'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!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • 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.