Monday, January 28, 2013

An Open Mike Afternoon

I spent this afternoon at an open mike event with people in their 80s and 90s singing old Yiddish tunes accompanied by two Klezmer musicians.  My projects take me to some interesting places.  When we had interviewed Rakhil and Liana, Rakhil had sung us many Yiddish songs.  My interview partner knew a klezmer musician, Judith Eisner, and suggested we connect her with Raychel to share their love of Yiddish song.  Soon after, I attended an event that Judith played at and asked her if she would be willing to play. She very graciously agreed. As Raychel lives at a facility with others who share her love of Yiddish music we decided to open it to them as well.

One by one, the bolder members of the audience rose to sing the songs they remembered from childhood.  Others chimed in on remembered melodies. Many did not speak English, but the universal language of music was spoken by all.    Even those whose memories had begun to lapse, recalled every word.  I am struck by how music links to memory, embedding treasured songs in our mental wiring.


I’ve written of many of my interviews, but only recently have begun to add video to my website, excerpts from lengthier videos that I've edited.  If you go to the Identity/Legacy portion of my website, you will find yourself at the work from this series.  When you click on the thumbnails to enlarge you will find links to both blogs and video that accompany each painting.The video may give you some of the flavor of the interview on which the artwork was based.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

From Her Mother

I’ve been returning to the studio as of late to work on the remaining paintings in the Identity and Legacy Series. I've been speaking with Sholom Home about doing a show at two of their facilities later in the year. To that end I hope to do five more paintings and then close out the series with a total of eighteen paintings that include at least one of each interviewee. Of course many of those that remain feel more challenging as I began with those which had clear imagery. I remind myself that sometimes what seems a mystery unfolds as I begin to paint. The one I recently finished is no exception.

One of my favorite interviews was with Rakhil and her daughter Liana as they talked of their experience in coming to the US from the former Soviet Union. To do a painting, I need to ponder the essence of their story and as I reread the interview I was struck with the way in which legacy was passed through food and song from mother to daughter. Even at a time when practice of religion was difficult the cultural handoffs managed to keep that history alive.

This theme came up many times. When I asked about food I was regaled with stories of making gefilte fish, an old family recipe that Rakhil had learned from her mother and she in turn from hers. Rakhil recalled her mother leading them in song at the Pesach table and shared the songs that she had learned from her mother. When I asked about religious practice itself I was told that Rakhil’s mother (who would have been born around the late 1800s) was proudly Jewish and sang Jewish songs and celebrated Jewish holidays. Rakhil was born around the time of the revolution when religions, especially Judaism, were persecuted, but she knew about the holidays from her mother and what she remembered she told her daughter. I began to imagine a long line of women extending back in time, each passing on the traditions. Having it go from mother to daughter felt especially meaningful in that being Jewish is passed through the mother. I looked at images I had taken of Rakhil singing and decided to start with that image.

I also was interested in the stories I had heard about the Russian passport that indicated if one were Jewish. This designation often contributed to job discrimination for Jews. As it was on line five, the question, “Is your line 5 OK?" took on additional meaning. It meant that if your line 5 indicated you were Jewish you would encounter difficulties. I originally was thinking of overlaying the passport to incorporate this part of the story.

As the painting developed I had to edit. The challenge with many stories is one can have too much of a good thing and end up with confusion. I discarded the idea of the passport and thought perhaps it might find its way to its own painting. I developed the image of Rakhil and a line of women behind her. I then pictured them all sitting at a table and began to sketch in ovals before each woman, imagining them blending into one table that they shared.

One of the things that I have always found fascinating about cemeteries is the way they compress time, joining those of different generations and time periods around one table. I had that same sense of compression as I developed this painting. Food, song and culture compressed time, joining different generations together.

I sketched in the Kiev Synagogue to the side. Liana had told me that only those who had nothing to lose would go there as she would have been persecuted had she gone. Around Rakhil’s neck she wore a Star of David. We had talked about its significance for them as they could not have worn any Judaica in the Soviet Union. To be able to now say who they are and express their pride in it is very special. As I drew in Rakhil’s necklace, I also added it to all of the women who came before her.

