Between you and me

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This is going to be hard. I want to tell you about a highly original, marvelously acted, adventurous piece of musical theater I saw on Broadway last weekend, but I don’t want to give away much of the plot. I would hope you would see the play, as I did, knowing almost nothing about the details except that it has the highest number of Tony nominations this year with 12, alongside “An American in Paris,” and concurrently has garnered spectacular raves from critics and audiences.

For a play to be so applauded, it would have to be creative and break new ground for narrative, music and staging. “Fun Home” does all that. Performed at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 50th Street just off Eighth Avenue, and billed as a family tragicomedy, the show is adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, based on a memoir she kept through the years of her growing up.

OK, I will tell you it is both a coming of age and a coming out story. If you are the least bit uncomfortable with either of the themes, you should not see the play because the events portrayed are sometimes raw. And they are raw because they are heartbreakingly honest.

We all try to understand our parents, even more so as we age, because these are the two people who made us. In understanding them, we come to better know ourselves. So I will tell you further that the narrator of the play is the daughter and she is chasing her memories, trying to understand and come to terms with her father.

Memories have an evanescent, shimmering quality to them and that makes them hard to pin down with certainty, even in our minds, much less on a stage. Therefore the device that this play employs is particularly interesting. There are three actresses who play Alison, the narrator, at different times of her life — as an 8-year-old, a 19-year-old and her current age of 43 — as she looks on and occasionally cringes at what the other two say and do, If you think about it, we all react that way sometimes when we think of our younger selves.

So in this universal yearning to know our parents, some of the particulars of this family are unusual and in the viewing, they are wrenching. As has been said before, all happy families are happy in the same way, but unhappy families are unhappy uniquely.

Bruce, the father of three bright and imaginative children, is a high school English teacher, a restorer of old houses, the proprietor of a funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town and the husband of Helen, Alison’s mother. But his life is more than that, as divided personally as it is professionally, and therein lays the rest of the plot which I really am not going to tell you, however hard this is. I don’t want to ruin the surprises.

I will share with you, however, that the staging cleverly involves trapdoors opening and closing to disgorge and swallow up at different times objects in the home as large as the grand piano. When the lighting dims, it serves as a curtain would between scenes in a more conventional theater. And the music, highly original and opera-like as it is occasionally spoken and sung, perfectly carries forward the storyline and fills in the unsaid.

It is sometimes made up of big, brassy show tunes and sometimes of heartfelt yearnings.

Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn head up the cast in this poignant, provocative and haunting human drama, made all the more soulful because it is a real family we are watching. As they sometimes say on movie screens when the film ends, this story is based on actual events.

This musical play has gone in a new direction and can be as forthright because of the times in which we live.

Taboos can be spoken of out loud, and secrets can be revealed both on stage and in real life in an unprecedented way. This is both cathartic and liberating for audiences, as great art always is.

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A recent editorial in The New York Times decried a blatant act of anti-Semitism in Europe. Fans in a major soccer stadium in Holland chanted “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” and “Jews burn the best.” The home team, FC Utrecht, subsequently apologized for the outrage that occurred in a game against Ajax Amsterdam on April 5, but just imagine how someone Jewish in the stands might feel in the midst of those shocking outcries.

Worse, it was not an isolated incident. Kick It Out, a British watchdog organization, has reported that there were 59 instances of anti-Semitic slurs in the first half of the English Premier League soccer season, with chants of “Yids” and “Kill the Jews” at games.

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization, there seems to be a new alliance between neo-Nazis and jihadists. After the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism in Europe in the previous century, it is hard to believe such bigotry still exists, much less is alive and flourishing for the rest of the world to witness.

What is anti-Semitism today and how did it start?

According to columnist David Brooks, there are three strains of anti-Semitism circulating now. The first is in the Middle East, where it feels like “a deranged theoretical system for making sense of a world gone astray,” according to Brooks. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls Israel the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region,” whose leaders “look like beasts and cannot be called human.” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani “reinstated a conference of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists,” who propagate the usual conspiracist idiocy about Jews drinking the blood of non-Jews and spraying pesticides across arable lands.

“This sort of anti-Semitism thrives where there aren’t that many Jews,” according to Brooks. “The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining. This is a … flight from reality even in otherwise sophisticated people.”

Incredibly it can be a part of the architecture of society and taught repeatedly in some madrassas or schools to children. “It cannot be reasoned away,” said Brooks, “because it doesn’t exist on the level of reason.”

“In Europe,” Brooks continued, “anti-Semitism looks like a response to alienation. It’s particularly high where unemployment is rampant. … The plague of violence is fueled by young Islamic men with no respect and no place to go.” Brooks goes on to say that thousands of Jews a year are fleeing Europe. The echoes of terrors throughout past centuries are nipping at their heels.

In the United States, which Brooks pronounced “an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place,” nonetheless there is rising tide of anti-Semitism, especially on college campuses, with its basis seemingly in Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But why the policies of Israel should reflect on Jews in America any more than policies in Ireland reflected on the Irish in Boston, or the discriminatory and shameful treatment of Japanese Americans interned during World War II should have ensued, is simply bigotry. And anti-Semitism is a particularly virulent form of bigotry whose dark underside is hatred leading to violence and even extinction.

History is filled with brutal examples including the pogroms, which preceded the First Crusade in 1096; the expulsion from England in 1290; the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion from Spain in 1492; the Cossack massacres in Ukraine, 1648-57; the pogroms in Imperial Russia between 1821-1906; the Dreyfus affair in France, 1894-1906; and the more recent horrors of the 20th century, just for a historical overview. It’s an evil virus that sometimes hides but does not die.

Brooks suggested that the best response is confrontation, arousing the “brave and decent people” to take “a page from Gandhi” and stage demonstrations, as laws and governments reign in even the smallest assaults.

“Disturb the consciences of the good people. … Confrontational nonviolence is the historically proven method to isolate and delegitimize social evil.” Is that enough?

We seem to have conquered or, at least, mitigated the virus causing AIDS. Perhaps against this form of racism, we can together do the same?

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By Leah Dunaief

To negotiate or not to negotiate, that is the question. At least that is how our mealtime conversations in the last week started on the subject of a possible treaty with Iran. It is a polarizing issue, and almost everyone I’ve shared a meal with has had a strong opinion on the matter.

“Don’t trust them. They cannot be held to any agreement they sign. Are we listening to what Supreme Leader Khamenei is saying or do we think it’s all rhetoric to rally his right wing?”

“We should definitely negotiate with them and at least try to postpone the production of a bomb in that volatile part of the world. We’ll be able to know if they are reneging because we have satellites and Israel has spies all over the country,” is another perspective. “What harm can negotiations do?”

“What harm? What is it that brought the Iranians to the negotiation table to begin with? The economic sanctions are having a real effect on their country. They just want us to lift them and to achieve that, they will agree to anything for now,” comes the retort. And so the back-and-forth goes.

This time in our 21st century has been compared, rightly or wrongly, to Munich and the Neville Chamberlain agreement with Hitler over the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Chamberlain was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937-40, as Hitler was ramping up his aggression, and he desperately wanted to keep peace and stability within Europe. To that end, he is widely remembered for his attempt at appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Agreement that both men signed. Chamberlain had worked hard to get that treaty, traveling to Germany three times to meet with the dictator before bringing back that paper, along with the words, “peace for our time.” Although Czechoslovakia was effectively sacrificed in the deal, most of the British population, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, were ecstatically happy that Chamberlain had brought at least the possibility of peace to them.

One who objected strenuously was, we know, Winston Churchill, who declared that England had been offered a choice between war and shame at Munich. She had chosen shame, he continued, and will get war.

Indeed, Churchill felt that by Chamberlain’s drift and surrender to Hitler’s territorial demands, the prime minister had almost fatally delayed the need for Britain to arm and to pull together European allies. Chamberlain had also seemed to Hitler as being weak. “Our enemies are small worms,” Hitler later scoffed. “I saw them at Munich.”

