For many years, Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — chief curator of the core exhibition at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews — reveled in the stories her father told about Poland before the Holocaust.
As she writes in their joint work, “They Called Me Mayer July” (University of California Press, 2007), she began formally interviewing her father in 1967, and “if interviewing is ‘listening with love,’ I have been listening with love for four decades.”
At his wife’s urging, Mayer Kirshenblatt, who owned a paint and wallpaper store, taught himself to paint when he was 73 years old. He was good — his artwork was exhibited in several museums. “They Called Me Mayer July” is richly illustrated with his work.
Mr. Kirshenblatt, who died in 2009, went to Toronto from Opatow (Apt, in Yiddish) in 1934. In 1940 he married Doris Shushanoff, who had arrived in Toronto from Brest-Litovsk in 1929. Their daughter was born two years later.
In 1934, Toronto had an active Jewish community, Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “Canada was an enormous country with a much smaller population [than the United States had]. They didn’t have a perfect immigration policy, but at the time it was not possible to come to the United States, although we had relatives there. Canada had more open immigration.”
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s attraction to the field of folklore — which she describes as “her calling” — began in 1965 at the University of California, where she moved with her husband, Max Gimblett, in 1964. “Here was a field that valued what was extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people, celebrated the oldest members of a community, and appreciated their accumulated wisdom, deep memory, and creative capacities late in life,” she wrote. Realizing that an entire generation of Yiddish folklorists had died in the Holocaust, “I decided to dedicate myself to bridging that chasm through my research and teaching.”
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett will visit Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on November 3 and 4 as the Fall Rabbi Barry Schaffer Scholar-in-Residence. She will deliver the Buchman Visual Arts public lecture on November 5; in that presentation, she will describe the creation of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and its importance today. (See box for details.) “I will not only show how we made the exhibition but why we made it the way we did, to communicate in a powerful way the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews,” she said.
It is hard to pigeonhole Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who said that “everything converged” to set her on her professional path. “My personal history as a child of Polish Jews, my relation to my father and the extraordinary memory he had, my training as a folklorist and anthropologist, my knowledge of Yiddish “ — together with her specialty in Eastern European culture and her interest in museums, specifically in curating, writing, and teaching about them — all came together in a special blend that mixed her professional interest with her academic training.
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — who is not only fluent in Yiddish but speaks German, French, Polish, English, and Hebrew — spent almost a decade in Poland working on the museum. That, however, was not her sole pursuit. She is also University Professor Emerita and Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University, where she has been affiliated with the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
Performance studies, she explained, evolved from the graduate department of drama and embraces all kinds of performance. “It’s an academic field. It doesn’t train students to be actors, for example. It trains scholars to study all kinds of performance — dance, political rallies, conventions. It developed in the 1960s.” The field, she said, explores performance in everyday life, including the arts of conversation, storytelling, and local vernacular culture. “It’s exactly like cultural anthropology, which provides perfect tools for studying performance.” Graduates pursue careers in academia, teaching, writing, and editing, and work in foundations and museums.
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett also is a writer. In addition to “They Called Me Mayer July,” her books include “Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage”; “Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939” (with Lucjan Dobroszycki); “The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times” (with Jonathan Karp), and “Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory” (with Jeffrey Shandler), among others.
Her work with Polin began in 2002, when she was invited to Warsaw for a week as a consultant to evaluate the master plan for the exhibition. In 2006, after the museum was established formally and the architectural competition was completed, she was invited back to lead the development of the permanent exhibit.
“It was a great experience. I loved being there,” she said, noting that she sublet a studio apartment, which she has kept for future visits. “It was a most rewarding and incredible time to be in Poland,” she added. There has been a resurgence in the Jewish community and a renewal of Jewish life, especially in the big cities of Warsaw and Cracow. While this really began before the fall of Communism, she said, “In the 70s and 80s, it had an opportunity to blossom.”
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said that visitors to the museum “are experiencing a journey of 1,000 years on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, the site of pre-war Jewry’s largest Jewish community in Europe.” First, they encounter a monument to the ghetto heroes “and pay their respects there. Then they come to the museum, an award-winning architectural space.” You might think of it as a memorial complex, she said, illustrating how the Jews lived. She is “very impressed by this stunning architecture, quite minimalist outside and dramatic inside.” Covering medieval times to the present, a multimedia narrative and exhibit make up the heart of the educational/cultural institution.
Little remains of the pre-war Jewish community in Warsaw. “After the uprising, they completely leveled the Jewish neighborhood and destroyed 85 percent of the city core,” Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “Very little remains — in our immediate neighborhood, nothing remains.” The Nożyk Synagogue, in a different neighborhood, did survive and was restored after the war. There also is the remnant of a ghetto wall.
Still, “The history of Polish Jews is more than the Holocaust,” Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett stressed. “The most important period is 1,000 years, not six years, not the 20th century. There was a continuous Jewish presence in the historical territory of Poland,” which included Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and neighboring countries. “This Jewish community was the largest in the world,” she said; in the 18th century, it was home to half of the world’s Jews.
“It was the center of the Ashkenazic Jewish world, creating an extraordinary civil legacy we are living with to this day,” Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said. “This is a story that really reflects the spectrum of relationships — cooperation and competition, conflict as well as coexistence — the history of Polish Jews, not of anti-Semitism. There was anti-Semitism in the past, and now, but it doesn’t define the history of Polish Jews.”
Since its grand opening in October 2014, the museum has welcomed 2 l/2 million visitors. In 2016, it won both the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award and the European Museum Academy Prize. “We think that’s pretty good,” Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, pointing out that the curatorial team responsible for the success of the museum included historians, designers, academics, art historians, social psychologists, and others, “supported by an extraordinary management team.” In addition, hundreds of researchers and specialists were commissioned for specific research. “It was like producing an enormous film,” she said.
While Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett still is involved with the museum — she remains is its chief curator — and goes to Poland frequently, she now is based in New York, preparing to write a book about the making of the exhibit. She said she is “really eager to encourage people to come to Poland and to encounter the history of Jews in Poland. We believe the museum can be an agent for positive change and transformation, helping to raise historical awareness and reshape, enrich, and enlarge the perspective on the history of Polish Jews.”
Most people today, she said, think of Eastern Europe as “the epicenter of genocide.” But, she noted, 70 percent of Jews today “descended from this … territory but were cut off from its history because of the Holocaust.” For those to whom the Holocaust is the primary concern, learning more about the Jews’ earlier history “can deepen the sense of loss but fulfill the moral obligation to remember. The power of experiencing that story in that space is incomparable. No film or TV show can approach that impact.”
Congregation Beth Sholom’s vice president, Elaine Cohen of Teaneck is coordinating Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s visit. “We have been reaching out to her for about six years,” Dr. Cohen said. “Only now, when she is spending more time back in the States, have we been able to get her. She’s had enormous accomplishments, and the museum won another award in Slovenia last week.
“We’ve developed a narrative arc for the lectures,” Dr. Cohen continued. Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett “will send photos that we will laminate and put on easels around the room for the Shabbat talks. We can then keep them for educational purposes.” Dr. Cohen noted that Teaneck’s Temple Emeth is co-sponsoring one of the lectures. She said she is particularly pleased because “it’s a way to build a partnership and relationship.” She noted also that Beth Sholom’s Buchman Visual Arts public lecture, usually scheduled in the spring, has been moved up to coincide with the scholar-in-residence program.
Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was honored for lifetime achievement by the Foundation for Jewish Culture and received honorary doctorates from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the University of Haifa. She received the 2015 Marshall Sklare Award for her contribution to the social scientific study of Jewry and was decorated with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland for her contribution to the Polin Museum. She recently was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on advisory boards for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the Council of American Jewish Museums, the Jewish Museum Vienna, the Jewish Museum Berlin, and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. She also advises on museum and exhibition projects in Lithuania and Israel.
Who: Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, curator of Polin
What: Will speak about the Poland’s museum of Jewish history
When: On November 3 and 4 as the Fall Rabbi Barry Schaffer Scholar-in-Residence, and on November 5 for the Buchman Visual Arts public lecture
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
For more information, call the synagogue, (201) 833-2620.