I now had a shape that resembled a shofar going back in time, filled with generations of women in a figurative horn of plenty. Hmm, maybe there was a way to put the suggestion of the passport in. Where the line of women ended, I drew the number five, behind it another smaller 5 and behind that yet another. The five was in fact symbolic of their Jewish identity so it became a proxy for the women themselves.

So the painting is developing and now I need to live with it to develop it further. I like the way it intersects with story in a way I hadn't fully anticipated when I began. And of course the name of the painting is FromHer Mother to reflect the tradition handed from one woman to the next.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ordering Films from the Family History Library

I’ve been doing some genealogy work for others and recently ordered some films from the Family History Library in Utah.  When I first began doing family history I went to the local Church of the Latter Day Saints where they had a small library with microfilm readers that was connected with the Family History Library in Utah.  At first I was a bit intimidated by the fact that it was in a church.  The very helpful volunteers were a close knit group who referred to each other as brother and sister.  I used to listen to the hum of their background conversation while immersing myself in an equally foreign world.  Before I worked up the courage to order a film, I looked at Polish films that were in the files.  I remember studying the records written in this strange language and script trying to make sense of them.  I have always retained a memory from when I was a child.  I recall studying a page in a book, a picture of a deer in the upper left corner and typeface that I so wanted to decipher, a moment when I could not yet read.   This was not too dissimilar an experience.

Over time I got bolder and ordered films from the Family History Library in Utah and later began to go to Utah directly.  I poured over those films, gradually finding the birth, marriage and death records of my family.  Polish began to seem like an old friend as I learned the key words to look for as markers.  Then when I hit the mid 1860s the records suddenly changed to Cyrillic Russian and I panicked at this strange language.  A few community ed classes later and Russian too began to feel more familiar. It now seems quite long ago and in fact the library process has changed quite a bit.

On my early visits I used to have flashbacks to my job in college when I worked in the research department of the university library.  Surrounded by microfilm readers, not much had changed many decades later. But change is beginning to happen.  When I wanted to order records this time I discovered that I could only order on-line.  The site required me to register and select a library.  The small one near my home that I had begun with was no longer on the list.  It appeared that they had consolidated resources, perhaps to have a larger presence and more hours at the available libraries.  One of the challenges when I first began my research was that there were quite limited hours as it was staffed by volunteers.  I was pleased to see that the hours had been greatly expanded.  The fee for the films had increased to $7.50 and when I arrived at the library I noted that they now had a scanner similar to what I had used in Utah, although in Utah scanning had been free.  Here they charged the same for a scan as for a hardcopy, still a bargain when weighed against airfare to Utah.

I was accustom to searching the online Family History Library Catalog. In the past I had searched for a country and city and then gone to the category of Jewish records.  From there I had ordered the relevant films and carefully studied them, looking for family names in that ancient script. While that is still available, you will want to first do a name search in hopes that the records you are looking for have been indexed.

The research I was doing was for a Catholic German family. I knew that family came from Mehren, Germany so first I tried the old method.   I went to the catalog and I input Mehren, Germany.  I came up with two categories, a book on Genealogy and a some films of vital records, one of baptisms in particular.  In the old days I would have proceeded to look at each record on that baptismal film looking for family names.  If I was fortunate there might be an index. Now there is a much easier path, to the same information.  At, I entered the names I was searching.  Up popped census records as, well as baptismal records by name, each accompanied by the film number.    When I went to the film, I was able to quickly locate the correct record because the indexed record had revealed the year plus I had the certainty that the record would be there.

JRI-Poland has previously indexed many of the Jewish records so I’ve had the benefit of some indexing, but for the most part my past research still required painstaking searching through foreign records.  Now that process was greatly simplified, at least if you are one of the fortunate ones whose family has been indexed.

I pulled the 1800s baptismal records and turned my attention to the other film, a family history that someone else had invested the time in creating.  As this was a family that came to the US in the mid-1800s the research was primarily US based.  The research in Germany included the baptismal records and a marriage record, but had not gone further back. My client had a suspicion that there might be Jewish history in her tree and was interested in exploring that further.  If so, I concluded it was not in the US branch which had a healthy number of priests and nuns in the tree.  One of the things I was looking for to test her theory was naming.  Ashkenazic Jews name children after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent and I thought the naming pattern might have persisted.  Nothing in that vein as of yet.

