One Year Later: Arson Incidents Unsolved

June 1, 2020

Rabbi Avi Bukiet (right) and his wife Luna (left) speak at Arlington, MA police headquarters after an arsonist attempted to torch their home on Lake St. in May, 2019.

By Robert Israel

Last spring signs began appearing near my home in Arlington, 3 miles from Harvard Square, declaring “Hate Has No Home Here.” The signs were placed by my neighbors on their front lawns in response to an arsonist’s attempt to destroy a Jewish house of worship on Lake St., the same night that another Jewish house of worship was targeted by an arsonist in Needham. Both fires were extinguished, and there were no reported injuries.

Soon afterward, a rally was held at Arlington Town Hall to express solidarity for the local Jewish family. I stopped in after work. An overflow crowd crammed the auditorium, spilling onto adjacent corridors.[1]

“In trying times such as these we must stick together and support one another,” State Senator Cindy Friedman told the throng. “We have to continue to demonstrate that we are welcoming and inclusive community.”

Rabbi Avi Bukiet, whose wife and five children live in the Lake. St. home targeted by the arsonist, echoed Friedman’s enthusiasm for the large show of support.

“The moral consciousness, that universal love for humanity has shined bright and I am completely overwhelmed by what I see in front of me,” Bukiet said.

The rally ended with what I call a “kumbaya moment,” as Bukiet and other religious and town officials liked arms on stage and led the crowd in a rousing sing along. Leaving the auditorium, I noticed scores of hand-lettered signs and drawings by Arlington schoolchildren scattered about the room, all with heartfelt expressions of “universal love.”

Yet in the weeks that followed, there were no follow-up meetings, no sign-up sheets asking citizens to participate in scheduled neighborhood patrols, no broadsides push-pinned onto community bulletin boards urging citizens to “drop a dime” if they witnessed suspicious activities. Considering the severity of the incidents – two families in two Massachusetts’s towns could have been incinerated — the rally in Arlington Town Hall was a one-off.

In a front-page follow-up story in the The Boston Globe[2], Rabbi Bukiet struck a darker tone.

“I can’t be naïve anymore,” said Bukiet, who hails from Lexington. “I thought over here [in the United States], it was different and I have to realize, no it’s not different.


In the New York Times[3], author Bari Weiss shared Rabbi Bukiet’s chagrin, writing that she struggled to comprehend, how, in her hometown of Pittsburgh, a gunman could murder 11 of her co-religionists at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. She wondered, how, six months later, another gunman could open fire with a AR-17 rifle, killing a congregant at a Jewish house of worship in Poway, CA. How could hatred against Jews take place in the United States where Jews have historically enjoyed freedom to live and to worship?

In an attempt to answer the question and to suggest ways to combat this ongoing scourge, Weiss wrote that all citizens must band together.

“The Jewish community,” Weiss wrote, “2 percent of America’s population, cannot go at this problem alone. We have to insist that the societies of which we are a part take a stand against anti-Semitism, because any society in which it flourishes is one that is dead or dying.”

That’s exactly what happened in Arlington: a community came together at Town Hall and left with a mission to eradicate hatred. But there was no follow-up. In the weeks, months and the year that passed, it was as if the arson incidents never happened.

But the incidents did happen, and anti-Semitism continues to flare, in growing numbers throughout Massachusetts and nationally, according an audit conducted by the ADL.[4] And the arsonists who tried to burn down two houses of worship in Needham and Arlington remain at large, despite a well-publicized reward of over $20,000 put forth from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the ADL, and the Massachusetts Fire Marshal’s office for information leading to their arrest and conviction.


The arson incidents in Needham and Arlington have spurred responses from those who believe that confronting anti-Semitism requires bolder measures.

Rabbi Dan Rodkin of Brighton’s Shaloh House tells his congregants to come to synagogue bearing arms.[5]

“We can’t think, ‘I’m just praying and God will save me,’” Rabbi Rodkin told WBUR news. “No, we need to take care of situations ourselves.”

Several of Rodkin’s congregants – those who have served in the military and in law enforcement — come to synagogue packing heat.

“I don’t want to people to have guns, but I think to protect our families it is a necessity now,” Rodkin said, adding that he expects to get a gun and will “organize training for the new gun owners” at his synagogue.

Training congregants to use guns for self-protection at a synagogue was already underway in Los Angeles after the fatal shooting of a female congregant on April 27, 2019 in Poway, CA. Rabbi Raziel Cohen, the self-proclaimed “Tactical Rabbi,” told the Los Angeles Times[6] that he teaches congregants at his Los Angeles synagogue how to use AR-15 rifles. A photograph in the paper showed Cohen holding a high-powered assault weapon in a crowded synagogue classroom. Cohen is quoted saying, “We don’t need to be victims. We need to protect ourselves now.”

Robert Trestan, director of the New England office of the ADL in Boston (who addressed the crowd in Arlington Town Hall a year ago), adamantly disagrees.

“A house of worship is not a place where one should be bringing any kind of weapon,” Trestan said.[7]

Other solutions are safer and more effective, Trestan insists. In Greater Boston, funding is available from the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) and the ADL to defray the costs of maintaining surveillance equipment and hiring security patrols during religious services. A “watch list” is distributed electronically that details the activities of suspicious individuals who may have issued threats, or who may have been sighted stalking religious sites. Trestan and his team meet with law enforcement personnel, town officials, and human rights groups in dozens of Massachusetts’s cities and towns – and throughout New England — to help implement safety measures designed to protect religious groups.


While the signs once affixed to metal stanchions proclaiming “Hate Has No Home Here” have all but disappeared from my neighbors’ front lawns, other signs have taken their place. Many are emblazoned with a single word, “Hope,” to express faith a vaccine will prevent more deaths that have claimed so many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But no vaccine – and no signs – can eradicate hatred. As Bari Weiss wrote, the battle will only be won by communities working collectively, with vigilance, to expose and prosecute those who cower in the shadows among us.



