- They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust
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Like Herman Melville's "Call Me Ishmael," the salutary title of Mayer Kirshenblatt's They Called Me Mayer July sounds a ringing introduction to the figure who will guide us through a lively personal and cultural history. Though this is the story of a man looking back (Kirshenblatt was 91 when the book was published), the tale is told through the character of an adventurous, hot-headed (hence the nickname, after July's heat), and inquisitive adolescent—just the sort of guide the reader/viewer wants. Sub-titled Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, Mayer's story encompasses a fixed but varied terrain, with 200 images of Jewish life in Apt (Opatow, Poland) in the interwar period, which unfold in tandem with a textual narrative. As painted memories, the pictures are central to the book, and they go well beyond mere illustration. Starting with the cover image, the energetic design of Purim Play: "The Krakow Wedding," bulges with social information in its depiction of a host family at their table, purimspilers (actors) and musicians crowding into the room, ancestral portraits observing from the walls, and a group of onlookers watching the festivities through the window. Not only community, but its several generations are gathered into a setting and centered on home, ritual celebration, and spectacle. Mediating youthful experience through adult [End Page 154] recall, pictures like this invite careful perusal and discovery, and so demonstrate the importance of images in the formation of memory and memoir.
The twinned tales—pictorial and textual—are expertly juxtaposed. Images appear on almost every double page, and the conversational text, like the pictures, is encyclopedic and pleasurably dizzying in its detail. We benefit from Kirshenblatt's curiosity, when, at the price of a failed year of school, he spent his days roaming the town, studying how every artisan, merchant, and institution of his world worked. Graphic side-bars also punctuate the narrative; hand-drawn and labeled diagrams, they explain what Mayer learned of local technologies: how to make a shoe or a tin-whistle, the cross-section of an oven, how to bind a book. The combination of pictures, text, diagrams—all cheerfully verbose—ensures wide access for both a scholarly and a popular audience. The only comparable book I know is Toby Knobel Fluek's visual narrative Memories of My Life in a Polish Village, 1930–1949 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), a slim volume where pictures are the main event and whose range, though chronologically longer, is nevertheless a narrower focus than Mayer July's encyclopedic ethno-memory.
The Eastern European shtetl [small town], embodied here by the town of Apt, is a familiar topos of Jewish history and culture, though it is more often represented in print than in pictorial form. From the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem, to pictures by Chagall, and the theatrical fantasy of Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof (1964), shtetl life has been homogenized in popular imagination as an unchanging folk culture—quaint and pious, resourceful and wise. In fact, by the first half of the 20th century, shtetl society was giving way to the pressures and temptations of modernity,1 and, even as they set the terms of the genre, many classics of Yiddish literature cast a critical eye on its types and traditions. The result has been a contradictory cultural legacy. The idealistic hope of Jews who emigrated to America was permeated with anxiety and guilt about their abandonment of family, community, and habits of the past. And, as if to justify those departures, North American Jewish children were often told, especially after the Shoah, that, despite the pleasures of shtetl community, Jewish life in Eastern Europe was one long bout of poverty and pogrom. From its earliest history, then, shtetl representation has served as a major vehicle of both nostalgia...