My grandparents, Lorna and Mervyn Gittleson, my great-grandmother Granny, aunt Paula, and sister Rebecca, Piedmont, 1985.
The Lies My Father Told Me:
An Essay On Collecting
The lies my father told me:
“Ian, anything material can be taken from you, except for what is in your mind.”
In sixty years my father had amassed many things. Antique clocks. Group of Seven paintings. Three talkative children. A beautiful wife. Family videos. A fancy alarm system to protect the collection from thieves.
“The need to accumulate is one of the signs of approaching death.”
I value my father’s words of wisdom more than Walter Benjamin’s for nepotistic reasons: My father’s words were passed down to him from his father, and perhaps from his father before him. I don’t really know of the circumstances that surround my father’s conviction – where it came from, or why it meant so much to him. It could have been a ploy intended to encourage my siblings and I to become educated professionals. I choose, however, to imagine this phrase as a trace that has been etched through generations of my family’s experience as perpetual refugees, forced to survive under tenuous conditions. As if these twelve words had somehow withstood endless migrations, dislocations, and catastrophes. Aside from a pair of sterling silver candlesticks that my sister never uses, they are what remain of our heritage. My father doesn’t like to talk about the past. I, on the other hand, have always been interested in collecting it. There is something fascinating to me about the things that survive.
Kind of like Joan Rivers.
Walter Benjamin wrote about the relationship between collecting and death in the Fourth Tractate of the Arcades Project. The collector – amongst a myriad of other types, such as the gambler and the consumer – grapples with modernity’s accelerated temporality through the insertion of useless things, otherwise destined for extinction, into the safety of his collection. He attempts to disturb and interrupt the natural course of time and stave off obsolescence. At least he thinks he does; the collection is always perfectly preserved so as to outlive the collector.
The collector is driven by the fear of being forgotten.
I am a collector of memories because I fear the loneliness of amnesia.
* * *
A home video from the early eighties.
As my life becomes more and more defined by change and rupture, memories have become increasingly important to me. My ancestry cannot be traced to any one place: My paternal grandparents came from Romania and Poland, and my maternal great-great grandparents came from Germany and Russia. I do not see any of the countries that my family passed through as places of origin. I don’t even feel particularly Canadian – though I was born and raised in Montreal. It is the perpetual dislocation that I claim as my heritage. In my thirty-one years, I have moved many times and have traveled to many places.
The word remember is made up of a root, memor, which means to be mindful, and and an affix, re, which means to do again. By breaking the word down phonetically, and substituting memor for member, which refers to the smaller parts of a larger whole, the word can be creatively re-understood as the reunification of the splintered parts of what was once a whole experience. When we experience a moment, we are submerged so deeply inside of it that we cannot know its full meaning. With time, different aspects of the experience come to consciousness. Memory is charged with reparation; it quilts together various fragments in the re-creation of a new whole. Remembering counters life’s increasingly frenetic pace of change. Collecting memories re-introduces various pasts into my present, creating a sense of continuity that soothes the many cleavages.
“The collector grapples with modernity’s accelerated temporality through the insertion of useless things, otherwise destined for extinction, into the safety of his collection. He attempts to disturb and interrupt the natural course of time and stave off obsolescence. At least he thinks he does; the collection is always perfectly preserved so as to outlive the collector.”
The other day I woke up from a dream with such a vivid sense of disorientation that I lost my bearings completely. I was walking my bicycle down St. Lawrence Boulevard in Montreal, when I suddenly ran into my grandfather who had passed away years ago. I was shocked to see him. I began fidgeting, and in a failed attempt to cover up my confusion, I nervously offered him my bicycle to ride. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t seen him in so long. How I could have forgotten him? I began to fumble my words as I anxiously explained that my busy schedule left me with little time for family. My grandfather somehow never felt that we spent enough time with him. It took me a moment to realize that I had been dreaming. The brief moments that divide waking from sleep exist outside of time.
As a child time was continuous; days blended into years, every moment was imbedded with the one that preceded and followed it. There was no sense of endings. Weekends were spent in Piedmont, Quebec, with my grandparents, skiing and writing stories with my grandfather while my grandmother watched The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and meticulously buttered her Ritz Premium Plus crackers. I remember once arguing with my sister about our age: I threatened that soon I would be taller and therefore older than her. I thought time was a matter of height. But we get older. We get educated. All of a sudden time hits a wall.
Nobody ever told me that one day the walls of my early life would abruptly crumble around me.
That one day he would die and she would cry whenever we brought up his name.
That the house and its musty odor would be sold to strangers.
That there would be no more late-night Monopoly sessions.
That Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous would be taken off the air.
That my grandfather, author of Mervyn Gittleson: The Ordinary Life of an Average Canadian Citizen, would never read the words that I write.
That he wouldn’t be able to understand how in many ways my work is a continuation of his own.
