As Jews all over Los Angeles built small huts in their backyards, driveways or front lawns to celebrate Sukkot, artist Tiffany Woolf was setting up a different kind of sukkah structure in Holocaust Museum LA’s memorial garden in Pan Pacific Park.
“The Ushpizin of the Silver Screen: Honoring the Visions & Voices of the Past,” an artistic interpretation of the traditional holiday hut, is a space for witnessing and learning from the stories of the older generation, “to shine a spotlight on our elders and give them a voice during this time of extreme isolation,” Woolf told the Journal. She also hoped the exhibition, which she called “an ode to a Hollywood-era movie house,” would inspire others to “engage with the older loved ones in their lives and capture their stories.”
The outdoor public art installation — created by Woolf, executive produced by Noam Dromi, and produced and built by Jon Layne of Party Layne Productions — is a collaboration between the arts and culture nonprofit Reboot and Holocaust Museum LA, with support from CANVAS, a Jewish Funders Network-powered arts and culture funding collaborative.
The work also is part of a national CANVAS project, “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues,” which makes new outdoor art possible at museum sites, with organizational support from the Council of American Jewish Museums.
The Judaic inspiration for the exhibition is the Sukkot tradition of inviting ushpizin — symbolic guests, often including biblical or family ancestors and friends — into the sukkah. The original mystical tradition included prominent male figures from Jewish history (including the patriarchs as well as Joseph and Moses) and more recently has expanded to include prominent women (the matriarchs, Deborah the prophetess, Esther and Ruth) as well as other inspiring figures.
Around the sukkah are posters for the three Silver Screen Studios projects, styled as throwbacks to classic movie posters. Seals on the ground mark proper social distance and invoke a traditional ushpizin guest. Visitors can view the exhibition through a plexiglass window. In one corner is a popcorn machine filled with lemons (a nod to Sukkot’s etrog), and a lulav is sitting in one solitary, classic-style movie seat to indicate the solitude of this time. Next to a cart with an old movie projector and a film reel case, a big-screen TV shows an endless loop of interviews, images and stories, pulled from the Silver Screen Studios catalogue — “Dispatches From Quarantine,” “Coming of Age” and “The Last Act” — as well as testimonies from Holocaust Museum LA’s Voice of History films. Even through the plexiglass, the 70-inch screen is visible and the audio can be heard from 400-500 feet away, “to give voice to the voiceless,” as Woolf put it.
“Our hope is that anyone who walks up learns something from it and leaves with an understanding of what we want to accomplish,” Woolf added.
“We can’t really go to movie theaters now,” Dromi told the Journal in a Zoom interview, “but we’re excited for people to come to our throwback movie theater in the middle of a park in West Hollywood, and we look forward to the day where these amazing films of amazing seniors can be seen the way we intended them — in a dark room full of strangers with popcorn and Red Vines.”
“Dispatches From Quarantine,” Silver Screen Studios’ pandemic pivot, includes a look inside the coronavirus-dictated quarantine lives of Larry King, Ellen Burstyn, Norman Lear and Tommy Chong. The series featured what turned out to be the last interview with comedy legend Carl Reiner.
Additional Sukkot exhibitions in the “Plagues” series are on display at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Portland and the Jewish History Museum in Tucson, Ariz. According to the CANVAS website, the exhibitions will tackle contemporary crises like the global pandemic, institutional racism and ageism, forced isolation, global warming, and the crisis for migrants and refugees, and will commission artist displays for Passover 2021.
“We are deeply moved by this Jewish creative response to real-world plagues of our time,” Lou Cove, CANVAS’ founder told the Journal in an email, noting that CANVAS supports “collaborations that strengthen the Jewish arts and culture ecosystem.” He added, “Together, ‘Dwelling in a Time of Plagues’ gives us all an opportunity to be greater than the sum of our parts. And isn’t that an essential part of what being Jewish is all about?”
“It is the responsibility of museum and arts organizations to redesign the Jewish future,” said Reboot CEO David Katznelson in a webinar introducing the exhibition. In considering “how to celebrate in a time when we can’t congregate and how we tell our stories,” he said, “it’s the artists who will help us do that — taking voices from the past and our traditions and figuring out how to bring them forward.”
“We’re still a culture that engages in ageism and puts people out to pasture,” said Dromi, who grew up in L.A. He added that Silver Screen Studios and its programs “are all about finding dynamic ways to give older adults their silver carpet moment.”
Jordanna Gessler, vice president of education and exhibits at Holocaust Museum LA, said that both the exhibition and the museum’s rebranding deliver their message “in a way that speaks directly to the audience of today and honors Holocaust survivors and their legacy.” She added that stories from Holocaust survivors are woven into the testimonies collected by Silver Screen Studios, “to represent a multipart narrative, famous people and not-famous people whose stories are important and represent the L.A. Jewish community.”
“The older adult population of L.A. is full of stars and we want to give them their moment in the spotlight,” Dromi said. “Let’s ensure we’re capturing their oral histories so that their stories do not fall victim to apathy or history.”
Woolf called the opportunity to present at the museum “a huge honor. [Whether it’s] survivor stories, or your own personal stories with your loved ones, people are realizing time is of the essence with capturing stories,” she said. “You have to look back to look forward.”
“The Ushpizin of the Silver Screen: Honoring the Visions & Voices of the Past” will be in the memorial garden in Pan Pacific Park through Oct. 9 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is free. All social distancing protocols will be observed. For more information, visit the Holocaust Museum LA’s website. To see the other works on display, visit the website.