Wednesday, June 26, 2013
An Interview with Steven Lasky, Founder of the Museum of Family History
You can read the interview in its entirety below. Since you probably are a subscriber to my blog and have an interest in the Museum of Family History, you might like to read the history of how the Museum came into being, as well as some of my own personal history, motivations, ideas and hopefully inspirational speech about how important it is to honor and preserve not only our own family history, but history in general -- as I've done with own Museum, Jewish history. So here goes. Your comments are always welcome! There were eight questions posed by Sarah, which I responded to in written form:
1. My mission, through geneartistry, is to explore and promote the intersection between family history and artistic expression. I feel truly fortunate to have discovered the Museum of Family History which is such a wonderfully creative and dynamic way to honor Jewish families. Can you tell my readers what inspired you to create the site, and how you got started?
There were many sources of inspiration that led me to create my virtual museum. It was a part of an evolutionary process, a step in my own “journey of self-discovery” – so to speak – as I sought to find further meaning in my life. Although I chose to become an optometrist as my life’s work more than thirty years ago, I think there was always this latent desire for creativity, language, for learning about Jewish history and culture that I had suppressed for a number of years in order to become an optometrist. I had done little with it until later in my life. The road that led me to the creation of a museum of Jewish history began when I left my job as an optometrist in Southern California, choosing to go on my first trip abroad before returning home to New York. So I backpacked through Europe in the early eighties and visited ten countries in ten weeks. Since then my “wanderlust” has taken me to more than forty countries, and I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of the art museums of the world. I’ve seen history (and art) in all its glory, studied French and Spanish and art for brief periods of time in Paris and Mexico. I saw so many layers of history in one place. It was amazing. My imagination was stimulated. Eventually I became an amateur pastel portraitist back in New York, which further awoke my “creative juices”. So this really was the early “underpinning” to all that I have done to this point, which ultimately led me to that desire to build a virtual museum.
I was also inspired by my love of family and close relatives, as well the fondness I had for the positive memories of my youth. I also wanted very much to keep Jewish history and culture alive, which I feel is so important, as I have seen over the years how the appreciation of Jewish history and culture has so diminished, at least in my opinion. To me, the past is not simply the past to be relegated to the history books, but is essentially part of the mosaic that tells us and the world who we are as a people. I wanted to do what I could to inspire others so they would think more about their own family history and to talk about their own family history with their children, grandchildren et al, and in this way they would be honoring and preserving the memory of their family for the present and hopefully future generations.
Earlier you asked how I got started with all of this. As I recall, in November 2002 I was sitting in the den of the family house watching television, when I happened to glance off to the side, and I noticed under my mother’s collection of old LPs within her lamp table, one of those envelopes that drug stores give you when you pick up your developed photos and negatives. Inside of this envelope was a stack of old family photographs – black and white photographs of my mother, grandparents, my uncles and my aunts. These photos were yellowing a bit and were curled up as photos are prone to do when they were taken more than sixty years earlier. I asked my mother why they weren't included in any of her other family albums, and of course she couldn't tell me. Then it instantly occurred to me how precious these photos were to me at least, and that I didn’t want them to get lost or otherwise discarded. Imagine finding such old photos of your dear family that you’ve never seen before – I felt like a kid in a candy store. So I then decided to put these curled-up photos into a photo album, while at the same time fully reorganizing our entire family photo collection.
Not long after this I had this idea of creating family newsletters, or "journals", to be published on paper, about sixteen to twenty-four pages long (double-sided), one version for each side of my family, and then I would send them out on a quarterly basis (in a clear report cover and slide-lock) for about a year-and-a-half. This wasn’t one of your “typical” family journals, because they contained family photos, interviews with family members, historical articles (that I wrote), and even a master calendar (with family birthdays) and a Yahrzeit list (just so folks wouldn’t forget).
