- They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
In her "Daughter's Afterword" to her father's book of images and stories, Barbara Kirshen-blatt-Gimblett quotes from Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture: "Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. . . . Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created" (p. 379). Self-creation through narration is an enduring and important area of interest in folklore, but folklore scholars do not address the rich genre of pictorial narrative nearly as often. Because of this and for a number of other compelling reasons, Mayer Kirshenblatt's book of pictorial narratives accompanied by his writing and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's commentary is a truly valuable contribution to visual studies and narrative scholarship in folklore. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust is the "meeting place" where father and daughter's shared curiosity about life coalesces into an ongoing and vibrant collaboration, which ultimately reaches fruition in this wonderful book. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says about her father's choice of imagery to tell his stories, "[h]e shows us how to see with pictures . . . as well as with words" (p. 379). This book is a reliquary—not in the usual sense of an object of devotion but as a container of the evanescent relics of time, cultural survivals, narrative fragments or continuities, and shades of presence.
They Called Me Mayer July is an inventive, lively collection of Mayer Kirshenblatt's painted "particularized world," memorializing village life in Apt, Poland ("Opatów" in Polish, "Apt" in Yiddish) during the 1920s and 1930s. Each painting is an attentive and sensual response to the colors and texture of childhood experience. Each tells a story replete with characters, action, ambiance, and drama. Artists practice different aesthetic approaches to pictorial narrative; some integrate words into their compositions as mnemonic devices, or to help viewers understand codes of local meaning. Kirshenblatt avoids conspicuous didacticism in his compositions. Instead, he favors accurate details with a penchant for the literal, as in the Hanukkah scene where he depicts his family gathered around the table with notes ascending diagonally from their open mouths to indicate that they are singing loudly (that is, really belting out Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages"). This is a wonderfully graphic instance of the visualization of sound, but not all of his compositions are so visually and textually accessible. On one hand, Kirshenblatt's text is a necessary complement to his pictorial imagery in order for the viewer/ reader to understand the complex iconography of many of his compositions. On the other hand, these stories and images are the distillation and accretion of many variants of these tales told over four decades, with key elements that span time and distance.
Kirshenblatt is the picaresque hero of his own story. This is heralded in the first sentences of his narrative when he writes about the prevalence of nicknames among villagers: "Mine was Mayer tamez, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamez means Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot, and I was an excitable kid" (p. 1). Many of the scenes of Jewish and non-Jewish village life, catalogued in his memory and reproduced through the paintings in this book, date to the year when Kirshenblatt took a "sabbatical" from school during fifth grade in order to investigate all aspects of his village. He frequently [End Page 220] appears as a character in these pictorial narratives, but the orientation is from the perspective of an insatiably curious, eager boy "looking through the window" (p. 5). However, Kirshenblatt's first images in this narrative chain are of his mother's kitchen, shown from the viewpoint...