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.

ija-logo-home

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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Inescapable: America’s first international superstar makes a return visit to Baltimore!

Posted on September 25th, 2017 by

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


JMM Insights, September 20, 2017

The New Year is upon us and in addition to wishing all our readers a happy and healthy year ahead, I wanted to share some exciting news about the year ahead.

By now most of you know about our next two major exhibits in the Feldman Gallery (both of which have their origin at the National Archives).  On October 15 we open Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage featuring more than 20 artifacts and documents from the Iraqi Jewish community, recovered and restored from Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters.  Looking ahead to next spring, we’ll be launching Amending America: Bill of Rights on April 9 and putting new focus on the Lloyd Street Synagogue as a landmark of religious freedom.

A pair of exhibits from the National Archives

A pair of exhibits from the National Archives

But this summer we’ve continued to add to our calendar, developing a concept for a month-long performance series called “JMM Live” in February, an expansion of our Baltimore edition of the “My Family History” project in March and a collaboration with the Everyman Theater and Rich Hollander on a companion exhibit to the upcoming play Book of Joseph highlights March and April.

Every one of these projects will be a quality experience (and of course, I love all my children and all my exhibits equally) but I have to admit there’s a special excitement around our most recent addition to the program calendar.  On June 21, 2018 we will premiere Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.  Houdini, aka Erik Weisz, would be a fascinating subject for an exhibit in any time or place.  But the story of a poor immigrant who escaped the shackles of social norms to rise to the status of international celebrity seemed like an ideal topic for an exhibit in our era.  To put together this project we’ve reached out to public museums and private collectors across the country – but what really has made the exhibit possible is our extraordinary guest curator, Baltimore magician and storyteller David London.

Coming Summer 2018!

Coming Summer 2018!

David has been creating interactive magical experiences for over 20 years. He is the Director of Circus of Wonders, and has been fascinated with Harry Houdini since he was a child.  He tells me that he performed his first magic trick at age seven and even his Bar Mitzvah speech explored Jews and magic. Since he signed onto the project in August, he’s been using his network of contacts within the magician community to make this exhibit a truly one-of- a-kind encounter with Houdini and his world. As a special treat for our readers, David has agreed to write a guest blog that we are calling “Finding Houdini,” where he will document his journey over the next several months as his visits Houdini sites, museums and collections. To join him on his adventures, click here! Consider this a small dip of honey to make your New Year that much sweeter.

Shana Tova!

~Marvin

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Graven Images

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by

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

 

The civil war was long since over.  One side had won.  One side had lost.  But in 1929, the defeated commissioned a statue to honor the bravery of their ancestors.

The plaque below the statue reads in part:

This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of

THE UNITED EMPIRE LOYALISTS

who, after the Declaration of Independence, came into British North America from the seceded American colonies and who, with faith and fortitude, and under great pioneering difficulties, largely laid the foundations of this Canadian nation as an integral part of the British Empire.

Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of inprisonment could break their spirits, or divorce them from a loyalty almost without parallel.

No country ever had such founders —
No country in the world —
No, not since the days of Abraham. – Lady Tennyson

Yes, the “civil war” I’m talking about is the “civil war” for British North America.  A war in which American loyalists supported the king and American rebels supported independence.  The statue is located in Hamilton, Ontario.  I think you would be hard pressed to find a statue to the bravery of loyalists inside the USA.  This does not mean there were no brave loyalists.  It does mean that as a nation we have decided to celebrate the cause of Independence as the American cause.  In fact, we started taking down statues at the very start of the revolution.

Most famously, the statue of King George III was toppled by the mob (otherwise known as “the Sons of Liberty”) on July 9, 1776.  To the best of my knowledge, no one made speeches about “erasing history” or the loss of British “heritage.”  It was simply that the new nation stopped venerating kings, so keeping up a statue of a king in the public square seemed completely inappropriate.

America’s second civil war, the one in the 1860s, might have ended the same way.  The initial reaction of the United States army on to how to deal with General Lee was not to put up a statue but to transform his beloved home into a cemetery.  The National Republican reported in 1864:

The ‘powers that be’ have been induced to appropriate two hundred acres, immediately around the house of General Lee, on Arlington Heights, for the burial of soldiers dying in the army hospitals of this city. …. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartily thank the initiators of this movement…. This and the contraband establishment there are righteous uses of the estate of the rebel General Lee, and will never dishonor the spot made venerable by the occupation of Washington.

Though Arlington Cemetery is today a place of honor, its origins were in part a punishment for Lee’s decision to join the rebels.

Most of the statues that honor the Confederacy were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the war but rather decades later as part of an ongoing effort to normalize the rebellion as a “war between the states” rather than treason against our national government.  This was an effort that coincided with the interests of those who wished to persecute and marginalize African-American citizens.  So for those genuinely concerned with efforts to change history, I would suggest reexamining the origins of these statues in the 20th century.

The events of the last ten days have me thinking not only about American history but about my Jewish roots as well.  As a kid, I always remember thinking that the Ten Commandments were rather uneven – mixed in with injunctions to avoid murder, theft, adultery and other behaviors that clearly harmed people was a prohibition on “graven images.”  Back then I thought that this commandment was not only easy to keep but probably unnecessary in the modern world.  After all, I didn’t know many idol worshipers.  But seeing statues turned into quasi-religious vessels has caused me to reevaluate the merits of aniconism (prohibitions related to idolatry and sculpture). In addition to multiple references in the Torah itself, there is an entire section of the Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the topic.  The prohibition is said to broadly apply to creating an image of “anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”   I feel reasonably confident that statues of generals, both Confederate and Union, are covered by this ban.  Personally, I am comfortable with statues as art (if art was truly their purpose) and I am ok with statues as symbols of shared values (see my last post on the Statue of Liberty), but statues are not a substitute for history and we should not confuse respect for history with veneration of graven images – in my view that’s as problematic today as it was 5000 years ago.

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