Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pegboard and Yarmulkes

Tonight was all about the round and the Jewish.

Modern Richmond was opening the doors on the infamous round building at the corner of Thompson and Floyd and as a former Floyd Avenue denizen for 13 years, I was understandably curious about a place I've been by literally thousands of times.

Apparently so were a lot of other people, since I arrived at 5:34 (doors opened at 5:30) and found the 1954 round building, which had originally been built as medical offices, already getting crowded with fans of modernism.

Walking through that magnificent wooden door led to a semi-circular lobby with the original curved benches on one wall and a water feature facing it. At the moment, there's no water, just a curved blue mat to suggest water, but I heard someone say that Ellwood Thompson, the new owners of the building, are planning to restore the water feature. In front of the benches was a low coffee table that echoed the curves of the benches and wall and had been hand-crafted by the doctor's son.

It all looked like something from a '50s movie.

One guy walked in and immediately got a goofy grin on his face. "This was my doctor!" he shared, meaning he knew what it had looked like before ET had renovated it. I give ET credit, though, because they'd remained mostly faithful to the original design, as evidenced by some of the linoleum flooring and blue pegboard cabinet doors.

But easily the most fascinating part of the interior was the ephemera, all framed and hanging on the circular walls. A December 31, 1954 invoice from Laburnum Construction Corporation showing charges of $50,346.00. A drawing of a proposed addition (fortunately never executed)  that looked like a growth three bubbles attached to the back of the building. Letters from architect to assistant about contract bids. And plenty of black and white photographs of the building and interior back when the surrounding trees were young and skinny.

Making my way through the back patio, I overheard a man ask the bartender in the event he used both his drink tickets (which came with the price of admission), would it be possible for him to buy more? Kind of makes you wonder how much he was enjoying modernism if he needed an alcohol drip, but I don't judge. In fact, when I got ready to leave, I found him chatting with a woman and without explanation, handed him my two drink tickets.

"What's this?" he said, confused but looking pleased. Heard you might need some more drinks, I told him, and I'm not using mine. In return, he gave me the full-on grateful stranger smile and I could leave, knowing I had done my good deed for the day. Or enabled a problem drinker, whichever.

After dropping off the car at home, I walked over to VCU Cabell Library for author Jonathan Sarna's lecture on his book, "Lincoln and the Jews." And if I thought Modern Richmond was crowded, you should've seen the overflow masses for the lecture. Additional chairs had to be brought out.

I found one of the very few single seats available and chatted up my seatmate, who, like me, came to Richmond 30 years ago, except after growing up in Michigan and living in New York City for years. Turns out he's a math professor on the medical campus with an interest in Jewish studies. For that matter, I spotted a handful of men wearing yarmulkes on a Wednesday evening. Two rows in front of me was the VCU religion and philosophy prof who used to live two doors down from me on Floyd Avenue.

It's all so inter-connected, isn't it?

Sarna was as funny as a Borscht Belt comedian and as knowledgeable as one of the most prominent historians of American Judaism (which he is) should be and, as lecturers go, absolutely captivating to listen to.

He began by sharing a story of traveling to Jerusalem as a teen with his family and being gobsmacked at seeing a sign for Abraham Lincoln Street. His father stopped a passerby, asking who this man was, not that he didn't know but he wanted their story. The Israelite patiently explained to Sarna and his dad that Lincoln was a prominent Jew from America who'd made a huge contribution to the United Jewish appeal.

And that was only one of the times that Sarna had the audience laughing in between dropping fascinating historical facts on us.

He said that Lincoln's life span coincided with the rise of Jews on the American scene. That Richmond's Jewish community dates back to the American Revolution. That Abe was the most biblically-literate president in U.S. history and had a wicked wit evidenced in his writings

To prove Abe's affinity for the Jews, he showed us a chart detailing 120 of Abe's friends, acquaintances, appointees and the like who were Jewish. Hell, Sarna showed us an 1862 letter from Lincoln saying, "I believe I have not yet appointed a Hebrew" ("That was the first affirmative action!" he cracked) and then doing just that by making a Jew assistant quartermaster with the rank of captain.

But where Abe truly burned brightest in his efforts to be inclusive was with his appointment of the first Jew as military chaplain of a Jewish-led regiment. Only problem was the army turned the appointment down because the law stated that chaplains had to promote Christianity.

So what does Abe do but work behind the scenes to change the law and like a good politician, buries it in a bigger bill giving Union generals a raise because after all, who's not going to vote for that?

So that's right, non-Christians can serve as military chaplains solely because of a law Lincoln shaped. He also omitted any reference to this being a Christian nation in his Gettysburg Address, instead referring to us as one nation under god (any god), a fact which had Sarna making Wiccan jokes.

Talking about Abe's visit here after Richmond fell, he quipped, "You've heard of that, right?" and got a big laugh, but his point was to tell us that while here, Abe met with an important Jewish Richmonder, telling him that he wasn't going to persecute the south but let them off easy as part of his post-war reconstruction plan.

And when he was shot at Ford's Theater, it was a Jewish doctor who cleaned the wound and declared it fatal. It was then that he effectively rested his case: Abe had changed America with his rhetoric and actions concerning the Jewish population.

When the talk ended, Sarna began the Q & A by saying, "This is everything you always wanted to know about Abraham Lincoln and the Jews but were afraid to ask, so ask good questions," delighting the 50+ crowd who knew the reference.

After nothing but guys were given the microphone, he finally asked, "We've had three men ask questions. Are women allowed to ask?" and some female students finally got their turns.

No one wanted the Q & A to end, but the head librarian pointed out that we could probably do this all night (during which I'd expect to hear, "Thank you very much. I'm here all week, try the veal!") except it was time to move on to the reception.

There weren't nearly as many great jokes at the reception as there'd been during the history lecture, although one quip caught my ear: "Once you go Jew, nothing else will do."

I could just hear Sarna's inevitable response had he been standing there. "You've heard of that, right?"

Not until tonight, but it's never too late to learn. We'll call it Lincoln's legacy.

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