I was pleased to take part recently in my first interview (which
I quickly became enthusiastic about), as it was to be featured
on a blog that had to do with how one "lovingly brings artistic
workmanship and quality to the study of family history". I take
pride in the fact that I have been able to use my ample
imagination and artistic workmanship in the creation of my
virtual museum. So I thought of responding affirmatively -- with
no hesitation -- to the suggestion of Sarah Ashley, for an
interview for her blog. Sarah sent me written questions, and I
tried to thoughtfully answer them as best I could.
You can read the interview in its entirety below. Since you probably are a subscriber to my blog [no longer active] and have an interest in the Museum of Family History, you might like to read the history of how the Museum came into being, as well as some of my own personal history, motivations, ideas and hopefully inspirational speech about how important it is to honor and preserve not only our own family history, but history in general -- as I've done with own museum, Jewish history. So here goes. Your comments are always welcome! There were eight questions posed by Sarah, which, as I said, I responded to in written form:
Sarah: My mission is to explore and promote the intersection between family history and artistic expression. I feel truly fortunate to have discovered the Museum of Family History which is such a wonderfully creative and dynamic way to honor Jewish families. Can you tell my readers what inspired you to create the site, and how you got started?
Steve: There were many sources of inspiration that led me to create my virtual museum. It was a part of an evolutionary process, a step in my own “journey of self-discovery” – so to speak – as I sought to find further meaning in my life. Although I chose to become an optometrist as my life’s work more than thirty years ago, I think there was always this latent desire for creativity, language, for learning about Jewish history and culture that I had suppressed for a number of years in order to become an optometrist. I had done little with it until later in my life.
The road that led me to the creation of a museum of Jewish
history began when I left my job as an optometrist in Southern
California, choosing to go on my first trip abroad before
returning home to New York. I backpacked through Europe in
the early eighties and visited ten countries in ten weeks with a
RailPass and a backpack. Since
then my “wanderlust” has taken me to more than forty countries,
and I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of the wonderful art museums of
the world. I’ve seen history (and art) in all its glory, and
French, Spanish and art for brief periods of time in Paris
and Mexico. I saw so many layers of history that I had only read
about before. It was
amazing. My imagination was stimulated. Eventually I became an
amateur pastel portraitist back in New York, which further awoke
my “creative juices”. So this really was the early
“underpinning” to all that I have done to this point, which
ultimately led me to that desire to build a virtual museum.
I was also inspired by my love of family and close relatives, as well the fondness I had for the positive memories of my youth. I also wanted very much to keep Jewish history and culture alive, which I feel is so important, as I have seen over the years how the appreciation of Jewish history and culture has so diminished, at least in my opinion. To me, the past should not simply be relegated to the past, to the history books. It is an essentially part of the mosaic that tells us and the world who we are as a people. I want to do what I can to inspire others, so they would think more about their own family history and talk about their own family history with their children, grandchildren et al, and in this way they would be honoring and preserving the memory of their own family for the present and hopefully future generations.
Earlier you asked how I got started with all of this. As I recall, in November 2002 I was sitting in the den of the family home watching television, when I happened to glance off to my left, and I noticed that under my mother’s collection of old LPs within her lamp table, there was one of those envelopes they give you at a drug store when you pick up your developed photos and negatives. Inside this envelope was a stack of old family photographs – black and white photographs of my mother, grandparents, my uncles and my aunts. These photos were yellowing a bit and were curled up as photos are prone to do when they were taken more than sixty years earlier. I asked my mother why they weren't included in any of her other family albums, and of course she couldn't tell me. It instantly occurred to me how precious these photos were to me, and that I didn’t want them to get lost or otherwise discarded. Imagine finding such old photos of your dear family that you’ve never seen before after many decades – I felt like a kid in a candy store. So I then decided to put these curled-up photos into a photo album, while at the same time fully reorganizing our entire family photo collection.
Not long after this revelation I had this idea to create family newsletters, or "journals", to be published as hard copy on paper, about sixteen to twenty-four pages long (double-sided), one version for each side of my family, and then I would send them out on a quarterly basis (in a clear report cover and slide-lock) for about a year-and-a-half. This wasn’t one of your “typical” family journals because they contained family photographs, interviews with family members, historical articles (that I wrote), and even a master calendar (with family birthdays) and a Yahrzeit list (just so folks wouldn’t forget).