If you are considering a search for your family records I would encourage you to first try your luck at and if films exist venture out to one of the local church family history libraries.  They are open to the public and you need not be affiliated with the church to make use of their resources.  It was my first step many years ago and set me on a fascinating journey.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Predicting Change

A study recently came out that found that we are not very good at predicting how our beliefs may change in the future. We don’t have much difficulty reflecting on the changes that have occurred in us to date, but our imagination fails us when it comes to anticipating our capacity for future change. We seem to assume that we have done all the changing we are going to do and project the status quo forward. I have always had difficulty with those interview questions about what I anticipate doing five years from now. I’d like to believe it is because of my insight into how much things can change rather than a failure of imagination.

I’ve been thinking of changes lately as this is my taking stock time of year. When I looked back over the past several years, I noted an interesting development. Each year I have developed a new skill that I built on in subsequent years. Each of those firsts escalated and took me in a new direction that I could not have easily foreseen. Now those skills have become more second nature and less stress producing then that first step into the unknown. It took actively practicing them and soon I could make bigger leaps.

For example, the first year I left my job I took on a public speaking project, not without some trepidation. In subsequent years I did four or five talks a year until this year I did four in one weekend and a total approaching twenty. Oddly it didn’t seem like a stretch. By taking the first step and then practicing the skill, I found it wasn’t that big of a leap to amplify it. As I became more at ease, I also found the ability to find the story that makes a talk interesting. Writing this blog is often helpful in that as I use it to think through ideas I often speak about.

In my second year post-job I did my first solo show of a body of my artwork. Since then I’ve completed five series of work and had ten exhibitions of bodies of my work. I learned the details that needed to be considered in a solo show and became more proficient at the necessary skills. Stretching to learn a new skill and practicing it have allowed me to make life changes that would at one time have been overwhelming.

The following year I took an on-line class in developing websites so that I could create websites on ancestral towns. This year I created or revised four sites, including my art/genealogy site and one for my studio building. I refined my earlier efforts which were no longer reflective of my growing capabilities. In subsequent years I moved into securing grants, exhibiting internationally, learning video editing and presenting an artist residency. Each year I took on at least one new first, most often because the need presented itself and I either figured out how to do it or it wasn’t going to happen. It is that toe in the water, that first step that soon becomes our new foundation and moves us into previously unanticipated directions.

Now the study was about beliefs, but when our experience in the world changes, our beliefs about our capabilities and what is accessible also change. I could not have anticipated the changes of the past six years, so it seems reasonable that I can’t anticipate the changes of the next six years. What an exciting prospect! What we can anticipate is change and that we have the capacity to adjust to it. That alone promises an interesting future.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Measure of My Year: Recommended Reading

As 2012 came to a close, I took the measure of my year, not too unlike that annual self review I used to write for my former employer. While the approach may be similar, the nature of the goals has changed. I must confess that I am still number counting as if to reassure myself of my productivity. Now I count books read, blog entries written, paintings completed, web sites created, videos edited. How many exhibitions, talks and projects and how many people did I reach through those efforts? How many hits on this blog you are reading? Number counting, a tangible measure, occurs against a larger more subjective backdrop that is often harder to measure. Did my work touch others, did it make them think? Conversely when I read a book or did an interview, did it give me food for thought, move me along a path that prompted something new. Did I meet others through my work that triggered new ways of thinking? Did each step I took lead to the next step being more thoughtful, more creative, more productive. Am I living my life in a meaningful way?

This path is less charted and that very lack of definition is often challenging. How does one define success when there is no annual bonus or raise to validate one’s work? How does one move past inertia, get unstuck when unsure what comes next or ride out the process to find new energy.

What I do now is very much about inputs, process and output. Inputs are most often books or interactions with people. Those inputs are typically processed through the filter of my observations through the act of painting or writing and in turn result in written or artistic outputs. For me reading is often a critical input, offering new perspectives and ideas, helping to move me forward. I usually read 30-40 books a year and while not all of them are life altering, I read a significant number that are exceptional and feel important to the work that I do. With that preface, there are a number of books that I read in 2012 that I found particularly noteworthy and relevant to family history and Jewish heritage. I also have read some wonderful books that are not on that theme which you can follow on Goodreads.

