Owning our “Roots”

Posted on June 1st, 2016 by

At the AAM Conference in DC last week, my favorite session (somewhat unexpectedly) was the networking meeting of the traveling exhibits group.  In this unusual “speed dating” exercise, 35 exhibit providers are allowed about 2 minutes each to pitch their latest traveling exhibits.  I came to promote Beyond Chicken Soup:  Jews and Medicine in America as well as our future exhibit American Alchemy: From Junk to Scrap to Recycling.  But what started out as a sales effort soon became an exercise in nostalgia.  To start with I ended up being seated at a table comprised of staff from my two former employers – Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and DC’s National Archives Museum – walking in at that awkward moment when they were sharing “Marvin” stories.  When the program began Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes was the lead-off speaker and he gave a shout out to me and to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen.  When it was my turn, I included a joke about the Paul Simon exhibit and several subsequent speakers slyly referenced my name as a way to link to that joke.  The last person on the agenda was “Dino” Don Lessem.  Don has developed a specialized enterprise that mounts large national tours of dinosaur exhibits coming out of China.  As he finished his pitch, he said “and I want you to know that I wrote a play 42 years ago in which Marvin played a singing dog”.  The room cracked up, but Don was telling the truth.  We were classmates at Brandeis and he wrote a musical orientation show based on the Wizard of Oz and yes, I was Toto.  What had started as a sales meeting had become a roast!

The meeting also triggered a serious thought about how we own or deny our past, both personal and collective.  It is easy to lay claim to resume achievements – a whole lot tougher to embrace what we’ve learned from our personal failings – and tougher still to accept ownership of the historic failings of our society.  In Judaism, our annual recitation of the “al cheyt” prayer is just one example of a recognition that we need to take ownership of acts we did not personally commit but are still a part of our communal legacy.

This is all an explanation of why I’ll be watching this week’s remake of the mini-series “Roots” with such keen interest.  For the original series, the executive producer was David Wolper and the producer was Stan Margulies.  Several of the directors and writers of individual episodes were also Jewish.  The idea of re-introducing the series for the 21st century has its origins with David’s son Mark Wolper.

The History channel has commissioned a remake of the miniseries after acquiring rights from David L. Wolper's son, Mark Wolper, and Alex Haley's estate.

The History channel has commissioned a remake of the miniseries after acquiring rights from David L. Wolper’s son, Mark Wolper, and Alex Haley’s estate.

This is the way he describes the start of his journey in the Observer:

The younger Wolper knew that he had to create a new version of the series after having a tumultuous time getting his own 16-year-old son to watch it. “It was very difficult to keep his attention. After it ended he said, ‘Alright Dad, I understand why this is important, but it’s like your music, it just doesn’t speak to me.’ In that moment I knew why we needed to do this. No one is going to go back and watch it – it’s 40 years old and it looks very dated, it’s slow, it’s not produced at the high level that television is produced at today so I knew it needed to be redone.”

One of his early steps was to recruit LeVar Burton, the original Kunte Kinte, as co-producer.  In an article in Mother Jones, Burton is asked why he would choose to remake a piece of media as iconic as “Roots”.  I found his response interesting:

Well, how often have we seen Holocaust stories? I bring that up because there’s a wonderful tradition in Jewish culture that is about “never forget.” In insisting that this story is passed onto each successive generation, it has become part and parcel of Jewish identity. Human beings have remarkably short memories, and so it is essential that we continually remind ourselves.

Short memories – and powerful mechanisms for distancing ourselves from history we find uncomfortable.  In the time of slavery, Jews were a part of a white society that benefited from the suffering of slaves. My ancestors did not arrive on these shores until the 1890s, however, when our family accepted the mantle of American citizenship we became owners of all of American history – the glory of our democracy, the success of our innovation and the horrors of our exploitation of peoples of color.

So this Memorial Day, I simultaneously take pride in the role of American Jews in pushing our nation towards accepting accountability for a troubled past, and repentance for historic actions (and in-actions) that we can never fully repair – pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

 MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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JMM Insights: It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted on May 20th, 2016 by

Jonestown horizontal 4C

WELCOME!

On May 29 we’re putting out the welcome mat as six of greater Jonestown’s well established historic and cultural attractions celebrate the arrival of three brand new facilities planned over the next few years.  We hope you’ll join JMM, the Carroll Museums, Zion Church of Baltimore, Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, Port Discovery, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and B’Nai Israel: The Downtown Synagogue, in saying “welcome!” to our future neighbors.

We thought it might be a good idea to share the backstory behind this event.  Most of you will recall that last October we facilitated the development of the Jonestown Vision Plan and the launch of the new Jonestown brand identity.  In the months since, we’ve continued to work closely with the community and Historic Jonestown Inc. (HJI), led by Lindsay Thompson and Joe Cronyn on ways to put our ambitious goals into practice.

HJI is in the process of organizing itself into affinity groups, bringing together the neighborhood’s social service organizations, its religious institutions, its hospitality industry and its historic/cultural organizations to work on parts of the plan that are a natural fit with each group.  Our historic/cultural group has been concentrating on events and programs.  We felt very fortunate to be included in the Carroll Mansion’s current partnership in support of the All American House and we are studying other two-way and three-way collaborations to bring life to the streets of Jonestown, including tentative plans for a plein air art experience on surrounding streets later this summer.

