A Family Of ‘Mayflower Wannabes’

In ‘Kinderhood Revisited,’ Elaine Reichek explores American Jewish assimilation.

09/03/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
A sampler of the past: Sayings of Elaine Reichek’s family illustrate her exhibit at The Jewish Museum.
A sampler of the past: Sayings of Elaine Reichek’s family illustrate her exhibit at The Jewish Museum.

When Susan Goodman, a Jewish Museum curator, paid a visit to Elaine Reichek’s studio in 1992 and asked, “Done anything Jewish?” Reichek filed the question away.

The conceptual artist works mostly with thread and had been focusing on the identity issues of American Indians, Tierra del Fuegians and the Irish.

Reichek, who grew up in a large Dutch colonial house in Brooklyn in the 1950s, went on to create an installation called “A Postcolonial Kinderhood” in 1994.

The exhibit consisted of a bed, a rocking chair, a lamp, two small tables and handmade samplers. What could be so controversial about that? Why did a nun feel the need to send a postcard to the museum saying, “You are a disgrace to the Jews & obviously suffering from a self-hatred complex?” Incidentally, this is Reichek’s favorite response.

Indeed, “Kinderhood,” which was neither essentialist nor nostalgic, generated a fair amount of debate on the topic of assimilation and postwar American Jewish identity. After its run in New York, it traveled to San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio. Portions of it were again exhibited by The Jewish Museum in “Too Jewish” in 1996, curated by Norman Kleeblatt.

Now, it’s back as “Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited” with a distinct awareness of its past. Two bulletin boards towards the entrance of this wry exhibit are pinned with both positive and negative letters and articles written in response to the 1994 show.

Reichek, now 70, also hung additional source materials and photos including two hand-written notes from her former teacher, the artist Ad Reinhardt. “Yale, Shmayle,” he wrote in one. “Remember Brooklyn is your backside, your support, always behind you, thick and thin, don’t put it too past.” 

“Kinderhood,” a sort-of recreation of Reichek’s childhood bedroom, is constructed in such a way as to instill a sense of unease.

It opens with a film screened through a porthole — amateurish footage of her in-laws’ honeymoon cruise from 1934. Through it, “You leave New York and then you enter New York,” Reichek commented in a recent interview. She edited the film and set it to instrumental recordings of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which can be heard faintly throughout the exhibit.

The room’s lighting is dim, and the samplers are hung lower on the walls than standard artworks, forcing a slight crook of the neck. Some are dotted with Jewish stars and all contain quotations from Reichek’s family and friends on the sometimes-uncomfortable situation of assimilated Jews in American society. To collect these quotations, Reichek acted as an anthropologist of her own family, her own culture, carefully compiling her relatives’ responses. Their words are often funny and sometimes a bit painful, and always thought provoking.

Reichek’s mother’s admonition, “Don’t be too Jewish. Don’t be loud. Don’t be pushy. Don’t talk with your hands,” was embroidered on top of a traditional printed sampler pattern whose packaging Reichek includes on the bulletin board to show the work’s origins.

“The fact that it’s American, New England, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from the Strawberry Guild is important because it’s these girls’ [history], not my own,” said the artist. “God knows what [the girls of my family] were doing in Russia. They were not making these samplers.”

The black-and-white photographs placed around a small nightstand depict a family fully committed to becoming American. The nightstand, as well as all of the exhibit’s furniture, is from Ethan Allen’s 1776 collection, and has been slightly altered in size to convey a sense of disquiet.

The Yale insignia rocking chair, in a diminutive child’s size, sits beneath a lamp emblazoned with an image of Reichek’s paternal grandfather, a Talmud scholar, who helped students prepare for the rabbinic exam. “It’s Grandpa shedding light,” noted Reichek. “Or you can think of it, given his generation, that he never would have made it out of the camps. So you can see it in either way. But there’s certainly a spiritual emphasis to overlooking this assimilation. There he is in the beard and the yarmulke presiding over this little Yale rocking chair.” 

A washstand contains a Colonial-era pitcher and bowl, faux antique linens monogrammed JEW and exhaustive amounts of white Ivory soap suggesting a desire to “wash the stain (of being Jewish) off. When you go to dry your hands, it’s still there,” said Reichek.

Reichek has described her family as “a bunch of Mayflower wannabes.” Reichek’s father was in the furniture business, and she portrays her parents’ interest in interiors as a way of “passing,” of accessing a WASP-y past that wasn’t their own. Though both of her parents were Jewish, the family holidays were Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Fourth of July. Reichek laughed heartily when a reporter asked if there was any Judaica in the home and talked about her brother’s “sham” bar mitzvah.

She married a man even more assimilated. His family, which she describes as “Mayflower Jews,” nonetheless faced quotas. His parents belonged to the Harmonie Club, a social club founded by Jews who were excluded from other city clubs, and lived in the only Park Avenue building that accepted Jews. Her mother-in-law went to Smith College when there was just one other Jewish student, her roommate. Reichek’s brother-in-law’s experience with anti-Semitism at Yale is recounted in a sampler.

In the larger context of Reichek’s artwork, “Kinderhood” stands out for its personal nature. In her other works, which are mainly embroideries, Reichek has largely explored topics in literature and art history as well as the identity issues of others. Nowhere else does she include her own words or her own likeness.

Reichek sees “Kinderhood” as more than just a commentary on the tension in her upbringing. It’s an invitation to discuss wider issues of assimilation and immigration and consider how society’s feelings may or may not have changed in the past 20 years.

“Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited” runs through Oct. 20 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave, www.thejewishmuseum.org.
 

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