* * *
A collage by Ian Sternthal, titled ‘Me FXXXing Natalie Portman with Two heads while my parents watch, 2001.
My interest in collecting intensified when I moved to Tel-Aviv in 2006, to work on The Huleh Project – a book about how Israel was translated from a social utopian fantasy into a physical place. Before Israel was a place it was a fantasy. Its initial forms were imagined by a variety of artists, writers, and poets. I began to recognize how much my own development was mirrored in Israel’s. Like the first Zionists, I also used art and fiction to transform my desired identity into a reality. As a gay in-the-closet teenager I started making collages. Through montage I could be whomever I wanted. The elements that I cut out became re-appropriated by the narratives I created. Making the collages allowed me to transform myself. It wasn’t that I actually became my fantasy; it was that I dared to express them.
I found myself collecting various traces of Israeli culture primarily because I recognized the transformational power within these artifacts. I bought old postcards from flea markets, took portraits of people I met on the street, photographed street graffiti, bought archival images, conducted interviews, and tracked down old comic books. I began to understand that these ‘traces’ were visual markings that people had left behind, and I felt responsible for their preservation. I felt that in order for their intentions to survive, these traces had to be analyzed, reconsidered, re-ordered, so that the many secret meanings they contained could be discovered. Their long biographies had now become enmeshed with my own.
From top left: A UPA appeal poster, the back of a five lira bill from 1958, Rona Yefman, Eden from Let It Bleed, 2010, C-print.
Two Collages, 2002, by Ian Sternthal.
“I began to understand that these ‘traces’ were visual markings that people had left behind, and I felt responsible for their preservation. I felt that in order for their intentions to survive, these traces had to be analyzed, reconsidered, re-ordered, so that the many secret meanings they contained could be discovered. Their long biographies had now become enmeshed with my own. “
Exhibit A, Aerial photographs of Tel-Aviv-Yafo from 1917 and 1955.
Exhibit A: The following aerial photographs of Tel-Aviv date from 1917 and 1955. The image from 1917 shows pristine beaches, orange groves, and the city’s first buildings. By 1955 we see a sprawling Modernist metropolis just as Herzl had imagined (forgetting momentarily that the buildings were built in the wrong direction, and in the summertime the heat traps the odor of garbage and the city stinks).
Beyond this literal description, the picture has a complex biography. It is as much a geographic survey as it is a study of line, shade, and texture. Whereas an artist’s drawing is made by a single human hand, the multiplicity of pathways that make up the landscape were paved by thousands of human footsteps. The shapes and lines reflect the spatial practices of the cities inhabitants, testifying to their priorities, intentions, insecurities, and dreams. I think of the British pilots who flew the photographers on their photographic expeditions, of the Arab well-houses that have since vanished with hardly a mention. My thoughts jump to Rani’s apartment. He lived on the same block as the archive where I purchased the photographs. The images are now also tainted by my desperate and pathetic decision to ‘surprise’ him at his doorstep at 5AM after he’d left the bar we’d been at without saying goodbye.
I remember the afternoon that I found the images. It was a hot day, and I was walking towards the beach when I accidentally stumbled upon The Center for Aerial Photography. I was wearing short beige shorts from American Apparel. I waited in line for the elderly contractor in front of me to place his order. He wasn’t sure of the exact location that he wanted aerial images of. The woman serving him was quickly losing patience. She was a heavy-set woman with large breasts and caked on make-up. Her accent was unmistakably Russian. She started twitching with irritation as the man loudly scavenged through his briefcase. And then the outburst:
“What do you think – we have all day for you to sort through your mess. There are people waiting and not everyone feels like waiting for you.”
She continues to berate him.
“In my whole life I’ve never met such a pain in the ass. I don’t even want to know how your wife deals with you.”
To my excitement, the conversation gets nastier.
She is hollering, his arms are flailing. She never wants to see him again, he can’t stand the sight of her. Insults are being lobbied back and forth until finally, to my shock and dismay, he finds the document he was looking for in his briefcase, and she quietly gathers the images he needed from the overflowing boxes stacked throughout the shelves. Not only do they part amicably, there is even laughter and apology. Seemingly a good time had by all.
I moved to Israel during a difficult period in my life. I felt lost. I also felt that the warmth of my childhood had begun to dissipate and I didn’t know what was next. My eyes were opened to a new future. I didn’t feel like a prisoner of the past. I moved with almost no things. I made no commitments. I didn’t really need to be responsible. I still had an allowance from my parents. I knew no one, and I didn’t care what anyone thought about me. I rode my bike for hours in the sunshine listening to my now-outdated pink iPod. I let my hair grow. I wore really short shorts and stopped wearing t-shirts. My skin tone grew darker. Freedom took on a texture that I could feel. I felt for a brief moment that I had returned to the timelessness of my childhood.
I also started collecting memories that I had never experienced.