This idea of creating a family journal was a great one (in my mind) for a number of reasons. Somehow in the course of conducting my research I got to meet cousins whom I had never met before (nor would I have ever met them if it wasn't for my project), as well as to visit my dear cousins whom I hadn't seen since I was a bar-mitzvah so many decades before. It’s funny if not sad how often we see relatives when we are younger, but with time and distance the chances of further meetings become less frequent, so that most often we only see them at weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals.
It’s strange how these things work out, isn’t it? As I met with everyone, I made sure I interviewed them (digital recorder in hand), and with this I began to gather information about my own family tree – stories about a number of my family members I never would have heard otherwise. Then I transcribed some of them onto paper, for posterity and possible further use.
Somewhere within that year-and-a-half of publishing my family journals (I called “Family Circles”), I decided that it would be wonderful if I could switch from paper journals to a website – it would be easier I thought, once I learned the “ins-and-outs” of how to create such a website, which I had never done before. My first intent was to fill the website with information about my family, ancestors et al, but due to a few expressed "privacy" concerns, I chose to include only a small amount about my own family and relatives -- mostly information about those who were already deceased. Then I continued on with my research about Jewish history in a general way, thought of many ways that I could present my website, who my audience would ultimately be, what kind of online exhibitions people would like to see on my site, etc.
Eventually – at the Las Vegas IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) in the summer of 2005 I made my presence felt – I would constantly pull many of the conference attendees off to the side as they were heading down the hallways, hopping left and right between lectures, and I would show them what I had accomplished to date. I hoped that they would support me in my efforts, would visit my website and send me material that I could use on my site. After the conference, I began, little by little, to make it known that I was looking for folks to send me copies of old family photographs, stories, etc. To date I've had many hundreds of folks contribute material, which I'm grateful for. Then I decided that I wanted to make the museum a multimedia one, so I learned how to work with and edit audio and video clips, and thus my Museum became multimedia. And the rest is history, no pun intended.
One of the purposes of my Museum is to encourage folks to become active participants in the preservation of their own family’s history. I feel that the more people who knew about my site and who made a thorough “visit” to my Museum, would hopefully get as excited about the possibility of preserving their own family history as I have, would feel that excitement that I do and chose to get involved. Honoring and preserving the memory of one’s loved ones is a beautiful and blessed undertaking, and I feel that it is well worth one’s time pursuing. Imagine all the people who never had a chance to continue their own blood line, let alone work to preserve their own family history. This is our chance to leave a precious legacy… So there you have it in a nutshell.
You’ve asked how I knew that I could do all this? As I’ve told you, I like being creative – so that wasn’t the question. I didn't know, however, if I could create such a big and fancy website (which I learned "on the fly", without any previous training) until I did it, but I felt that I could create a "journal". You see, I was the editor of my optometry school newspaper for more than a year. Before my editorship the school “newspaper” was just two sides of one mimeographed sheet of paper. When I left the editorship a year later, it won an award, was self-sustaining (with paid advertising that I had begun to secure during my “reign” as editor), and on average it contained about sixteen pages of photos and articles, interviews, a master calendar, etc. So I knew I could do that, so hopefully by extension I could create a family journal, and then eventually a website, an even greater challenge that I could hopefully succeed in. It was and still is my wish that all the work and sacrifice I would put into all of this work would be appreciated by all who took the time to read my journals and/or “visit” my Museum.
2. With so much to offer, you've aptly described a visit to the Museum as a "personal journey". What are you hoping people experience and take away from that journey?
History is fascinating, isn’t it? When I was growing up and attending public school, much of the study of history was rote learning – memorize dates and names and events, taking tests, then moving on to the next subject. There was American History; there was World History. We didn't study history holistically or longitudinally, nor did we necessarily associate what was going on in the world with what our ancestors had gone through during a particular time or era. What made matters worse is that our parents – especially our immigrant grandparents -- didn’t talk about their early lives or experiences, perhaps because of the pain of the Holocaust, or simply the pain from being dislocated from the family that they once lived with. History wasn’t personal when I studied it in school. We really didn't study Jewish history -- yes, in Hebrew school a bit, but if I recall correctly it was mostly a study of Biblical stories -- certainly not about the Holocaust, or Jewish life in Europe, immigration, Jewish life in America, etc. There was a wide dichotomy between secular learning and Jewish learning.
