Exhibit looks at America's driving passion for automobiles
Museum focuses on immigrant Jews' connection with cars
At first glance, the new exhibit about people and their cars at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education would seem to have limited appeal.
But, in fact, you don't have to be Jewish or know anything about cars to appreciate the stories it tells.
As curated by Kenneth Helphand, professor of Landscape Architecture Emeritus at the University of Oregon, the 85 photographs and automobile-related artifacts in the exhibit cover much of the history of 20th-century America, including the impact of immigrants on the country and the remarkable changes resulting from mass-produced personal transportation.
The "Auto/Biography Portraits of People With Cars" exhibit also documents more than 100 years of the history of Portland, from the days of horse-drawn wagons to contemporary suburban neighborhoods. It runs through Nov. 8.
"The exhibit is really about the relationship between cars and people and their world," Helphand says.
As some of the introductory text notes, "Car ownership expanded both physical and social mobility. Cars signified movement and moving up mobile status symbols. For immigrant Jews and others, this carried a special meaning. Owning a car brought you one step closer to becoming American."
All of the photographs are dated and identify the people, automobiles and, usually, the locations. Helphand was assisted in assembling the exhibit by a group of museum members who are all auto enthusiasts.
"They could look at a photo of a bumper and say its a '46 Pontiac," Helphand says.
But because most of the photograph are from family scrapbooks, the exhibit also is about the lives and dreams of the people in them. Lou Jaffe wrote a caption for a 1969 picture of him standing next to his 1965 MGB Roadster. It captures the experiences of his generation:
When I see this picture, I put it in this context: Son of immigrants, the typical Jewish story; Middle class, at best, upbringing. My father and his father were barbers. My father and his family lived above the barbershop in Seattle; First of my generation among my cousins to either go to or graduate from college; Worked my way through. Whatever I earned in the summer is what I had to spend the following school year. (I think I was short $300 one year that my folks covered); Army ROTC paid $50 a month; Graduated on a Friday, went to work the following Monday; During graduation week found this car of my dreams, my dad co-signed, and I was then part of the American Dream; Seven months later, pursuant to my agreement with the Army, I was in the service as a Second Lieutenant.
Much of the text that accompanies the photographs are drawn from the scrapbooks or interviews with those in the pictures over the years. They tell of opportunities that didn't exist before or without cars.
Two pictures are especially striking. One is Jacob Enkelis as a young boy in 1913 standing in front of a horse and wagon used in his father's Portland business. The other is Enkelis as a man in 1928 standing in front of the bus he was then driving between Portland and Tillamook for a living.
Social outings also were captured in the scrapbooks. Many families apparently vacationed on the Oregon coast. Several pictures show them in Astoria and Seaside. Besse Harris, one of those pictured with her family, explained the importance of such trips in a captions from a 1975 interview:
We always used to go there [to the beach] in the summertime and believe me, we didn't have the money with which to go but my dad used to load up the car and put a rack up on top of the car, racks on the running boards and we used to take all of our belongings that we needed for three months and go to Long Beach."
Not surprisingly, dating is a recurring theme of some captions.
We always liked to pile in the car on weekends and go up to Mt. Hood or go out to parks, just picnic together. When I was young it was a good date to drive up to Tacoma to have an evening out with a pretty girl, and to drive back the next morning, Eugene Nudelman Sr. is quoted as saying from a 1974 interview.
The exhibit also has a section on the early unwillingness of Jews to buy Fords because of founder Henry Ford's well-documented anti-Semitism or to buy German cars after World War II. At least one recent picture shows a proud owner smiling next to his classic Mercedes, however.
Another portion of the exhibit features screenings of car-themed movies at noon Wednesdays, free with museum admission, from July 15 through Aug. 26. They include "Little Miss Sunshine," "American Graffiti," "Easy Rider," and Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," among others. Select screenings will be followed by an exhibit walk-through with guest curator Helphand.
Helphand also will give a lecture on Oct. 7 called "The American Road" on how the car has shaped the American landscape.
PEOPLE AND THEIR CARS
What: "Auto/Biography Portraits of People With Cars"
When: Through Nov. 8
Where: Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
Address: 1953 N.W. Kearney St., Portland
Support: Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships, Sue Hickey, Shelly Klapper, Greg Hodes, and the many funders to the Craig E. Wollner Exhibit Fund of OJMCHE