Evening and Morning: In-the-middle-ness

Posted on November 29th, 2017 by

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that circulates about my mentor in graduate school, Paul Mendes-Flohr. He was born in America to immigrant parents, and spent his entire adult life in Israel. In his 60s, Paul retired from teaching at Hebrew University Jerusalem, and took a position at the University of Chicago. In his first year at Chicago, he was invited to join a colleague (and former college classmate at Brandeis), for Thanksgiving dinner—his first ever. Excited to partake of this most American of holidays, Paul is said to have rung the doorbell at his friend’s home promptly at the designated time.

When his friend and colleague answered the door, Paul was confused. His friend greeted him by asking him why he was there. “I’m here for Thanksgiving dinner, of course.”  “Paul, today is Wednesday. Thanksgiving is tomorrow.” “I know, it’s erev Thanksgiving—isn’t that when we have Thanksgiving dinner?”

In Genesis 1:5, it says “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” Because of the order of the times of day listed in this verse—evening then morning—Jewish days are counted from sundown to sundown. That mode of counting was so ingrained in Paul that it didn’t occur to him that this secular American holiday would assess the day differently.

A sunset, c. 1943. Arthur Gutman Papers, JMM 1998.24.256

But, at least for me, sundown to sundown is not exactly the most intuitive way to mark the day. The human rhythms of wakefulness and sleep mean the sundown-to-sundown day is bisected. Emotionally, going to sleep feels like the end of a day, and waking the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the consequences of sundown-to-sundown being a unit of time, since the recent holiday season that started with Rosh Hashanah and ended in Simchat Torah. In particular, on Simchat Torah, I was struck by a fundamental wisdom in the bisected day—the day that contains an end in its middle. On Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah), the liturgical year is concluded. We read the final verses of Devarim, Deuteronomy, and then start at the beginning again with the first verses of Bereshit, Genesis.

It’s a little unusual. Though double portions do happen occasionally, weekly portions do not include the verses from multiple books. Throughout the year, when we reach the end of a book of Torah, we finish a book one week and start the next book the following week. But when we finish the whole of the Torah, we do not let our reading of the Torah be “finished,” even for a single week. Rather we start it over immediately.

Flag for the celebration of Simchat Torah. JMM 1990.165.1

Interestingly, the first portion of Genesis read on Simchat Torah after the final verse of Deuteronomy includes the verse I quoted above, “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” This year as I listened to the Genesis verses being chanted, a lightbulb went off for me: oh! Because we’re always in the middle of it. Life, like Torah, does not have neat endings. It’s always moving—doubling back, moving ahead, picking up where it left off—it’s always in the middle. It was one of those moments where you see the elegance in something you’ve been looking at your whole life and deepen your appreciation for it.

Once I saw this in-the-middle wisdom of sundown-to-sundown and Simchat Torah’s double portion, I started seeing it everywhere, especially at JMM. Before I started working here, I thought of history museums as focusing only on the past—on things that had ended. Now that I am in the middle of it, I see that our approach is much more sundown-to-sundown than it is awakening-to-falling-asleep. At JMM, we look at the past to help us all understand the present and to shape the future.

We are always in-the-middle.

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SEE AMERICA: The Lloyd Street Synagogue

Posted on June 16th, 2017 by

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Marvin sometimes describes the Lloyd Street Synagogue as the Museum’s single most important “artifact.” It is the reason the Museum exists, since saving the building was the impetus for the founding of the Jewish Historical Society, the precursor to JMM. It is the reason we have a Lloyd Street address. It is one of the oldest physical anchors of the Jewish community in Maryland.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue before its exterior facelift to its present, historically accurate shade of pink!

The Lloyd Street Synagogue before its exterior facelift to its present, historically accurate shade of pink!

About a year ago now, my colleagues and I decided that we wanted our members, visitors and friends to better appreciate our architectural gem. We appointed a champion for the synagogue, a staff member advocate tasked with encouraging the rest of us to think about ways to incorporate the building into our day-to-day operations and conversations.

In the fall, we decided to give the old girl a little bit of a makeover, investing in new carpeting for the aisle, deep cleaning for the pew cushions, and a fresh coat of paint on the bima.

In February, with all of this as a backdrop, I had a lightbulb moment. I was in New York City, walking the floor of the Jacob Javitz convention center for the annual wholesale gift show, when I came to the booth of a vendor who specializes in creating merchandise for Museum Stores. Among their offerings that day, they had reproductions of the National Park Service’s iconic travel posters of the 1930s and 40s. I smiled as I flipped through the images, thinking of my own poster of Glacier National Park, purchased on a visit to Montana in the 1990s.

The inspiration that hangs as a part of my ofice decor.

The inspiration!

And then the lightbulb: what if I developed a poster of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in the style of those old silkscreens?

The wheels were turning overtime. I envisioned the pinks and blues of the graphic image, and some accompanying language that would express the importance of the building as a symbol of religious freedom in Maryland and in America.

Back in Baltimore, Joanna helped me scour the collections for the right photographs to use as models, and then I reached out to the vendor I’d met to get their help developing the art.

They would be happy to help me develop the artwork, for a small fee.

I hesitated. Who would own the intellectual property rights? How much would it cost? Was it worth it?

