'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.
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These “homegrown” movies may be the first station of the exhibition, but they are its centerpiece, and with good reason. The artists of Labyrinth have done a stellar job turning these potentially banal clips into bright little windows onto American Jewish history.

My one complaint is the use of three screens. Each screen shows different clips and images, sometimes even different captions, all at the same time. I’m guessing that the intention is to deepen the experience — the publicity materials call the exhibit an “immersion installation” — but the effect is agitation. I always felt like I was missing something, because I was indeed always missing something.

The next part of the exhibit comprises computer stations with which visitors can explore jewishhomegrownhistory.com, a companion website. The site has clips of individuals talking about their Jewish heritage, as well as historians expounding on episodes from the history of American Jews in the West. Visitors (to the exhibition and to the website) are invited to upload their own images and stories.

I’m ambivalent about these computer stations. I think the website is worth a look, as I love the way it combines the stories of regular folks and experts, and there’s some fascinating vintage footage of San Francisco from just after the 1906 earthquake. But the website is a little confusing to navigate, with no overarching way to organize the clips and images. There’s the option to filter by theme, but the topics are so broad (“agriculture,” “sex”) that they’re almost meaningless.

The more important issue is that I am a little tired of the Internet’s incursion into museums. Out of necessity, we spend so much of our time online; museums should be a respite from all the pointing and the clicking. Surely there are other ways to provide an aesthetic or learning experience.

The final part of “Jewish Homegrown History” is a screening of an eclectic mix of seven short films by and about Jews. Highlights include “Number Our Days,” which is an elegiac 1979 film about seniors in a California nursing home, and “L.A. Mohel,” David Bezmozgis’s 1999 documentary about three very different Los Angeles mohels (including Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, who circumcised my son).

Overall, “Jewish Homegrown History” is an interesting look at Jews in California and other Western states. Its macro-through-micro approach is effective — even moving at times. Maybe it doesn’t quite add up to an “immersive” experience, with its use of Internet and film, but it’s worth a visit for the stories it tells, and for how it might make you view your own family archives in a new light.

The fact is, the show stays with you. Despite the aforementioned criticisms (or crankiness), I thought about the larger context of my grandfather’s picture only after I saw the exhibition. You might have similar mini-epiphanies after re-examining the family treasures on your hard drive or hidden in your attic. It’s good to think about how our own little stories have their place in the grand sweep of history.

Gordon Haber lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.


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