I’ve digressed from your question. I always suggest to people that the best way to learn about their own family's journey over time is to learn about world history, and the best way to learn about world history is to learn about your family and their own experiences during that time. I believe that when one of my Museum "visitors" reads a personal story, or hears an audio clip of a story being told, or reads an article about a time in which their ancestors lived, hopefully they'll ask themselves, "Could my family members have experienced something like this?", or "Where was my family during this time?", or "How could world events have affected my own ancestors, personally and otherwise"? It certainly doesn’t have to be a story about one’s own family; we can empathize. There really are so many questions that one could ask ourselves, aren't there? I wish folks would want to learn more about their parents, grandparents et al, and to make connections with different times in the past so they could meld that knowledge to form a sort of nexus of knowledge from one generation to the next.
I have a similar theory of relativity as Einstein (though I am no Einstein!) To me, all time exists on the same plane, at least figuratively. Have you ever smelled a familiar smell, heard a particular sound, or returned to a certain place that evoked such strong imagery in your mind that you "almost" felt that you were "back there" again? Personally I have found that the more I learn about the past, both in general and about my own family, the more vivid the past seems to be to me, and it seems that the temporal distance between then and now seems shorter. I feel in a sense that I am once again back in the past (figuratively speaking and employing my active imagination, of course). After all, if the present is only a moment, everything else is the past, and the future is what's to come and hasn’t happened yet.
Another theory I have is one that I did not come up with, i.e. that people die twice: once when they physically pass away from this world, the other when they are no longer talked about. So the Museum of Family History gives folks the opportunity to keep the memory of their family members alive, to talk in some way to other family members about them and in this way at least to honor their memory. Not only that, but with what material I put online within my Museum to help them honor and preserve their family memories, folks can share it with others throughout the world, for free, 24/7.
A couple of advantages of an Internet museum is that it can be open all the time, and physical place is not a problem. One exhibition does not have to be taken down to make room for the next. You also needn’t be in a specific geographical location to pay the museum a visit. Also, such virtual museums are different from a “brick and mortar” museum. Most of us cannot honor our family by hanging a family photo on a museum wall, or by making a sound clip available of a family member, for all who visit a museum to hear. At the Museum of Family History, most everyone can take part and do this.
I hope that my Museum stimulates imaginations and allows my Museum "visitors" to travel back in their own past through their own personal journey, to become unceasingly inquisitive, with a constant thirst to learn more and to keep asking questions….
3. Wandering through the Museum, it is easy to get caught up in the many personal stories of struggle and triumphs brought to life with moving words and evocative sights and sounds. At the risk of asking a question as impossible as picking a favorite child, is there any one story or "exhibit" that particularly moves you or that especially captures the "spirit" of the Museum?
You’re right, that’s a tough one. I suppose my favorite stories are the ones that deal with the history of my own family, e.g. the story I wrote about my life growing up with my parents and maternal grandparents, in the fifties and sixties. I think it is our own personal stories that often affect us the most. The story I wrote, at its essence, is a loving tribute to my parents and grandparents as I remember them. It is a rare attempt on my part to express on paper -- with what eloquence I could muster -- my fondest memories of my youth. You can find this part of my “memoir” at http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/lia-memories-slasky-01.htm, if you’re interested.
How wonderful it is to be able to express in an eloquent way one’s unconditional love! If I can stimulate others to do the same, it would be very rewarding to me and hopefully to them too. So, yes, my grandparents are gone more than forty years now (and my father nearly thirty), but I have not forget them, and they are still talked about, at least by me.
4. In addition to your ambitious work on behalf of Jewish history, do you also research and document your own personal family history? So many of my readers are family historians with a passion for genealogical research. I'm sure they would love hearing about your own quest (such as a particularly gratifying breakthrough or discovery or something else learned along the way).
