Monday, November 29, 2010

Q&A with Yiddish Performer Extraordinaire Eleanor Reissa

Last week Joseph Berger wrote a really fun piece for the New York Times about how Yiddish is living on in the Catskills. We’d like to point out that you don’t have to go as far as the Catskills for a good, hearty dose of the mama-loshen (mother tongue). The Museum is lucky to be hosting Brooklyn-born Yiddish diva Eleanor Reissa in a fantastic Hanukkah program on December 12. We caught up with her to ask her a few questions.

Museum of Jewish Heritage: What first interested you in Yiddish?

Eleanor Reissa: Yiddish was actually my first language, even though I was born in the U.S. My parents were Holocaust survivors and I had one set of grandparents and they and everyone else seemed to speak Yiddish. I learned English in Kindergarten.

Then in later years, when I started looking for work in the theatre, I saw an ad for a role in a play in Yiddish at Town Hall. I auditioned for that, and the rest is history. I worked with some of the greatest Yiddish actors of our time. They taught me a heck of a lot about Yiddish, about theater, and about being a mensh (kind hearted person).

MJH: What is your favorite Yiddish word or expression?

ER: There are so many great expressions. When faced with a hopeless situation one says: ‘Es vet helfn vi a toytn bankess.’ That means ‘It will help as much as putting leaches on a dead person.’ When you are angry, you can say, ‘Di zolst leybn vi a chandelier; hengen bay tog, in brenen bay nacht.’ It translates to: ‘You should live like a chandelier—hang by day and burn by night.’

MJH: What is your favorite Yiddish song and why?

ER: There are so many great songs. I cannot pick one. There are 50 songs for every mood. They each, in their own way, appeal to an emotion, need, desire, longing, or joke. They run the gamut from aleph to zed. How can you choose your favorite child?

MJH: What is it like to sing for an audience that doesn’t speak the languguage?

ER: It is a challenge to transmit and implant these beautiful gems of this precious, living language in people who are unaware of what is possible. The concert is completely focused on the people that do not understand Yiddish and by the end of the concert, they all think that they understand way more than they thought at first. I think registration at Yiddish classes around the city pick up after these concerts. The language is so accessible and so communicative, it practically speaks by itself.

MJH: What do you wish people knew about Yiddish music?

ER: I wish that people realized that it is a living language, not a dusty old relic that speaks to the past. The lyrics and music are as contemporary and modern as the artist. Yiddish is a language that will welcome you in and make you feel full, as though you just had a good meal...

MJH: What would you like the audience to experience at your concert on December 12?

ER: I want them to light up, to be thrilled at the opportunity of being included in this afternoon with such a great band. Frank London, Brian Drye, Patrick Farrell, Rex Benincasa, and Marty Confurius are extraordinary artists. When I rehearse with them I always feel so lucky to simply be in the room with them and to sing with them is a great gift.

MJH: How do you plan on celebrating Hanukkah this year?

ER: Definitely with latkes — one of my major weaknesses.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Keeping Time with Andy Goldsworthy

Long-time reader, first-time staff blogger Deputy Director Ivy L. Barsky lets us know about a surprise visit from a special guest.

The creative team continues to meet on a regular basis about the concept design for the next phase of the Keeping History Center (KHC). On a break from one of these meetings last month, imagine what it meant to all of us to see Andy Goldsworthy sit down at Timekeeper.

Andy often visits the Museum when he's in the New York vicinity, but he hadn't been by in the last year to see our interactive addition to his New York masterpiece, Garden of Stones. Working with Potion and C&G Partners on Timekeeper, we were all very mindful of Andy and our visitors while we were developing it. Knowing how he cares about time--as much or more of a medium in his work as wood or stone--we were confident that the very notion of Timekeeper would be attractive to him. Nonetheless, the fact that he loves it as much as we do, and even noted what respect it has for the Garden, made us feel pretty good about what we have accomplished.

