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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director


October 19, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

~ Warsan Shire, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” (2015)


Another flashbulb memory. Like the assassination of President Kennedy and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, we will always remember where we were and what we were doing when Hamas rampaged through Israel in its killing spree on Saturday, October 7, 2023.

I was in catering mode at the Maine Jewish Museum when I first heard the news. We were hosting a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet in our first-ever collaboration with Portland Ovations, and I had gone all out baking for the post-concert reception. While I was carefully placing molten chocolate mini-cakes on edible mint chocolate spoons and topping them with mint whipped cream, Ovations Executive Director Aimée Petrin approached me, her expression grim. “Shall we have a moment of silence before the performance?” she asked. Confused, I asked why – and when she said “because of what’s happening in Israel,” for a split second I thought she was referring to internal protests over Israeli judicial reforms. If only…

A moment of silence. An impromptu and emotional rendition of “Hatikvah,” followed by a musical performance the Portland Press Herald called “especially vivid with both peacefulness and passion.” Sweet handmade desserts juxtaposed against salty tears. And pain, unbearable pain. To be a Jew is to feel that every one of the dead and the missing is our brother, our sister, our child. This is fundamentally what it means to be part of a People. Not just a religion of fellow believers, but a mishpacha, a family, who stand as one.

In these soul-crushing, doom-scrolling days, we at the Maine Jewish Museum continue to hold fast to our mission of celebrating and honoring the contributions of Maine’s diverse Jewish community and, through exhibitions and programming, building bridges of appreciation and understanding between people of all backgrounds. Now more than ever, we remain committed to forging connections through outreach, to serving as a gathering space for all, and to leaning into our shared humanity. Compassion and empathy are not zero-sum commodities.

What more life-affirming and humanizing way to come together as a community than through song and prayer? We hope you will join us this Sunday, October 22 at 3:00 PM for A Song and a Prayer – Maine Cantors and Musicians in Concert. Co-sponsored by Documenting Maine Jewry and the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, this concert will bring acclaimed cantors from across the state — including Dr. Morton Gold, Rabbi Sruli Dresner, Dr. Sidney Block, and Beth Strassler, as well as the Adas Yoshuron Synagogue Choir – to perform at MJM for the very first time. The concert will also be the soft launch of our NEW interactive cantorial exhibition. The exhibition will pay tribute to Maine’s cantors through biographies and photographs, recordings and film. It will also connect synagogue songs of old to modern musicians (Barbara Streisand, Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard Cohen, to name a few) who have crossed genre lines, bringing liturgical music to a broader audience.

Poetry, too, is a collective experience, and on Thursday, October 26, 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM, you can join local poets Stuart Kestenbaum, Yael Grunseit, and Meghan Sterling for a poetry reading and book launch in celebration of Meghan’s newest poetry collection, Self-Portrait with Ghosts of the Diaspora. Braiding poems detailing Sterling’s life in modern-day America with poems of her great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ struggles navigating a new country, Self-Portrait with Ghosts of the Diaspora will resonate with anyone seeking to reconcile their roots with their current reality. Come lose yourself in the power of word and imagery and a shared connection to our immigrant past.

And then there is the universal language of art. Our upcoming art exhibitions show that, as difficult as it may be to remember just now, what unites us is stronger than what divides us. In The Okinawa Letters, A Rabbi on the Fringe, for example, artist Shira Singer uses stitched excerpts of letters from servicemen worried about their loved ones to her father, a U.S. Army chaplain in Okinawa from 1954-1955, to “call attention to the commonalities of human emotion, which often transcend place and time.” Vivien Russe’s Remembering June: My Time in the June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 1994-2005 honors the memory of June Fitzpatrick, a prominent member of the Maine arts community, with work characterized by Russe’s and Fitzpatrick’s shared interest in the social, environmental, and spiritual issues impacting us as a global society. And Yoav Horesh’s cutting-edge interactive photographic exhibition PerSlovak 2.0  will give visitors the opportunity, using spliced facial features from the photographer’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic family members, to create their own version, out of 9 million possibilities, of what it looks like to be Jewish. I encourage you to come to our Art Exhibition Opening on Thursday, November 2, 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM so you can meet the artists and mingle with art lovers and curious minds from across the demographic spectrum.

The week after our Art Exhibition Opening, we will take the Museum on the road, teaming up with the Maine Jewish Film Festival on a screening of The Art of Silence at the Gem Theater in Bethel on Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 PM. This masterfully crafted documentary film brings together archival footage, family conversations, and performance excerpts to tell the story of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, including his lesser-known role as a Holocaust hero who helped hundreds of French Jewish children escape to safety. After the film, our very own Board member Marcel Polak of Woodstock will share his family history of surviving the Holocaust in France, connecting Marceau’s remarkable story to Western Maine and underscoring that “Never Again” is now.

And in an inaugural collaboration between MJM and Mayo Street Arts , we will bring  Trio Sefardi , a Northern Virginia-based ensemble that performs traditional songs of the Sephardim, to Portland to perform two unique concerts. On Thursday, November 9, 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM, the Trio will be at Mayo Street singing songs in Judeo-Espanyol (commonly known as Ladino) that have been passed through the generations, as well as newer songs composed by Bosnian-born singer, composer, and National Heritage fellow Flory Jagoda that celebrate the memory of now-lost communities of the Balkans. And on Saturday, November 11, 7:00 PM – 8:15 PM, the Trio will perform “La Nona Kanta,” a multimedia program featuring documentary footage of Flory — who escaped the Nazis in 1941 and spent her life in the U.S. helping to preserve her musical heritage — interspersed with a live performance, archival photos, animation, and translations of Flory’s songs, which were composed in Ladino and Serbo-Croation.

MJM will also be partnering with Trio Sefardi and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine on an educational initiative to teach diverse Maine high school students about the far-reaching personal impact of the Nazi influence before and during WWII through Flory’s story of survival, immigration, and resilience. Last year saw the highest rate on record of antisemitic incidents in the USA, and the Israeli-Hamas conflict has already led to an even greater spike in antisemitism. Youth outreach and education is our best antidote to hatred and violence and our best hope of creating a kinder, more compassionate, and peaceful world in the generations to come.

In my multifaceted career trajectory, I have created, worked with, and even taught classes on organizational mission statements. It has only been over the past twelve days, however, that I finally understood – really understood, down to the marrow of my bones – their significance. When our world is torn apart and our hearts are broken and we feel lost and helpless, a thoughtful mission gives us the institutional framework we need to move forward and keep sight of the North Star on the distant horizon.

Do not be haunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

~ Pirkei Avot 2: 16

B’virkat Shalom,