Alas, I haven't done much research in the last few years about my own family. I have done a good amount, but there are for me a number of missing links between the branches of my family tree, and since there are seemingly no records to clarify these connections and no one left to help me link one family member to another, solving this dilemma is quite difficult. I’ve dedicated most of my efforts to helping other people honor their own ancestors. Though I don’t do research for others, if I have data that would help them in some way solve their own mysteries, I send that data along to them pretty quickly.
Saying this, I must admit to you that I have mixed feelings about genealogy per se. Too many people (at least many of those I have met and communicated with over the years) strive to collect names and dates of relatives, but given the possibility or opportunity, they don't even interview their own living ancestors, nor do they feel that it's important to record their own personal story. Of course, there are many who strive to learn more than names and dates, but my frustrations are not with them.
As to one of my "quests" or "discoveries" that is especially gratifying is the amount I learned about my paternal grandparents, who passed away in Brooklyn before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Chaika (Ida), was really the breadwinner in the family – there were six children, four boys and two girls. Chaika did most of the work between her and her husband Michal (who davened most of the day). They had a small tailoring shop on Prospect Place in Brooklyn for a time, and Michal did a little tailoring, or so I was told. I also discovered that it was his job to cook herring and potatoes for the family for Friday night dinners. Another cousin whom I had never met before told me that she remembers that he used to collect matchbooks. I was told that their marriage was probably an arranged one, he being about fifteen years her senior. They had a baby girl in Poland, he came to the U. S. through Ellis Island – I guess to pave the way for Chaika and daughter to arrive at a later date – and so two years later in 1902 or so, they came to the U.S. the same way.
Ida, seems often to have been a “contradiction”, so to speak. For a period of time, she used to participate in "estate sales". At times she’d been standing on a table, my father still in her womb, conducting these sales. Years before this, she used to make money with "I Carry Clothes", where she used to go around NYC selling clothes that she carried around on her back. As I’ve said, she and my grandfather Michal had six children -- my father was the youngest of six children, and he was fifteen years junior to his oldest sister.
The Internet can be a wondrous means for discovering information, and can provide insights otherwise never to be obtained. For example, a couple of years ago, on a lark, I decided to search some old newspaper databases (the “Fulton History” website) under my grandmother's name "Ida Lasky" Lo and behold, I found an article about her in an April 1929 edition of the Utica (N. Y.) Daily Press newspaper. Utica yet! The article stated that she had a spot in a building on Elizabeth Street ("a block from the Bowery in the fringe of Chinatown") where there was a clothes exchange. The article sets the scene in part, "Within a dingy room, dealers sit along a wide bench. The collectors stream in with armfuls of worn garments for which they have bargained dearly at apartment doors from Coney Island to the Bronx....." (One of those people these collectors sold to was my grandmother, and she in turn would sell these used clothes, etc. to others.) The upper floors of this building were sublet to dealers who use them as sorting rooms....”
Under a subheading named "Prosperous Queen Ida" the article further states: "One woman, Ida Lasky, known to her intimates as 'Hiker' and to her colleagues as 'the Queen' is among New York's 2,000 collectors of old clothes.... and that when she goes out on Sunday in her mink coat, and her fine sedan, her six children -- three of them married -- are mighty proud of her....". Finally, the passage ends as such: "I bet you she's got $500 in that stocking plant(?) now," exclaimed Max (who owned a concession there), as she paused besides us. 'Ha,' she retorted, dodging away with a laugh and lifting her skirt high enough to display a wad of bills nestled against her kneecap. 'Five hundred and eighty dollars'.”
So this is precious, isn’t it?? She was quite a character. Here’s more… Chaika didn’t go to my father’s wedding because one of my uncles (by marriage), whom she was mad at, was going to attend the wedding, so she refused to go, even though Michal did. Also my aunt (one of my father’s sisters) told the story that Chaika would go into bars, see a “bum”, go to him and ask him, “Why are you a bum?” She’d buy him dinner and a suit and tell him or help him to get a job. “She was very charitable that way”. So as I’ve said, a “contradiction”…..