One of my tests of an extraordinary book is whether I retain the threads of the plot and the characters some months later. There are many books that I find entertaining, but if you asked me about them months later I would be hard pressed to tell you the plot. So part of my test for whether a book makes this list is whether it was memorable. The other is whether it adds to my personal body of knowledge, both in facts, but also in my sense of human experience as lived among those facts.

Some of the books I read and recommend from 2012 reading were addressed in an earlier blog. You can read more about A Day of Small Beginnings, Too Jewish and The List in that earlier entry.

Others which I would add to the list are the following:

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

At almost 800 pages this is a commitment, but one which you will be glad you made. I began this with some trepidation knowing the Holocaust loomed ahead in the history of the times. As much as I have read on this topic, I always have a bit of dread upon approaching it. And yet while the Holocaust acted upon the lives of the characters, their lives were sturdy and well developed before it made its appearance and thus didn't overshadow them. Set in Budapest and Paris it follows the life and family of Andras, a young Hungarian Jew as he goes to Paris to study architecture. There he meets Klara, a former Hungarian with a dark history. Together they are buffeted by world events as they seek to build a life together. When I went to Budapest I learned much about the experience of Jews there during WWII. This book put a human face on it and introduced characters about whom I began to care deeply. It also deepened my knowledge of the events of that time in this region as they affected the people caught up in their web.

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

This book bears some similarities to The Invisible Bridge. Both are first novels and sagas. The book explores the life of a character who was based on the author’s grandmother. I was especially interested in this book because my grandmother too came from the Ukraine, an area known as “Little Russia” from which the title derives. I also loved that the author details her very comprehensive research methodology in a blog entry.

The story is a saga that follows the life of Bertha Alshonsky in early 20th century Russia, her marriage to a man who is active in the Bund and smuggles arms to shtetls and her ultimate efforts to cross Russia to find her husband in the United States. The political backdrop is that of pogroms and the dangers associated with being Jewish that forced many of our ancestors to emigrate to the United States. As I was reading this book, I was interviewing Jewish elders and actually did an interview with a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant. She recounted her father’s experience of witnessing his parents’ murder in a pogrom and searching during the winter for an orphanage where he and his siblings could reside. The two stories merged effortlessly and the visual imagery was easily supplied from Sherman’s narrative.

Behind Enemy Lines by Marte Cohn

This memoir was quite extraordinary and gave me a perspective on the French experience during the war. I was heading off to the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Paris and picked it up in my search for topical literature. Cohn shares her experience as a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine, a region that is on the border between France and Germany. As a result, she grew up speaking fluent German. The family was evacuated to Poitiers as the threat of German invasion increased. They continued to live their lives as that threat became a reality. For a time Marte is employed by the Germans as a German-speaking interpreter with her blonde hair allowing her to pass. When she announces her Jewish background, she is quickly fired. The story relates how the family escapes to temporary safety in unoccupied France. With false papers they were able to survive even after the Germans occupied France. Following the execution of her fiancée, Marte joins the military where she ultimately is employed as a very successful spy behind enemy lines. The book is very much a thriller based on the life of an unusual woman who tells a compelling story.

Other books of interest include:

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

This book is composed of two stories, one based in Germany during the war, one in El Paso, Texas. The first was far more compelling, but the common theme was how one decides what is the right thing to do. What I found interesting was the view of life within the embrace of the Nazi culture. The main character was engaged to a Nazi and her sister participated in the Lebensborn program. Ultimately she hid a young Jewish boy despite these associations.

The Forgetting River by Doreen Carvajal

I picked up this book because while I have read widely on the Jews of Eastern Europe, I know just the broad outline of my Sephardic brethren. Carvajal, a NY Times journalist, explores her heritage as a hidden Jew emerging from the Inquisition’s history. She returns to live for a time in the town of Arcos de la Frontera in the Andalusian region of Spain while she researches her family’s past.