This idea of creating a family journal was a great one (in my mind) for a number of reasons. In the course of conducting my research I got to meet many of my relatives -- cousins whom I had never met before, whom I never would have met if it wasn't for this project), as well as to visit my dear cousins whom I hadn't seen since I was a bar-mitzvah so many decades before. It’s funny if not sad how often we see relatives when we are younger, but with time and distance the chances of further meetings become less frequent. We most often see them only at weddings, bar mitzvahs or funerals.
It’s strange how these things work out, isn’t it? As I met with everyone, I made sure I interviewed them (digital recorder in hand), and with this I began to gather information about my own family tree – and I heard stories about a number of my family members that I never would have heard otherwise. Then I transcribed some of them onto paper, for posterity and possible further use at a later date.
Somewhere within that year-and-a-half of publishing my family journal (I called “Family Circles”), I decided that it would be wonderful if I could switch from paper journals to a website – it would be easier I thought, once I learned the “ins-and-outs” of how to create such a website, which I had never done before. My first intent was to fill the website with information about my family, ancestors et al, but due to a few expressed "privacy" concerns, I chose to include only a small amount about my own family and relatives -- mostly information about those who were already deceased. Then I continued on with my research about Jewish history in a general way, and I thought of many ways that I could present my new website, who my audience would ultimately be, what kind of online exhibitions people would like to see on my site, etc.
Eventually – at the Las Vegas IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies) in the summer of 2005 I made my presence felt – I would constantly pull many of the conference attendees off to the side as they were heading down the hallways, hopping left and right between lectures, and I would show them what I had accomplished to date. I hoped that they would support me in my efforts, would visit my website and send me material that I could use on my site. After the conference, I began, little by little, to make it known that I was looking for folks to send me copies of old family photographs, stories, etc. To date I've had many hundreds of folks contribute material, which I'm grateful for. Then I decided that I wanted to make the museum an interactive and multimedia one, so I learned how to work with and edit audio and video clips. And the rest is history (no pun intended).
One of the purposes of my Museum is to encourage folks to become active participants in the preservation of their own family’s history. I feel that the more people who knew about my site and who made a thorough “visit” to my Museum, more would hopefully get as excited as I am about the possibility of preserving their own family history, would feel that excitement that I do and chose to get involved in some way. Honoring and preserving the memory of one’s loved ones is a beautiful and blessed undertaking, and I feel that it is well worth one’s time pursuing. Imagine all the people who never had a chance to continue their own blood line, let alone work to preserve their own family history. This is our chance to leave a precious legacy … So there you have it in a nutshell.
You’ve asked how I knew that I could do all this? As I’ve told you, I like being creative – so that wasn’t the question. I didn't know, however, that I could create such a big and fancy website (which I learned "on the fly", without any previous training) until I did it, but I felt that I could at least create a "journal". You see, I was the editor of my optometry school newspaper for more than a year. Before my editorship the school “newspaper” was just two sides of one mimeographed sheet of paper. When I left the editorship a year later, it won an award, was self-sustaining (with paid advertising that I had begun to secure during my “reign” as editor), and on average it contained about sixteen pages of photos and articles, interviews, a master calendar, etc. So I knew I could do that at least, so hopefully by extension I could create a family journal, and then eventually a website, an even greater challenge that I hoped I would succeed in. It was and still is my wish that all the work and sacrifice I would put into all of this work would be appreciated by all who took the time to read my journals and/or “visit” my Museum.
Sarah: With so much to offer, you've aptly described a visit to the Museum as a "personal journey". What are you hoping people experience and take away from that journey?
