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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director

Blue Scarf

August 17, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

It’s no secret that I love fashion. And I am nothing if not particular about what I wear. In fact, my earliest memory is of me at age 2 1/2, kicking and screaming and throwing a full-blown temper tantrum because my parents, who were taking me to a family function, wanted me to wear the PINK ROMPER, but I wanted to wear the RED POLKA DOT DRESS! What can I say – even as a toddler, I liked what I liked! So, it may come as a surprise that the most cherished item in my closet is not a couture gown or a pair of designer heels or a vintage purse, but rather an ordinary navy-blue woolen scarf. And yup, there’s a story to be told here, and it goes like this:

Longer ago than I care to admit, when I was studying abroad in Japan, I made February plans to visit a friend in the far north of China for Chinese New Year. After flying from Tokyo to Beijing, I attempted to purchase train tickets (then the only means of transportation to my friend’s hometown), only to belatedly learn that traveling during Chinese New Year in China is akin to traveling during Thanksgiving in the USA – i.e., everything books months in advance. My only option was going steerage. As in, standing for 20 hours straight in an unheated train car in Arctic temperatures. And as much as I thought that, as a hearty New Englander, I knew what cold was… there is cold, and then there is cold! While shivering uncontrollably despite my Gortex winter coat and gloves, on top of suffering agonizing leg cramps by the first hour in, I tried to distract myself by practicing my Mandarin on a fellow passenger lucky enough to have secured a seat, a young man who went by the name Xiaobing (meaning “little soldier”).

Xiaobing had never met an American and was beyond excited that I could communicate with him in his native language. He insisted that I take his seat. And also insisted that I wear his coat over mine. And wrapped his navy-blue woolen scarf around my neck. My protests fell on deaf ears; Xiaobing was adamant that I sit, not stand, and stay as warm as possible.

We talked and talked and talked some more. Xiaobing told me about his family, who lived in a remote village about 10 miles from the nearest train station by donkey cart and had sacrificed everything so he could get a good education. He was proud to be the first in his family to leave his village and attend university in Beijing. I told him about my great-grandparents fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and coming to the United States with no English, no money, and no connections, and how two generations later, my parents were both physicians. Xiaobing was fascinated by my Jewish background (I was the first Jewish person he had ever encountered, but like many Chinese I knew at the time, he was convinced that “all Jews are extremely intelligent”), and I got him to reveal his secret recipe for the best jiaozi (dumplings). I kept offering to give him back his seat, his coat, and his scarf, and he kept refusing.

Eighteen hours later, I had fallen asleep (likely in the middle of a sentence), and when I awoke to hear my destination called out by the conductor, Xiaobing was gone. He had gotten off a few stops earlier and left me a note saying what a thrill it had been for him to talk to someone from the United States and learn about Judaism, and he wished me a happy New Year. He never woke me to take back his coat and scarf, meaning he had walked off that train, 10 miles from his home by donkey cart, in sub-zero weather without any outerwear.

Somewhere in my travels, I lamentably misplaced Xiaobing’s coat, but I still have the navy-blue woolen scarf, a tangible symbol of kindness and cross-cultural connection, a simple yet profound testament to our fundamental shared humanity.

Which brings me to our inaugural Fashion, Food, and Fun(d)raiser: A Celebration of Our Diverse Community one week ago today, where thirty-one Maine Jewish, immigrant, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ models  told the story of our diverse community to over 200 attendees through rabbinical garb and drag, through traditional Chinese and traditional West African dress, through knitwear and jewelry and headdresses. And in doing so, they – like Xiaobing – gave us a glimpse into what is possible when we break down the walls that divide us. This fashion show was about so much more than “just” fashion, as you can see for yourself with this video excerpt.

Going forward, the Maine Jewish Museum will continue to use its Jewish immigrant core as a springboard to realize its mission of building bridges of appreciation and understanding between people of all backgrounds through exhibits and programs.  And because it takes a shtetl to create events of this magnitude, we will continue to capitalize on community partnerships to achieve our goals — Maine has an outsized creative community, and when small nonprofits collaborate instead of competing, we have an outsized impact.

In this spirit, please join us on Saturday, September 9 for a Havdalah Happy Hour and Xylophone Concert at MJM (with pierogies from Bogusha’s Restaurant and Deli and knishes from BenReuben’s Knishery ), co-sponsored by Etz Chaim Synagogue, the Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, and Mayo Street Arts. If you’re scratching your head at the notion of a xylophone concert, I promise your mind will be blown by xylophone virtuoso Roman Lankios, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who will be performing in Maine for the first time ever at this event. Check out his recordings here and here and here! And on Saturday, October 7, we will be combining forces with Portland Ovations to host a singular performance by the Jerusalem Quartet, of whom the New York Times proclaimed, “Passion, precision, warmth, a gold blend: these are the trademarks of this excellent Israeli string quartet.”

Your support for our ambitious endeavors is everything to us, and we look forward to welcoming you to MJM often into the future. In the meantime, let’s keep working together to repair a fractured and divided society, one person and one outfit at a time.