While the lush trees of summer are gone from the Garden, now is a good time to see fall transition into winter real time, while Timekeeper can take you back through hours, days, weeks and seasons. Scroll back, too, to see the planting of the oak saplings seven years ago. Sadly, a surprising number of those who planted with us are no longer here. But that's just another strong reminder of why we're here, how important it is to remember, and that we are all a vital part of the history we keep.

[Editor's note: You can always keep an eye on the Garden by checking out the daily image.]

Photo of Andy Goldsworthy by Jared Schiffman.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On the Road with Jennifer Roberts

Jennifer Roberts, assistant registrar and mah jongg maven, has written today’s blog describing what is actually involved when we travel an exhibition. Who knew?

Our temporary exhibitions are quickly becoming avid travelers. Traveling an exhibition is a great opportunity to share the stories we tell with audiences across the country. Months of planning and organizing go into preparing an exhibition to travel. The Registrar’s Office oversees many of the tasks including preparing contracts, arranging shipments, and providing detailed installation instructions, all before the exhibit arrives at the next venue. Once the necessary arrangements are made, we head off to the hosting venue to help with the installation.

I recently spent three days in Orangeburg, South Carolina installing Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow at the IP Stanback Museum and Planetarium on the campus of South Carolina State University. Having worked on this particular exhibition since its original installation, I was familiar with all the necessary components, save one: the gallery itself. Each venue has a unique gallery space, meaning that the layout varies from place to place. While these changes present new challenges, they also mean that the exhibit will take on a refreshing transformation in each new space. At the Stanback, the staff had already installed the graphics and empty artifact cases according to their specific floor plan. After answering a few technical questions (and having lunch!) I was free to begin condition reporting, one of my primary responsibilities when traveling with an exhibition. That and acting as a resource for the venue’s staff.

Condition reporting requires examining the artifacts closely and comparing their current condition to the recorded condition from the previous venue to determine if there have been any changes. It can be a long and detailed process, but condition reporting is an important step when installing any exhibition. Once the condition reports were complete, we placed the artifacts on their specially made mounts and placed the artifacts in the cases. After taking a few gallery photos and saying goodbye to my colleagues, I returned to New York confident that the exhibit would be a success in its new location.

Editor’s note: If you’re in South Carolina, see Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow through Jan. 3, 2011. It will be at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie beginning February 3.

Photo by Jennifer Roberts.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Groundbreaking Lanzmann Epic “Shoah” to be Re-Released in Theaters

To mark the 25th anniversary of the release of French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5 hour documentary, Shoah, it will be shown at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and at the IFC Center in December. Some of you may recall that in 2005, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the film, Claude Lanzmann made a rare New York appearance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. We screened Shoah as well as his film Pourquoi Israel? While here he also hosted a very special master class for filmmakers that week.

The movie does not use historical footage, rather it is a compilation of one-on-one interviews not only with Holocaust survivors, but with witnesses and accomplices. During our screening David Marwell said, “We are honored to be the host for the 20th anniversary of this landmark film. Shoah has had a profound impact on the way people look at the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann opened the door for filmmakers to deal with the Holocaust in a serious and unflinching way.”

Interestingly, a statement is attributed to Mr. Lanzmann on the Arts Beat blog of the New York Times, in which he says: “Museums come to terms with death and institute forgetting as well as memory. On the contrary, ‘Shoah,’ because it is an incarnation, because nothing will ever replace Abraham Bomba’s tears, Filip Müller’s reverberating voice, or the minute-by-minute description of the executions in Treblinka by the Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel or Polish train conductor Henrik Gavkowski, ‘Shoah’ is an absolute barricade, the true wall against oblivion.”

I was chatting with David about this interpretation of museums like ours. David and Claude spent quite a bit of time together during the week of screenings in 2005 so I wasn’t surprised when David said, “While I know that Claude Lanzmann delights in being provocative, his comment on museums is simply wrong (at least in the context of our Museum). There is really no denying that we stand with him at the barricade and contribute essential fortification against forgetting.”