I picked up the phone. I called Esha Jannsens-Sannon, Creative Director at the Associated. She does (or oversees) the graphic design on all of the marketing work that comes out of the JMM. I explained my idea to her and asked if it was something she thought she could do and whether she’d want to.

Boy did she.

Later that day I got a call from Esha, “Darn you,” she said, “I’m so excited about this project, I can’t work on anything else!”

The first version of our design.

The first version of our design.

For the next several weeks and into months, she and I iterated this idea through version after version. My JMM colleagues watched the growing pile of versions with amusement at my wild ideas.

At some point I had a second lightbulb, and realized that the headline should mimic some of the Park Service’s posters, and invite the viewer to “See America,” after all, part of the point that I wanted to make about the LSS is its historical significance.

I wrote a brief explanation of how the synagogue serves as a symbol, working and re-working it with my colleagues’ input:

The Baltimore Jewish community built its first synagogue in 1845. Made possible by the 1826 Maryland Jew Bill, the building stands as a reminder that the thread of religious freedom is woven into the fabric of the city, the state, and the United States.

Esha patiently pulled the whole thing together through each of my new ideas and tweaks, at one point adjusting color and text placement as I stood behind her at the computer.

As Esha and I discussed how large I should have the poster printed, Esha said “you know what I would love to see? Let’s do a silkscreen.” I was instantly sold. The posters we’d modeled were silkscreens. It’s an old and a beautiful printing process, and so appropriate for our image, and so we started seeking a partner to print it.

A happy staff with our beautiful new banner!

A happy staff with our beautiful new banner!

Once we had a final draft that we were both happy with, my colleagues were no longer tolerating my wild ideas. They were excited about what we’d created. Really excited. As a team, we decided that the image was a powerful one, and one we wanted to promote. We had a banner made based upon the imager for use at the JCC block party and other community events. We used the image on the cover of our program for the Annual Meeting, and we’ll be using it on the cover of our forthcoming Annual Report.

The Limited Edition Silk Screen Poster

The Limited Edition Silk Screen Poster

Ready to be the first on your block to own this meaningful and beautiful poster? After a slightly disappointing false start, the 18” x 24” silkscreen posters will be available at Esther’s Place the week of June 19!

 

 

 

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The Color of Transformation

Posted on May 18th, 2017 by

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

JMM & Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling go to ISRI!

JMM & Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling go to ISRI!

Last month, Marvin and I attended that national conference of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in New Orleans. JMM is working on an original, national, traveling exhibition about the Scrap industry. Entitled Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling, the exhibit is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, and we hope to send it on the road to four or more venues. (Regular readers of the JMM blog may remember reading about it here.)  Marvin and I were in New Orleans, along with our contract curator, Jill Vexler, working on collecting stories, canvassing for artifacts, and soliciting financial support.

As a total novice to the industry—I’m not even working directly on the exhibit, but was filling in for a colleague at the conference—I was fascinated by what I found on the exhibit floor at ISRI—but maybe not why you expect.

Gershow Recycling facility. Photo by Jeffrey Katz.

Gershow Recycling facility. Photo by Jeffrey Katz.

I have been seeing images from scrap yards around the JMM office for months now. Most notably from the stunning photography of Board Member Jeff Katz, who provided images for our fundraising and marketing materials for the exhibition. Jeff’s photos are textural and gritty. They are also, at least as we ended up using them, black and white.

The exhibit hall at the ISRI conference in the New Orleans Convention Center was in living color.

An array of sunny equipment.

An array of sunny equipment.

As I wandered the floor, looking for swag to bring back to my 5-year-old daughter, I started to notice how brightly colored many of the pieces of sample equipment were.  There were a number of bright yellow items, which is to be expected, I suppose (my childhood toy crane was also a sunny yellow), but there were also bright orange machines and several blue sorters (that were so cool to see demonstrated).

And then I saw the pink one.

And then I saw the pink one.

And from there I started really paying attention. What goes into the manufacturers’ minds as they consider what color to make their equipment for the scrap yard? Some take a very utilitarian approach with dark gray equipment. That seems straightforward and expected. Tools of all sizes, even super huge ones, tend to be gray or silver or black. Why the bright colors? Why pink? I figured it was so that they were easily seen amidst the mountains of trash-colored scrap.

I guess I don’t need to ask why the airbrushed stars and bald eagle (whoa!).

I guess I don’t need to ask why the airbrushed stars and bald eagle (whoa!).

As I met more and more folks on the exhibit hall floor (we were something of an anomaly in an exhibit hall full of shredders and sorters and welders and other must-have technology for the modern scrap or recycling yard), and I told them the story of the exhibit again and again, something sunk in. The scrap industry and now the recycling industry is fundamentally a story of transformation. It is the story of transforming trash into raw materials even as it transformed unemployable immigrants into business-men and entrepreneurs.

I met several men and women who were in a third or fourth generation in the scrap business. They told me great stories of their grandfathers who built a livelihood out of what others considered trash.

And as I wandered the floor on the final day of the conference with these stories and the idea of transformation on my mind, I suddenly really appreciated the bright, look-at-me colors on the floor. These machines are not just tools. They are magical. They turn trash into raw material. That’s a remarkable thing.

Maybe the bright colors are practical—to make the super-expensive equipment highly visible. But to me, it’s more than that. Magical tools deserve magical colors. Colors that nature creates to showcase its beauty and the power are completely appropriate for machines that perform the transformation of matter.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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