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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director

Bucket List

June 15, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

Once upon a time, in a land far away (or at least “from away” — that would be New York), there lived a young girl (who shall remain nameless, but who is now Executive Director of a certain Jewish Museum in Maine) who hated museums. Museums were boring, the art had nothing to do with me, the hard marble floors hurt my feet, get me out of there. My parents, however, insisted on dragging me to a different museum every weekend. As in, “if it’s Sunday, it must be the Met.”

At first, I had to be bribed into compliance with the promise of lunch in the Name-Your-Museum cafeteria, where I could scarf down Jell-O with Cool Whip – a serious treat in those days — to my heart’s content. At a certain point, however, I went from mutinous to curious… and while I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started liking and then loving museums, I’m pretty sure it all started with a children’s book.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by Elaine Lobl Konigsburg – the daughter of German Jewish immigrants, by the way – details the adventures of twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid, who decides to run away from home with her brother Jamie because she thinks her parents do not appreciate her. The runaways take refuge in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hiding in the bathroom at closing time security check, bathing in the fountain, using “wishing coins” for money, and sleeping in renowned art collector Irwin Untermeyer’s antique bed. I read and reread the novel and reread it again, and becoming a fly on the wall of a museum after hours became a secret bucket list item for much of my adult life. What magical mysteries might I uncover in these vaunted pillars of high culture when the lights were out and the doors were locked?!

Fast forward to the present, and I have obviously checked that one off the bucket list! But if you’re a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler devotee still fantasizing about a Claudia Kincaid-like experience, we have a super cool new MJM program just for you on Wednesday, June 21, 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM: Coffee, Crullers, and Kibbitzing: Pre-Opening Drop-In and Social Hour at the Museum. At this informal hang-out, you’ll get to come to the Museum before it is officially open to the public, chill with Curator Nancy Davidson and me, and meet special guest Umaru Balde, Portland’s first-ever Director of Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Umaru has a fascinating back story. He grew up in Guinea-Bissau and earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Comparative Religions from Al-Azhar University in Egypt, after which the Egyptian government ordered him to leave the country due to his activism for student and immigrant rights. He escaped to Israel, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has an adoptive Israeli mother he calls “Ima” with whom he is still in regular contact, speaks fluent Hebrew (along with more than a dozen other languages), and has such warmth and love for Israel that he named his first child Israela. He is also a true mensch! You can read even more about Umaru here.

If there is any way you can make it to this event, please do so (and bring a friend or three!) to show your support for the Museum and for Umaru and his contributions to tikkun olam. Our hope is to make Coffee, Crullers, and Kibbitzing a monthly event, and a strong showing at the inaugural program would be just the shot of adrenaline we need to do so. And not for nothing, but there will be coffee from Coffee by Design and donuts from Eighty-8 Donuts – need I say more?!

While there is undeniably something decadent about wandering through a museum during off hours, we strive to keep things fresh and exciting during operating hours at MJM, too, by continually expanding the popular notion of what a museum can be. This summer, for example, we’re taking advantage of our magnificent Museum garden — one of only two public gardens in Portland’s East End — in our Summer in the Museum Garden series. Learn Mah Jongg, which from its origins in China in the 1800s to its revived popularity among Jewish-American women in the 1950s to its recent renaissance among younger Jews and non-Jews of all genders has always been a way to find community that spans generations and groups. Explore your roots, trunks, and branches as you connect with the Tree of Life – the literal translation of Etz Chaim, the historic synagogue in which MJM is housed — and the energy of nature in Tree of Life Tai Chi. Channel your inner RGB in The Notorious RGB Workout, which just happens to be taught by my baby sister, Melody Schoenfeld. Melody is 5-ft. flat like me and many swear she could be my twin… except she can rip telephone books in half and bend nails, both of which “party tricks” she has promised to perform for those who survive her workout routine. Be here for the book launch of Jews in the Garden, the heartfelt true story of two cousins’ quest for answers about what happened to family members who were hidden away in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Join us for one of these programs or (better yet) join us for every one of these programs, all while enjoying the beauty and serenity of the Museum garden (weather permitting).

And in case you’ve never seen a synagogue sanctuary turned into a fashion runway…  on August 10, we will be hosting Fashion, Food, and Fun(d)raiser: A Celebration of Our Diverse Community, featuring finger foods from around the world, entertainment by the Maine Squeeze Accordion Ensemble and Rwandan pop sensation Clarisse Karasira, and a runway show showcasing Maine Jewish, immigrant, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ fashion designers and models. There will also be a decadent dessert display and a live auction with drool-worthy items, including a 2-night/3-day stay at Migis Lodge on Sebago Lake, VIP Patriots tickets with Optum Field Lounge passes, Row AA seats at any Portland Symphony Orchestra performance on the 2023-2024 calendar, dinner at Central Provisions with Portland City Councilor Pious Ali, a weekend at a private Great Diamond Island oceanfront home, lots of collectible artwork, and more!.

Bottom line: whether you’re a Museum regular or “it’s been a minute,” you owe it to yourself to check out our robust schedule of programs and exhibits that break the mold during opening hours and beyond. I promise it’s even better than Jell-O with Cool Whip.