On an unusual cold rainy day in Charlotte, North Carolina, our much looked forward visit to the well known 450 acre Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens was struck off the list of ‘things to do’. Instead we were taken to the Levine Museum of the New South, at that point totally unknown to me.
Named for the philanthropist, Leon Levine and his wife Sandra, the focus of the museum is on the diverse history of the South since the Civil War and “the heart and soul of the south”.
I was to learn that the 40,000 square foot facility’s challenge is to give insight into the modern south from sharecroppers to NASCAR, the famous racing establishment. Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers is the centerpiece exhibition.
Perhaps Charlotte isn’t as well known as the sophisticated city of Raleigh or the counterpart in South Carolina, Charleston, but it is the largest city in North Carolina with a population edging over 1 million and growing. The skyline is filled with very new skyscrapers, one a 60 storey post modern Gothic tower by renowned architect Cesar Pelli, seems to be the signature building standing high above the others while a rather eye- catching pink glass condominium sticks in my mind as very courageous, verging on gaudy and aptly called by the locals, the Pepto Bismil building.
Charlotteans can boast of the moniker The Queen City, after Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, wife of King George 111. Big industry and finances have headquarters here heralded by Bank of America, Time Warner, and Goodrich Corporation, NASCAR (a major centre in the American motor sports industry and where NASCAR will have the Hall of Fame by 2009) and perhaps best known as the birth place of Evangelist, Billy Graham.
Since Charlotte has over 700 places of worship, it also is known as ‘the city of churches’, but it has a few mosques and a fair share of synagogues. Among them are the reformed Temple Beth El, conservative Temple Israel, and the Lubavitch Ohr Ha Torah as well as Havurat Tikvah, for Reconstructionist Judaism.
Grudgingly, I entered the modern glass doorways where the staff at the spacious reception area was overly keen to tell me about this unexpected destination. But I still wasn’t excited. I had come from a snowy, miserably cold northern winter. My thoughts were more along the line of wandering through garden paths, seeing colourful blooms and budding trees. That is until I saw a large poster stating the temporary exhibit, ‘Families of Abraham’. I realized this visit was fate.
On the second floor of the renovated trucking warehouse, the now very bright, white walled contemporary interior had this most unusual exhibit which had to be extended until October 07 since the interest was so overwhelming. Imagine an exhibition about Muslims, Christians and Jews, their weddings, births, childhood, schooling, religious beliefs and much more, all in one very large room.
The a sizeable airy space was filled with large photographs and a single vitrine holding some Judaica and the various walls and centre pillars held the history and lives of the three vital religions all claiming the same spiritual ancestor, Abraham.
Although all in black and white, I realized that the images were far more dramatic than if they had been in bright or even pastel colouring. With my non Jewish friend, she a Catholic and me a Jew, we talked about many of the similarities of these three religions.
All three faiths believe there was only one God. There were excerpts from the various bibles.
From the Hebrew Bible, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” Deuthoronomy 6.4
From the New Testament, “One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all: Ephesians 4.6.
And from the Quran, 59.22 “He is God; There is no god other than Him.”
Each photo shares tales of success. The Khan family, now in the US, was from India. Weddings, cooking, prayers are all featured. The Christian Pinckney family from Florida and North Carolina says “religion is a major enhancement of our faith”. And the Van Glish, both American born, tell of how being Jewish “installed a sense of pride” as they were growing up.
Education for all three faiths is a very important issue as well as going to the temple of their choice. Holiday celebrations, in the Van Glish family seemed delightful as photos of their children’s faces lit up with excitement. And although David Van Glish admits that he doesn’t go to synagogue often, he “talks to God on my own”. One of the adorable photographs shows a Purim dress- up party and family get togethers at Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover and Shabbat.
In the centre of the gallery is the only cabinet which is filled with a Seder Plate, Bar Mitzvah, prayer shawls and other Judaica.
Sure, food plays an important part in all families as does meeting around kitchen tables- one with a Challah (egg bread), others celebrating festival of the sacrifice and preparing the food. For all three faiths, community service is a huge part of their life, for example, meals for the homeless and other charitable deeds.
Perhaps one group of posters which left a strong impression was the celebration for the new born. Baptism, circumcision and for the Muslims, the first sound a child hears is whispering. The coming of age for all three, mark an important passage. Bar/Bat Mitzvahs to Holy Communion and Ameen Party, (the completion of the reading of the sacred text of the Quran).
Even death has the spotlight with the placing of pebbles on the headstones in the Jewish cemeteries, the Christian belief of Eternal life and the Muslim’s, passage of the soul.
The Levine Museum is “a museum about an idea” but it’s also about history, tolerance and education for both children and adults.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t left enough time for the exciting memorable ground floor exhibit. But with the little time left, I walk through a reconstructed main street from the past. Thad Tate’s barbershop has the spinning red and white cylinder outside and two barber chairs and various face and hair brushed; an art deco theatre façade has 1936 newsreel footage from “Roosevelt Visits Charlotte”. There’s a perfect reproduction of a radio/recording studio which preceded the fortunes made in the music industry in Nashville (Charlotte was once well ahead in this business), what would now be called a boutique area is a section from Belk department store cleverly displaying fashions featuring glamorous outfits from the 40s, so realistic I wanted to buy some vintage garments.
The weather had cleared when I exited but the last thing on my mind was a visit to see flowers. I had just seen the seeds of inspiration and camaraderie.
Levine Museum of the New South
200 E. Seventh Street, Located on corner of College St. and Seventh St.
Tel 704 333 1887
Admission Adults US$6.00 Seniors and Student US$5.00, Chirlde US$5.00
Open Monday to Saturday from 10AM to 5 PM
Sunday from noon to 5PM
Free 90 minute parking is available on weekdays, free on weekend.