The lost world

It was novelist Thomas Wolfe who penned “You Can’t Go Home Again.” That book title has become an oft-utilized metaphor for outgrowing one’s roots, but, in Mayer Kirshenblatt’s case, it’s pretty much the literal truth.

During the war, the small shtetl of Apt, Poland, was effectively wiped clean of Jews and the centuries of innovations they introduced to the town. When the 91-year-old Kirshenblatt returned earlier this year he found a thriving city. But “home” was long gone.

It now exists only in his memories — and the hundreds of canvases he’s been painting since picking up a brush at age 74.

“The rabbis, the craftsmen, the water-carriers, the porters, the prostitutes, the thieves, the teachers at the Jewish school and the gentile school — whatever happened, I remember it, from the 20s to the day I left,” said the fast-talking nonagenarian in a phone interview from his Toronto home.

“I have only one line. I paint the history of the town I was born and raised in, and I do this exclusively.”

Kirshenblatt’s nostalgia in acrylic will hang in Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum starting Monday, Sept. 10. A party celebrating the debut of a book of his work co-authored by his daughter, Yiddish anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Echoing Gov. Ronald Reagan’s commentary on redwood trees, Kirshenblatt feels that if you saw one Polish shtetl, you saw them all. But he doesn’t mean that in a bad way.

“The rabbis’ names are different, the prostitutes’ names are different. But they were all built [around] the same marketplaces and the best homes in the town were always on the marketplace. It’s a life, a culture that is gone. It’s only in my head,” said the artist, who left Apt for Canada with his family in 1934.

Actually, when Kirshenblatt first began painting 20 years ago he had a few old friends he could bounce ideas off of, but they’re all gone now — “Listen, I’m 91. What do you expect?”

With roughly 250 paintings to his name, Kirshenblatt is a man who knows his way around paint. But it goes even deeper than you might think; for decades he owned a paint store and worked in the family house-painting business.

Over the years, he told stories of his shtetl youth to his anthropologist daughter (it was her urging that finally moved him to illustrate those tales). He also showcased his creative side by picking up something of a reputation as Canada’s maven on old-time Jewish toys.

If you want a toy, Kirshenblatt is like MacGyver — he can make anything from anything else. In poor Jewish towns, it was a good skill to have.

In a presentation that he’s made across North America (including the Smithsonian on multiple occasions) Kirshenblatt demonstrates how impoverished Jews of yore created shofars from willow bark, whistles from tin cans, wagons or dreidels from spools and, his pièce de résistance, a cap pistol derived from a key.

“To make a pistol out of a key for Lag B’Omer, you need an old-fashioned key with a hole in it. You take a nail — we used to rub it on a rock to get it flat. They you tie a string from the key to the nail. You take some matches and [scrape off the tips] and put that inside into the key’s hole and you swing the key against the rock. The concussion of the key hitting causes the powder to make a bang.”

Keeping those kinds of traditions alive is what makes Kirshenblatt paint every day. And some days it pays off immeasurably: At an exhibition last year in the Toronto JCC, a 92-year-old visitor was shocked to find a depiction of his grandmother’s home in one of Kirshenblatt’s paintings.

But the artist has other reasons to keep painting away.

“What drives me? It beats television!”

Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings will hang in

the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley,

starting Monday, Sept. 10. Information: (510) 549-6950.

Kirshenblatt’s book release party will be held at

8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the JCC of San Francisco,

3200 California St. Tickets: $8 for members, $10 for

general public. Information: (415) 292-1233.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.