkenazic Jews name their children after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent so it is likely that this person was a family member.

Also on the Family Names tab is an index that I built for the cemetery, immigration records, Yad Vashem and the 1850 census. I had taken each name and identified if it was found in one of those sources and the spelling as there were frequently several variants. From the index I saw that her family name showed up in the immigration tab and a quick search for the record on informed me that his nearest relative in Europe was his father Dan and he was going to his brother Barnett in Chicago. Hmm, the pieces are beginning to connect. I sent her an e-mail asking if she was familiar with this person and she returned a scan of a scrap of paper with his name that she found in her father’s papers, but indicated she knew nothing more about him.

A few searches on led me to the 1920 and 1930 census and the naturalization record. As I expected the young man had named his son Benjamin after his son’s great-grandfather who had died just four years earlier. A little good fortune also awaited. It appeared that someone had a family tree on Ancestry which indicated living relatives as well. The woman who contacted me will likely be able to expand her family tree in both directions, discovering a great-great grandfather and the name of her ggg grandfather as well as living relatives in the United States.