[1] “Arlington shows solidarity with Jewish community following Chabad fires,”

[2] The Boston Globe, June 25, 2019.

[3] “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” by Bari Weiss, New York Times, Sept. 8, 2019.

[4] “Anti-Semitic Incidents Hit An All-Time High in 2019,” ADL,

[5] “Brighton Rabbi Asks Congregation to Bring Guns to Synagogue,” WBUR, June 24, 2019,

[6] “The ‘Tactical Rabbi’ helps synagogues defends against anti-Semitic violence,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2019,

[7] Interview with Robert Trestan by the author, July 3, 2019.

Visualizing a Reopened Boston

May 20, 2020

A view of Boston’s skyline at night.

By Robert Israel

The deadly COVID-19 virus will not go away, although I wish the obnoxious and grumpy customers at an ice cream stand in Mashpee would disappear, especially after they captured headlines by refusing to socially distance and verbally abused a 17-year old server with f-bombs, forcing the manager to shutter his business.

I stand with Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh. He faces the t.v. cameras every day, live from City Hall, urging patience in the face of a deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

“Overall the data tells us that we’re moving in the right direction on new cases, on positive tests, and on hospitalizations for about three weeks here now,” Mayor Walsh said, adding, “We have to get it right because we can’t afford a second shutdown.”

The data Walsh is paying attention to is being compiled daily by a team of over 50 researchers, including experts at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and other agencies. We should heed their advice.

Here’s why:

Boston, like most cities, is tightly packed, with residents living in tiny apartments in rabbit warren neighborhoods. Our cramped streets are clogged with national and international tourists arriving by bus loads. We have eager and fresh faced college students, also living in dorm units downtown. Every Friday and Saturday, Haymarket shoppers crowd the skinny streets that comprise Blackstone Block to purchase day-old produce from open stalls. Stadiums like Fenway Park can fill up with 35,000 people who cheer on the Red Sox at baseball games, and we have many more sandwiched into massive convention centers, shopping malls, and restaurants, who travel via underground tunnels that have almost no ventilation. So, if we’re going to keep all these and many other aspects of city life flourishing while also keeping everyone safe, we have to be considerate, cautious, vigilant, and respectful. We have no choice but to wait this out. We need to continue to socially distance, to wear our face masks, to say our prayers, and to stop being selfish, like those rude customers at the ice cream stand in Mashpee.

Yes, it’s easier said and than done. But let’s look at the facts. According to the New York Times database, as of this writing, the coronavirus has killed at least 91,900 people in the U.S., and sickened more than 1.5 million. It is far from over. So, even if it makes us uneasy, we need to do it anyway.

Gov. Charlie Baker has already announced a phased opening of the state, Yet Mayor Walsh is urging patience. He has extended the city’s lockdown until summertime. Outdoor concerts are cancelled, including the  Esplanade Fourth of July fireworks/Boston Pops extravaganza. I’m okay with not heading down to the banks of the Charles River, as I have done in years past, and sitting alongside my neighbors sipping tall frosty beers while watching the fireworks light up my favorite city. I can give up lots of things. I think we all can, and must. Our health and the health and wellbeing of our neighbors is not worth sacrificing.

I don’t spend my time lamenting about what I cannot do. Rather, I visualize a reopened Boston that is proud of its past, of lessons learned from hardships like this pandemic, and is optimistic about its future.

I look forward to hoofing it back to all those things I miss. I miss concerts at Symphony Hall, attending live theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, at the Parmount Center, the Wang Theatre, the Wilbur, the Shubert, and the Charles Playhouse. I miss going to dinner, strolling through the shopping mall at Copley Place, browsing book titles at Barnes and Noble at the Pru.

But I want more than that. I want to see us actively take better care of one another, to extend the compassion we are now exhibiting, to provide better opportunities for young people, better services for the homeless. We deserve a pat on our collective backs for having raised over $3 million for the Greater Boston Food Bank in April, but when we’re through self-congratulating, we must plan to rebound with the same fundraising spirit next year, as we aim to hit an ever higher mark.

As for the offices and workers, let’s stagger work shifts and approach each day with purpose and commitment. We can unclog our streets, keep the pollution down, and still get our jobs done.

And let’s make press briefings from Mayor Walsh and Gov. Baker weekly events where they share not only projects they’re working on, but ways we can work with them on those projects, where we’re needed, as well as progress we’re all making by working together. Leadership should not be only responding to crises — it should be about inspiring others every day.

We don’t need slogans. We don’t need imbecilic “leaders” in the White House promoting untested prescription drugs as a panacea for a virus that can only be treated with a vaccine. We don’t need hostile ignoramuses demanding Tutti-Frutti ice cream cones in Mashpee. We’ve proven over and over again how dumb we can be. Instead, let’s prove how smart we can be.

We must envision applying what we’ve learned from having lived through the detritus of this deadly virus while pledging to continue to help one another through the challenges to come. There will be dark days to come. But there will also be bright days, too.

It starts with you and with me.

Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” : Love and Faith in a Dangerous Time

May 11, 2020

“Yiddish is a language of yearning, a language of anxiety,” playwright Paula Vogel.

By Robert Israel

At a performance of Paula Vogel’s one-act play Indecent, as the audience enters the auditorium, 10 men and women seated onstage appear as apparitions—some holding instruments, some wearing fedoras, all dressed in funereal sackcloth. 1 They compose a minyan, or quorum, required by Jewish law before a worship service can begin.

As the stage lights brighten, this ghostly minyan announces they will perform multiple roles—Yiddish writers, actors, producers, a stage manager, a husband and wife, a rabbi, and lesbian lovers—to share a “true story of a little Jewish play.”