Peace is an almost universal yearning; only aggressors want war. Can we condemn Chamberlain for striving to guarantee peace — or President Obama for that matter? While the world stage is not exactly the same now as in 1938, we know that Iran has fueled proxy wars in an aggressive attempt to increase its power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had launched bombing missions to push back Iran, and the United States has moved ships off the Yemen coast in an attempt to thwart arms shipments getting into terrorists’ hands.

Overhanging the horror of slaughter and brutality is the real prospect that Iran is on the threshold of developing a game-changing atom bomb, much as Germany was during World War II.

When von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, objected to the Munich Agreement that Hitler had signed, pledging no further hostilities once he annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, Hitler responded with, “Oh don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.” Now as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lays out the terms of a possible agreement from the negotiations, Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing them. When Chamberlain was admonished by Churchill to arm Britain in the face of coming war, the prime minister refused to do so wholeheartedly because he feared that Hitler would think he was walking away from the Munich accord.

Yes, let’s negotiate. And let’s remember the key to any successful pullback is President Ronald Reagan’s famous line: “Trust, but verify.”

Let’s also remember that we broke the back of the Soviet Union by winning an economic war, despite the fact that both sides had the bomb. The Iranians are at the negotiating table because the economic sanctions are hurting — or like Hitler, they are merely stalling for time. Finally, we have learned what Chamberlain did not: That a well-armed and advanced nation is the best deterrent to war.

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By Leah Dunaief

Who would have believed it? After the grueling winter we have all lived through, it is spring — finally, certainly, surely, unarguably spring. The relief, the excitement, the miracle of this annual rebirth is here. So I am suggesting that we live in the moment, at least for a few moments, and plan to enjoy our surroundings.

How do we celebrate the season? Here are some of my suggestions.

For starters, go outside and breathe deep breaths that won’t freeze your windpipes. Unless you are in the middle of traffic, you can smell the fresh earth.

Look up at the limbs of the trees. There are beautiful, symmetrical buds readying themselves to burst into bloom. Look under tucked away places, like the eves of your house. You might see birds building a nest to receive and shelter their young. Listen to those birds singing. They are bustling with activity as they serenade those who listen. Note the forsythia contributing bright yellow to the edges of driveways and roads, bolstered by smiling daffodils at ground level. The usual cast of characters is also pushing its way into our field of vision: crocus, hyacinths and any number of weeds that aren’t paid to blossom but do so to join the riot of color.

The weather this weekend sounds pretty nice, so get out those garden tools, but leave time to wander over to a beach and enjoy the views of calm water and the early distant sailboats. Bring The New York Times or your laptop and have breakfast on the sand Sunday morning. Get on your bike, take a long walk through the ’hood and chat with neighbors you haven’t seen in months. No, they weren’t away for the winter, they were just hibernating in their homes.

If you wish, write and tell us what your particular rituals are for welcoming the season. In the meantime, let’s celebrate: Oh, Happy Spring!

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By Leah Dunaief

“Woman in Gold” is based on a true story. It is also eerily similar to another true story to which I am privy.
The movie, currently playing in limited release and shortly to move into local theaters, is about an octogenarian Jewish woman who struggles to reclaim paintings looted from her family by the Nazis a half-century earlier.

Dame Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian who barely escaped with her new husband before the jaws of Nazi death clamped down on Jews and dissidents following Austria’s annexation by Germany in 1938. Ultimately, they lived out their lives in Los Angeles, but much of their extended family stayed and perished in the Holocaust. Their possessions were confiscated, including five paintings by Gustav Klimt. Those paintings, including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” became Austrian icons; but for Maria Altmann, the portrait was simply of her Aunt Adele. The loss of those paintings came to symbolize the terrible loss of her immediate family, her home and her world.

As the years went by, claims of looted property began to surface. In the 1990s, Maria Altmann tried to reclaim her family’s art through the early channels for such action in Austria. She encouraged the son of a friend, a young and struggling lawyer, to represent her. He is the grandson of one of Austria’s most famous musicians, Arnold Schoenberg. He is also an American with little emotional connection to his grandfather’s country, nor Altmann’s cause, but he was initially attracted to the fight for the potential monetary windfall. Their battles with the Austrian government continued for a decade, during which they were aided by an Austrian journalist.

In a similar story, my friend Alice was also born in Austria and lived with her parents and brother in Vienna until the Nazi annexation. Her father was a lawyer, and when warned by one of his clients that he was on the round-up list for the next morning, he managed to escape with his immediate family to the west. They, too, eventually arrived in America, having left all their possessions behind in their hasty flight. One of their pieces of art was an original drawing by Picasso. Alice and her brother, now the rightful heirs, determined to enter claim for their stolen art, especially the most valuable piece by Picasso.

Their claim dragged on through the courts for the better part of a decade, roughly at the same time as that of Maria Altmann although much less in the news. Remarkably, they too were joined in their struggle by an Austrian journalist, whose efforts ultimately helped make the claim successful.

Like Altmann and E. Randol Schoenberg, Alice and her brother, against their will, returned to Vienna for hearings. It was an emotional journey back to the streets of their childhood for them. The film does justice to Altmann’s terrible memories with repeated cuts back in time to the growing atrocities of the late 1930s.
There is another interesting parallel when the claims succeeded. In the movie, the primary Austrian antagonist asks for some sort of shared ownership from Maria Altmann. His suggestion is curtly dismissed by Mirren. As my friend Alice was handed the framed Picasso by an Austrian official, she was told sarcastically that she’d “probably just sell it for the money!” to which she replied, “And that is now none of your business.”

She did not sell it, but rather gave it a position of honor in her Washington Heights apartment. It was, for her, the tiniest satisfaction from a bitterly lost world.

Maria Altmann did sell the painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer to Ronald Lauder, Estée Lauder-heir and owner of the Neue Gallery of Austrian Art on 86th St. and Fifth Ave. in New York. She used the money to help Schoenberg establish his law practice and to help both family members and charities close to her heart.

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By Leah Dunaief

Almost 20 years ago this Easter, I left the comforts of home to go on a tour 10,000 miles away. The adventure was originally billed as a trip to Australia and New Zealand, but the tour company representative called to tell me about a month in advance that New Zealand was going to be eliminated from the itinerary to shorten the trip — and we would just visit Australia. I was terrifically disappointed and made my feelings known. After all, how often did I plan to be in the neighborhood? As long as I was making that long flight, I was intent on touring both countries.

Since I knew the tour owner personally, I carried on about my disappointment long and hard. Finally he called with a proposal. While the official visit was now only to Australia, there was a small group of six people, whom he knew well, who were indeed going on their own tour of New Zealand. One of their group had been stationed there during World War II and had put together a pre-tour visit. At my friend’s suggestion, they were now prepared to include me. Did I want to go with them?

“Would I be like a seventh wheel,” I asked. “No,” he assured me, “they would really like you to join them.” “Did they all know each other beforehand,” I worried. “Yes, the three couples were quite good friends,” he explained, “and lots of fun.” I worried more. “Here, take their phone numbers and call them — you can decide for yourself,” he said as he ended the call, glad to have finally solved the problem.

I did call one of them, a hasty call because she was running between two appointments, but she did encourage me to come. They were leaving from three different corners of the United States: Seattle, Los Angeles and Sarasota. So I agreed to meet them on the South Island in Christchurch, the second largest city of New Zealand, in a specific hotel lobby on Easter Sunday at 7 a.m. I can only marvel today at my daring.
The drama intensified.

Before I got on the plane to begin my trip, I came down with a nasty cold. By the time I got to Auckland, New Zealand’s gateway city on the North Island at 6 a.m. I had a temperature of 102 degrees and felt rotten. Fortunately I had included a Z-Pak antibiotic in my luggage, and I swallowed down the first dose on the bus to the motel. That bus ride went on forever, seeming to stop at every corner. When I finally arrived at the motel and got into bed, one thought occurred to me: Everyone in the world who cared about me enough to take care of me was on the other side of the world. With that, I drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke in the afternoon and wandered outside, looking for a place to eat, I was surprised to find all stores tightly closed and the streets almost empty Finally catching up to a pedestrian, I asked why.

“Everything is closed on Good Friday!” he exclaimed, looking at me as if I had just dropped down from Mars. Which indeed is how I felt. “Only the tourist shops and the movies are open today,” he added, sensing that I needed further help.

I took a bus to the center of the city and chatted up the bored clerks in all the tourist shops I could find. Auckland, a clean and beautiful city on the water, felt the size of Boston. Then, when the tourist places closed, I found the city’s equivalent of Times Square and went to see “The English Patient.” There weren’t many people in the cinema, and those few didn’t hear all the dialogue because by that time, I was coughing very hard. But it was a gorgeously filmed movie, even if I didn’t understand the plot entirely, which I attributed to my illness.

The next day I flew to Christchurch, a city that could have been located in rural England, and at the appointed hour on Easter morning I met my six traveling companions, who looked a little nervous too. Fortunately we hit it off, had a fabulous trip through the South Island, from glaciers to beaches, saw about 60 million sheep and have been friends ever since. It was a Happy Easter memory and I wish you one this year too.

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Several joyous events are coming together for us at Times Beacon Record Newspapers. One is the 39th anniversary of the founding of our media group, which began with the first issue of The Village Times on April 8, 1976. While we had little doubt that we would be successful, such being the perception of total ignorance, we look back at the intervening years with astonishment and humility. We are astonished by all that has transpired in the communications industry during that time, from the advent of typesetting and desktop computers to the soon-to-be released Dick Tracy watch from Apple. And we are deeply grateful for our endurance, the result of a selfless and totally committed staff and a trusting and supportive readership and advertising base. We are incredibly appreciative that we have with us staff who have been with the company for so many of those years, and subscribers and advertisers who still think we are worth the cost. And we highly value those who have joined us most recently, for they keep us on the cutting edge.

In creating The Village Times, in effect we created a microscopic world within our office in which talented staffers worked as a team to publish a hometown newspaper each week. Everyone learned to fill almost every position because we never knew who would be called away without finishing the allotted work. Why would that happen? Because we were mainly a group of mothers with young children, and I can say in all truthfulness that we invented the concept of job sharing.

As a result of so much teamwork, we tightly bonded then, even as we have continued the tradition of helping each other every day. Those bonds are much in evidence whenever former staffers, now highly successful perhaps in larger communications corporations, stop by to say “hello” and catch up on the latest. For we know of each others’ families, challenges and successes over the years and we delight in staying in touch.

As we built and grew newspapers, we also worked diligently to build and grow community. That is, after all, the consequence of a community newspaper that exists to share the problems and triumphs of the latest news, The net effect is to encourage bonding among residents for the common good and for pride of place. Where there is a strong sense of community, everyone benefits, from school districts and local governments to commercial, cultural and athletic efforts.

This weekend, we will celebrate the 39th annual party honoring the men and woman of the year as selected in our last issue of this past year. By appreciating their work in going the extra mile and enhancing our lives with their accomplishments, we are also strengthening our pride in community and encouraging communications among all segments of our hometown. When we get all those leaders into one room at one time socializing together, we like to think we are cross-pollinating for future cooperation and success. We will run some photos from the event in next week’s papers so that everyone can feel pleased with where and among whom we live.

Besides all that fun stuff, we are bringing out our latest publication, a beautiful magazine: LIFESTYLE. It will be inserted in all our newspapers each month, and we hope it will offer a breath of fresh air alongside some of our more somber news articles. In LIFESTYLE, we will examine activities and issues that animate our region and some that we might hope to enjoy. LIFESTYLE is intended to upgrade and augment our regular supplements, like Focus on Health, Our House, SummerTimes and HarvestTimes, and we will develop ideas and go farther afield in geography in its pages.

