Like Persimmon Sauce, But Better

Posted on October 11th, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

It was 1979 and we were getting ready to leave Korea. I had spent eighteen months as a foreign service officer working for the United States Information Agency. My boss was an affable fellow who had a passion for Korean culture and an eye for a bargain.

Left: Japanese persimmon (variety Hachiya) - watercolor 1887 drawn by Amanda A. Newton. Right: Fuyu persimmon by artist R.G. Steadman

Left: Japanese persimmon (variety Hachiya) – watercolor 1887 drawn by Amanda A. Newton.         Right: Fuyu persimmon by artist R.G. Steadman

So neither my wife nor I were very surprised when my boss called to tell us that he had found a great deal on a case of ripe persimmons – but neither he or his housekeeper (his wife was away on travel) could figure out what to do with this massive quantity of delicious fruit. My wife jumped into action. She worked with the housekeeper to peel the fruit and improvised a puree that she put into the freezer. Unfortunately, I never got to taste it.

Fast forward to 1990. I am in my first museum job at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry working on that museum’s strategic plan. Due to the untimely death of the Museum’s business manager, I find myself temporarily in charge of the museum store. This new assignment puts me in contact with all the product vendors who supply the store. I struck up a friendship with one t-shirt designer from the West Coast who did fantastic custom shirts to match our exhibits.  The artist, Doug Kim, had been raised as an adopted child and devoted much of his free time to helping Korean adoptees rediscover their heritage.

One of the excellent shirts designed by Doug Kim.

One of the excellent shirts designed by Doug Kim.

When Doug visited Chicago on a sales trip we invited him to our house for dinner. Quite naturally, the conversation drifted to our Korean experience. It turned out that he knew my old boss.  Without being prompted he said, “You know one of my favorite memories was going to dinner at Jim’s house and getting this fantastic dessert of ice cream covered with persimmon sauce.” My wife and I were flabbergasted.

So what does this story have to do with the Jewish Museum of Maryland?

Well, as most of you know, next week we will host the exhibit Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage. We will be the sixth venue in a national tour undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration, with generous support from the U.S. Department of State. And I have to confess that I am more than a little familiar with the exhibit.

About eight years ago, when I was still director of the National Archives Experience, my colleague Doris Hamburg (at that time Director of Preservation Programs) called me up to tell me that we needed to plan an exhibit based on the artifacts that had been recovered from the basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters, the Mukhabarat.  She told me the whole amazing story about how the Mukhabarat had been divided into rooms based on the “nationality” of the subject of intelligence, how the material on Jewish life and Israel was located at the lowest level, how it had been flooded when bombs burst the pipes, and how it had been rescued by the American Army, the State Department and the National Archives.

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

You might imagine that I would be thrilled with this new assignment. But truth be told, I was quite reticent. My team was up to its ears working on a new addition to the National Archives’ museum space – including the Records of Rights exhibit. The new project, at that time simply called the “Iraqi Jewish Archives”, had many stakeholders both inside and outside of government, and it was clear that forging consensus would be a challenging task. Once I was committed, however, I put my heart in it. By 2012 we had a full exhibit development team, a new exhibit title and a plan outline. Just as the exhibit was becoming “real,” I announced my decision to leave the National Archives and take up my current duties at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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At the time I left the project there were plans for just two venues:  Washington and New York. So when I went to visit the exhibit in Washington shortly after it opened in November 2013 I thought that this would be the last time I would see this work.

In 2015 the tour was extended to include Kansas City, Yorba Linda (the Nixon Presidential Library) and Miami Beach. At a museum conference that year I learned that the National Archives was considering extending the tour so I hastened to put our name on the list.

So like persimmon sauce, sometimes our deeds follow us in unexpected ways.  But this time I get to taste it – and share it with you.

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Renewal and Revival: Indecent and the Education Department

Posted on July 5th, 2017 by

Blog post by Education Intern Sara Philippe. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

 

This past weekend, I saw the Broadway show Indecent in New York City. It is a play about God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play written by Polish Jewish writer Sholem Asch in 1907 that was performed across Europe in Yiddish, and eventually in the United States where it was translated into English and performed on Broadway, and then again in Poland during World War II where it was performed in an attic in the Lodz ghetto. The show is a powerful testament to the power of art and theatre, especially in its capacity to preserve history and make it relevant in the present. It is proof that what may seem a mere remnant or artifact, is in reality, a leaving, breathing thing. Among other things, Indecent brings to life the Yiddish language and its near-extinction as a result of assimilation of Jews in the US and the Holocaust in Europe.

The opening scene of Indecent. Captions are written in English and Yiddish or Hebrew throughout.

The opening scene of Indecent. Captions are written in English and Yiddish or Hebrew throughout.

It is in this effort to tell stories that are in danger of being lost that Indecent reminds me of my work at the JMM. As Education interns, Erin and I have been working on an educational resource for the upcoming exhibit Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, which involves us in work guided by the same overarching principle that values history and heritage for its perpetual importance. In designing activities that will allow students of all ages to have more enjoyable and meaningful experiences of the exhibit, we have endeavored to treat every aspect of the contents of the exhibit as a reflection of living people and traditions as well as of people and traditions that existed in the past. Indecent’s writer Paul Vogel, and its director Rebecca Taichman, emphasize their desire to connect the material of the play to ongoing questions of xenophobia and immigration, for example, that pertain to the present day just as much as they did in early 20th century America. They tackle these issues in explicit terms and make no attempt to tell the story of God of Vengeance as if it has ended.

As we work towards a comprehensive education reference, our goal is always to encourage the future users of the resource to see the artifacts displayed in the exhibit as more than artifacts. A badly damaged schoolbook written in Arabic and used in Iraqi Jewish schools is not a collation of pages, but rather an opportunity to discuss efforts to ensure the survival of Judeo-Arabic, spoken by Iraqi Jews, and other minority languages that may be under threat. A tik, the Torah holder used in Iraqi Jewish communities becomes an opportunity to marvel at the evolution and varied uses of language, as we create an activity that asks students to re-interpret the word “tik” through actually making their own tik inspired by what they have learned about the word’s modern-day uses in Hebrew.  The story of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Baghdad in 1941 that led many to flee their native country, are an opportunity to consider minority persecution and displacement of peoples around the world and in Iraq today.

A tik from the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

A tik from the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

The stories of the past that animate Indecent as well as the Iraqi Jewish Archive offer us so much more than just a look at a time and people gone by. They are evidence of the resiliency of any people and the continuing desire we have to discover and recover, and to turn a richness that could have been lost and relegated solely to the past, into art and education. What I am learning in the Education department is the importance of turning everything behind a glass wall in an exhibit into a living creature with meanings and implications that must not be forgotten. Though it is often impossible to bring back to life what has been lost or destroyed, it is possible to enrich the lives of people today using the creations of the people of the past.

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