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




JMM Out and About

Posted on April 16th, 2014 by

Part of my role at the museum is to handle the reservations of one of our travelling exhibits, Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945 – 1968. The exhibit has been in storage for several months but is currently on display until April 14th at Beth Israel Synagogue.

In addition to displaying Jews on the Move, we also had an evening lecture there last week about some of the themes it highlights. The lecture, titled Jews on the move: A Conversation, was led by Dean Krimmel, a museum consultant who was a member of the team that developed the exhibit. The talk gathered a great audience and created a huge amount of conversation.

Dean Krimmel at Beth Israel

Dean Krimmel at Beth Israel

Dean started the lecture by asking a few questions, and he asked those who answered “yes” to stand. We were asked:

  • Were you part of the suburban exodus?
  • Were you born here in Baltimore?
  • Have you lived here for your adult life?
  • Are you a newcomer?
Getting some exercise at Beth Israel!

Getting some exercise at Beth Israel!

Unsurprisingly, the first two questions had a huge response, with most of the room standing. The final question, received a much smaller response, but it was interesting to see what people considered a newcomer to be. I knew I certainly would fit within this category, having only been here for a year. What surprised me was that people who had lived here their entire adult life still considered themselves newcomers! However, I quickly learned that, unless you went to high school in Baltimore, some will consider you a lifelong newcomer. This also led to another interesting point: this city is unique in that, when asked “what school did you attend?” you are not being asked about college but rather about high school.

The high point of the evening was hearing all of the conversations that were inspired by the program, both during the lecture and after, around the exhibit. People discussed their memories of moving to the suburbs, the reasons for doing so and some of the restrictions that they faced. Many people had similar experiences with regards to their suburban exodus, especially relating to their experiences with real estate agents.

We were also treated to a little of the history of Beth Israel and its movements by Bernie Raynor.

We were also treated to a little of the history of Beth Israel and its movements by Bernie Raynor.

There was also plenty of reminiscing prompted by images in the exhibit, especially regarding schools and shopping centers.

There was also plenty of reminiscing prompted by images in the exhibit, especially regarding schools and shopping centers.

 We also looked at some of the original advertisements for the newly built homes during the suburban exodus.

We also looked at some of the original advertisements for the newly built homes during the suburban exodus.

Overall, everyone had a lovely evening. The chatting continued for an hour after the lecture finished. Everyone shared memories and even remembered some things thought long forgotten.

Trillion BremenBlog post by Program Manager Trillion Attwood. To read more posts from Trillion, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Farewell to Jews on the Move

Posted on November 14th, 2013 by

Having traveled for more than a year from the city to the suburbs and back, Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945-1968 has finally ended its run.

Here we are installing the exhibit at its first venue in Hodson Hall at Johns Hopkins University. From there, it traveled to several suburban synagogues, the Owings Mills JCC, the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Library and the Edward A. Myerberg Center.

Here we are installing the exhibit at its first venue in Hodson Hall at Johns Hopkins University. From there, it traveled to several suburban synagogues, the Owings Mills JCC, the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Library and the Edward A. Myerberg Center.

Davidson moving truck, CP 57.2012 – while we did not need quite so large a moving truck to handle the exhibit’s travel, my trusty old minivan certainly got put to good use as we hauled the exhibit panels from site to site.

Davidson moving truck, CP 57.2012 – while we did not need quite so large a moving truck to handle the exhibit’s travel, my trusty old minivan certainly got put to good use as we hauled the exhibit panels from site to site.

We were delighted by how the exhibit was received by the many different individuals who had the opportunity to view it and I thought I’d take an opportunity to share some of the visitor feedback that we received in the exhibit comment book.

Pratt Library Installation

Pratt Library Installation

“Thank you for taking us down memory lane as we enjoyed reliving our childhoods. Our grandchildren enjoyed the exhibit as well.”

“Very interesting, would be interested to see where that trend [of suburbanization] is today and also how this shift changed government funding of urban v. suburban projects.”

Model home, Pikesville, CP58.2012.11

Model home, Pikesville, CP58.2012.11

“Those ranch homes on Old Court Road were the landscape of my childhood. How cool to see them with new trees, eight years before my parents moved to the neighborhood! Thanks for the exhibit.”

Har Sinai Groundbreaking, 1995.126.023

Har Sinai Groundbreaking, 1995.126.023

“My friend is in the front row of the groundbreaking of Har Sinai photo. We became friends in kindergarten and are still friends 57 years later.”

“As a Jew from Bmore, who grew up in Pikesville, whose grandparents grew up in the inner city of Baltimore, you have essentially depicted my history. Thanks!”

Jews on the Move was developed in collaboration with the Museums and Society Program at Johns Hopkins University through the generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We are grateful to Professor Elizabeth Rodini, Jennifer Kingsley and the JHU students who helped us organize this exhibit.

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click here.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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