I wanted to convey the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day.
– Ezra Jack Keating, American author and illustrator
We had planned to celebrate my daughter’s belated 10th birthday “party” this past Saturday with a requested family horseback riding excursion. Due to safety issues over the muddy trails, however, we had to come up with alternative. My daughter, who was inviting a good friend of hers to join us, decided on the Yerba Buena Park and the carousel in San Francisco. David suggested that we include going to the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415.655.7800), since it’s located across the street from the Yerba Buena Center. My daughter was less enthused than my son. She announced in a much-too-early preteen tone of voice that she was “done” with museums – which is surprising coming from someone who loved museums and always brought a sketchbook to draw and take notes. We promptly added the Contemporary Jewish Museum to our itinerary.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum is a beautiful piece of architecture. There are only five exhibits in the spacious museum, but it’s the right number of exhibits and square footage to soak in the art and not get overwhelmed.
The Snowy Day
One of the current exhibits is “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” (ongoing through February 24th), which we thought the kids would enjoy. Who doesn’t have a copy of the classic urban story about a young African American boy delighting in the beauty and wonder of snow? I read it as a child and read it to my kids when they were young. “I wanted to convey the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day,” Keats had written of the genesis of the book, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. We were treated to original sketches, storyboards, and final illustrations of his many books, which allowed us to see the individual materials that made up his collages, the printed paper he cut out, the thickness of his paint strokes, and the different techniques he employed, including dipping paper into a mix of paint and other liquids to produce a marbled effect.
Of The Snowy Day, and also his other written works, he wrote that he was more concerned with “capturing a mood” than in developing the plot of his stories. Given that he admired haikus, you can see the influence. Especially in The Snowy Day, readers understand Peter’s deepest feelings and his world beyond the snow in the spare but evocative words Keats chose to give us.
Displays of letters provide us with a snapshot of the era. The Snowy Day was published in 1962, during the Civil Rights Movement. Many people thought Keats was African-American, and he noted that African-Americans especially were disappointed that he was not. Keats responded to a racist review of his book, which was displayed along with letters of support. Most poignant is a series of letters between Keats and a Japanese mother whom he had met during a book trip to Japan and whose son cherished an autographed copy of one of his books. She wrote to let him know how much her son loved that book – it was his most prized possession and he showed it proudly to all his friends and acquaintances. Keats’s most recently published book was the last book her son read before he was fatally injured in a traffic accident the following day. Keats’ letter to her was achingly heartfelt. He never wrote the book that was to memorialize her son, but his letters paid tribute and the exhibit includes a black-and-white photograph of him offering his respects at the boy’s grave.
I had no idea that Keats was such a prolific writer and illustrator, with more than 80 books to his credit, and author of 22 of those books. I found his Good is in the Mountain, which was published in 1966 and comprises excerpts of texts from different religions, spiritually nourishing. I have a new and deep appreciation for Keats’ artistry and life – born as Jacob Ezra Keats to poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1916. Bay Area locals should see this exhibit and his wonderful paintings and illustrations before it closes on February 24th. One hopes this exhibit travels to other cities. Keats and his work deserve a wider audience.
The Radical Camera and Black Sabbath exhibits
The other exhibits appealed to both David and me and the kids, which is a rarity to find a museum that appeals to all family members across all exhibits. “The Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations is in a big open room – conducive to dancing, in which my daughter and her friend indulged – with an antique piano and four tables equipped with iPads and headphones. You had a choice of listening to three African-American musical genres from the 1930s to the 1960s, which were influenced by Jewish music, life, and culture. In the playlist “Heebie Jeebies,” for example, you can catch the integration of Yiddish and Black jive during the swing era by such artists as Cab Calloway.
David, who shares an appreciation of black-and-white photography with me, loved “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.” The exhibit comprises the work of more than 50 Photo League members, who embraced an aesthetic that honored realism and the documentary, and married social activism and art. The photographs capture the harshness of the Depression, World War II, Jim Crow, and the Red Scare periods of our history. This exhibit celebrates historical documentation through the beauty of black-and-white photography.
Finally, I’m glad we ventured down one short wing of the museum on the first floor. At the end of a well-curated exhibit by contemporary Jewish architect Stanley Saitowitz is the StoryCorps StoryBooth. Amazingly and lucky for us locals, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is the first museum to host one of its recording booths. If you have listened to some of the recordings on National Public Radio (NPR), you are familiar with the largest oral history project in the country, capturing ordinary people’s lives and histories in their own words. A TV monitor played a loop of recordings that were translated into animated shorts. David and I wanted to keep watching, too, after shedding a few tears over some of the stories – particularly the one of the older couple from Brooklyn whose love remained strong throughout their many decades of marriage, even after his untimely death by cancer; the letters he wrote to her every day of their time together was replaced with the thousands of letters she received from NPR listeners when they heard about his passing, which she reads one a day. But we had to pull the kids away in order to see the rest of the museum. I brought home a postcard with information to reserve an interview time. Hopefully, the booth will still be there in the summer when my sister visits from San Antonio and we can record and preserve our parents’ immigrant lives.
We will certainly return to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. For locals, if you’ve never been, I highly recommend it. If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco, this should be on your list of destinations.