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Personal Touches

Two exhibits look at Jewish history with an artist's eye.



Holocaust museums from Dachau to Houston are somber places, haunting the viewer with images, words and film. But at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the subjective and symbolic is present as well. "Art permeates through the whole museum," says museum volunteer Bruce Greenblatt, referring to small pieces like stylized menorahs arranged throughout the exhibits. And with the opening of the new art gallery, impressions of the Holocaust that can't be found in photos will be on display as well.

Seventeen paintings by G. Roy Levin, donated to the museum after the artist's death in 2003, put familiar images through the filter of emotion. Black-and-white photographs are reproduced in paint on flimsy slats of wood, held together by wire. Slats arranged vertically resemble train tracks; horizontal slats present scenes as viewed through a jail cell, where the negative space between slats acts as bars.

Images of prisoners kneeling for execution or being selected for the concentration camps are grainy and indistinct, creating a sense of distance. Cracked slats and the spaces between refer to loss of memory, a caution from Levin. The piece that stands out is a painting of an empty bowl and spoon, painted on a solid piece of wood. The images are not from photos. They're substantial; even the long shadows have weight. It's immediate, and every viewer can identify.

"It's the way you had to eat," says Jay Ipsen, the museum's president and executive director. "You guarded it with your life. It was your lifeblood." For Ipsen, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, the museum is intensely personal. Its story is partly Ipsen's own, told through saved photographs and documents. On one wall is a photo of him as a child, standing in line with his mother, moments before a policeman pulled him and his mother out, saving them from execution.

So to create an experience as immediate and personal as possible was important to him. In addition to the story line, Ipsen designed the lighting system, which forces the visitor to enter dark chambers before illuminating scenes of squalor or torture. Ipsen wanted to convey the sense of uncertainty he felt when he and his family had to flee through the darkness to escape the camp. "I was never certain of where my next step would be," he says.

In a sense, then, the entire museum is history through the eyes of individuals. The art gallery is a natural extension of that. "Different people get moved by different things," he says. And art is an essential part of that. The museum plans to alternate artwork every six months or so. Upstairs, there's a gallery of artwork by children who have toured the museum, a growing catalog of responses by people with the clearest filters.

Jim Schuyler, executive director of the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, grew up in the culturally diverse Bronx. The popularity of Chinese food in his family meant keeping kosher was subject to interpretation. "If it was Chinese," he says, "the fact that it was pork made no difference."

Beth Ahabah's photography exhibition, "Bagels and Grits," reflects those essential compromises with magnolia flair. The exhibit is a part of "Shalom, Ya'll," a documentary of Jewish life in the South captured over the course of a decade by Bill Aron. Schuyler says it captures "the symbols bringing together their Southern life with their Jewish life."

Images of families, restaurants and small, dusty communities are inscribed here and there with Hebrew letters and dotted with cotton bolls. Vicki Reikes Fox assembled a text of quotes that flesh out a story that is from its first image a funny, strange and often sad portrayal of how cultures marry and evolve.

A single gravestone bears the Hebrew acronym for a Jewish blessing, engraved upside down and backward by a stonemason who'd never seen such a thing. Below an image of a shoe-store owner and his son, a caption describes a KKK march in which the store owner recognized the hooded men by their footwear. According to one of the captions, a plain ACE Hardware store was once a synagogue before the Jewish population dwindled through "assimilation, intermarriage, and outmigration."

Though this is Beth Ahabah's first exhibition that doesn't directly deal with Richmond, Schuyler says Richmond is a perfect setting for "Bagels and Grits" because of the city's own contradictions. Richmond was the sixth city in the United States to form a Jewish congregation, the orthodox Beth Shalome, in 1789. Beth Ahabah was established in 1841, and in 1898 the two congregations merged. One of Beth Ahabah's first leaders, Maximilian Michelbacher, wrote a letter to Robert E. Lee requesting leave for Jewish soldiers so they could observe the high holy days. And the Confederate soldiers buried in Richmond's Jewish cemetery are proof that the Star of David once stood alongside the Stars and Bars.

"There are a lot of stories," Schuyler says. "And 'Bagels and Grits' tells 20 stories." The tension of evolution, for better and worse, is what Schuyler hopes is captured in these images — a tension that changes families from the dinner table to the cemetery. S

The Virginia Holocaust Museum Art Gallery, 2000 E. Cary St., will exhibit the work of G. Roy Levin through Dec. 31, Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, 1109 West Franklin St., will show "Bagels and Grits" through Aug. 15. Suggested donation is $3 per person,

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