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Jewish Journal

Legends and lies

by Sam Hall Kaplan

December 13, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Kaplan and his mother. Photo courtesy of the Kaplan family

Kaplan and his mother. Photo courtesy of the Kaplan family

If the plans follow the promises of its sponsors, the site of the next preeminent national Jewish institution will be in the historic heart of Philadelphia.

There, steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, edging a revitalized Independence Mall, the proposed National Museum of American Jewish History is to begin construction early next year for its target completion date of July 4, 2010.

With a nod to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, the Jewish Museum's Gwen Goodman was in the Southland this fall raising funds for the $150 million project that seeks to tie Judaism to the American experience.

She was in particularly good spirits when I sat down with her and an associate one morning following the announcement that local philanthropist Eli Broad had just pledged $1 million, bringing the total raised so far to nearly $100 million. Listed as another major donor is Hollywood producer Sidney Kimmel.

"And I expect to get some more when I go over to Century City for lunch," Goodman added with confidence.

Thankfully, it was not money Goodman was seeking from me, but rather a favorable review of the design, by New York-based architect James Polshek.

As far as I could tell by the plans and renderings, the 100,000-square-foot, five-story building is a modest modern design, the most distinctive feature of which is a glass façade. Enhanced by a ceramic pattern, the public face of the structure exudes a white incandescence -- Polshek calls it a glass veil -- while still allowing people to look inside the structure.

I like the transparency, which emphasizes what goes on inside the building rather than making an iconic structural statement, as do so many ego-encrusted cultural projects these days.

And as if to emphasize the adage that it is the contents of the cup rather than the cup itself that is of paramount importance, the discussion with Goodman and aide Irv Hurwitz shifted from the exterior architecture to the proposed core exhibition.

The exhibition as planned, with all the latest toots, whistles and technology, will seek "to tell the dynamic story of Jews' migration and adaptation to America," which in turn will speak to the "trials and triumphs of all ethnic groups who now call America home," according to a museum fact sheet.

The theme, "It's Going To Be Your Story," resonated with me, for I had been recently trying to get my mother, who lives by herself in Queens, N.Y., to talk about the roots of our large, loving and loquacious family.

Though 104 years old, her memory is as sharp as ever, which not coincidently has made her the subject of a longevity study of 150 or so select seniors being conducted by the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Apparently she, and possibly her children -- myself included -- are blessed with something that has been labeled the "Ashkenazi gene" (a designated protein CETPVVW) that may aid mental function and extend life.

But my mother prefers not to recall the stories she had once regaled me with, now dismissing them as "bubbemeises," grandmother tales, that long ago crossed over the line from fact to fiction and back again.

This is too bad, for our family has a pickle barrel full of stories, as overflowing with garlic-flavored half-sours as the one I used to fish in outside the corner deli in Brooklyn where I lived 70 years ago. Is our story that much different from others, also watered-down like a bilik borsht we consumed during the Depression and flavored with what kishkes could be found?

Talk about the American Jewish experience! Back then, in our extended family, practicing religion was a luxury, something for a "melamed" (teacher of religion) to indulge in. As survivors of the shtetls of Europe and Brooklyn, we learned to eat first and ask questions later. Still, the questions persist.

Was my great-great paternal grandfather really a sergeant in the French Army, who when left behind as Napoleon retreated from Moscow, wandered to Ukraine, married a Jew and spent the rest of his life under the whip of the czar? My cousin Alan Cheuse, the NPR book critic, believes it, and so included the item in his book "Fall Out of Heaven" (Peregrine Smith, 1987), a loose biography of his father, my Uncle Fishel, who had been a captain in the Red air force during the 1930s.

Or is this a story my father made up to ingratiate himself when he lived in Paris in the 1920s, having gone to France as a coal miner after deserting from the Red Army? In his later years he spoke French better than English, and would not speak Russian, except when spitting on the floor at the mention of the Czar, Stalin or Hitler. Yiddish was reserved for my mother and his surviving siblings.

And what about the blood relatives who, after booking passage to America with their last penny at the turn of the 19th century, were instead dropped off at the dock in Cork, Ireland, and became known to us as the Brody branch, some eventually making it to America, some not? One of my sons, a poet who attended Trinity College in Dublin, has embraced this conceit, as has my Irish American wife.

Who on my mother's side were the ones left behind, to be driven down to the blue Danube by Hungarian fascists at the end of World War II, shot and thrown into the river that turned red with their blood; or who on my father's side was herded out of Kiev to by slaughtered at Baba Yar? Kiev also was where an uncle reportedly had been put to death in the purges of 1938 on orders of Stalin. Could it be we were linked somehow to Fanny Kaplan, who had shot Lenin?

We do know from my father that he was drafted into the Czar's army at 14 and fought in World War I, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Red-White civil war. He claimed to have deserted three times and been caught twice, once being dragged out of his house and lined up to be shot. Except the execution was stopped by a priest, allowing my father time to run back into the house, kiss grandmother goodbye and jump out the back window, at least so goes the story. "Thank God the window was facing west," he told me. The stories continue about how he walked from town to town, picking up odd jobs, eventually signing up as a coal miner in France. But instead of getting off the train as directed in the Saar, he bribed the conductor and stayed on until Paris. There, with the help of a small Jewish community, he became a tailor and supposedly solaced the countless French women widowed by the Great War. He talked fondly of this time when I taped him shortly before his death in 1980. My mother would not comment.

Was it Uncle Zalman, no longer fighting for the communists in the Ukraine but a bartender in South Philly, who wrote him to come to the "Goldene Medina," the golden land of America? Or was it on his own initiative he obtained a false passport, bribed a U.S. consulate official and instead of going to Philadelphia went to Brooklyn? There he became a peddler in the era of tough Jews, then an upholsterer and, finally, an interior decorator, furnishing the model apartments for developer Fred Trump -- yes, the father of the Donald.

So why is first cousin Alan a Cheuse, while I and most of my extended family are Kaplans? In his book, Alan writes that his father changed his name to Cheuse to throw off the KGB he thought was hunting him down after his plane crashed in the Sea of Japan and he deserted the Red air force, to later fly airmail for the Nationalist Chinese out of Shanghai. It is hard to make up these stories.

Or was it because Uncle Fishel hated his father, my paternal grandfather, for going to America after some pogrom or other and leaving behind the family, including himself and my father? While the brothers eventually made it to America, others did not, to die in World War II or to continue as what was described as the living dead in the ruins of Mother Russia. Bubbemeises?

"What is there to believe?" I ask my mother.

"You believe what you want to believe," she replies. "Some may be true, some not. What difference does make it now? You are who you are. Be happy. "

Call it Jewish history, or whatever, but when the museum opens, I hope someone endows a fact checker.



Sam Hall Kaplan, a former writer for The New York Times and former design critic for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of, among other books, "The Dream Deferred: People, Planning and Politics in Suburbia," and "L.A. Lost & Found."

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