They Called Me Mayer July is one of those rare multi-genre productions that works at multiple levels, as narrative and counter-narrative, tableau, portrait, and memoir, interposing the everyday and the ordinary into life story. Through paintings and personal narratives, Mayer Kirshenblatt describes his childhood experience of Jewish life in Apt, Poland before World War II. It is a portrait of a community destroyed by the Nazis, but Kirshenblatt's portraits do not focus on destruction. As he says, he painted his portraits, "lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived." The narratives are multiply dialogic, produced in dialogue with Mayer's daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (who also wrote an afterword to the book) and in dialogue with the paintings and with both the lived and the destroyed past. Although deeply personal, the personal and the community stories are not separable, and neither works as a simple chronology. The personal story is created out of retrospective reflection that requires the reader to shift positions through the reading. Only in the second half of the book do we learn the reason for Mayer Kirshenblatt's father's absence, his departure to Canada after losing his business inventory in a train wreck, an event that brought Mayer to Canada before the Nazis came. This story, linking Apt and Toronto seemingly inexorably, is suddenly fragile. Mayer Kirshenblatt could as easily have stayed in Apt. These are not just an immigrant's memories. They are the accumulated stories of the displaced or murdered Jewish residents of Apt: in telling them, Mayer Kirshenblatt is both witness and memoirist.
In her afterword, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes her dialogue with her father. She points out that They Called Me Mayer July is "entirely in Mayer's voice" (368), but is also part of a forty-year conversation. Referring to Barbara Myerhoff's work, she describes "the third voice that emerges from the listening relationship" (369). The structure of the book arose "from an internal logic, yet to be discovered, in the tangled network of stories and images that he had created" (368).
Mayer Kirshenblatt's recountings and paintings remind us that not just anyone can tell us about the ordinary life everyone shares. The paintings portray the insides and outsides of town life in Apt including homes and houses of worship, portraits of tradesman, and many singular moments, from ritual occasions to laying cobblestones in the street. This is neither a nostalgic remembrance nor a glorified history that glosses over the difficult - portraits include the prostitute, the kleptomaniac, the man who stole the laundry, the boy protected from the Angel of Death by wearing white all his life, only to be taken to his death as a teenager by the Nazis.
Mayer Kirshenblatt's level of recall for the details of everyday life is a study in scale, including detailed accounts of how things are made and how they worked. He says, "There isn't much that I learned in school that I forgot" (277). But, as he explains, he learned quite a bit out of school. This is very local knowledge. Only a person growing up in his time and place would have Mayer Kirshenblatt's particular knowledge of book-binding or how a stove functioned. We need to remember that Mayer Kirshenblatt's vast and detailed memories are not produced only in response to loss. For folklorists, and perhaps any readers, loss becomes the condition for recovering the meaning of a community, be it the loss that comes from extermination or the loss that comes from social and technological change. In this regard, They Called Me Mayer July represents a paradigm shift in how we think about life history. This work was produced not only out of the forty-year dialogue between Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, not only as a document of a life destroyed, but also in a complex relationship among kinds of things remembered, including how things are made, moments in everyday life, and illustrated legends.
Here I can only point to, rather than discuss, complex relations among multiple realities and between different forms of representation, including tableau, landscape and portrait, that deserve far greater attention. At the very least, this book requires us to address questions of scale in ethnography and how the ordinary (what might be overlooked) serves in an account of the significant. Mayer Kirshenblatt brings these together in part through affect, through his narratives about how something felt, and through our responses. Affect is complex here: he cautions against our getting caught up in the beauty of the images; about a painting of a cemetery he says, "It wasn't as lovely as you see in the picture" (283).
In a review of this book for The Forward, Gabriel Sanders calls Mayer Kirshenblatt the "Anti-Chagall. ":"If Chagall was the shtetl's mythmaker, Kirshenblatt is his antithesis, a shtetl anthropologist" (Sanders 2007). I would add that Kirshenblatt is the David Macauley of Apt. As in Macauley's books telling us The Way Things Work (1988), Kirshenblatt pays rare attention to the details of everyday life, from legends to explanations of how to make a tin whistle to how a mother entertained her babies by producing a disappearing mouse made from a piece of white cloth to how to make things including brushes, shoes, and seltzer water. And he locates these details within the cultural imaginary of lived life. We all aspire to accomplish such ranges of scale in our ethnographies.
Macaulay, David. 1988. The Way Things Work. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Sanders, Gabriel. 2007. "The Anti-Chagall: Mayer Kirshenblatt Offers a Field Guide to the Shtetl - in Technicolor." The Forward, 26 Oct.:B1. http://www.forward.com/articles/11866. Accessed 1 June 2009.