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They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust Hardcover – September 24, 2007

4.9 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Memoirs have become a vital genre in Holocaust studies, and while all are important, the uniqueness of some makes them especially important. Mayer Kirshenblatt (b. 1916) grew up in the small Polish town of Apt, a center of rabbinical culture, and in 1934 emigrated to Canada. When he was in his mid-70s his wife and daughter urged him to paint a visual record of the everyday life of his youth. Kirshenblatt's paintings are amazing—a cross between a childlike realism and the embroidered fantasy of memory; they convey a sense of boyhood innocence tinged with grief. The subjects range from people shopping in town stores and chopping wood to celebrations like weddings and the festival of Succoth. Kirshenblatt has an eye for quirky visual and social detail, as in his picture The Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom. These exactingly reproduced paintings are enhanced by Kirshenblatt's equally fresh memoirs, transmitted to his daughter, Barbara (co-editor, The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times): from jokes that emanated from the women's mikve, or ritual bath, to the mechanics of the local laundry. This collection of pre-Holocaust memories will be a lasting contribution to our understanding of Eastern European Jewish life and culture before its destruction. (Oct.)
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Review

"When Kirshenblatt paints Jewish rituals and life, whether in joy or sadness, he preserves . . . the collective memories of the Polish Jewish community."--"Religion & Ethics Nwswkly"

"Brimming with rich narrative detail. . . . This unique project is a blend of memoir, oral history, and visual interpretation."--"Artdaily.org"

"An inventive, lively collection."--Suzanne MacAulay"Journal of American Folklore" (04/01/2013)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 411 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (September 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520249615
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520249615
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #111,648 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lydia Kaplan on October 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
They Called Me Mayer July is a beautiful book, both in the written word and the art work. It details the day-to-day lives of the Jewish people who lived in their 'schtetles' before the Holocaust and it goes into the various personalities, nick names, and jobs that were done during those years. Artistically, the detail is stunning and a joy to behold. For those of us whose ancestors came from these places, it gives us the opportunity to see and read what life was like, both the good and the difficult. I was so impressed that I bought a book as a gift for a friend and have recommended it to others. We owe a debt of gratitude to the author and his daughter for giving us this wonderful gift.
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This book is a treasure! It provides reminiscences in text and in paintings of a Polish Jewish shtetl, Apatow or, as the Jews called it, Apt. Like Grandma Moses, Kirshenblatt began painting late in life and, like her, has produced primitive, lively, intimate illustrations of his remembered world. The text is equally intimate describing the people, their nicknames, and their lives. Anyone interested in furthering his or her knowledge of the shtetl, as told by one of its last living inhabitants, must read this book.
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Having recently returned from a trip to the Polish town of my mother's childhood, I was eager to see Mayer Kirshenblatt's paintings of Jewish life in prewar Poland on exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. I immediately recognized buildings and landscapes I had seen on the trip--the small, square houses surrounding the town square, ruins of once impressive, multi-tiered synagogues--but the exhibition instantly filled me with joy because Mayer Kirshenblatt's paintings put the people back in a panoramic view of life before the Holocaust.

At once naive and sophisticated, Kirshenblatt's art captures the energy and diversity of life as it was lived in prewar Apt (Opatów in Polish), a shtetl in southern Poland. Shunning nostalgia for accuracy, the paintings are rich in ethnographic detail and show every area of activity, some with the artist as a blue-clad schoolboy looking on. The 93-year-old Toronto artist, who started painting in his seventies, is becoming internationally known; his work was recently exhibited at the Galician Jewish Museum in Kraków.

The text of this book, which includes 200 full color reproductions, represents another kind of achievement. Each painting tells a story, evoking memories of people, trades, and events. Mayer Kirshenblatt collaborated with his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a scholar of Eastern European Jewish culture and folklore, on a captivating text recording his almost encyclopedic range of memories of the town up to 1934, the year he departed for Canada.
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This wonderful book matches up primitive paintings with an engaging narrative to take you through a journey to a lost world - a largely Jewish town in pre-WWII Poland. Mayer Kirshenblatt, the artist who created these paintings (starting in his 70s!), had an incredible visual memory for the world of his youth. The text, crafted by his daughter (a well-known anthropologist/folklorist), is a first-person narrative, largely told in his smart-ass adolescent voice, then coming back every now and then to his adult voice to provide updates on "where are they now?" Or --given the time and place -- how did they die at the hands of the Nazis? However, this is NOT a Holocaust book; it's a visual journal of youth in a Polish town, in a largely Jewish community. The paintings are primitives, from his youthful viewpoint - the rooms have improbably high ceilings, more a reflection of a child's shortness, always looking up at everything.

The paintings provide a tableau of pre-war Jewish life, including celebration of life events, Sabbath and holidays. However, this is not an overly sentimental memoir of the Old Country. The painter wasn't always good little boy who minded his parents and teachers - he skipped school to check out all parts of his town, including many of the grimier aspects. The painter's sly graphical sense of humor is well matched by the text, where his daughter (after spending years hearing her father's stories) did a lovely job of echoing his youthful voice. There are, of course, some pretty terrible events that are depicted - some of them based on the painter's imaginings of events that happened after he left Poland as a teenager. But overall, there is more to laugh about than cry - many of the stories are very funny.

I saw the exhibition of this art work at the Jewish Museum in NY. It was a wonderful show, and made me run back to read the book again. By the way, Mayer Kirshenblatt (z"l) passed away last month.
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Format: Hardcover
"Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust" is a partial description of this beautiful book. Accompanying the marvelous paintings done by Mayer Kirshenblatt is a rich, well-written text in the combined voices of the artist and his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, world-renowned folklorist. This book is a real treasure.
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