Steve: History is fascinating, isn’t it? When I was growing up and attending public school, much of the study of history was through rote learning – memorizing dates and names and events, taking a test, then moving on to the next subject. There was American History; there was World History. We didn't study history holistically or longitudinally, nor did we necessarily associate what was going on in the world with what our ancestors had gone through during a particular time or historical era. What made matters worse is that our parents – especially our immigrant grandparents -- didn’t want to talk about their early lives or experiences, perhaps because of the pain of the Holocaust, or simply the pain from being dislocated from the family that they once lived with and loved. History wasn’t personal when I studied it in school. We really didn't study Jewish history -- yes, in Hebrew school a bit, but if I recall correctly it was mostly a study of Biblical stories -- certainly not about the Holocaust, or Jewish life in Europe, immigration, Jewish life in America, etc. There was a wide dichotomy between secular learning and Jewish learning.
I’ve digressed from your question. I always suggest to people that the best way to learn about their own family's journey over time is to learn about world history, and the best way to learn about world history is to learn about their own family and their life experiences during that time. I believe that when one of my Museum "visitors" reads someone's personal story or hears an audio clip of a story being told, or reads an article about a time in which their ancestors lived, they'll hopefully ask themselves, "Could my family members have experienced something like this?", or "Where was my family during this time?", or "How could world events have affected my own ancestors, personally and otherwise"? It certainly doesn’t have to be a story about one’s own family; we can also empathize. There really are so many questions that we could ask ourselves, aren't there? I wish folks would want to learn more about their parents, grandparents et al, and to make connections with different times in the past so they could meld that knowledge with what they know in the present to form a sort of nexus of knowledge from one generation to the next.
I have a similar theory of relativity as Einstein (though I am no Einstein!) To me, all time exists on the same plane, at least figuratively. Have you ever sensed a familiar smell, heard a particular sound, or returned to a certain place that evoked such strong imagery in your mind that you "almost" felt that you were "back there" again? Personally I have found that the more I learn about the past, both in general and about my own family, the more vivid the past seems to be to me, and it seems that the temporal distance between then and now seems shorter. I feel in a sense that I am back in the past once again (figuratively speaking and employing my active imagination, of course). After all, if the present is only a moment, everything else is the past, and the future is what's to come and hasn’t happened yet.
Another theory I have is one that I personally did not come up with, i.e. that people die twice: once when they physically pass away from this world, the other when they are no longer talked about. So the Museum of Family History gives folks the opportunity to keep the memory of their family members alive, to talk in some way to other family members about them, and in this way at least they can honor their memory. Not only that, but with what material that I put online within my Museum can help them honor and preserve their own family memories, and folks can share it with others throughout the world, for free, 24/7.
As to why a virtual (Internet-only) museum, there are a number of advantages. Firstly, unlike a physical museum, it can be open all the time, so the limitations of such a space is not a problem. One exhibition does not have to be removed at a specific time, taken down to make room for the next. You also needn’t be in a specific geographical location to pay the museum a visit. You can visit my museum at your convenience, from the confines of your home. Also, importantly, such virtual museums are different from a “brick and mortar” museum, in that most of us cannot honor our family by hanging a family photo on an actual museum wall, or by making a sound clip available of a family member for all who visit a museum to hear. At the Museum of Family History, most everyone can participate. Museums most often represent the best a culture or society has to offer, so aren't our families the best?
I hope that my Museum stimulates imaginations and allows my Museum "visitors" to travel back in their own past through their own personal journey, to become unceasingly inquisitive, with a constant thirst to learn more and to keep asking questions …
Sarah: Wandering through the museum, it is easy to get caught up in the many personal stories of struggle and triumphs brought to life with moving words and evocative sights and sounds. At the risk of asking a question as impossible as picking a favorite child, is there any one story or "exhibit" that particularly moves you or that especially captures the "spirit" of the museum?
Steve: You’re right, that’s a tough one. I suppose my favorite stories are the ones that deal with the history of my own family, e.g. the story I wrote about my life growing up and the memories I have of my parents and maternal grandparents in the fifties and sixties. I think it is our own personal stories that most often are of greatest interest to ourselves and affect us the most. The story I have mentioned, that I wrote for my Museum of Family History is, at its essence, a loving tribute to my parents and grandparents as I remember them. It is a rare attempt on my part to express on paper -- with what eloquence I could muster -- some of my fondest memories of my youth. You can find this part of my “memoir” at http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/lia-memories-slasky-01.htm, if you’re interested.
How wonderful it is to be able to eloquently express one’s unconditional love! If I can stimulate others to do the same, it would be very rewarding to me and hopefully to them too. So, yes, my grandparents are gone more than forty years now (and my father nearly thirty), but I have not forget them, and they are still talked about, at least by me.
Sarah: In addition to your ambitious work on behalf of Jewish history, do you also research and document your own personal family history? So many of my readers are family historians with a passion for genealogical research. I'm sure they would love hearing about your own quest (such as a particularly gratifying breakthrough or discovery or something else learned along the way).
Steve: Alas, I haven't done much research in the last few years about my own family. I have done some, but there are a number of missing links between the branches of my family tree, and since there are seemingly no records to clarify these connections and no one left to help me link one family member to another, solving this dilemma of my family tree is quite difficult. I’ve really dedicated most of my efforts to helping other people honor their own ancestors. Though I don’t do research for others, if I have data that might help them in some way solve their own mysteries, I send it to them pretty quickly.
Saying this, I must admit to you that I have mixed feelings about genealogy per se. Too many people (at least many of those I have met and communicated with over the years) strive to collect names and dates of relatives, but even though the possibility or opportunity exists, they don't even interview their own living ancestors, nor do they feel that it's important to record their own personal story in either a spoken or written testimony. Of course, there are many who strive to learn more than names and dates, but my frustrations are not with them.
As to one of my "quests" or "discoveries" that is especially gratifying, it was the amount that I learned about my paternal grandparents, who passed away in Brooklyn before I was born. My paternal grandmother, Chaika (Ida), was really the breadwinner in her family – there were six children, four boys and two girls. Chaika did most of the work between her and her husband Michal (who davened most of the day). She was the bread winner, so to speak. They had a small tailoring shop on Prospect Place in Brooklyn for a time, and Michal did a little tailoring, or so I was told. I also discovered that it was his job to cook herring and potatoes for the family for Friday night dinners. Another cousin whom I had never met before told me that she remembers that he used to like to collect matchbooks. I was told that their marriage was probably an arranged one, he being about fifteen years her senior. They had a baby girl in Poland, he came to the U. S. through Ellis Island – I guess to pave the way for Chaika and their daughter to arrive at a later date – and so two years later in 1902 or so, they came to the U.S. the same way.
Ida, seems often to have been a “contradiction”, so to speak. For a period of time, she used to participate in "estate sales". At times she’d been standing on a table, my father still in her womb, conducting these sales. Years before this, she used to make money with "I Carry Clothes", where she used to go around New York City selling clothes that she carried on her back. As I’ve said, she and my grandfather Michal had six children -- my father was the youngest of six children, and he was fifteen years junior to his oldest sister.
The Internet can be a wondrous means for discovering information and can provide insights otherwise unobtainable. For example, a couple of years ago, on a lark, I decided to search some old newspaper databases (the “Fulton History” website) under my grandmother's name "Ida Lasky". Lo and behold, I found an article about her in an April 1929 edition of the Utica (N. Y.) Daily Press newspaper. Utica yet! The article stated that she had a spot in a building on Elizabeth Street ("a block from the Bowery in the fringe of Chinatown") where there was a clothes exchange. The article sets the scene in part, "Within a dingy room, dealers sit along a wide bench. The collectors stream in with armfuls of worn garments for which they have bargained dearly at apartment doors from Coney Island to the Bronx ..." (One of those people these collectors sold to was my grandmother, and she in turn would sell these used clothes, etc., to others.) The upper floors of this building were sublet to dealers who use them as sorting rooms ...”
Under a subheading, "Prosperous Queen Ida", the article further states: "One woman, Ida Lasky, known to her intimates as 'Hiker' [sp] and to her colleagues as 'the Queen' is among New York's 2,000 collectors of old clothes ... and that when she goes out on Sunday in her mink coat, and her fine sedan, her six children -- three of them married -- are mighty proud of her ..." Finally, the passage ends with this: "I bet you she's got $500 in that stocking plant(?) now," exclaimed Max (who owned a concession there), as she paused besides us. 'Ha,' she retorted, dodging away with a laugh and lifting her skirt high enough to display a wad of bills nestled against her kneecap. 'Five hundred and eighty dollars'.”
So this is precious, isn’t it?? She was quite a character. Here’s more … Chaika didn’t go to my father’s wedding because one of my uncles (by marriage), whom she was mad at, was going to attend the wedding so she refused to go, even though Michal did. Also my aunt (one of my father’s sisters) told the story that Chaika would go into bars, see a “bum”, go over to him and ask him, “Why are you a bum?” She’d buy him dinner and a suit and tell him or help him to get a job. “She was very charitable that way”. So as I’ve said, a “contradiction” …
So there you have it. I never met my paternal grandparents, and look how much I found out by interviewing cousins, researching online newspaper archives, etc. The only thing I remember my father ever saying about my grandmother Chaika was that she slapped him across his head every time they walked together down a flight of stairs from their Brooklyn apartment. Imagine knowing that little about one’s grandmother for most of your life, then learning all these anecdotes so much later in my life! I suppose this goes to prove that you never know where you might find information about a family member. One just has to try researching as many possible sources of information as possible and hope for the best. Never assume that a relative knows nothing about your family history. A little luck is also a good thing ... I did know my maternal grandparents, and I was blessed enough to have known them for the first thirteen years of my life, before they passed away about a year apart from each other. They were totally different than my paternal grandparents, but they are another story …
Sarah: In your introduction to the museum you start with a wonderful quote by Dale Carnegie about the enthusiastic pursuit of an inspiring goal being a source of happiness. That's such apt wisdom for budding family historians (and us old hands alike!). It's also true that the long journey in pursuit of an ambitious and worthy goal invariably has its hurdles, setbacks, and sustained periods where it's natural to ask "am I getting anywhere?". It's clear from the results, that the Museum of Family History is a labor of love for you requiring a tremendous amount of time and effort. How do you sustain your passion and focus on such an all-encompassing project?
Steve: I must admit that my website work is at times exhausting and frustrating, but my dogged determination has seen me through some tough moments. I suppose that at times I am more motivated than at others. Sometimes I just have to keep pushing forward; it pays to be a bit obsessive.
It isn't easy. Few people step forward to volunteer, who want to
help for the same reason that I do it, without receiving any
funding or contributions. I just think it
would be so much easier -- and I'd be able to grow the museum by
leaps and bounds -- if I could successful secure funding to pay
others to do what I can't do, either because of I haven't the
skill to do something or the time to do it. I certainly believe
that what I have done is unique, and my virtual museum would even more unique and more marvelous
if I had funding and/or volunteers to go beyond where I’ve gone
to this point, though I'm not too hopeful that enough
individuals, organizations or institutions know about my work,
or if they do will believe enough in me and my work to the point
of offering funding, etc.” And I am not a not-for-profit
organization, a 501(c)(3) or some such, but "Hope springs eternal”, or so they
Saying that, I push on almost every day because everything I create, each project and exhibition, has a certain meaning for me. For instance, for the past two years much of my time has been spent translating the Zalmen Zylbercweig opus, the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre", from Yiddish to English (though I can't speak or really understand it for the most part when spoken to me). The "Lexicon" contains more than 2,800 individual biographies of Yiddish theatre personnel et al, as well as histories of now-defunct theatre organizations. Such individual biographies include Boris Thomashefsky, Aaron Lebedeff, Paul Muni (who used to act in Yiddish theatre before becoming a screen actor); playwrights such as Jacob Gordin, I.L. Peretz, Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem. I have, mostly by myself, translated more than three-quarters of all the histories in this opus. Will it ever fully get translated? I don't know if I can finish it. Without the funding to pay translators, the job may very well remain unfinished. Zylbercweig's step-daughter has been very gracious in helping me with this "labor of love", and she has also given me dozens of reel-to-reel cassettes of her parent's old 1949-1969 Yiddish-language radio program, which was broadcast out of her parents' home studio, which they built in the back of their Los Angeles home at their own expense. I had them converted to a digital format and periodically I add a new program to my "On the Air!" feature on my website. Just one of my many beloved projects. Of course it would be nice if folks would come forward to help me with my translations (as volunteers), but as I've mentioned, volunteers are often hard to come by.
I am also enamored with other special aspects of the museum, e.g. my four “floor plans”, which indicate to the museum “visitor” where most everything would be located in the museum, if it existed in real space. These rooms would be filled with all sorts of interesting material and exhibitions, and there would be building facades, e.g. of synagogues, schools, shops, etc., which would be embedded with links to texts, audio and video segments of Jewish life, culture, etc. I even "built" an outdoor music pavilion with a seating plan. Currently “performing” at the Museum of Family History is Al Jolson, who sings a few songs for the audience. I even have created two virtual restaurants with wonderful, mouth-watering, descriptive menus, for lunch, dessert and dinner. One of my restaurants is called “Gut Essen Delicatessen”. I have other menus too, and I’d like other folks to send me in menus for five- or six-course dinners, based on various themes or region of origin. I have many more ideas, of course.
Sarah: I'm very intrigued by the idea of a virtual museum for organizing, displaying and sharing a family's history. I expect that some of my readers may be inspired by your creation to take their photos, videos, stories, research and other artifacts and bring them on-line to become curators of their own multimedia Museums of Family History. Do you have any advice for how to start?
Steve: There are online sites where you can use their templates to create your own website. How successful one can be will depend on the amount of time and energy one puts into it, how one lays out material onto pages, on one's artistic sense and imagination, and how comfortable and savvy one can be on a computer. Of course, I would like folks to consider putting material about their family on my own museum website -- which would be easier on them and good for my museum. They can always contact me at email@example.com if they have any questions about this. Making a website multimedia, i.e. filled with audio and video clips, is another matter, but it is doable. It just depends on whether one can dedicate the time and energy to learning how to do all of this.
Sarah: You offer the hope that the Museum will appeal to children as well as adults and promote storytelling of family memories from grandparents and parents to their children. This is so important and something that I have a keen interest in promoting. What other advice would you offer to parents who wish to inspire their children to become more interested in family history?
Steve: Often times I hear from parents or grandparents that their children or grandchildren aren't interested in their own personal history, so they really don’t bring it up, though others do. I don' think this is a general rule, although it does happen. I think that children would like to form greater connections with their elders, and I think if their elders tell their stories in loving terms, then there is a better chance of creating more of an interest and curiosity within their progeny.
No matter what the age, people are attracted to beauty and positive energy. Every parent and grandparent who feels they know their children or grandchildren must find their own path to telling stories, though as I say, doing it with love is the key. It might not always work, but to me this a great way to build intergenerational communication. One good exercise is to interview a family member, preferably (with their permission) recording the interview with a digital recorder, and then transcribing it for posterity.
There is an art to conducting such interviews, and there are websites that make some good suggestions on how to do so, i.e. how to interview and conduct an "oral history". The American Indians used to sit around the campfire, and the elders used to pass down the story of the tribe this way. So why can we Jews sit around the table during holidays such as Pesach and do the same?
Sarah: Happily, the Museum which already consists of thousand of images from the past, is a growing collection. What's ahead? Can you share any upcoming exhibits or plans you may have for the future of the Museum?
Steve: Oh, I have so many plans (if only I had the time, the volunteers and some money) – having an active imagination is both a curse and a blessing. It kills me, though, that I haven’t been able to go forward in the way that I had hoped, having such a vision for a three-dimensional, interactive and multimedia Museum of Family History, which would stand high on a hill, so to speak, as a model of what imagination, creativity and the love of one's heritage can do if only the means existed ...
Within my proposed three-dimensional museum of Jewish family history, one of my goals is to create a three-dimensional map of various pre-war, European towns where Jews once lived, and to link translated excerpts of historical events from their Yizkor Book (a book of remembrance) with locations on the town map. This idea excites me and offers up the possibility of creating a template for doing this for other locations throughout the world where Jews (and others) once lived.
I fervently would like to transform my entire Museum of Family History website to a multimedia, interactive museum of three-dimensions, but this perhaps is for another time or will never come about. Nothing like this has ever been done before, but unfortunately I haven't the computer skills to do this and would need funding to pay someone who knows how to do this.
As I often like to say, "Hope springs eternal".
Please note that Steve Lasky is also the founder and director of the virtual Museum of the Yiddish Theatre, which can be found at https://www.moyt.org.