Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at Concordia

Two public presentations:

6pm “They Called Me Mayer July” Mayer Kirshenblatt (artist)

7:30pm “Creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (New York University)

Wednesday, November 12 2008, York Ampitheatre EV 1.605

“They Called Me Mayer July” Mayer Kirshenblatt (artist)

Mayer Kirshenblatt taught himself to paint at the age of 73. He did it for one reason: lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived. His new multiple award-winning book is a remarkable record of Jewish life in a Polish town before everything changed. The text was assembled from forty years of interviews conducted by his daughter, prominent folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor at New York University.

Through Mr. Kirshenblattʼs charming imagery we roam streets and courtyards, witness details of daily life, and meet the quirky individuals populating his hometown of Apt: the pregnant hunchback standing under the wedding canopy a few hours before giving birth; the kheyder teacher caught in bed with the drummer’s wife; the cobbler’s son who dressed in white pajamas every day of his life to fool the Angel of Death; the shaved corpse; a couple who celebrated their “black wedding” in the cemetery during a cholera epidemic.

Now 92 years old, father and daughter will converse informally on stage beneath large projected images of Mayerʼs paintings. This family collaboration—a moving blend of memoir, oral history and artistic interpretation—is at once a labor of love, a tribute to a distinctive imagination, and an enduring representation of a lost way of life.

“Creating the Museum of the History of Polish Jews” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (New York University)

The roots of most North American Jewish families lie in the territory that once was Poland, a vast area now divided among Rzeczpospolita Polska, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, Russia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw will represent the thousand-year history of the world’s once-largest Jewish community at the very place they lived. The permanent exhibition and associated educational and cultural programs will be among the most important and innovative of their kind. Located on the site of the former Ghetto and facing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, the new museum will honor those who perished by recreating a faithful glimpse of their world, housed in a stunning, international-award- winning structure.

Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblettʼs illustrated lecture will discuss the development of this multimedia narrative museum and its ambitious mission. As a key element of the postwar story and an expression of the new Poland, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will be a both a place to begin exploring the civilization built by Polish Jews and a forum—a place where one can expect to find open debate and healing dialogue. Above all, the museum and this lecture are meant to catalyze fresh thinking and new behaviour.


Mayer Kirshenblatt is a self-taught artist living and working in Toronto. Born in Apt (Opatów in Polish) in 1916, he arrived in Canada in 1934 at the age of seventeen, having completed the seven grades of Polish public school and kheyder. After apprenticing to an electrician and cobbler in Poland and working in a Canadian sweatshop, he painted houses and eventually opened his own wallpaper and paint store. He retired early after a serious illness. While he was trying to occupy himself by refinishing furniture, collecting clocks and sailing his boat, his family begged him to paint life in the Old Country. In 1990 he finally began to paint everything he could remember about his hometown and his childhood, creating more than 270 paintings to date. Shtetl, a video documentary about Mayer Kirshenblattʼs work, premiered in 1995. They Called Me Mayer Julyreceived the 2008 Canadian Jewish Book Award (Samuel and Rose Cohen Memorial Award in Biography/Memoir), J.I. Segal Book Award, AAUP award for book design, and was a finalist in three categories for the National Jewish Book Award in the USA. An exhibition of his paintings will open at The Jewish Museum (NYC) in May 2009. Each painting tells a story, together they make a world.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a professor of Performance Studies at New York University. She considers the collaboration with her father on his book project a blessing and singular highlight of her career. Her other publications include Image before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 (with Lucjan Dobroszycki); Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage; and The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times (edited with Jonathan Karp). Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust, to which she contributed, coincides with the period of her fatherʼs youth in Poland. Her edited volume Writing a Modern Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Salo W. Baron recently won a National Jewish Book Award. She currently heads the exhibition development team for the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The recipient of many honors including Getty Research Institute and Hebrew University resident fellowships and a Guggenheim fellowship, in 2008 she was honored with the Foundation for Jewish Culture Award for lifetime achievement and the Mlotek Prize for Yiddish Language and Culture. She and her artist husband Max Gimblett live and work on New York Cityʼs Lower East Side.

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence