Posted on July 1st, 2015 by Rachel
“You see what she did there? That’s good. That’s really good. You hear that? She paused. That silence makes people feel like they need to say more—like they need to fill the space. You can get some great stuff that way.”
Karen Falk, our curator at the museum, is sharing with me some tricks of the trade before I conduct an informal oral history over the phone the following day.
And these are tricks that I could definitely use—I’ve sometimes been known to exhibit signs of mild tremors when asked to even ring up distant relatives. While the idea of speaking with a stranger about their career choices and personal values is then definitely a little intimidating at first, it’s actually not so much the conversation that puts me on edge, but rather something about the nature of speaking over the phone. It’s precisely that pause that Karen keeps talking about—the lingering silence that makes my palms sweat as imagine the other person’s expression on the receiving end.
The tools of the trade!
We’re conducting these interviews as part of our research for the museum’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America (set to open in March of 2016). A common occurrence at the museum as many of the exhibits maintain a unique first person perspective, I’ve already read through five oral history transcriptions conducted with medical professionals (or their family members) who worked in and around Baltimore during the 50s. We’ll eventually use these interviews either as brief quotes in the soundscape of the exhibit, or in their more complete form and create a listening station for visitors to enjoy on their own.
However they ultimately become incorporated into the exhibit, this unique opportunity to explore these stories was one of things I looked forward to most when I began this internship a month ago and has truly been an incredibly fascinating, and at times, even humbling experience. One interviewee spoke about Jewish quotas in nursing schools when her sister applied in the early 1950s and the blatant antisemitism she was confronted with by the administration. Another weaved colorful stories about a family business fabricating anatomically correct plastic models for medical schools. Nearly every oral history transcription I read highlighted a sense of the interconnectedness of medicine and Jewish values—of a shared notion of the tradition of community care and the sanctity of human life.
Reading these personal insights made me all the more excited to organize my own oral history interview, to be conducted with a current nurse practitioner student in New York. With this conversation and a few others, Karen is looking to acquire more contemporary perspectives in the field and I look forward to uncovering the new stories and experiences of someone not much older than myself. But then my early onset Parkinson’s flares up again…
Despite my growing nervousness, the following afternoon I felt confident in the knowledge that I was at least formally prepared. Armed with a few more insider tricks from Karen, a prepared list of some twenty questions, and an intimidating piece of recording equipment, I felt pretty well equipped. And, for the most part, I was. I successfully managed to set up the microphone, I asked the questions we had prepared, and somehow even overcame the impulse to fill the static void that inevitably arose. But what I wasn’t at all expecting was to be so blown away by my interviewee’s perspective and career choices, so much so that the silence that hung in the air wasn’t as piercing as I anticipated it to be. In fact, it wasn’t unsettling at all.
I realized, admittedly only after hanging up, that this phone call in fact allowed me to let her words speak entirely for themselves—liberated from the visual stimuli that can otherwise distract or distort our impressions. The lingering pauses that I am now playing back as I transcribe the interview don’t magnify the unease I felt, but rather the power of her words.
A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Elizabeth Livesey. To read more posts by interns click HERE.
Posted on June 29th, 2015 by Rachel
“So I check my inbox, open the new email, and there it is– Tina Louise’s manager, telling me that Tina would like us to stop pursuing the matter, that she knows her family history and that we are not included in it. But what does she know?” Zayde laughs as he shares his hope that our loud, yet humble Ashkenazi Jewish family might just be directly related to a real live celebrity, and his audience around the dining room table laughs and claps in time with the fall of the climax of Zayde’s favorite, and most famous story. I roll my eyes, but I laugh and clap anyway, just to feed his ego, and secure my post as his favorite grandchild.
The adrenaline rush that was Lombard Street.
Zayde’s most enduring legacy was his storytelling ability, and he could make any mundane pseudo-truth sound like Nicolas Cage’s announcement of his plans to steal the Declaration of Independence. His stories are synonymous with memories of a 5-year-old me sitting in his seat at the head of the dining room table, with enough trays of kugel, platters of lox, and pots of matzah ball soup decorating on the smooth green tablecloth to block my view of the family member sitting at the opposite end of the table. His stories are reminiscent of his family’s pre-World War II exodus from Hungary and from Poland, explained in English but understood in Yiddish, and given the momentum to time-travel through the family tree by hours of hora dancing. And his stories echo our walks around Baltimore City, breathing life into his American Jewish anecdotes and scouring the streets for hidden, buried memories Zayde might have forgotten about to make room for the Tina Louise debacle. Grateful for the air conditioning of my most recent walk down memory lane, I felt at home during my tour of the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit three weeks ago, during my first week as a JMM intern.
The Jewish influence on Baltimore City.
