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Jewish diversity on exhibit at Temple Beth Am global fair

At a time when many Americans feel separated from others by race, religion or ethnic background, Temple Beth Am staged a one-day exhibit that reminded some people how connected they actually are.
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December 14, 2016

At a time when many Americans feel separated from others by race, religion or ethnic background, Temple Beth Am staged a one-day exhibit that reminded some people how connected they actually are. Drawing on the temple’s own diverse membership, the “Global Jewish Fair” held earlier this month was an exploration of diverse Jewish tastes, smells and sounds from around the world and across the years.

Lia Mandelbaum, Beth Am’s director of programming and engagement and a co-organizer of the event, said she saw the fair as challenging what she called “Ashkenormativity,” the mainstream belief that most Jews are white European descendants who like to “eat kugel.” The exhibit focused on the look and feel of Jewish ritual objects and family keepsakes from countries such as Iran, Poland and Ghana, as well as the United States — all to support the goal of “shedding light on the diversity that exists” within the Jewish community, Mandelbaum said.

“People were hesitant at first to give their ritual objects,” said Lisa Clumeck, co-organizer of the event and director of the synagogue’s religious school. “They weren’t certain what they would be used for, how it was going to be displayed and who was going to see and watch it,” she said. But “once Lia talked to them about it, they were more willing to allow us to use it.”

Among the 20 exhibits demonstrating diversity in the Jewish community were an ornately decorated silver flower vase, hand-made in Iran by a Jewish artist, and a multicolored, sewn challah cover, made by Jews from the House of Israel community in western Ghana.

The vase, shared by Dafna and Scott Taryle, has been in the Taryle family for four generations. It depicts a bearded character from the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus and several smaller figures. Scott Taryle said they represent the story of what happened after the king’s death, that the king’s doctors “are at the funeral,” and because their hands are shown open, they “could not have saved him.”

The Ghanaian challah cover with the Hebrew word “Shabbat” sewn into its center was shared by Tyson Roberts, who said it was a reminder of his visits to Sefwi Wiawso, a mountainous region of about 140,000 people, where several hundred of them practice Judaism.

Roberts said the challah cover recalls his experiences of sharing a Friday night dinner with a House of Israel family, attending Shabbat services Saturday morning, and later celebrating Havdalah “with fragrant flowers and Coca-Cola.”

Also on display was a Torah scroll more than 500 years old, one of the oldest in Los Angeles, according to the accompanying text. Originally from Spain, it found its way to the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, where Rabbi Harry Silverstein, one of Beth Am’s rabbi emeriti, had grown up, and where his father, Oshege Zilberstein, had been a rabbi. Given to the temple by Silverstein, the scroll was displayed in a case made of silver and wood known as a tik.

Other objects, decidedly of Ashkenazic origin, symbolized generational connections often found in Jewish homes.

On loan from Miriam Cantor was an image of the family menorah painted by her mother, alongside photos of Cantor family members with the menorah — a grouping that told the story of the menorah and family passing together through time.

Hanging in Cantor’s home, the painting also serves as a reminder of her mother’s artistic skills. “She wasn’t like the other moms,” she said.

A frayed hardbound book written in Hebrew, Polish and English, with the Hebrew title “Haggadah Shel Pesach,” also told a story of family continuity. According to its owner, Esther Silon, the book was given to her husband Adam’s great grandfather in Poland in 1932. With colorful illustrations of rabbis sitting in the biblical city of Bnei Brak and of the characters in “Had Gadya,” it was used at Passover seders by Adam’s grandfather for many years and passed on to later generations, still in use by Silon’s family.

“It’s a family treasure,” she said, turning the pages, which through seder stains reflected generations of use and served as a reminder of life in the Polish Jewish community before the Holocaust.

An oval, gold-framed family portrait from a century ago told another tale of determination. On loan from the temple receptionist, Sharon Webb, the black-and-white photo had an arrow-shaped Post-it Note, pointing to a little boy in the photo’s center and marked, “Sharon’s daddy.”

“It’s my father’s family,” said Webb, who keeps the photo on her dining room buffet. In 1906, her grandfather, Israel Rosen, had come to New York from Vishnivets, now a town in western Ukraine. After working and saving, he bought passage tickets so his wife and children could join him. Upon arrival, one of the children had ringworm, “and they were all sent back,” said Webb. After saving eight years for a second trip, they finally made it, landing in Philadelphia, where her father, David Rosen, was born in 1915.

“My dad died at 35 years of age,” said Webb. “Having the portrait makes me feel that they are with me.” 

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