Happy Bar Mitzvah (Anniversary) Marvin!

Posted on October 7th, 2015 by

Fifty years ago this week there were only two topics at Rodfei Zedek Hebrew School in Chicago (where I spent many hours of my childhood).

For half the kids the topic was Sandy Koufax who had just refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.  In Koufax’s absence, Don Drysdale pitched a losing game and then the next day when Koufax came back to the mound he lost as well.  At 0-2 it did not seem that Koufax had induced a divine blessing on the Dodgers.

For the other half the topic was the new hit single by the Beatles, a song called “Yesterday”.     It reached the top of the charts this week and would stay there for the rest of October.

I didn’t find myself in either half:

  1. Because (aside from Ernie Banks) I had almost no interest in baseball, either watching it or playing it.
  2. Because I was so turned off by the crowds of screaming teens that followed the Beatles, that I decided that I must also dislike the Fab Four – even if there songs now ended with something other than “yeah, yeah, yeah”.
  3. But most importantly because I was rather preoccupied with an event coming up that Saturday – my Bar Mitzvah.
An announcement of the big day!

An announcement for the big day!

Yes, this week marks the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah (October 9, 1965).  In honor of the occasion I pulled out my Bar Mitzvah book to try to aid my somewhat foggy memory of that day.

Not pictured: the lyrics to "Mazeltov, Mazeltov," a clever rewrite of "Matchmaker - Matchmaker."

Not pictured: the lyrics to “Mazeltov, Mazeltov,” a clever rewrite of “Matchmaker – Matchmaker.”

Like many, my memories of preparing for the day are stronger than the day itself. My haftorah reading for Ha’azinu seemed particularly long and difficult, but I suspect that had more to do with the pupil than with the parsha.  I can still smell the decomposing reel-to-reel magnetic tape as it passed up and back through the recorder – month after month delivering a trope that I truly could not sing.  I think that I might have mentioned in a previous blog post that singing was not my strong point to start with – Cantor Goldberg asked me to leave the choir… at about the same time he made my cousin the star.  In this program from our 1965 Hebrew School commencement, you’ll see that I was assigned a speaking part (in English) while cousin Mandy followed in a Hebrew duet.  He was headed for Broadway… I was on the road to the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Check out that line-up!

Check out that line-up!

My Bar Mitzvah speech was the first time I ever addressed a public audience and the first and ONLY time I asked my father for speech-writing advice.  Don’t get me wrong, dad was a great manager and engineer, but not much of a public speaker.  My speech included the line “today my cup runneth over” – which when delivered by a 13 year old boy becomes a gag line for the rest of your life.

The Bar Mitzvah “party” was very subdued by today’s standards, just a lunch in the synagogue auditorium.  The party was my mother’s domain, she had the reputation within the family for making clever lyrical adaptations for special occasions.  My luncheon songs were sung to melodies from the new musical Fiddler on the Roof (e.g. Matchmaker, Matchmaker became “Mazel tov, mazel tov, Pinkerts and Drays, Marvin’s Haftorah merits our praise” – trust me, you don’t want to know the rest).

The Bar Mitzvah Book also contains lists of gifts received.  Most of these possessions have long ago been abandoned as we moved from Chicago to DC to Korea to Hawaii to Boston to Chicago to Maryland over the past five decades.  I think the three “dicky”s I received did not even make it to my junior year of high school.  The exceptions to the rule are the Lucien Piccard watch from my grandparents (almost never worn, but a treasured keepsake) and the five historical atlases that have travelled thousands of miles with me.  At age 13 I think I already had a reputation as a historic geek and I especially appreciated the aunts and cousins who recognized my passion.

A list that includes atlases and dickeys, oh my!

A list that includes atlases and dickeys, oh my!