My grandmother with the Lis family in front of The Hilton in Tel-Aviv, 1968.
One afternoon, I bicycled to Ramat-Gan outside of Tel-Aviv to visit elderly Israeli cousins. Nechama and Sara are two sisters who survived the holocaust and were brought to Israel in their early teens. Nechama likes to tell people when they are getting fat. She calls it like it is. She is sharp and her tiny frame is betrayed by a fierce bossiness. She has three children who live on a cactus farm outside of Tel-Aviv. Sara never had children. When I arrived at Nechama’s apartment, they started telling me stories about my eighteen-year old father’s chubby cheeks and acne- ridden face. They met him for the first time in Israel in 1963. They relished feeding him chocolate cake behind my grandmother’s back. Their eyes light up as they tell stories of my grandparents.
I have noticed that older people often have a different relationship with their memories. If you look into their wrinkled faces as they recount old stories, you will notice that their eyes are not fixed on any point in the room. You can hear their words, but you can never see what they can. They stare into the beyond, at images that are only accessible to them. They appear to be haunted by ghosts. Through re-telling, they re-experience events in a way that young people are rarely able to. I watch Nechama over the following months as she slips into dementia. She sits, a tiny figure, hunched on a small chair in a dark room watching her favorite Spanish soap opera Gabriella. I watch the images light up her face as she stares blankly at the television. I wait for the program to end. Sometimes I am not sure that she knows that I am there. I let her know that Davidle (my father’s Yiddish name) still sneaks into the kitchen in the late hours of the night to devour the delicious chocolate cakes that my mother bakes. His mother is no longer here to scold him. Now it is my own mother who is in charge of his diet.
During my talks with the sisters, I learn about their difficult journey to Israel. When Nechama and Sarah arrived in Israel as fifteen-year olds, they did so like so many Eastern European Jews of their generation: with nothing but a handful of photographs stuffed in their pockets. Their entire universe was reduced to three or four bent up images. The village where they grew up in Romania was ruthlessly cut down by the Holocaust. The trauma of my own ruptures looks pathetic next to the enormity of their loss. At the same time I can only grasp the magnitude of their pain when I contextualize their stories through my own experiences. Everything destroyed. Their whole family murdered. They came to Israel with the responsibility to re-perpetuate everything that they had been robbed of.
An interview with my cousin Nehama Lis, Ramat Gan, 2009.
Nechama tells me that they knew they had cousins in Canada whom they had never met. Upon the sisters’ arrival in Israel, they wrote a letter addressed to Sternthal in Canada. Miraculously, the letter arrived at my grandfather’s house. Sara and Nechama were nieces of my paternal great-grandmother, Riva Sternthal, whose sister had remained in Romania for the duration of the War. My great-grandmother was a very pious woman. Immediately upon hearing of her long lost nieces’ predicament, she began having religious dreams. She would wake her husband Nute (Nathan in Yiddish) at all hours of the night, saying things like, “G-d has come to me. He has said that we must buy the girls a Frigidaire.” She became a questionable prophet. Another night, G-d came back, telling her that she had to bring a Torah to Israel for the local congregation. No one really knows if her religious revelations were anything more than the petty manipulations of a determined woman, designed to coerce her un-wealthy husband into finding ways to provide for her nieces. I sat interestedly probing Nechama and Sara with questions. I wanted to know what my grandfather was like, what life was like in Europe. And yet I could only scratch at the surface. One afternoon Sarah had me over for a lunch that I still cannot understand how she was able to prepare. It took her seven minutes just to shuffle to the sink and back. After we ate, she took me by the hand and led me to the living room where she promptly fell back into a Lazy Boy, motioning with a slight gesture of the hand that we were both going to take a nap. As she quietly dozed, I went through family pictures. I saw my grandparents and my father as a heavyset 18-year old. Looking at old photographs and getting to know Sara connected me to my past.
My Father, David Sternthal, on the beach in Tel-Aviv, 1968.
Cultural and generational differences aside, the few meetings that the sisters and I had provided me with an invaluable key to my family’s past. I derived meaning from knowing where I had come from. I was suddenly able to situate my life as the continuum of a larger story that I had a role in seeing through. I carry all these stories with me. Their struggle to survive the horrors of war and destruction was inspired by the possibility of future generations. Their lives are played out through our own. My life in Tel-Aviv was debaucherous and hedonistic, yet these rare afternoons with my ninety-four-year old cousins provided an experience of meaning that all the fun in the world could never elicit.
Walter Benjamin’s words ring in my ears still. “The collector turns into an interpreter of fate.” I wonder if Benjamin should have qualified his statement. Collecting dialogues with the threat of approaching death by staving off its finality. Through his collection the collector avoids giving into fatalism. By continually ascribing new meanings to his collection, he frees his collectibles from being reduced to forgotten relics. In doing so, he also frees himself, and perhaps one day someone else will be as kind with his own remnants.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg.