Thursday, July 25, 2013

Anti-Semitism Rears its Head in the South Slope

My husband and I were walking to the Prospect Avenue R stop this morning when we came upon this tree. John noticed the swastika first. We stepped back and snapped this picture. We boarded the train and when I got out at Whitehall I called the 78th Precinct to report the anti-Semitic vandalism. When the officer said he would transfer me to 911, I thought he said 311. When the operator came on the phone and said, “911. What’s your emergency?” I was so surprised and confused. I explained I was calling to report vandalism, apologized for disturbing her, and hung up.

When I arrived at the office and told Lisa and Emily about the incident, Lisa suggested I call my local councilmember, because Lisa is thoughtful that way. By the time I reached my desk, Lisa had already sent me Brad Lander’s contact information. I left a message at 8:59 and sent an e-mail with the photo a few minutes after that. Ten minutes later his staff person Emma called me. Ninety minutes later Emma called back to tell me that she reported the damage to the 72nd Precinct, called Councilwoman Sara Gonz├ílez who is in the neighboring district to let her staff know, and she would be calling the Parks Department. She also put me at ease by telling me that there had been no reports of additional vandalism.

A few minutes after that I had a message from the 72nd Precinct assuring me that this matter was being attended to and if I had questions I could call Officer Dean Hanan back. Of course I had to call him back to thank him and to find out what happens to the tree. The trees on Prospect Avenue have had a rough few years. The tornado three years ago damaged quite a few, and what the tornado left behind, Sandy took back in anger. And now this. He reassured me that the tree would be okay.

I have lived in South Park Slope since 1996. Prior to today, I have called the police once, and I have never called constituent services for any councilperson. I am so very grateful that my community addressed this matter immediately, sensitively, and with great care.  Thank you, Brooklyn.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jewish History in Texas

When you work at a Jewish history museum, it's easy to find Jewish history everywhere. This past week, I happened upon an interesting story in an unlikely place, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. 

I had read that they recently opened a new core exhibition and was anxious to visit. While the library has much to recommend it, the newly available phone conversations between LBJ and a wide range of personalities including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Kennedy were fascinating. It was inspiring to hear the President and the Civil Rights leader in candid conversations filled with both passion and calculated strategy.

However, for me, the biggest surprise was a smaller section on immigration toward the end of the exhibit. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we are immersed in stories of immigration, because of our location and because it is such an important part of the Jewish American experience. Yet, I had never heard that President Johnson himself helped rescue an Austrian composer from Nazi-dominated Europe in 1938, the same time period our current exhibition Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees covers. 

According to the exhibit, and to oral testimony given to the Library, Erich Leinsdorf was 25 years old when, as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1937, he realized he couldn’t safely return to Vienna because he was Jewish. At the urging of his Texan friend, Charles Marsh, Leinsdorf was introduced to freshman congressman from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Marsh, a supporter of Johnson’s campaign, pleaded with the future president to help Leinsdorf extend his visa, which was soon to expire. While the visa had already been rejected, Johnson was able to have the date changed which meant Leinsdorf could stay another 6 months. He then helped him to make his way to safety in Cuba and then back to the United States where he became a citizen in 1942. 

While the story might have ended there, it didn’t.  The conductor and future president continued to be friendly.  Once elected to the highest office, Leinsdorf was a frequent guest at the White House. Johnson appointed him to the board of the Kennedy Center, named him assisting director of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, and even threw parties to celebrate his accomplishments as a conductor.

But the most moving story is that in 1965, the President invited Erich Leinsdorf to be his guest on Liberty Island when he signed the new immigration bill which, the president hoped, would prevent discrimination in immigration policies. They even drove together to the ceremony.

Leinsdorf said, “During that drive he referred to that bill, and said, ''What do you think of that
bill?" He spoke very, very movingly about his feeling that the name of a person…
should not influence if he could get in the United States or not--which meant actually he was very much opposed to the racial or national quota which had been the 1922 law. He referred to the fact that my own case, which he had handled as a young man in 1938, had been perhaps the beginning to open his eyes to the difficulty which a man could have. He always manifested that he was very happy and proud to have gotten
me into the country. It was a very strong bond between us because I was very grateful.”

Read the full testimony here:

 Note: It is worth mentioning that our curators came across this story in their extensive research, but it didn’t fit into the scope of the exhibit. I was happy to discover it on my own and then clarify it with them. Also worth noting is that the LBJ Library does a good job of discussing the president's failings, especially as they relate to Vietnam. 

Public Domain image from 1937, shortly before Johnson met Leinsdorf: Congressional campaign poster. [LBJ Library photo by UT Photographic Services. #B11689]

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spoiler Alert for Homeland and NCIS Fans

Have you noticed that when you want to talk about a memorable scene from a TV show you have to ask for a show of hands to see who has actually watched the program? Those who have the show cued up on the DVR but have not viewed it cannot participate. I have waited six months to discuss two scenes from Homeland (Dec. 16) and NCIS (Jan. 8) that I watched last winter. Now that my colleagues have caught up thanks to binge-watching on Netflix, I can share my curiosity.
It will come as no surprise, given the subject matter of these programs, both highly rated and critically acclaimed, that they featured heart stopping scenes of murder and violence. With Homeland, it was the bombing of Vice President Walden’s memorial service and on NCIS it was the assassination of Eli David and Jackie Vance at Shabbat dinner.  What struck me is that in the immediate aftermath of this violence, familiar characters Sol and Ziva were saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
In the Venn diagram of popular culture and rituals for the dying, you might see an Irish wake on TV or the general, non-specific memorial service. I have seen New Orleans style funerals with full musical escort and the televised home going of Whitney Houston. In these instances, there is a sense of celebration of life and accomplishments, nostalgia and memory.
But in 2013, two respected television shows – granted they are dramas with a capital D – had protagonists recite the mourner’s prayer because it was not only in character, but conveyed the depth of the loss.
After decades of watching such over-the-top, ludicrous depictions of bar and bat mitzvahs (remember Square Pegs? Frasier? The Simpsons?), it is heartening to see a Jewish ritual depicted on television that doesn’t involve a stereotype or degradation of values or meaning.
We’ve come a long way.
Photo: Howard Gordon, executive producer of Homeland, was honored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation last month. Photo by Melanie Einzig.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Slice of Nice in the Big Apple

This post comes from Erica, our senior registrar, who is usually busy managing several exhibitions across the country. However, today she took the time to tell us about random acts of kindness she witnessed and participated in on the 4 train.
We have all heard the stories about busy, fast moving, fast talking New Yorkers who walk around with blinders on and i-Pods in. 

This morning as I was riding the 4 Express to work, a young women slowly passed out on the train. First she slid down the wall, then she slowly toppled over. The whole car sent up a moan of concern then went into action.  Someone gently repositioned her, other people called to see if there was a doctor on the car and yet others created a human voice chain with the conductor (the emergency phone on the car did actually work). 

 Then a call went out for water and it came from various parts of the car.  When the train pulled into the 14th street station two passengers got out of the train with her until we found the conductor. I stayed with her, and tried to call her mom until the police came.  There was no cell service in the station. I asked if I could call her family from above ground as we couldn’t  reach her mom below. I was finally able to speak with the young women’s grandmother to tell her what happened and that her granddaughter was fine, but that the police would call her in about 15 minutes once the ambulance took her to the hospital.  I came back into the station to let her know that I reached her grandmother. I then took the train to work, happy that 
stereotypes of New Yorkers was shattered this morning.