So my Bar Mitzvah week came to a happy conclusion.  I had come out of my shell (just a little bit).  Sandy Koufax went on to win his next two games – leading the Dodgers to victory in the World Series.  The Beatles kept innovating, though it would be a decade before I would finally admit I liked the Beatles.  But in that October, I was actually attracted to a new song on the radio– not a song for screaming teens – but a song that sounded like it belonged to quiet kids like me – it was called the “Sound of Silence”.  Little did I know…

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

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Louisville: Bourbon Barrels, Baseball Bats and Big Ideas

Posted on September 24th, 2015 by

Sandwiched between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the 75th annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, held this year in Louisville, KY.  It was a great opportunity to tour museum sites, confer with colleagues, discuss industry trends and return with ideas to improve JMM.  Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Serving the Visually Impaired – Ilene attended a workshop at the American Printing House for the Blind. Founded in 1858, APH is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. From 1858 until the Civil War began, APH organized its operation and raised funds to create embossed books. After the war, APH produced its first tactile books. By the early 1870s, APH was operating on a national scale. APH is the official supplier of educational materials to all students in the U.S. who meet the definition of blindness and are working at less than college level.  We saw the actual printing of pages with Braille letters as well as the binding of the books.


An APH educator

An APH educator

It was fascinating to hear from museum educators (who happened to be visually impaired as well) about how they experience museums and the importance of making museums accessible to all types of learners using a variety of interactives and engaging materials for all of the  senses.  I loved seeing all of the different tactile materials that are produced at APH in so many subjects (music, math, science, English arts, social studies).  They even showed us the Braille version of the program from President Obama’s Second Inauguration.

A display on music at APH

A display on music at APH

I was pleased to see that that many of the steps that the JMM has taken to serve the visually impaired under the leadership of Robyn Hughes are in line with best practices at APH. As we move forward in creating new exhibits at the JMM, I hope we can implement some of the ideas such as wheel-chair level chair rails, Braille texts and panels to create a richer museum experience.


Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Marvin took a tour of neighboring historic sites and also had a chance to see some interesting work being installed at the Falls of the Ohio State Park (just across the river from Louisville) where a firm had integrated tactile exploration into every part of its core exhibit.

2. We also enjoyed hearing the keynote speaker, Sam Wineburg, author  of  Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg is an educator at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.  He recently developed the Reading Like a Historian Curriculum which has been downloaded  over 2  million times.  The curriculum engages students in historical inquiry, one of the basic pedagogic skills that is a thrust of the Maryland Career and College Ready Standards and Common Core curriculum.  Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents designed for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

Wineburg  used the term “digital natives” to describe the generation that has grown up in the digital age.  The Internet provide us with so many different websites .  One of the questions that he raised,  Who is an Informed Citizen in the Digital Age?  How much of the information on the web should be believed?  Wineburg spoke about  “The Digital Tookbox”  and questions that one must ask to realize if the information and website really come from a reliable source.  He spoke about a case study that took place in Los Angeles, where teachers gave the students three websites and had them write about the reasons for the Holocaust.  All three website had not been vetted, and many students took the information on the website as absolute facts.  They went on to write essays with claims that the Holocaust never took place.

3. The history relevance campaign – a group within AASLH (among the leaders, Baltimore’s own John Durel) is trying to create energy on a national campaign to promote the value of history.  The effort was a response to the marginalization of history as a subject matter, both in schools and in the public conversation about cultural institutions.  The organizers  are stressing a common vocabulary that organizations like ours can use in making the case for greater civic and foundation support:  http://www.historyrelevance.com/#!value-statement/ca2m.  In the coming months I will be urging Historic Jonestown Inc., the Greater Baltimore History Alliance and the JMM Board to add our voices to this national movement.

4. A different way of looking at historic sites.  The archeologist giving the tour at the Farnsley-Moremen House began his talk by saying “no one famous or important ever lived here, it was not the site of a battle or any other monumental event.”  He went on to demonstrate, however, that it was a great site to talk about historical thinking and to engage the public in the process of uncovering history.  It caused me to think deeply about the balance we need to achieve between fixing our gaze on the important historic events that took place in our synagogues and on our block – and the illustrations we can offer through these spaces about “how we know” the lives of average Jewish Marylanders.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

5. “Unfolding Events” – in many ways this was the most thought-provoking session I attended.  It was an open forum discussion about how museums could/should respond to “unexpected events” that have strong impacts on the cultural community – examples included Ferguson and Baltimore, the legislative struggle over gay rights that especially impacted Indiana, and the debate over Confederate flags, statues and emblems that is raging within and without Civil War sites.  One of the most interesting side-bars was the question of the obligation of museums to collect materials on political and social controversies that impact their respective communities.  This is a topic we raised at this week’s JMM Collections Committee.

