Monday, October 26, 2009

Paint What You Remember: The Memories of Mayer Kirshenblatt of Opatów, Poland

Mayer Kirshenblatt left his hometown of Opatów, Poland in 1934 at the age of seventeen for a new life in Canada. With him he not only brought some of his physical possessions, but also a storehouse of memories that he would carry with him bittersweetly for many decades to come. Thanks to his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and his wife, both of whom urged him to put to canvas what he remembered, Mayer took up painting in 1990, and to date has created more than three hundred paintings, each one a memory of life in a town that once contained thousands of Jews and that he called "home."

In two "sister" exhibitions we will hear from Mayer and see dozens of his paintings (acrylics on canvas) that deal with his family life, as well as the Jewish communal life that existed in his hometown (in Yiddish called "Apt") in the 1920s and 30s. He will also talk about Shabbat, as well as a number of other Jewish holidays. By seeing his works and by hearing him tell his story in his own words via nearly twenty audio clips, a wonderful picture is painted for us of what life was like in Opatów for the Jews who once lived there.

Mayer says that "every Jewish town is the same," so perhaps we wouldn't be taking liberties to imagine that our families, our ancestors who also lived in Europe at one time, in a town also populated with thousands of Jews, might have very well lived in a town just like this one.

If a visitor to these exhibitions once lived in pre-war Europe, perhaps Mayer's paintings and accounts of life there might evoke similar or other long forgotten memories. That would be something!

Perhaps Mayer's works will compel us to think about our own Jewish upbringing and the neighborhoods we once lived in. How was his life in Poland similar to our own, and how was it different? How was living in a Jewish community such as Apt similar to living in a Jewish neighborhood, among the tenements or brownstones of Brooklyn or perhaps on the Lower East Side of the 1930s, 40s or 50s?

Maybe after viewing these exhibitions you will consider drawing or painting the memories of your own childhood, writing them down for posterity, or at the very least telling these precious stories to your children or grandchildren.

You can visit the first exhibition, "Paint What You Remember: The Memories of Mayer Kirshenblatt" at Included within this exhibition are many sound clips and three video clips from YouTube.

You can visit the second exhibition which is now part of the larger "Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays" exhibition at the Museum, containing photographs of Mayer's paintings and the artist's comments at

Your comments are always welcome, though please send them via the Comments feature of the blog.

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