Compared to What?

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by

It goes without saying that America has had more glorious “4th of July” weeks than in 2016.  Rather than fireworks, our eyes were riveted on gunfire – grisly videos of both citizens and police under attack.  In the midst of this cauldron of hatred and fear we lost two major voices that had railed against silence in the presence of inhumanity: Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist, Sydney Schanberg.  It only compounded our sense of loss.

I noticed that the events of the last ten days have also sent people scrambling for historic comparisons.  I have seen articles in several major media sites comparing current events to those of the late 60s.  For me this isn’t a historic era, but rather part of my lived experience.  I chose to escape the constant drumbeat of awful news for an hour going into the basement to sort through my memorabilia from college.  Among the posters for anti-war rallies and flyers for protests of every kind I ran across a school newspaper from my freshman year at GW.  It’s banner headline screamed of the violence that came to campus 45 years ago.  My recollection is that I locked myself in my room, covered my windows with masking tape, and still found myself coughing from tear gas after our dorm was subjected to gas canisters dropped from helicopters.

The Hatchet

The Hatchet

But in shuffling through the papers I also discovered another unexpected (and timely) perspective.

In all the chaos of the last week, the passing of Judge Abner Mikva on July 4 received modest coverage.  But for me it was a significant event.

Readers of my blog posts know that I grew up on the South Side of Chicago at a time when Mayor Daley (the first Mayor Daley) and the “machine” ran not only the city itself but all political representation of the city.  Chicago may be the “second city”, but it takes a backseat to no one in the category of political corruption.  In the 1960’s we were represented in Congress by Barratt O’Hara – a machine politician who was a Spanish-American War veteran and who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois during WWI.  There is nothing like a first political infatuation and at age 14 I went door-to-door for Abner Mikva as he attempted to fight the machine.

Mikva lost.  But in a rising tide of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, he finally made it into office in 1968 and when I entered college at George Washington University I went to Capitol Hill to volunteer.  They assigned me to the addressograph machine – an essential tool in the era before mail merge software.   The job itself was not that exciting but I spent a fair amount of my free time pursuing my interests as a political junkie – running from office to office collecting signatures of the famous legislators of my youth.

As I grew older, I lost much of my ardor for political activism but I continued to admire Congressman and then Judge Mikva from a distance.  Mikva eventually became Chief Judge of DC Court of Appeals in the 1990s (the position now held by my classmate Merrick Garland).  He would encourage a young man named Barack Obama to enter politics and eventually receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of achievements.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

A newsletter specifically for high school students.

So there in the box with my political autograph collection (including Eugene McCarthy’s on the back of a hastily grabbed West Point application) – I found this newsletter from Abner Mikva directed at high school students.  I may have saved this from my days working the addressograph machine.

The newsletter's final paragraph.

The newsletter’s final paragraph.

I turned to the back page and my jaw dropped.  It reminded me that 45 years ago when many of thought our nation was doomed and the future had never been darker – we were wrong and Abner Mikva was right: “compared to what?”

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Wiesel and Memory

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by

Elie Wiesel was a “master rememberer”. He used the painful recollections of his youth to paint a vivid portrait of the most extreme inhumanity, in terms that would move all but the coldest hearts. He spent most of his adult life looking backward to offer the rest of us a clearer view of the moral path ahead.

With his passing on Saturday, I searched my own memories – reading Night in my senior year in high school, listening to an interview with Wiesel on TV – and then I asked the question, “is there anything in the collections of the Jewish Museum of Maryland concerning Elie Wiesel?”

A quick on-line search brought me to the files of Louis L. Kaplan. Dr. Kaplan, who had an incredible 40 year career as president of Baltimore Hebrew University (1930-1970), also carried on correspondence with Elie Wiesel before and after his retirement. That correspondence became part of the Kaplan papers that were accessioned by JMM in 1994. In addition, when we received the archives of Baltimore Hebrew University in 2009 there were a number of photos and articles related to Wiesel added to our collection.


This early photo of Wiesel and Kaplan appears to date to 1973 when the author was promoting his book The Oath. JMM 2009.40.5074

 Wiesel and Kaplan crossed paths again when Wiesel served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in the 1980s. Kaplan at the time was an advocate for the construction of a memorial here in Baltimore. I ran across a photocopy of a letter from Kaplan to Wiesel that I found intriguing:


JMM 1994.205.266

I need to confess that I was initially puzzled about what Kaplan meant by your “absence understood by me”. What kept Wiesel away from the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Holocaust Museum?

I turned to an excellent history of the USHMM by Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (2001). Linenthal talks about the tumultuous end of Wiesel’s service as head of the Council planning the Museum. Apparently, there was dissatisfaction in 1986 about the pace of fundraising, project development and decision-making. Wiesel’s philosophy was that the memory of these events was so precious that great caution was merited. He was quoted as observing “We have to be sure of what we are doing, rather than go fast in the wrong direction. We could build something that was the wrong statement and then history would never forgive us”.

With tensions rising, Wiesel decided to resign his post in December of 1986. He was replaced by Baltimore businessman, Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff. Meyerhoff is given credit for turning around the fundraising and building planning operation, paving the way for the institution to open its doors in 1993. As can be inferred from the Kaplan letter, Wiesel stepped away from public events associated with the Museum from 1987 until the opening ceremony. Still, his vision was a powerful influence on the final outcome and his words on the inaugural day bear remembering:.

Now, a museum is a place, I believe, that should bring people together, a place that should not set people apart. People who come from different horizons, who belong to different spheres, who speak different languages—they should feel united in memory. And, if possible at all, with some measure of grace, we should, in a way, be capable of reconciling ourselves with the dead. To bring the living and the dead together in a spirit of reconciliation is part of that vision.

As we prepare for next year’s Remembering Auschwitz exhibit we will try to live up to Wiesel’s high standard for museums – to be a place that brings people together, united in memory.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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