Monday, September 10, 2007

They Called Me Meyer July

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When Meyer Kirshenblatt was 17 years old, he left his home in Apt, Poland for Canada, little realizing he would never see the town again. He grew up in a Jewish community rich with tradition and religion and that way of life -- and most of the inhabitants -- were killed during the Holocaust.

Kirshenblatt lived a full, happy life in Toronto and it wasn't until he was 71 years old that the press of his childhood memories prompted him to start painting scenes of his youth. Now 20 years later, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley is putting on an exhibit of 65 of his paintings, titled They Called Me Meyer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust. It's an amazing show of scenes of shtetl life, done in bursts of color and dotted with humor. It's the first time the paintings have been exhibited and when they leave the Magnes in January, they will travel to museums around the world.

Kirshenblatt and his daughter, the renowned scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, have also written a beautiful memoir about pre-Holocaust Apt, looking at Meyer's life, his painting, and their intellectual collaboration. The book, published by UC Press, got a starred review in Publishers' Weekly.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her father were at the Magnes opening on Sunday, and she said something I found provocative and true: that these paintings are "memory as a weapon against the traumas of history."

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