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 25th, 2015 by Rachel
My work as an exhibitions intern centers around an upcoming exhibit called Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. However, I am also preparing to spend nine months studying abroad in Toulouse, France, beginning in September of this year. I’ve been studying French since middle school, so this has been a longstanding interest of mine. This internship is keeping me busy so that I am not constantly worrying about this big change I’ll be encountering come September. But there have already been a few times this summer when a project has reminded me of my upcoming travels to France.
I’ve come across a collection of images that create a connection between France and the Jews & Medicine exhibit. The Friedenwald family was a sort of medical dynasty in Baltimore, with multiple family members succeeding in the medical field. It just so happens that they are featured in the Jews & Medicine exhibit, but there are also images in the collection with France as the subject.
This is a postcard of a statue of Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the smallpox vaccine and often called the father of immunology. He was an English physician, but the statue is in Boulogne Sur Mer, France. This image connected my projects on medical history here at JMM to France, reminding me of what is to come. These seem like random connections, but to me they are much more. They link passions to my present and future experiences, allowing me to enjoy my work here and get excited for the Fall at the same time.
This is just a simple photograph of the Eiffel Tower in 1931, but it is also in the Friedenwald collection. Imagine that you have two passions, but at this point in your life they have remained somewhat separate. And then something happens and you are able to experience the two interests at the same time. This is how I feel. My interests in museums and France can certainly be linked, but I do not often experience their connection unless I am reading a newspaper article or am actually in a French museum. But here they are linked; here I am able to think about them together.
This image is from a different collection, but it highlights an interest as well. It is a photograph of servicemen and servicewomen along with civilians sitting at rows of tables for a Passover seder in a synagogue in Reims, France, in March 1945. This is personally interesting not only because I’ll be traveling in France, but also because I am Jewish. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn about Jewish culture in France, and hopefully I will be able to celebrate Jewish holidays while in France just like the seder in this photo.
Before the summer began, I knew I’d be working on the Jews & Medicine exhibit, but I did not know that a collection used for the exhibit would also connect to my study abroad plans. This has allowed me to recognize both passions, instead of pushing one aside while working on the other.
A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Sophia Brocenos. To read more posts by interns click HERE.