Awarding-winning playwright Paula Vogel structures Indecent as a play-within-a-play. She restages scenes from that “little Jewish play”—The God of Vengeance, penned in 1906 by Polish Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch (1880–1957)—and she crafts back-story scenes to show how Asch’s play was created, how it experienced triumphs and failures, and why it is worthy of being included among works by the twentieth century’s most pioneering writers. Asch’s play, Vogel argues, is a product of its time and ahead of its time in its recognition that human passion transcends gender barriers, and that it is also a necessary component to sustain the human spirit.

Vogel’s initial scenes introduce us to Asch as a member of the famed poet I. L. Peretz’s Warsaw literary salon. But when he presents his work to Peretz’s august gathering, everything goes wrong. His work is greeted with accusations of blasphemy. He is attacked for writing “Jewish anti-Semitism.” No wonder: Asch’s play attacks false piety through the character Yekel, a duplicitous Jewish patriarch. Yekel operates a brothel downstairs from his family’s residence and tries to atone for his sins by arranging to marry his daughter, Rifkele, to a pious suitor, only to learn she has fallen in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes in his brothel.

As Indecent progresses, Asch’s play is shown enjoying success throughout Europe and Russia in seeming defiance of the negative assessments of his peers. His star is on the rise. But when his play reaches America in 1923, it is banned. Like those earlier critics in Warsaw, fellow Jews demand that the play close. A rabbi takes to his pulpit and conde

There are tender scenes of women embracing and kissing, a first for Broadway in the 1920s, and one of the reasons The God of Vengeance was banned.

While Indecent’s overall tone is solemn, there are moments, peppered throughout the play, when the cast bursts into singing and dancing to the rhythms of klezmer music (composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva), changing the mood to one of community connection and celebration. Indecent also tells the love story of two women. There are tender scenes of women embracing and kissing, a first for Broadway in the 1920s, and one of the reasons The God of Vengeance was banned. A final scene involves the two women locked in an embrace in the rain, surrendering to a downpour of passion amid the chaos.

Vogel’s exhaustive research into Asch and his era is conveyed to the audience via superscripts (in both Yiddish and English) projected onto the rear wall of the stage. This visual device allows her to alert the audience to transitions and to show that Asch was among other artists in challenging the era’s repressive, parochial thinking. A cast member appears as American playwright (and later Nobel laureate in literature) Eugene O’Neill.2 Hunkered down in a lower Manhattan bar, an embattled O’Neill claims he is sympathetic to Asch’s dilemma but insists he is unable to help his fellow writer.

Before final curtain, the players, who have affixed yellow Stars of David to their lapels, perform a scene set in the Lódź ghetto where they await their fate under murderous Nazi overlords. Hidden from casual scrutiny, they choose to rehearse The God of Vengeance. They share bits of stale bread. By candlelight, they read Asch’s lines aloud.

The play comes full circle. The apparitional minyan of players at the play’s onset faces us again as if from their graves. Concealed in the linings of their baggy clothes are ashes that cascade to the stage floor, collecting in dry heaps at their feet. Vogel’s final message: we live in a dangerous world, and our survival depends on passionately clinging to faith and art as lifelines to our humanity.

 Vogel’s Indecent earned two Tony Awards during its 2017 New York run.3 It is yet another ambitious work by a dramatist who has won multiple awards, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive and an Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2017.

While winning over audiences and critics, Vogel has dedicated her career to championing diversity and inclusivity in the American theater. She is also committed to preserving the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and with celebrating her love of Yiddish.

“I heard Yiddish spoken while sitting at my grandmother’s knee when she told me the meanings of words I wasn’t supposed to repeat in polite company,” Vogel said in an interview. 4 “This is the same Yiddish that Sholem Asch wrote. It was not the High Yiddish of poet I. L. Peretz or novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, but the Yiddish spoken in the homes, in the factories. One of Acsh’s first jobs was to translate letters for immigrant Jews. His parents wanted him to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a playwright and novelist.”

This is the same earthy dialect of Yiddish, or mama loshn (mother tongue), I heard as a boy growing up among immigrant Jews who labored as “sweaters” in the schmatte (garment) shops in an industrial neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. 5 One of the challenges Vogel said that she and director Rebecca Taichman (who learned Yiddish from her relatives in Canada) faced was to find a way to share this love of Yiddish with contemporary audiences. Many consider Yiddish coarse, and it was considerably diminished when the Nazis murdered Jews that spoke it. As the article “A Revival of Yiddish?” puts it:

“Yiddish did not exactly die a natural death,” Lansky reminds us. “One of every two Yiddish speakers was, after all, murdered in the Holocaust. As though that weren’t enough,” he notes, “many Jews escaped the Nazis by fleeing to the Soviet Union, where mounting repression finally culminated on August 12, 1952, when Stalin ordered the execution of his country’s major Yiddish writers and intellectuals on a single night.” 6

The children of Jews who grew up after World War II were often discouraged from speaking Yiddish at home, and it ceased to be taught in cheder (religious schools). Once flourishing Yiddish daily and weekly newspapers—noteworthy for literary supplements that featured writers like I. L. Peretz, Shalom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and others—have all but vanished.

“As a youngster, I grew up among people who experienced the Shoah (Holocaust), and who knew that the world would never be the same,” Vogel said. “Yiddish is a language of yearning, a language of anxiety. I believe we’ve worked hard to communicate that love to the audiences. We’ve had productions in Omaha, Nebraska, and in Boise, Idaho, where Yiddish is rarely heard. Audiences have said they feel the emotion we are trying to convey.”

Integrating Yiddish songs in the play is an effective theatrical device, particularly when two women burst into a cheerful rendition of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” (“To Me You’re Beautiful”) from the 1932 Yiddish musical I Would If I Could. Audiences connect to the song’s buoyant romanticism and to its Jewish songwriters, who contributed to the Great American Songbook, along with so many others. 7  Even today, Asch’s depiction of two women finding each other beautiful gives an added dimension to this popular song.

Jewish music is but one of many threads woven into a play that stresses the importance of ancestry, not just our biological ancestry but also our literary and linguistic ancestries. In her preface to the published script of Indecent, Vogel writes: “This play is dedicated to Rebecca Taichman’s immigrant ancestors. And to mine. And all of ours.” 8

In our era of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments, this message is in line with Sholem Asch’s efforts, detailed in Indecent, to communicate the cultural and economic conflicts experienced by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States, to aid in relief efforts for Jewish war victims of World War I, and to persuade others to wake up to the dangers of Nazi power. Asch was aware of the pogroms that continued to flare in Europe and Russia after World War I, and how this festering sore of Jew-hatred was contributing to the rise of Nazism. As is shown in the play, he tried to get other writers, politicians, and members of the U.S. public to recognize the increasing repression of Jews and to do more to help, becoming increasingly frustrated by their inaction.

Given this context, Vogel’s “true story of a little Jewish play” has the power not only to unite generations but to awaken us to the dangers in our own moment. For these reasons and more, this work stands among the best in American theater.



  1. I attended a performance of Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston during its run April 26–May 25, 2019. The play was directed by Rebecca Taichman and was a co-production of the Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, and the Huntington Theatre Company. I reviewed the play for The Arts Fuse on May 4, 2019.
  2. O’Neill’s play Desire under the Elms—inspired by Greek tragedy—was banned in Boston and in the UK in 1924 for its graphic treatment of incest.
  3. “2017 Tony Awards: The Complete List of Winners and Nominees,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2017. Rebecca Taichman is cited for best director of a play and Christopher Akerlind for best lighting design of a play.
  4. Interview with Paula Vogel, April 22, 2019.
  5. I described growing up in this community in my Summer/Autumn 2016 Harvard Divinity Bulletin piece, “Growing into Faith.”
  6. “A Revival of Yiddish?” Harvard Magazine, July 1, 1997. Aaron Lansky, quoted in the article, is director of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
  7. Numerous vocalists and musicians have recorded versions of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” over many decades—among them, the Andrews Sisters, Kate Smith, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Guy Lombardo—assuring its place among the most popular American songs. The song was also a smash hit in Nazi Germany in 1938 but was later banned when its provenance was discovered.
  8. Preface to Indecent: A New Play by Paula Vogel (Theatre Communications Group, 2017).


This article appeared in Harvard University Divinity School Bulletin, Spring/Summer issue, May, 2020. It is reprinted by permission.

Appreciation: Doriot Anthony Dwyer

March 20, 2020

By Robert Israel

Time magazine recently published 100 Women of the Year, a feature devoted to highlighting a century of accomplishments by women in politics, the arts, and medicine. Several women the sage editors considered to be musical trailblazers were listed: Madonna, Pussy Riot, Aretha Franklin, and Sinead O’Connor. An inevitable part of the profiles was testimony to the struggles these artists faced trying to achieve fame in a male-dominated field.

And while it’s true these female musicians made lasting impressions, there was one glaring omission: the achievements of flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who died on March 14, 2020 at the age of 98.

Dwyer was not as flamboyant or as brash as the others on Time’s list. She did not seek attention in the press. Yet, like those on the roll call in Time, she broke into a male-dominated music field through a mastery of her instrument.

Born in Illinois and schooled in music as a youngster, she was grandniece to Susan B. Anthony, the social reformer and women’s rights activist. As a young adult, she played freelance (appearing with Frank Sinatra and later joining the National Symphony Orchestra). Dwyer was 30 years old when she auditioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. Maestro Charles Munch — unimpressed with male candidates — proposed a “ladies day” in 1952, in which Dwyer and one other female soloist were invited to try out. At the time, Dwyer was performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She traveled to Lenox, financing the trip herself, telling her employers in Los Angeles she needed “elective surgery.” The audition was grueling — it lasted several hours. When it was over, Dwyer returned to California, convinced she did not get the gig. Soon afterward, she was summoned back to Lenox, but she told the BSO she was unable to return. She was convinced, she told an interviewer many years later, that the job would go to a male flutist anyway.

The BSO surprised her with an offer; she requested a higher salary than the one she was making in Los Angeles. She retained the position here for almost four decades (1952-1990). Only one other woman achieved a similar feat: Helen Kotas of the Chicago Symphony, who held a principal chair at a major American orchestra from 1941 to 1948.

I heard Dwyer perform numerous times at Symphony Hall during the ’70s and ’80s, but came to appreciate her unique talents most after I attended the BSO Chamber Players concerts at Jordan Hall. Because of the venue’s smaller size, concertgoers are given opportunities to hear, close up,  the warmth and expanse of a performer’s talents.

Listening to Dwyer during these concerts made it clear that she was a virtuoso flutist, one who could coax brightly burnished tones out of the instrument. She did not display the whimsy of, say, Sir James Galway, who often appears wearing a multicolored cummerbund about his waist and who uses his playful spirit to prance onstage, punctuating the notes with body language that adds drama and playfulness. In contrast, Dwyer sat on stage without calling attention to herself, yet she was quietly exhilarating, memorable in that she left me pondering her performances long after I had exited the hall.

