Of all the Jewish institutions in New York, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, found itself in the most vulnerable position as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city Monday night. It was thought that the museum, located right on the edge of New York Harbor, in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, was sure to be severely damaged by swells roaring over the sea wall.
To everyone’s surprise, MJH came through the storm intact, despite the water’s rising to an unprecedented 13.8 feet. Associate Director Abby Spilka said it was “a miracle” that the building and exhibitions, save for some water damage in the basement, came through unscathed. Spilka attributed this to shear luck relating to the museum’s position on the uneven landfill underneath Battery Park. Whereas nearby areas were completely flooded, it appears that the specific physical placement of the building prevented it from suffering a similar fate.
Having suffered from being merely blocks away from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, MJH takes emergency preparedness extremely seriously. “Irene was a perfect dress rehearsal for us,” Spilka said referring to the precautions the museum took in August 2011, and which were repeated last Sunday in anticipation of Sandy. Staff dismantled and removed all the artifacts exhibited on the first floor and moved them to a higher floor in the building. While the dismantling took six hours, Spilka expects it will take three days to reinstall the exhibitions.
Most people encounter Emma Lazarus only inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written in 1883, has become inextricably identified in the public mind with the wave of immigration to the United States from the 1880s until 1924. However, a new free mobile tour produced by the Museum of Jewish Heritage now enables us to get to know Lazarus by visiting sites around Manhattan that were integral to her life, and at the center of intellectual and artistic life during the Gilded Age.
Produced in association with the museum’s new exhibition, “Emma Lazarus: Poet of Exiles,” which opens October 26 and runs through the fall of 2012, the tour makes 19 stops from Battery Park to the Upper East Side (with 80 percent in and around Union Square and Madison Square Park). The tour app, which is downloadable to iPhones and Android smartphones, is programmed with GPS, so that users can visit sites closest to them geographically and not just follow the tour chronologically.
“Everything is back to normal today” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City at the lower tip of Manhattan, according to Associate Director Abby Spilka.
Spilka was afraid this was not going to be the case when she left the Museum late Friday, after taking precautions against the possible effects of Hurricane Irene. “Currently, we are all feeling the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and there are things that will put us back to that morning. When I was told to evacuate and pack up, not knowing what I would return to, it was harder than I was expected it would be. We were all so relieved that the Museum fared well and we couldn’t wait to get back to work this morning,” Spilka said.
Despite the evacuation orders issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, four members of the Museum’s security and operations staff hunkered down on site for the duration of the hurricane. Spilka and other senior staff were in touch with them throughout, checking in for regular updates.
Ivy L. Barsky is changing museums, cities and American Jewish culture. As deputy director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located on Battery Place in Lower Manhattan, Barsky worked to convey the Jewish experience through the stories of survivors. Now, as she becomes the director and chief operating officer of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, she will be interpreting it through the story of this country’s Jewish community. Barsky spoke to The Arty Semite on July 1, her first day at the NMAJH, about her work at these two institutions and the role of museums in American Jewish culture.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What do you see as the role of museums in the American Jewish landscape?
Fifty-five years ago today, union activist and thespian Philip Loeb checked himself into the Taft Hotel in Midtown Manhattan under a false name and took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Targeted by the insidious blacklist, Loeb could no longer find work in his beloved acting profession and had reached rock bottom.
Tonight, a panel of those who knew or have studied Loeb — including myself — will commemorate his career at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Loeb’s suicide was especially devastating considering how greatly he had fallen. Known as an actor’s actor, Leob taught his craft to the likes of Kirk Douglas, Rosalind Russell and Don Rickles. He also performed in such Broadway hits as “Room Service” with the Marx Brothers, and directed its signature food delivery scene.
After 10 years of a nomadic existence through state and federal courts, Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” can finally rest in peace. As determined by a July 20 court settlement, the painting, which was stolen from the estate of Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi Jaray by a Nazi agent in the 1930s, was purchased for the sum of $19 million from the Bondi estate by the Leopold Museum in Vienna.
As part of the settlement, the “Portrait of Wally” will also be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York until August 18. An unveiling of the painting will take place at the museum on Thursday with guest speakers including former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and Andre Bondi, a representative of the Bondi estate.
According to Museum spokesperson Betsy Aldredge, the request to exhibit the painting at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was made in order to allow people to view the painting in a setting that memorializes Holocaust victims and honors those who survived.
On February 7, at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, a new publication from New York University Press, “Is Diss A System? A Milt Gross Comic Reader” edited by Ari Y. Kelman, will be presented. Gross (born in 1895) of Russian Jewish ancestry, drew comic strips of wild slapstick energy, following in the violence-for-laughs tradition of “The Katzenjammer Kids.” A self-consciously low comedian, Gross drew racist images of black people and was not all that flattering about Jews either.
Gross’s defiantly insensitive gift for visual anarchy got him jobs in Hollywood writing and directing short films like “Izzy Able the Detective” (1921) and “Jitterbug Follies” (1939; see below). Gross was even reportedly hired by Charlie Chaplin to invent sight gags for the silent film “The Circus.”
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