So there you have it. I never met my paternal grandparents, and look how much I found out by interviewing cousins, researching online newspaper archives, etc. The only thing I remember my father ever saying about my grandmother Chaika was that she slapped him across his head every time they walked together down the stairs from their apartment. Imagine knowing that little about one’s grandmother for most of your life, then learning all of this later in life! I suppose this goes to prove that you never know where you might find information about a family member. One just has to try as many possible sources of information as possible and hope for the best. Never assume that a relative knows nothing about your family history. A little luck is also a good thing.... I did know my maternal grandparents, and I was blessed enough to have known them for the first thirteen years of my life, before they passed away about a year apart from each other. They were totally different than my paternal grandparents, but they are another story….
5. In your introduction to the Museum you start with a wonderful quote by Dale Carnegie about the enthusiastic pursuit of an inspiring goal being a source of happiness. That's such apt wisdom for budding family historians (and us old hands alike!). It's also true that the long journey in pursuit of an ambitious and worthy goal invariably has its hurdles, setbacks, and sustained periods where it's natural to ask "am I getting anywhere?". It's clear from the results, that the Museum of Family History is a labor of love for you requiring a tremendous amount of time and effort. How do you sustain your passion and focus on such an all-encompassing project?
I must admit that my website work is at times exhausting and frustrating, but my dogged determination has seen me through some tough moments. I suppose that at times I am more motivated than at others. Sometimes I just have to keep pushing forward. It isn't easy, with few if any volunteers that step forward to volunteer, and without receiving any funding or contributions – not that I have always been asking for them. I just think it would be so much easier -- and I'd be able to grow the Museum by leaps and bounds -- if I could successful secure funding to pay others to do what I can't do, either because of I haven't the skill or the time. I certainly believe that what I have done is unique, and it wouldn't be even more unique and more marvelous if I had funding and/or volunteers to go beyond where I’ve gone to this point, though I'm not too hopeful that enough individuals, organizations or institutions know about my work, or if they do will believe enough in me and my work to the point of offering funding, etc.” Hope springs eternal”, or so they say.
Saying that, I push on because everything I create, each project and exhibition, has a certain meaning for me. For instance, for the past two years much of my time has been spent translating the Zalmen Zylbercweig opus, the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre", from Yiddish to English (though I can't speak or really understand it for the most part when spoken to me). The "Lexicon" contains more than 2,800 individual biographies and histories of now-defunct theatre organizations. Such individual biographies include Boris Thomashefsky, Aaron Lebedeff, Paul Muni (who used to act in Yiddish theatre before becoming a screen actor), playwrights such as Jacob Gordin, I. L, Peretz, Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem. I have, mostly by myself, translated more than three-quarters of all the histories in this opus. Will it ever fully get translated? I don't know if I can finish it. Without the funding to pay translators, the job may very well remain unfinished. Zylbercweig's step-daughter has been very gracious in helping me with this "labor of love", and she has also given me dozens of reel-to-reel cassettes of her parent's old 1949-1969 Yiddish-language radio program, which was broadcast out of their home studio, which they built in the back of their Los Angeles home at their own expense. I had them converted to a digital format and periodically I add a new program to my "On the Air!" feature on my website. Just one of my many beloved projects. Of course it would be nice if folks would come forward to help me with my translations (as volunteers), but as you know, often times volunteers are often hard to come by.
I am also enamored with other special aspects of the Museum, e.g. my four “floor plans”, which indicate to the museum “visitor” where most everything would be located in the Museum (if it existed in real space). These rooms would be filled with all sorts of interesting material and exhibitions, and there would be building facades, e.g. of synagogues, schools, shops, etc., which would be embedded with links to texts, audio and video segments. There is even an outdoor music pavilion with a seating plan. Currently “performing” at the Museum of Family History is Al Jolson, who sings a few songs for the audience. I even have created two virtual restaurants with wonderful, mouth-watering, descriptive menus, for lunch, dessert and dinner. One of my restaurants is called “Gut Essen Delicatessen”. I have other menus too, and I’d like other folks to send me in menus for five- or six-course dinners, based on themes or region of origin. I have many more ideas of course.