Meanwhile we’ve had some terrific news about institutions bringing new activity and energy to our immediate vicinity.  Just a block away from the Lloyd Street Synagogue, Ronald McDonald House is well on its way to starting construction on a new facility.  The new Ronald McDonald House, which will be built at 1200 E. Baltimore Street, will reflect a commitment to incorporate best practices into all of its programs and services. The new house is intended to fulfill an institutional goal of establishing Baltimore as providing not only quality pediatric care but the most effective and compassionate family-centered care in the world.  Amenities included in the design of the new house were carefully selected through input from staff, volunteers and families. The new House will serve approximately 55 families daily and 2,200 families a year.  We intend to extend outreach to both volunteers and families. The coming of the new facility will also mean upgrades for the adjacent McKim Park.

And just a block away from the park, at 1100 E. Fayette Street, Kevin Plank and Under Armour have provided more than $6 million in support for a new recreation center, scheduled to open later this year.  The new center will be operated by Living Classrooms.  Jonestown’s cultural institutions are exploring ways to engage youth at the new center in our ongoing programs.

Go just a few blocks further down Fayette  Street and you’ll come to 901, announced last January as the new site for the National Aquarium’s animal care and rescue center.  Preparations are beginning now for an anticipated 2018 opening.  The Aquarium hopes to provide some public access to this behind-the-scenes space.  Jonestown has been welcoming new immigrants for more than 200 years – now we’ll have new arrivals with fins and tails as well.

Welcome to the New Neighbors!

Welcome to the New Neighbors!

It seemed like a great time to bring these new institutions into the Jonestown family.  From 1pm to 4pm we’ll have family activities for every taste.  Art projects, craft work, storytelling from Port Discovery and our new friends at the National Aquarium are bringing with a bearded dragon… just in case you’ve never seen a real dragon, or at least a real dragon with a beard. Admission to the Museum and to all the activities is free.

Happy birthday Mr. Jones!

Happy birthday Mr. Jones!

Speaking of every taste, there will also be birthday cake.  Whose birthday you ask?  Well Jonestown, of course.  On June 15, 1641, David Jones built his home by the falls that bear his name (not to mention the expressway they put on top of it).  So we’ve decided to jump the gun just a little and pull out the 355th birthday cake at our Jonestown celebration.  It seems a fitting way to mark a milestone for Baltimore’s oldest neighborhood and newest destination:  Jonestown – proudly we hail.

~Marvin Pinkert

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It’s Moses in a Landslide

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by

There are those occasions when the secular and Jewish calendars converge in an unusual harmony.  We all remember “Thanksgivukkah” and this year features the equally rare “Hanuyearsikkah”.  But this month my thoughts go to an exceptional April convergence.  Let me start with a question:

Q: When was the first time you could cast a vote for a Jewish candidate in a US presidential primary?

A: 40 years ago, in 1976, and the candidate was Gov. Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Milton Shapp

Well, of course, that’s if you lived in Massachusetts, Illinois or Shapp’s home state of Pennsylvania.  By the time the primary calendar turned to Maryland in late May, Shapp had dropped out, after taking less than 5% of the vote in his home state.  Another early favorite in the election season with strong ties to the Jewish community, Scoop Jackson, had also pulled out after the Pennsylvania primary.  In fact, out of the 16 candidates who had entered the Democratic race only a handful remained by the time voting took place here.  The winner, by a wide margin, was Jerry Brown.  But Brown and the ABC (“anyone but Carter”) campaign started too late to stop Carter’s momentum.  We may not have voted for the eventual Democratic nominee and president, but Maryland holds the distinction of being one of three states to vote for the only 1976 candidate who is still in public office forty years later.

So what makes this Maryland primary night different than all other Maryland presidential primary nights?  Well, by my count it is the first time that Passover and presidential primary elections have converged in this state.  From the 1960’s through 1984, Maryland Primary Day was in May, too late for Passover.  From 1988 through 2008 Primary Day moved around between mid-February and early March, too early for Passover… even in 2012 when it was pushed back to late March it was still too early to overlap that year.

But this year the match between the Jewish festival of freedom and the secular exercise of liberty is “just right.”

Now Moses did not need to run in a primary, this didn’t mean he was immune to politics.

One of the earliest references I could find to political selection was in the Parsha Yitro in the Book of Exodus.  In that section, Moses in the wilderness is overwhelmed by the burden of adjudicating every dispute in the community.  He gets advice from his father-in-law Jethro (the first political consultant?) that he should appoint a system of judges to handle lesser cases.  Jethro goes on to tell Moses “But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.”

I make no claim to Biblical scholarship, but I find it interesting that the subject of the appointment of judges comes one chapter ahead of the delivery of laws on Mt. Sinai.  This sequence – officials first, laws second – suggests to me an awareness that even the most noble and principled law can be perverted by unjust or corrupted men.

Today each of us plays a bit of the role played by Moses in selecting leaders for our community.  The scale may be different, but as we go to the polls to choose a leader for the three hundred millions, I think Jethro’s advice about seeking people of substance, humility, honesty and financial integrity still applies.  Let’s follow the example of Moses and choose wisely.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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