In “Everything is Illuminated,” Jonathan Safran Foer says Jews have a sixth sense: memory.
“The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins,” Foer writes. “It is only by tracing the pinprick back to the other… that the Jew was able to know why it hurts.”
“They Called Me Mayer July,” showing at the Jewish Museum in New York through Oct. 1, is one such pinprick. Although the exhibit concerns the Polish village of Opatow, its images reflect the stories of any community where Jews pass one another on the street.
Opatow, known in Yiddish as Apt, comes to life through the simple and playful paintings Mayer Kirshenblatt began making 20 years ago based on childhood memories of pre-war Poland. While the paintings are intrinsically Jewish and Polish, the pinprick of memory they provide is universal, and can easily be traced to a neighborhood like Squirrel Hill.
Jews arrived in Opatow in the 1500s. By Kirshenblatt’s day, 65 percent of its 10,000 inhabitants were Jewish. Kirshenblatt — the nickname “Mayer July” came from his being hotheaded as a child — lived there from his birth in 1916 until he immigrated to Toronto in 1934. Those dates are important; they precede the Holocaust. Kirshenblatt calls the paintings an attempt to show how a Jewish community lived, rather than how it died.
Kirshenblatt began at the insistence of his daughter, who wanted a record of her father’s stories of childhood. The paintings are supplemented on a Web site and in the exhibit by 40 years of interviews between him and his daughter. Kirshenblatt began painting in 1990, at 73, naturally producing a style reminiscent of Marc Chagall and Maira Kalman.
Most of the paintings share the vantage point of a theatre stage or a sitcom set, with the fourth wall cut away to reveal the action inside a room. Like a theatrical performance, Kirshenblatt is able to be both the director and the leading actor in his paintings.
Growing up, Kirshenblatt wanted to be a chimney sweep so he could spend his days watching the city from rooftops. This perspective informs the canvases detailing market day and the local barroom. A typical Shabbos morning service is viewed from the rafters of the synagogue. Kirshenblatt is in the scene — found among the choirboys — but is also above it; two boys in the back pew look not to the bimah before them, but over their shoulders, at Kirshenblatt, who brings them into existence as he paints from memory.
The paintings cover the spectrum of village life, religious and secular. In one image, a procession celebrates the completion of a new Torah scroll. In another, Kirshenblatt pees into a slop bucket in the middle of the night. Some paintings show the sacred and profane elements of life colliding: the town prostitute “shows her wares” in the market square by pulling her dress over her head, as a group of religious men passing by avert their eyes.
Kirshenblatt revels in lost details and forgotten stories. Children roast potatoes in the field by covering them with stalks and lighting the mounds on fire. A “human fly” scales the house of the richest Jew in town to perform acrobatics on the roof. A kleptomaniac stuffs live fish down her blouse and the fishmonger adds them to her husband’s running tab.
Taken altogether, though, the 80-some paintings in the exhibit highlight the way minor details of a beloved place often stick in the mind the longest. They appear in painting after painting: the shelf of dishes on the kitchen wall, the flower-print on the wallpaper, the exposed cinderblocks behind the stove and the balcony outside of the synagogue.
Some of Kirshenblatt’s memories weave imagination into reality, mixing first-person accounting with storytelling and city legend. A painting of the family gathered around his mother as she gives birth to his younger brother is incredibly detailed — filled with superstitious rites of Jewish life at the time — but Kirshenblatt appears as a baby in his crib, perhaps too young to notice. The “Black Wedding” performed in the town cemetery to ward off an approaching plague takes place nearly 25 years before Kirshenblatt was born.
Some seem purely imagined. Under what circumstances would Kirshenblatt have seen the inside of the mikvah on a Thursday, the day locally reserved exclusively for women?
These inconsistencies enhance the exhibit, though, by showing how memory actually presents the past: faithful to its emotional legacy while inaccurately conjuring up details.
While “Mayer July” aims to portray daily life in Opatow before Nazi control, the show cannot escape that history. A whimsical story of a boy hidden from the evil eye by constantly wearing white is made real by an afterword revealing the boy wasn’t able to hide from the Nazis. In a painting that depicts Kirshenblatt about to leave the country in 1934, a gigantic portrait of Hitler hangs large on the wall behind the ticket counter.
The exhibit concludes with paintings from the early 1940s, nearly a decade after Kirshenblatt left Opatow. Here the memories and imagined scenes from throughout the exhibit come together, as Kirshenblatt paints a depiction of the death of his grandmother and the family that stayed in Poland, a story he heard, and remembered, but did not see.
It’s unfortunate to end on these images. After seeing so many paintings brimming with exuberant memories of life, these familiar scenes of death arrive like smelling salts shocking us out of a pleasant dream. They are ultimately fitting, though, both because they happened and because they reinforce the lesson brought to bear by so many Jewish artists: that telling stories in new and more personal ways gives victims the final victory.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)