It's our blog, so we get the last word.
Photo courtesy New Yorker Films

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Go-To Book for the People of the Book

Every once in a while a book comes along that captures the wisdom of the ages. The Big Jewish Book For Jews: Everything You Need to Know to be a Really Jewish Jew may not do that exactly, but no matter what your level of observance, it will make you laugh out loud at appropriate and inappropriate moments. Do not attempt to read this book while drinking an egg cream unless you want bubbles up your nose.

Authors Ellis Weiner and Barbara Davilman, the force behind the classic humor books Yiddish with Dick and Jane and How to Raise a Jewish Dog, offer invaluable instruction on such topics as how to purchase, make, and serve too much food, how to build an ark, how to play mah jongg, and how not to accept the first table you’re shown at a restaurant. Luckily, the authors will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on December 5 at 1 p.m. to set us all straight. Tickets are only $5. Members get in for free.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Avoid the Mishegaas*—Shop Online

If you are anything like me, you are starting to panic that Hanukkah is just around the corner. You probably have yet to buy bubkes ** and don’t know where you will find the time to do so between now and December 1. Luckily, you can trade your guilt for gelt and quickly. The Pickman Museum Shop has just expanded its online offerings.

There is something for everyone on your list, even your picky nieces and nephews. One of my favorite items includes the Shalom Sesame Hanukkah DVD starring Jeremy Miller from Growing Pains. It features “Dreidel of Fortune,” and a hilarious cameo by Joan Rivers. Pair it with some Jewish silly bandz and you will once again be the cool aunt or uncle.

For hard-to-shop for mothers- and sisters-in law, there are terrific mah jongg inspired gifts including custom mah jongg sets, cocktail napkins, and jewelry. Speaking of jewelry, we also carry Michal Negrin’s beautiful line. Fathers, brothers, and husbands will appreciate a wide assortment of books that range from presidential history to the cultural history of chop suey and beyond.

Shop now and receive free shipping through December 15. See the website for details.

(Yiddish translations according the The Joys of Yiddish: * craziness; ** literally beans, figuratively nothing)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring Our Veterans

Ever since we began work on Ours To Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War in 1999, veterans have had a special place in my heart. I often write blogs about active duty personnel, but I wanted to say a little something about the great men and women we met during the project.

As Robert Morgenthau wrote in his introduction to the exhibition’s companion volume Ours To Fight For: American Jewish Voices from the Second World War, there is an intimate connection between the stories told in our Core Exhibition and the stories told in Ours To Fight For. “Those who survived the Holocaust would not be able to tell their story if it had not been for the men and women who served.”

Bernard Branson, a gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was one of these people. He told us about a request from a Lt. Levine. “He asked all of us to give up our dog tags… he could change the 'H' on our dog tags for Hebrew to either 'C' or 'P' for Protestant or Catholic… my feeling was I wanted those sons of bitches to know that the bombs that were dropping, there was a Jew up there doing it.”

Judge Burton Roberts, who recently passed away, remembered arriving in Anzio. He was told how fortunate he was to be joining a division that had “200 percent casualties.” He recalled: “So I was trying to figure out…that means that you get wounded once or you get wounded twice or you get killed once, and then you get killed a second time.” He went on to see action as an infantryman, rescued comrades under fire, was wounded, and received two Bronze Stars for valor.

We also met the irascible Pearl Scher who was stationed as a Marine at Camp Lejeune, NC, and says that being in the service taught her “how to be a Jew.”

These three stories are taken from interviews with more than 400 Jewish vets of World War II. WWII veterans are passing away at the same rate as survivors. Ours To Fight For provides a tremendous service by permitting men and women of that generation to talk about their experiences, and to share those experiences with their families.

You can get to know some of these vets on the Ours To Fight For site. Our exhibition opens today at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It is on view until May 8, 2011.

