'Homegrown' Story of West Coast Jews

Home Movies and Grainy Photos Reveal Family Histories

Grainy Memories: The Lilienthal family enjoy a picnic in 1912.
the labyrinth project
Grainy Memories: The Lilienthal family enjoy a picnic in 1912.

By Gordon Haber

Published April 15, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On my laptop I have a scan of a photo of my grandfather that always makes me smile. It’s not just the snap-brim fedora and my grandfather’s relatively unlined face; it’s also the car behind him, a giant, four-door, butterscotch-colored Buick that he bought for cash in the early 1970s.

I have a host of memories tied up with that Buick, one being the annual drive, from camp to his bungalow in the Catskills, where, for the tail end of the summer, I heard a lot of Yiddish while my grandmother stuffed me with chicken.

The point here is the ways in which family archives can intersect with larger moments of history — in my case, with the Jewish Catskills and the glorious, gas-guzzling V8s of the ’60s and ’70s.

Lovebirds at Venice Beach, Calif.
the labyrinth project
Lovebirds at Venice Beach, Calif.

Such archives, however casual, can be particularly poignant for Jews, given our history. It’s always sad to look at photos of my grandfather’s siblings and remember how this one perished in Belzec, that one fled to Brazil.

This interplay between family memories and Jewish history is the subject of “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity and Intermarriage,” a new exhibition at Los Angeles’s ever-vibrant Skirball Cultural Center. More specifically, “Jewish Homegrown History” explores how home movies can illuminate the story of California Jewry — a community tied closer than most to the project of film.

“Jewish Homegrown History” is the brainchild of The Labyrinth Project, a hybrid art collective and digital research group based at the University of Southern California. The Labyrinth Project specializes in “interactive narrative,” or telling stories via interactive media. Thus the first part of the exhibit is a kind of theater for viewing home movies re-edited by the Labyrinth Project. There’s a touchpad on a pedestal and then rows of benches before three movie screens. With the touchpad, viewers can choose from one of 10 movies on a range of subjects, from a glamorous 1957 wedding to Jewish Hollywood.

One of my favorites was “Murrieta Hot Springs: The Catskills of the West,” a brief documentary about a resort that flourished for much of the 20th century, when many similar places were closed to Jews. Combining home movies, archival photos and interviews, the film is a charming introduction to a little-known (at least among East Coast Jews) bit of American Jewish history.

“Moroccan Memories: Marriage and Emigration” is a more complicated story. It begins with home movies of the 1967 Beverly Hills wedding of Fiby Bouganim, a Moroccan-Jewish emigrant, to Sumner Saul, an Ashkenazi dentist. Then we see clips of the elegant couple, shot during their visits to Morocco in the ’70s. Interviews with Bouganim reveal an ambivalence about America, despite the difficulties that her family faced in her birth city of Mogadir: “My dreams,” she says, “have always taken place in my hometown.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.