For those unfamiliar with Dwyer’s sound, I would send you to her rendition of a piece composed for solo flute by Claude Debussy in 1913. Titled “Syrinx,” it refers to the part of a bird’s thorax that produces birdsong. You can listen to it here on YouTube. You may hear similarities to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which was composed in 1894. That is because “Syrinx” calls upon the flutist to conjure up the same mesmerizing, haunting tones, sounds that soar and then land earthward without ever seeming to touch the ground. Dwyer was one of those rare musical spirits who are able to perform music that jazz musician Eric Dolphy (a saxophonist and flutist) called “vanishing”: “Music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can never capture it again.”

Dwyer did not entirely avoid politics. She was present at the ceremony on October 17, 1978, when Susan B. Anthony’s likeness was unveiled on the new dollar coin. In an interview with the New York Times, she asked about the significance of her being one of the only women to have been hired for a chair at the BSO. Her response: “This has changed, but it could change even more. I think it will.”

Times have not changed all that quickly. This point was recently made by the travails of Elizabeth Rowe, the current principal flutist at the BSO. Alerted to wage disparities between men and women musicians in the orchestra, Rowe initially complained to the BSO management. After garnering support from her fellow musicians, she felt compelled to sue the orchestra. She eventually received the same rate of pay as her male counterparts. That celebrated case – she is now paid over $250,000 a year – was widely reported in the press.

Reflecting on the long life and career of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, I want to pay grateful homage and respect not only to her pioneering accomplishments as a musician and teacher, but also to her bewitching rendition of Debussy’s “Syrinx.” It is spring now — a very troubled spring. But there are moments when the lyrical, cleansing sound of Dwyer’s flute comes to me — at dawn and at sunset — and her birdsong pushes aside the threatening cacophony.


This piece was published in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on March 26, 2020.

Remembering Survivor Steve Ross

February 25, 2020
Israel Arbeiter, Steve Ross

Boston-area Holocaust survivors Israel Arbeiter (left) and Steve Ross. (AP photo)

By Robert Israel

I met Steve Ross, Boston-area Holocaust survivor and Jewish activist who died on February 24th, over two decades ago. He strode into the newsroom where I was working as editor an hour before we were scheduled to meet.

“I’m sorry to come so early,” he apologized, “but time is precious, I have many appointments, and I couldn’t reach you by telephone.”

He got to the point: During a conversation he and I had a month or so before, he said, I told him I would get back to him as to the extent of editorial support that the newspaper would provide for the New England Holocaust Memorial. What progress had I made?

The New England Holocaust Memorial today is a heavily visited site along Boston’s Freedom Trail with its glass towers and steam rising beneath, numbers of those that were murdered during the Nazi scourge etched into the glass. But at the time of his visit to the newsroom, Steve, who survived the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and was one of the memorial’s champions, its future was not certain. So Steve went door to door — literally — to enlist others, like me, to join him in ensuring this memorial would be erected.

Back track a month earlier: I arrived at a benefit concert Steve and others spearheaded to raise funds and awareness for that memorial at Boston’s Symphony Hall.  Steve greeted me in the lobby of the hall, handed me my tickets, told me fund raising was going well, but, even so, he expected that the dollar amount already pledged would be greater. He implored me, that night to write a column, to have a photographer take a picture, to do whatever I could do, and to do it soon. A highlight of the concert was an appearance by stage and screen actor, tenor Mandy Patinkin. Mandy performed several songs in Yiddish. I grew up with Yiddish — the mama loshn, or mother tongue, of immigrant Jews — but to hear it sung so flawlessly left me, and many of the audience members, visibly and emotionally moved. But none of us more so than Steve: he sat nearby where I was seated, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Steve and I met at other times when he wasn’t pressed for time, or engaged pressing the flesh for funds for the memorial. We ate lunch at the Milk Street Cafe — a dairy restaurant downtown. I’d also see him at various functions at the Massachusetts State House. At the side entrance to the State House there is a statue of Mary Dyer that many pass by every day not realizing its historical importance and significance to religious freedom. Dyer was persecuted for the crime of practicing her Quaker faith. She — along with two men, also Quakers — were lynched on Boston Common in 1660, following a “trial” that made mockery of justice. When Steve and I discussed Mary Dyer, we both agreed that the statue — along with the Holocaust Memorial — were “go-to” destinations for school groups and others so they could claim a stake within their communities to eradicate persecution and to ban religious intolerance.

The dedication ceremonies in 1995 for the New England Holocaust Memorial across from Blackstone Block in Boston was attended by dignitaries that included the late Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. I stood on the sidelines, mingling with the crowd. But Steve found me. With his characteristic visible display of affection, he embraced me.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “You made promises. You came through.”

Today, it is I who am thankful for having met Steve, now of blessed memory. He delivered on his promise and, with the help of many others, we now have a Holocaust memorial that reminds all who visit it to reflect on the tragic lessons of history. Like the statue of Mary Dyer at the State House, we are reminded of the importance of claiming a stake in ensuring we will never again witness persecution of others singled out on their race, creed, or religion — not now, and not ever again in our future.




When Employers “Go Fishing”

February 4, 2020

When posting a job opening and seeking the help of a recruiter, act ethically — and avoid fishing expeditions for candidates.

By Robert Israel

In my previous posting on staffing agencies, I wrote about effective, ethical staffing agencies and those whose practices are less ethical. These unethical agencies – many of them located offshore — seize upon a listing and embark on fishing expeditions using umbrella rigs. They send out emails and make numerous “urgent” telephone calls to candidates (sometimes several times a day to the same candidates). They are hoping to claim the prize. The problem with this behavior is that these unethical agencies calling potential candidates are doing so without having previously reviewed that individual candidate’s credentials. They are shooting fish in a barrel. It’s scattershot, at best. These agencies need to be avoided at all costs.