Wherever you are today, I hope you will take some time to think about our veterans, not only the ones from WWII, but from all wars and conflicts, whether fought long ago or the ones still being waged.

Photo: Graduation Day at Thunderbird Field. Collection of Philip Topiel

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hannah Senesh Remembered

In light of Hannah Senesh’s yahrzeit, Shalom TV will be airing Hannah Senesh Remembered, a special feature on view through December 4th throughout the United States and in Canada. This program will feature films created for our exhibition by award-winning documentarian Roberta Grossman.

Visit and click on "Find Us" for station information. The program can also be found in the category of "Judaism and Culture" on Free on Demand television. We are grateful to Shalom TV for marking the occasion of Hannah's death by celebrating her life.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Educating Educators and Saying Thanks

We are wrapping up a very exciting and educational week at the Museum. On Tuesday, we welcomed more than 200 educators for an annual Professional Development Day. Those gathered watched A Film Unfinished, a documentary that examines a film made in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis as well as footage discovered later that showed how the propaganda was staged. MJH archivist and curator Bonnie Gurewitsch led the post-film discussion.

That afternoon Judith Cohen, Director, Photographic Reference Collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, led a discussion of work by Jewish photographers, revealing how important these pictures are when teaching about Holocaust history. The perspective captured by Jews with cameras is far different than the story told by Nazi photographers, she explained. A quiet but important addition to the audience was two people signing, provided by the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Sign Language Interpreting Services.

The day’s instruction was made possible, in part, by a generous gift from the Young Friends of the Museum.

And on Wednesday night we hosted our annual Volunteer Recognition Dinner, honoring our more than 250 volunteers who donate at a minimum, 45,000 hours annually. We don’t say it enough, but we could not do the work we do without our volunteers. The dinner was preceded by a book fair featuring authors from our Speakers Bureau and Gallery Educator corps. It was such a success, we want to plan a larger one in the future that will enable visitors to meet our Museum family and learn about their stories. Stay tuned.

Photo: Surveying curriculum between speakers. Photo by Caroline Earp.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Downtown Deal for Tourists

The Museum of Jewish Heritage and some of our other neighbors are rolling out the welcome mat for tourists this fall and winter. We are very excited to be taking part in the Downtown Culture Pass. The Culture pass is a three-day ticket that provides admission, shop discounts and other benefits at eight Lower Manhattan museums plus historic tours from Wall Street Walks.

Participating organizations include the Fraunces Tavern Museum, Museum of American Finance, Museum of Jewish Heritage, National Museum of the American Indian, The New York City Police Museum, 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, The Skyscraper Museum, Tribute WTC Visitor Center, and Wall Street Walks.

For the single price of $25 for adults (18+), $15 for youths (13-17) and $5 for children (6-12), the Downtown Culture Pass will grant each ticket holder unlimited admission and/or other discounted benefits for three full days to any and all participating museums, plus discounted tours conducted by Wall Street Walks. The pass may be purchased online at, or in person at the Museum of American Finance or here at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

If you are reading this and you are a tourist, be sure to plan your trip soon. The deal runs through February 28. If you are a local, please pass this onto your friends and families who may be visiting you this holiday season.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why Go to Vermont for Foliage? Come to Battery Park City Instead

It's true. This is the current view outside of the Museum. Sure, we usually talk about the sunsets over the water, but for the past couple of weeks we have been treated to this gorgeous display of color.

As a fan of fall, I delight in being greeted by ever-changing tones and hues each morning. I plan to store the memory for the future, when the bare trees stand guard in the frozen days of January.

Until then, enjoy the portrait of Mother Nature, courtesy of Caroline Earp.

Good Fortune

This weekend, we invite you to partake in an important Sunday ritual with us--eating delicious Chinese food. As part of our Jews and Chinese Food day, which features a lively panel discussion and walking tour of Chinatown, Esprit Events Catering will be selling delectable Kosher Chinese cuisine in the café. Don't moo goo gai pan-ic. Plan your trip now.