Two really sweet exhibits at Yale made me think about my family and family photos and family connections. No, these shows aren’t at the Beineke or the Art Gallery or the art school. One is at the Hillel and the other at a center for emeriti faculty.
My friend Julie grew up in a Yale family, her father a professor, her mother a Dean. Now retired, her father still teaches the odd course here and there and engages with the Koerner Center, named for Henry Koerner, the artist, who after fleeing Europe and famously illustrating the Nuremberg Trials, taught in the Yale art department.
Now, Alan Trachtenberg has an exhibit of his black-and-white portrait photographs at the Koerner. Each tells a story, not just of the sitter, but instead the relationship with the photographer, and in his absence, with us as viewers. These are not easy conversations. Who is the stern woman? (Turns out, it’s his wife!) The quizzical young man? How has the photographer interrupted the couple, and does that explain why they look at us the way they do?
The exhibit at the Slivka Center, No One Remembers Alone, is surprisingly touching, telling the story of a love affair and the family that surrounds it. It’s a Jewish story, of Abraham and Sophie, who are separated when she immigrates first, to Brooklyn.
They really fall in love through postcards–even the poor could afford the one penny stamp. A portrait photograph was cheap enough, too. Like a great love letter, these cards were saved over the decades. Found in a suitcase and translated from Yiddish, the cards are displayed chronologically at Hillel on a round wheel-like display, where the back is visible, as well as the front.
While I loved that story, there were also the stories of their siblings. Chava makes the trip to the U.S. in the place of Gitel, her sister, who fell in love with a young teacher Velvei Schapoachnik. So much for going to the U.S.
So Chava travels under Gitel’s name, and the ship’s manifest is on display. But then, in the U.S., she’s an illegal immigrant. She was terrified of being deported, until she was finally able to naturalize as a citizen about thirty years later, in 1940.
Then there’s her brother Abram. In 1899, when he was 13, he walked 3 kilometers to the farm school funded by the Jewish Colonization Association. He wasn’t admitted because he was considered too weak and malnourished for the accompanying farm labor. But this didn’t stop Abram. He went again the next day and was turned away again. He went every day for a month, until his tenacity got him a place in school.
Abram was the only member of his family to be educated, and his career came as a result, cultivating flowers and plants.
And so the love of learning moved through his world, as it does mine. And I’m grateful to my family, who made similar choices as this family of strangers, who really don’t seem strange at all.