But what happens when employers – who legitimately have a job to fill – use multiple agencies to “go fishing” for candidates? In my view, they are just as unethical as the staffing agencies that don’t do the work necessary to engage with a candidate, or learn how this candidate may or may not measure up to the employer’s job opening. This approach by employers, like the staffing agencies that blindly chum the waters for any live candidate with a pulse in hopes of netting a live catch, is just as ineffectual. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this scenario:

Employer A has posted a vacancy on a job board, and contracted a recruiter to find candidates. The recruiter sends out a notice, seeking candidates and asking them to submit their credentials. The recruiter then calls candidates and conducts phone screens, writes up their impressions and sends them off to the employer. Fair enough, and even though I believe these phone screens – lasting 10 minutes or perhaps even 15 minutes — are not the most effective tools to evaluate a candidate’s qualifications, they are widely accepted as useful first steps. After passing on the information to the employer, the employer has a choice, to either act on the evaluation, or to reject it. The problem is that the recruiter and the candidate are often never informed of the decision. The candidate may never know what happened to their application. If the candidate doesn’t hear back, well, he or she can assume they have been relegated to the cutting room floor. When follow-up occurs, it’s usually in the form of a terse email rejection note.

Where we get into a deep morass is when employers exhaust the services of one recruiter, hire another recruiter, post a recycled job description (usually similarly worded), and go through the process all over again. It’s a modern day version of the Myth of Sisyphus – the rock will always roll to the bottom once the poor chap (the candidate) reaches the summit and is forced to go back down and fetch it again and gain.

The problem I have with this fishing expedition is that the person who takes the bait – the candidate – doesn’t know he or she is being chummed.

Employers: there are only a limited amount of qualified candidates out there in the candidate pool, swimming around with the credentials you are looking for. Stop treating the job search process like a fishing expedition. Take the time to respond to those candidates that have gone through the hurdles. Treat candidates like the human beings they are, not guppies. Play fair: it’s the ethical thing to do.

Recruiters: let potential candidates know this job has been posted before. That requires sharing your client’s name up front during the screening process, and establishing a trusting environment out of the gate. Play fair: if it’s a repeat search, say so.

Job seekers: keep a tally of those employers who engage in fishing expeditions, and share their names with other job seekers. Employers do not want to be bad mouthed by disgruntled job seekers, but unless job seekers take a stand, it’s going to continue, the boulder will roll back downhill and some unwitting candidate is going to try to push it uphill.

Bottom Line: the more employers treat candidates like fish that they catch and release, the more they will be noticed and avoided by those who legitimately want to present their credentials and get hired. Word gets around, and the next fishing expedition you engage in, when you expect to pull candidates into your net, may just come up empty.

Best Boston Theater in 2019

December 29, 2019

By Robert Israel

The best stage productions in 2019 invited audiences to experience the theatrical synergy generated by player, sound, lighting, set, costumes, and directors. Here are my top three choices for the best stage shows:

Kinson Theodoris, Amelia Broome, Cheryl D. Singleton in the Lyric Stage production of The Little Foxes. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, staged by Lyric Stage Company, Boston. Scott Edmiston directed this blemish-free production starring the sublime Anne Gottlieb as Regina Giddens, who, circa 1900, engages in psychological warfare to reclaim her share of the American dream. Hellman planned to write a trilogy about this pernicious Southern family, but completed only two entries. Her prequel, Another Part of the Forest, hasn’t been performed in Boston in years (read: decades). The Lyric Stage production of Foxes was a critical and financial success. Will someone conscript Edmiston (and cast) to stage the Hellman prequel in 2020?

The Lighthouse by Yukio Mishima, staged by Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. Mishima is a major playwright and, like Hellman, his scripts are rarely produced. The PTWTF production showed how much we were missing by staging an English language premiere. This was an outdoor production, the lights of Provincetown harbor standing in for footlights. Benny Sato Ambush’s direction was strong, and the cast members evoked the script’s pressurized collection of raw, taboo longings. The sound of the incoming tide deepened the mood, as darkness fell and the lighthouse off MacMillan Pier signaled to us via indecipherable Morse code.

Indecent by Paula Vogel, staged by Huntington Theater Company, Boston. Under Rebecca Taichman’s insightful direction, the cast was skillfully spectral — until it burst into to life via radiant songs and dances in Yiddish and English. Vogel warns us that the world remains a dangerous place to openly practice one’s faith, but human love can triumph — even in the Holocaust.

Farewell to IRNE

In 2019, the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) called it quits after 23 years. IRNE’s theater critics (myself among them) celebrated the best shows and stage artists by hosting an annual boisterous and irreverent awards soiree in Brookline. IRNE’s demise leaves the New England theater community a much poorer place.

Why Theater Matters

“I think we go to the theater to have our hearts broken. Because it’s the only real evidence we have that we’re human. Once your heart is broken, you’re home free.”


This article originally appeared in a different form in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston), on December 28, 2019.

From Both Sides of the Desk: What to Look For in Staffing Agencies

December 19, 2019

By Robert Israel

I want to celebrate the employment picture in the United States, which I am told continues to brighten, thanks to a rosy report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating we all should expect a steady uptick in hiring throughout New Year 2020.

I want to be heartened by the low unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, which I am told is the lowest number since 1969.

But what’s keeping me from a state of ecstasy is the fact that nowhere in this statistical account keeping is there mention of workers taking temporary, or contract jobs that have limited time spans.

The BLS does not report on these jobs that come with the proviso that the person filling the slot will either be paid 1099 (no taxes withheld), not W-2. Consultant jobs are often handled by a myriad of staffing agencies that frees their clients (and the workplace where the consultant or temporary worker goes to work each day) from filing handling the necessary paperwork required by state and federal authorities. There are many advantages for employers who sign up with these staffing agencies: they get all the benefits of the milk, without having to buy the cow. After the initial trial period and/or contract, they can either release the contracted employee after the contract expires, or offer them a full-time slot. And while the contractor is working, he or she is out of the workforce and not being tabulated by the BLS.