6. One more honor for Mendes Cohen.  Ilene and I have to admit that one of the highlights was taking home the Leadership in History Award for the A-Mazing Mendes Cohen project.  What a great tribute to the whole team that put together this incredible project.  On the morning of the awards ceremony, Ilene and I staffed a booth explaining the background of the exhibit and living history character.  The most bittersweet moment was that nearly everyone who came by the booth said “when can I come and see it” and we had to explain the unhappy fact that the project had expired.  It certainly was an inspiration to bring back some of this experience within our new core exhibit.

Our poster presentation

Our poster presentation


Poster Accessories

7. Finally – full confession – we also had fun.  Marvin attended a workshop on “gamification” of museum content.  For someone whose two top passions are board games and museums this was as good as it gets.  On Thursday night we took a stroll down “Whiskey Row” – now home to several museums including the Frazier Museum (with a great homemade exhibit and theater program on Lewis and Clark) and the Louisville Slugger Factory Tour.  Here you see me holding Mickey Mantle’s baseball bat (but that’s only because Hank Greenberg’s wasn’t available).

A true Louisville Slugger

A true Louisville Slugger

But by far my most unusual Louisville experience was attending a small reception at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.  This is the home of a business that proclaims itself Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.  It is indeed still a family owned business – except that family is not the Williams’ it’s the Shapira’s that have owned the parent company, Heaven Hill, for seven generations (for those of you who attended the Schnapps with Pops program in June, this comes as no surprise).  The tour of the faux factory was entertaining and it ends with a bourbon tasting.  I’m afraid the 23 year old bourbon was wasted on my uneducated palette.

Video screens informed you how to properly "taste" the bourbon.

Video screens informed you how to properly “taste” the bourbon.

Next year this conference moves to Detroit.  I’ll let you know if they let us test drive a Corvette.

A blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert and Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Marvin click HERETo read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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Remembering Lives Touched

Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by

Theodore Bikel 1924-2015

Theodore Bikel performing at the St. Louis Jewish Books Festival, November 2, 2014. Photo by Fitzaubrey.

Theodore Bikel performing at the St. Louis Jewish Books Festival, November 2, 2014. Photo by Fitzaubrey.

There are many contexts for remembering Theodore Bikel, the multi-talented entertainer and activist who passed away yesterday.  Many of the tributes I’ve seen on-line, speak to his many performances on stage and screen in roles as ranging from a regimented Austrian navy officer (in Broadway’s The Sound of Music) to a compassionate rabbi in outer space (on TV’s Babylon 5).  But for the last six weeks, the context in which I have been thinking about Theodore Bikel involves Paul Simon – and that requires more than a little explanation.

On October 11th the Jewish Museum of Maryland will be privileged to be the first venue of a traveling biographical exhibit on the life of one of America’s most beloved singer-songwriters, Paul Simon: Words and Music.  Developed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibit chronicles the whole career of this musical icon – including his first guitar, clips from his performances on Saturday Night Live, and draft lyrics of songs like Mrs. Robinson – sometimes literally written on the back of an envelope.  The show also features a series of narrative interviews drawn from three hours of conversation with Simon created especially for this exhibition.

The exhibit would be worth seeing at any venue, but since it is here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, we decided to add an extra dimension.  We are creating a small companion “pop-up” exhibit exploring the role of people of Jewish heritage in the American folk revival and the evolution of folk-rock in the 1950s and 1960s.  We began this effort with the observation that a disproportionate number of the great folk singer-songwriters (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs among others) came from middle-class Jewish homes.  But as we researched further we learned that there were so many more links and connections not just with performers but with the forces behind the scenes that propelled this musical genre.

