Ilana Segal loves stories and the process of uncovering them, which is why she worked as a curator for many years, examining and unearthing the tales behind objects for New York’s Central Synagogue, the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary and North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Chicago.
“I love pulling out the stories of lives, people and places,” she said. “I’m driven by the rich stories that lay hidden in objects, and doing the right research to expand those stories.”
Switching her focus from objects to people, Segal founded Art of Memory last year, turning family stories into heirloom books, honoring the memories of individuals and their families, or as she puts it, “curating lives.” Like many projects that have arisen in recent years — from Steven Spielberg’s work to film testimony from Holocaust survivors to National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, which encourages people to share their life stories and record them at StoryBooth recording studios throughout the country — Segal’s projects stress the power of narrative. They are based on the idea that everyone has a story worth telling.
With her relatives aging, it occurred to Segal that their stories, like those of the menorahs, spice boxes, rimmonim (Torah adornments) and pointers she worked with, needed to be documented for posterity, and she began to collect them: the story of the great-grandmother who, under a mulberry tree in Safed, Israel, would read the Bible to illiterate women, and the grandmother who survived the Holocaust by sewing, which brought in extra food to save her family.
It was the smaller details of their lives she was most intent to preserve. “Though we might remember basic life stories, we lose the richness of the details, the anecdotes,” without a record, she said. She realized the details helped her “tell accessible stories about people, not just objects. Without taking a proactive role to preserve these stories, they won’t be there for future generations.”
In an age dominated by BlackBerries, Twitter and the Internet, Segal still believes that when it comes to safeguarding the past, the book is still king. And she has produced the books to mark yahrtzeits, milestone birthdays and the like. “People assume computers are the best medium for preservation, but I really believe the only medium ever-accessible and preserved intact is the book,” Segal said.
Segal doesn’t take her responsibility lightly. A project usually includes eight to 10 hours of in-depth interviews, stirring up memories that may have been lying dormant for years, even decades. If the subject is no longer alive, these memorial interviews take place with friends and family. She collects photos and other documents from the family to incorporate into the book — naturalization certificates, newspaper articles — whatever they may have to enhance the story. Then she sits down with interview transcripts and the additional sources to narrow her focus. Segal weaves the transcribed interview into a continuous narrative, and the family has a chance to review what she’s come up with before printing begins.
The final product is customized to the tastes of the recipient. The bookbinding is hand-sewn, and presented in a clam-shell case. While price is dependent on the scope of the project and customizations, Segal believes that the current economic climate contributes to the success of her work.
“The economy is helping people realize what is really important,” she said. “This is a meaningful and modest way to mark an occasion, one way in which people can think about milestones in a new way.”
A family milestone was just what inspired one of Segal’s first clients to commission an Art of Memory book. Judy Milstein’s mother, Eda Bess Novick, was approaching her 90th birthday when Milstein met Segal, then a curator for the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and the family was looking for a way to mark the momentous day. Segal mentioned the new venture, and Milstein hopped onboard.
“You’re kidding,” Milstein said, “can I be your first client?”
Milstein commissioned Segal to create a book for her mother and the extended family about her father, Rabbi William Novick, who died in 2007. Since his death, five great-grandchildren have been named for him, and Segal’s project means they will all have this resource for history, stories and questions they may have about their great-grandfather.
“My father was very unusual,” Milstein said. “We wanted the family to know what he’d done, the people he’d influenced.”
Milstein’s father was born in the Bronx in 1918 into a religious family that had emigrated from Grodno a few years before, which a reader learns in Rabbi Novick’s own words, taken from an interview he’d done with a family friend before he died. He talks about his mother’s commitment to Judaism, and how it brought him to a yeshiva in Jerusalem at age 16, returning to New York for college and how he and Eda Bess temporarily housed orphans of the Holocaust. He also tells of his work with the Jewish National Fund and the Weizmann Institute. Memories from Eda Bess, their children and grandchildren, as well as photographs of Rabbi Novick with his wife, with the Ponevitcher Rebbe and with David Ben Gurion are included. There are images of Eda Bess and William’s wedding invitation, a letter from Teddy Kollek, one from the City of Chicago announcing his induction into the Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in 2005, and a page from his eighth grade yearbook, where he was named “most ambitious,” “tallest,” and “boy who did most for his class.”
The project even illuminated information about her father’s past that Milstein didn’t know — that her father worked for the Haganah while he was a student in Israel. “She definitely gleaned things we did not know,” she said. “It was definitely worthwhile, no question.” After Eda Bess received her copy, the family ordered supplementary copies to hand out to the family.
Judaism is very much steeped in memory and history, Segal said. “It’s the concept of the seder, telling the stories and passing them on to children, remembering where you came from. It’s a way to recall what ancestors went through and learn from their lessons.”
Her latest project involves the life and times of an elderly Jewish woman named Clara Peller, who became a pop sensation in the ’80s when she appeared on a commercial for the Wendy’s hamburger chain and demanded, “Where’s the beef?”
“While I generally focus on heirloom books for private family use,” Segal says, “Peller’s family wants her story to be accessible to the general public as well, so I am helping them mass-publish it.”
Segal assures that you don’t have to be a rabbi who hobnobbed with Israel’s elite or a Clara Peller to be worthy of such a project. The average person on the street can have just as compelling a story. “In the mundane experience of everyday life is where their essence lies,” she said. “The man at the bodega can be just as riveting and full of life lessons as a presidential biographer.”
For information, visit www.artofmemorypress.com.