Some contractors can go on working for years with this sort of arrangement. They file a weekly summary of hours spent, procure a signature from their work site manager, and, in many cases, get to enjoy benefits (not from the workplace itself, but from the staffing agency). Many such workers actually express preference for this type of employment.

Of course, when they get laid off, there is no way they can collect unemployment insurance (unless they have worked W-2), so they are forced to scramble among staffing agencies (and there are many out there) in hopes of finding gainful employment.

I have talked with many reputable agencies who have taken the time to review my credentials and who are actually “direct vendors” for specific companies looking to beef up their workforce. I respect their professionalism and tenacity, and many firms I have dealt with have been respectful to me.

Conversely, I have also talked with several less reputable firms who have called me as soon as a listing hits the wires, who have not read my resume or looked at my online portfolios, and who are not directly involved with the company they purport to represent.

To workers looking to get hired, who may hear from these sorts of “headhunters,” my advice: steer clear of them. You will not be well represented.

When shopping around, look for a staffing agency that has a direct relationship with a client. Feel free to ask questions about the job description (assuming one has been sent to you). If you find you are being hustled, if the person on the other end of the telephone is hyperventilating and urging you to sign on with them because there is an “urgent” need to fill the position, thank them for their time and hang up.

There should never be such a degree of urgency that precludes a conversation covering the simplest of bases, like, for example, reviewing the work you will be asked to be doing, the person or persons to whom you will be reporting to, rate of pay, or if the position is “temp to perm” — is it a short-term assignment with the potential of becoming a full-time, salaried slot?

You may indeed end up only working for a short term in a scenario like this, and it may or may not be lucrative. It is important to remember that job descriptions can and do change in mid-stream. But do not go in blind, or you will end up being blind-sided. If you give off an air of desperation, and if you submit to an agency where this desperation is cultivated, the end result may not be to your liking. There is dignity in work only when all parties involved are respectful.

Hold you head high, ask questions, and if you feel railroaded, it will become necessary to get off that train and wait for the next one to arrive in the station.


Robert Israel’s “From Both Sides of the Desk” is a series of insights into how to improve communications, marketing, employment, public relations, and publishing projects. It is written by an editor, who sits on one side of the desk, and a p.r. practitioner pitching ideas/stories/concerns, who sits on the other side of the desk.

Author Interview: Alan Lightman

November 22, 2019

Alan Lightman

[The following interview with Alan Lightman appeared in the Fall/Winter issue of Harvard University Divinity School Bulletin; it is reprinted by permission.]

Alan Lightman, MIT professor, theoretical physicist, social entrepreneur, and author, is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which works to advance a new generation of women leaders in Southeast Asia. He has written a memoir, novels, poetry, science books, and, in 2018, two book-length extended essays: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (Pantheon) and In Praise of Wasting Time (TED Books), which explore how different kinds of knowledge can be obtained from science and religion in today’s wired world. 

Bulletin contributor Robert Israel interviewed Lightman at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

In the opening chapter of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, you describe a transcendent experience while drifting in your boat and gazing at the night sky: “I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them” (6). The book’s tone is reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, written when he lived at Walden Pond, located just down the road from your home.

My book is written in the style of an extended meditation, like Thoreau’s Walden or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Since I’ve worked as a physicist for many years, I’ve held a purely scientific view of the world, and I wanted to draw a distinction between what I call “Absolutes”—permanence, immortality, unity, certainty— which we get from religious beliefs, and those we get from what I call “Relatives”— impermanence, fragmentation, mortality, materiality, divisibility—found by science to exist in the material world.

For example, we once thought the atom was indivisible and indestructible, but science has shown the atom can be split. Stars have been shown by science to be objects that will exhaust their nuclear fuel and burn out. Even our universe was once thought to be the largest unity, but leading scientists suggest our universe is just one of many universes, the multiverse. This distinction between Absolutes and Relatives provides the larger framework in which I discuss science and religion.

Can you further describe the multiverse theory, which you state is unproven? Does it qualify as science?

The multiverse idea is plausible because it explains some otherwise unexplainable aspects of our universe, and it is actually predicted in some leading cosmological theories, such as the chaotic inflationary theory. We do not know how to directly test the multiverse theory, since the different “universes” are out of contact with each other. Whether the theory should be considered part of science depends on your philosophy of science. If you hold that, to be scientific, a theory must be confirmed by experiment, or at least testable in principle, then the multiverse idea would not qualify as science. However, if you believe that a theory is scientific if some parts of it can be directly tested and other parts follow as a logical consequence, then the multiverse idea is part of science.

Do you want to unsettle the clear-cut distinctions between religion and science? What is at stake for you in doing this?

Science and religion, like most things, have similarities and differences. They are similar in that they involve passionate commitments to certain beliefs, and to some beliefs that cannot be proven. They both involve a sense of beauty, a connection to the cosmos, an appreciation of the exaltation of human beings. And they both hold certain beliefs. However, the means of arriving at those beliefs vastly differ. Religion arrives at its beliefs by the personal transcendent experience and by the writings in the “sacred” books, which are considered to express the word of God and enlightened beings. Science arrives at its beliefs by experiments with the physical world.

What is at stake in understanding these similarities and differences? Everything. Science and religion are the two greatest forces that have shaped human civilization. Together, they represent the full complexity of the human mind: the rationality, the emotion, the sense of being, transcendence.

Does what propels the religious dimensions of spiritual life also propel your delight in studying the material world?

Yes. Both involve a desire to know and understand, a desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.

You suggest that when all scientific absolutes have become relative, still some sort of absolute persists. You provide the example of Albert Einstein (115–20). Could you expand on the “mysterious order” that Einstein mentions?