And finally, I will share with you our excitement over our revamped and upgraded website. With our new platform, we will be able to bring more news, more photos, more features, more voices and more interactivity to our communities. The official rollout is next week but, like the news itself, it will be an ongoing work in progress.

We create these new products and events to further your pleasure and the value you feel in our media company. But we cannot succeed in any of these efforts without your support and input. We will be delighted, as always, to hear from you. Happy Spring!

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By now, many people have heard of the Setauket Spy Ring and its leader, Benjamin Tallmadge that operated valuably during the Revolutionary War. For that and for putting Setauket “on the map,” so to speak, we can thank AMC’s “Turn,” the cable television program soon to begin Season 2. That these adventure stories have made our village famous I can vouch for personally. Many times, when I have been asked where I am from and have

answered, “Setauket,” I have then had to explain, even to Long Islanders, my hometown’s location as being between our better-known neighbors, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson. Now people will sometimes respond, “Oh, the Setauket spies.” They may still not have a geographic grasp, but at least they are impressed.

“Turn,” however, is just that, a series of adventure stories whose goal is to entertain and only accidentally teach. Unlike the popular series, “Downton Abbey” on PBS, where there is a full-time historian employed to assure accuracy of even the smallest details concerning the table settings, “Turn” makes up the narrative when the historic details aren’t convenient for the plot.

That is not to say that all characterizations and facts are not correct in the TV series. We learned of some that are and some that are not at a panel Sunday afternoon in the Emma Clark library in “famous” Setauket. The event, directed and moderated by reference librarian, Carolyn Emerson, featured five distinguished historians who answered questions from the moderator about the lives of citizens, soldiers and spies at the gathering titled, “Setauket During the Revolution.”

The five were town historian Barbara Russell; Three Village Historical Society’s Beverly Tyler; Suffolk Cooperative Library System’s Mark Rothenberg; Third Regiment, New York historian Bob Winowitch; and Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, lecturer and curator of the “Spies” exhibit at the historical society. Each panelist spoke for a few minutes, then answered questions from the standing-room-only crowd. For fun and instruction, most of the panel came dressed in clothes reminiscent of the Revolutionary War era.

Tallmadge, founder and head of the network, was a major, active in the Revolutionary battles in the north, even as he organized and oversaw the spy ring they called Culper. Abraham Woodhull was the resident spy, later replaced by Robert Townsend, and Caleb Brewster served as a courier, ferrying messages across the Long Island Sound to Washington in Connecticut. Others were deeply involved, including Austin Roe and Anna Smith Strong. The spy work was stressful and dangerous and involved the use of “invisible ink,” messages written between the lines of legitimate bills of sale whose words could be read only with the application of a special reagent. Much of the intelligence garnered came from mingling with the British in New York City, and so those spies had to have apparent reason to travel back and forth.

One significant accomplishment of the spies was to alert Washington that the British were sailing with a superior force to greet the French, who had entered the war and were due to disembark in Newport, R.I. Washington was then able to plant a fake set of plans for the invasion of New York City where the British would discover it. Intent on keeping control of New York City, which they viewed as key to their success, the British fleet turned around in the Sound to rush back for the anticipated battle. As a result, the French landed without opposition.

Life on Long Island under eight years of British occupation was hard. Residents were routinely subjected to forays by British troops for food and valuables. The population at the time was agrarian, with hard farm labor the order of the day, and the British viewed Long Island as their breadbasket. No one was safe, and as a result many who started the war as Loyalists became Patriots — hence the title “Turn.”

To judge the difference a TV series makes, in 2013 there were up to three visitors a week to the spy exhibit at the historical society, sometimes none; in 2014, there were 30. If you watch the AMC series, as I will on DVD, be sure to check the facts on any number of relevant websites.