Guest Post | Irene Squire, A Day at the Jewish Museum with The Whole Megillah

On Monday, May 19, 2014, a special supplemental, generative writing session of The Whole Megillah Seminar on Jewish Story took place at The Jewish Museum in New York City. Guest blogger Irene Squire was one of the participants.

A visceral pogrom

Pogrom was never more than a scene in the musical “Fiddler on The Roof” until this past Monday at The Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City. As vivid a telling of the travails of that time and place called Anatevka—and so many more tragic towns unnamed—and as gripping as that story was, it never affected me like the jarring, unsettling, dark painting by Abraham Manievich that he titled “Destruction of the Ghetto.” Perhaps the gut-wrenching emotion evoked in this painting comes from the fact that Manievich’s son was killed in the 1919 pogrom in Kiev that is being depicted on his canvas.

Will the viewing of that painting—and the few others that we saw on a docent led tour—inspire a particular story (which was one of the reasons for the day at the museum)—the answer to that question will have to wait, but it doesn’t in any way diminish the wonderful journey through our history that I experienced through these works of art.

The Sholem Aleichem tale of Tevye and his family comes to mind over and over again in each of the paintings viewed, on Monday, that capture the hardships of Jews—through the ages—to maintain (and wrestle with) who they are—and who they will become.

Culture and continuity: The Jewish journey

I Hate the Name Kenneth” is a four-panel painting with words. Two of the panels are of grandfathers—one embracing change, one more resistant. And then there is the boy—born Chaim (meaning life) and named Kenneth by his parents. So, what is Ken Aptekar, the artist saying?

The museum notes tell us that the artist—with his red hair and not too Jewish name—was often mistaken as not being Jewish when he was growing up. Is he dealing with pangs of guilt at being all too willing to pass as a non-Jew? Is he dealing with his lack of tolerance for Jews who change their names?

And what exactly is he getting at with this large, bold—in-your-face—artwork with words painted over each brilliant image? Once again, I went to the museum’s notes. Aptekar asks if his work is Jewish because he insists on combining text—the Word—with image, or because he believes images can mislead and words you can trust.

I, myself, am on the fence when it comes to words being more trustworthy. However, our discussions of Isidor Kaufmann’s two paintings—”Portrait of Isidor Gewitsch” (The Banker) and “Man with Fur Hat” (The Hasid); Raphael Soyer’s painting—”Dancing Lesson“; and Diane Arbus’s photographs of the Jewish Giant proved that, when it comes to images, we all see things very differently.

A trip to The Jewish Museum is always wonderful; this trip was made even more so by the contributions each woman made, by our knowledgeable docent Paula, and by the terrific planning of Barbara Krasner. I feel fortunate to have taken part in it and I thank you, Barbara.


About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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4 Responses to Guest Post | Irene Squire, A Day at the Jewish Museum with The Whole Megillah

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like an amazing day.

  2. sheilaklewis says:

    lovely and unexpected responses to the art, thanks!

  3. So much of our history is gut wrenching, yet it inspires great art and wonderful stories.

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