And that’s why I’ve been reading a lot about Theodore Bikel in the last couple of months.  Growing up, I thought of Bikel’s folk albums as something belonging to my older sister’s generation – old-timey tunes from around the globe – music that had little to do with the younger performers that I listened to.

In a way, Bikel’s own modesty about the scope of his work reinforced that image.  Here is a quote from his autobiography that we’re using in the exhibit:

A folksinger is one whose material is drawn from one idiom based on the roots of his own tribe, his own people, his own heritage.  Although I sing in twenty-one languages, I can legitimately call myself a folksinger in just one idiom – the Jewish one… it was something of a tightrope act, being a keeper of Jewish tradition on the one hand and doing the multicultural thing on the other…

From Theo, The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel (Harper Collins, 1994)

But the lives Bikel touched went way beyond his “one idiom”.  Let me share just three examples of the way he shaped American folk music:  The Byrds, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins.

From an interview with Roger McGuinn: 

ROGER: After a while at the Old Town School, I got good enough to get a job playing folk songs at a coffeehouse on Rush Street in Chicago for 10 dollars a night. When I’d finish the evening at the coffeehouse, I’d go down to the place where all the professional folk singers played: The Gate of Horn.

One night there was a jam session going on at The Gate of Horn. There were The Limeliters and Theodore Bikel. They had a lot of guitars going and asked me to play my banjo. At 5 o’clock in the morning, Alex Hassilev of the Limeliters asked me if I wanted a job playing for them. “Yes!” I said, and he gave me an album and told me to learn the songs and meet them at 1 o’clock the next afternoon for an audition.

So I took the album home and stayed up the rest of the night learning the songs. The next day I met them and got through the audition. Alex said, “Great! You got the job. When can you start?”

“I get out of high school in June,” I said sheepishly.

“High school!” Alex asked in disbelief. “Didn’t we meet you in a bar last night?”

I told them how the bartender let me in because I played music and didn’t make any trouble.

In June they sent a plane ticket and I flew to Los Angeles to record Tonight in Person with them for RCA Records.


In 1959 Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival (together with Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and George Wein). Here is a piece of his interview about the moment when folk went electric:

DAN EPSTEIN: It’s interesting to read your perspective on Bob Dylan’s “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Your reaction to it was more measured than, say, Pete Seeger’s was, but you were still clearly upset by the incident.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yeah, I was upset. But I also knew that this music had somewhere to go — it just wasn’t right for Newport, and for the folk festival that we were running. I also didn’t like the idea that Bob Dylan, who was idealized by so many of the people in the audience, would be booed offstage. Nobody likes to hear that sound! I mean, when he came offstage, he was white in the face and trembling. And I said to him, “Bobby, if a person rides on a horse and gets thrown from the horse, unless he gets back on the horse he’ll never ride again. So I suggest you get out there with an acoustic guitar, and give them the Bob Dylan they came to hear.” And he did that. Of course, he was in the mode of a declaration of independence; what he sang with the electronic band was, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” which is a declaration of independence. And then, when he went out there with his acoustic guitar, he sang, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which is just as much of a declaration of independence.

Finally, I turn to Jac Holzman’s company bio – Following the Music:  The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture.  Holzman, who created his record label while in still in college (using his bar mitzvah money) gives credit to Bikel’s popular albums for keeping the company afloat during lean years from 1956 to 1961.  In this way, all the great artists on Elektra – all the way up to The Doors, owe a piece of their success to Theodore Bikel.  But the book relates one particular story:

THEODORE BIKEL: Jac said, “You have a Carnegie Hall concert coming up.  Why don’t you introduce Judy?”  I listened to her at the Bitter End and she was lovely with a gorgeous voice.  So I said, “Sure.”

JUDY COLLINS: Theo gave me a big break, because that was an important concert.  He was very sweet to me always.  He’s a very good man.

There are many reasons to appreciate Theodore Bikel – not just what he accomplished, but what he enabled others to accomplish.

Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing “We Shall Overcome” with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.

Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing “We Shall Overcome” with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.





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