Stepping into the exhibit for the first time, I was immediately hyper-aware of my bias in the Baltimore Jewish persona: I’m Jewish, and my family emigrated from the Old Country to Baltimore. But the entrance of the exhibit, and the first few italicized blurbs positioned next to the black-and-white almost life-size cutouts of 19th and 20th century Lombard Street citizens welcomed me with open arms, and didn’t care if I didn’t have firsthand experience with how to properly schecht a chicken. The exhibit made it very clear to me that what I didn’t know, I could be taught, and my skills, whatever they might be, would be put to use in a different way in the community. I walked through fruit and vegetable stalls, shoe shining booths, the infamous and Corned Beef Row, stopping to chat with shopkeepers, babushkas, and watching the potpourri of Jewish, African American, and Italian kids chasing each other in the street. I nursed a bowl of soup at old-fashioned Attman’s Deli, ducked and flinched near the chicken coops and shops to avoid making enemies with loose chickens and the people who were trying to subdue them, sat intimidated in front of a sewing machine that is basically half my size, surrounded by the faded, multicolored confetti of 20th century linen scraps, and introduced myself politely to the Saye clan, a family of 6 who were new in town and looked a bit apprehensive, but were making a life for themselves in the New World. The places I was seeing in the photos began to build themselves brick by brick, the people I was meeting steadied their breathing and offered their hands for me to shake. I was beginning to see that life as an American Jew, or as a Jewish American, meant a life as shapeshifters, constantly and consistently adapting to our surroundings to find our place in society, without having to blend in with the background like a chameleon.
Up close and personal with one of Briney’s chickens.
I’m not sure what I was expecting before I walked through the exhibit, but I know it wasn’t this. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, and was fed secondhand stories. They tasted great, but I never looked at the nutrition facts on the back of the box; I knew that they were important, but I wasn’t sure exactly which details of which stories gave them that extra sweetness or spicy kick, so I didn’t think I would be able to share in the collective memory of Jewish Baltimore and genuinely understand the significance because I didn’t live through them myself. But the best part about the exhibit is that the story can be meaningful whether or not you have ties to the characters; the messages are universal, the details are what give it their flair. So really, we could all be related to Tina Louise.
Two of Saye family children, immigrants from Eastern Europe.
A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.
Posted on June 26th, 2015 by Rachel
The Amazing Mendes Cohen closed on June 14th, and Cinema Judaica opens on July 1st. In between, while one exhibit comes down and the other goes up, our visitors have one less gallery to see.
Authorized personnel only, please!
Let’s lift that veil of secrecy* for a moment, and reveal a little of the behind-closed-doors work of changing out an exhibit. Alas, no magic wands or helpful elves are involved; all the dismantling, painting, fabrication, artifact prep, and label writing requires the work of many hands.
Eight of the dozen or more people who helped take down Mendes in a single day.
Some exhibitions are straightforward, and easy to plan far in advance. Others require a little more on-the-spot decision making. The traveling Cinema Judaica exhibit was created by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum from the extensive collections of Ken Sutak. HUC-JIR sends out an assortment of posters, depending on what’s available at any given time, and the borrowing museum can choose the titles (and poster sizes) that will best suit their plans and their gallery. Unfortunately, in this case the posters couldn’t arrive at the JMM more than a few weeks before the exhibit opened. When they arrived, Intern Kaleigh and I had fun opening up the boxes, discovering which posters had been sent, and starting on the condition reports. . . then the planning had to begin in earnest.
After making an initial cull of the poster options – and keeping in mind the images coming from other lenders – I wrote up a list and recruited three of our summer interns to help plan the exhibit layout in situ, using stand-in handwritten notes taped to the walls. After the first round, we ran out of room: still too many posters! It was decision time. Do we like Kirk Douglas better in “The Juggler” or in “Cast a Giant Shadow”? Was there room for all six versions of “The Ten Commandments” posters? (Answer: no.) Could I get all five George Sanders movies on the walls? (Answer: yes.) Which large images would look best on the high-visibility walls, and which smaller items were less impactful? Once those questions were sorted, we started hanging up the real things.
Planning potential layouts.
Thankfully, this is where my skills and labor were less needed. I like hanging pictures, and I pride myself on doing a good job – but a gallery of this size, with over 50 items to hang, requires more than just a tape measure, a hammer, and my ‘eye’ for spacing. We called in our expert consultants (courtesy of Mark Ward and his team) who have been working hard to prepare the posters, hang them securely and evenly, and generally ensure our exhibit looks as fantastic as possible.
Mat cutting! Laser levels!
Things are coming together nicely; we’re not there yet – but hey, we have until Wednesday morning, when the “no entry” signs come down. Meanwhile, you can prepare for the opening of Cinema Judaica by spending the weekend watching your favorite old movies (might I suggest a personal favorite, “Foreign Correspondent”?), then visit us next week when the Feldman Gallery doors are open wide once again!
Installing “The Ten Commandments.”
*Since the work is frequently rather loud, and there’s no way to sneak all the artifacts and labels and equipment into the room without going through the lobby, it’s not really all that secret a process; many visitors get their own, in-person behind-the-scenes look – if they happen to visit at the right moment. We’ve also featured the exhibit installation process many times on the blog, such as here, here, and here.
A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.