'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

(page 2 of 2)

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.


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!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • 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.