6. I'm very intrigued by the idea of a virtual museum for organizing, displaying and sharing a family's history. I expect that some of my readers may be inspired by your creation to take their photos, videos, stories, research and other artifacts and bring them on-line to become curators of their own multimedia Museums of Family History. Do you have any advice for how to start?
There are online sites where you can use their templates to create your own website. How successful one is will depend on the time and energy one can put into it, how one can lay out material onto pages, on one's artistic sense, and how comfortable and savvy one is on a computer. Of course, I would like folks to consider putting material about their family on my own Museum website -- which would be easier on them and good for the Museum. They can always contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have any questions about this. Making a website multimedia, i.e. filled with audio and video clips, is another matter, but it is doable. It just depends on whether one can dedicate the time and energy to learning how to do all of this.
7. You offer the hope that the Museum will appeal to children as well as adults and promote storytelling of family memories from grandparents and parents to their children. This is so important and something that I have a keen interest in promoting. What other advice would you offer to parents who wish to inspire their children to become more interested in family history?
Often times I hear from parents or grandparents that their children or grandchildren aren't interested in their own history, so they really don’t bring it up, though others do. I don' think this is a general rule, though it does happen. I think that children would like to form greater connections with their elders, and I think if their elders tell their stories in loving terms, then there is a better chance of creating more of an interest and curiosity in their progeny.
No matter what the age, people are attracted by beauty and positive energy. Every parent and grandparent who feels they know their children or grandchildren must find their own path to telling stories, though as I say, doing it with love is the key. It might not always work, but to me this a great way to build intergenerational communication. One good exercise is to interview a family member, preferably (with their permission) recording the interview with a digital recorder, and then transcribing it for posterity.
There is an art to conducting such interviews, and there are websites that make some good suggestions on how to do so, i.e. how to interview and conduct "oral history". The American Indians used to sit around the campfire, and the elders used to pass down the story of the tribe this way. So why can we Jews sit around the table during holidays such as Pesach and do the same?
8. Happily, the Museum which already consists of thousand of images from the past, is a growing collection. What's ahead? Can you share any upcoming exhibits or plans you may have for the future of the Museum?
Oh, I have so many plans (if only I had the time, the volunteers and some money) – both a curse and a blessing of an active imagination. It kills me, though, that I haven’t been able to go forward in the way that I had hoped, having such a vision of a future Museum of Family History that would stand out as a model of what imagination, creativity and love of heritage can do if only I had the means.
I haven't mentioned to you that I am currently the First Vice-President and Cemetery Liaison for the United Zembrover Society (a landsmanshaft, or mutual aid society, made up today mostly of descendants of those who came from Zambrow, Poland). We are almost finished paying a professional translator to fully translate our Yizkor Book (Book of Remembrance).We pay our translator section by section, and after each section is sent to our Board, and to me, it is proofed, the book photos are inserted into the body of the translation, and then I place the translation on my website. Interesting too is the fact that I am working with people (non-Jews) in Zambrow to have the Yizkor Book translated from English to Polish, and once done it will also hopefully appear on my site in Polish. What a great way to inform non-Jews from the town about the history of the Jews who once lived and thrived there. So much of the history of many towns in Europe was made by Jews, but knowledge of this history was lost due to the Holocaust and destruction of the Jewish population. It is as if a large chunk of their own town’s history is missing. And I think many towns have an interest in learning about this history, especially the young people in these towns, so this is all a good thing in my opinion and is filled with good intentions. Of course, such good intentions must be followed up by action.
I am also hoping to create a three-dimensional map of the town and link translated excerpts from the Yizkor Book with locations on the town map. This idea excites me and offers up the possibility of creating a template for doing this for other locations throughout the world where Jews (and others) once lived.
I also hope to transform my Museum of Family History website to a three-dimension format, but that is for another time. Nothing like this has ever been done before, but this is a case where I haven't the skills to do this and would need funding to pay someone who knows how to do this. As I've said, "Hope springs eternal".