Einstein did not believe in a “personal” God, who cares about his creations. But he did believe in an order in the universe, as embodied by the laws of nature. How this order came about, we do not know. It may or may not have involved an intelligent designer. Einstein leaves this last question open, saying that it is too big for our limited human minds. I would agree. However, I would add that we do not have any evidence for a God who intervenes in the physical world—that is, who acts in a way that is not understandable by the laws of nature.

There are times when you depict materiality as mundane and disenchanted, and in so doing you seem to shore up a division between the natural and supernatural (21–29). There seems to be tension between the impact of the material world upon you and the ordinariness of atoms, molecules, etc., and yet you find them anything but “ordinary.” Are you questioning the disenchanting of materiality that has made possible the natural/supernatural, material/spiritual oppositions?

The material world, and the “laws of nature” that we use to describe it, does not capture all of human experience. That is all I am saying. There are experiences we have—such as looking up at the stars on a clear night or listening to a Beethoven symphony—that are not quantifiable, even if these experiences are rooted in the material neurons of our material brain. These experiences seem to rise above their material origins, like consciousness, into an ethereal realm.

In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, he, too, wrote of feeling one with the universe while gazing at the stars: “Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays.”1 Yet, his contemporary, author Herman Melville, in a 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, said he felt that Emerson’s transcendental experiences—he called them the “all feeling”—were fleeting: “The truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.”2 Was your own experience in Maine under the starry sky a “temporary feeling,” as Melville described, or did it have more profound implications for you?

Melville and Emerson are not at odds with each other. There is a profound current, a feeling in the world, that goes back thousands of years. To me, in its most general terms, the transcendent experience described by Emerson and questioned by Melville is the feeling of being connected to something larger. In that letter, Melville wrote that, during summer days, he felt as if leaves were growing in his hair and that his legs were like shoots digging into the earth. That’s a description of a connecting to our world. Both writers were searching for that connection. That feeling may or may not involve God.

You consulted with—and dedicated this book to—two religious leaders: Micah Greenstein, a Reform rabbi, and the Venerable Yas Hut Khemavaro, a Buddhist. What other religious sources, if any, did you draw on while writing your book?

I drew on my experiences as a Jew. I have always identified as a Jew. I am proud to be Jewish. I was brought up as a Reform Jew. I was confirmed instead of becoming bar mitzvahed. I never have believed in a personal God. I never have believed in an interventionist God. My Jewishness influenced my thinking in general, especially in social justice. I value social justice. Judaism impressed that interest upon me. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, during the time of the civil rights movement, where I had a wonderful rabbi, Rabbi James Wax, who talked about the importance of social justice. This was at the time when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching. Rabbi Wax and I remained friends. He was a provocative spiritual leader, and he led a deeply spiritual life. He lived his religion. I had many informal chats with him. “God needs man more than man needs God,” he once told me.

Is there a particular branch of Judaism that you think might allow for an embrace of science, or for an ability to remain open to religious beliefs while also being enthralled with science?

Certainly Reform Judaism, and perhaps all Judaism, is consistent with science. I do not see any conflict between belief in science and belief in a noninterventionist God. On the other hand, belief in an interventionist God is incompatible with science.

What does God mean to you, given your background and your training and career as a physicist?

By God I mean an intelligent, purposeful being that exists outside the physical universe, at times. As a scientist, I look into details. I do not believe in a God that performs miracles. I do not believe in a God that intervenes in the physical world but rather in a version of God that is compatible with science. This attitude means I don’t consider God to be a mental construction. For me, God is approachable, just as science is approachable. Science lives on the doctrine that the universe is lawful and that we are capable of discovering it. Everything is accessible. God is accessible. Yet this concept of accessibility is not embraced, or encouraged, by all religions. Some religions ask their adherents to accept what is being preached and not to question it at all. There is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost (and I’m paraphrasing): “Some questions are not to be asked by mortal men, only by God.” Scientists like myself, however, take the opposite view: there are no limits to legitimate inquiries by human beings. There is no door that cannot be knocked upon when it comes to questioning or seeking to obtain knowledge. As humans, we constantly seek answers to life’s mysteries.

Would you consider your beliefs to be in line with atheism?

I recently debated these points with Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene), who is an atheist. The debate took place in a forum held at Imperial College in London. I took the position that belief in God is compatible with science. Dawkins took the position that because he believes that the world is material, and that it is nothing more than that, then spirituality is just an illusion. I disagree with his point of view. I know many rational people—people of integrity—who are spiritual believers in God. But Dawkins takes the point of view that these people are nonthinkers. He sees faith as a great cop-out. I personally find his point of view arrogant, condescending, and offensive.

What do you think of the category “Nones”—a growing trend of religiously unaffiliated individuals?3 Would you ever identify with this category?

While I respect all religious beliefs, including atheism and Nones, I do not personally identify with the category. For me, a religion is more than a particular set of beliefs about God. It also includes a cultural history, a tradition, and an identity; a set of moral principles; a community. I was born into a Jewish family and continue to identify with that tradition. Among other things, I admire the Jewish tradition of respect for education and advocacy for social justice. There is a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, which means “repair a broken world.” The world today is certainly broken. I think it is an obligation and a privilege for those of us born with advantages to help repair that broken world.

In your book, you leave it to readers to search for and to find their own way, to grapple with these issues, to be engaged in a search for answers.

Yes, I’m hoping that readers will not so much look for answers in my work but embark on their own journey, their own process of questioning. I want them to ask themselves: How do I balance our material world with the spiritual world? How do I place myself in that balance? There is no one answer. Everybody enters into these questions in a different way. I want the reader to question, to see that it is a back-and-forth process, taking the yin with the yang, before arriving at an understanding. When I read a good story, it makes me think. That’s what I’m trying to do in my book. I’m not trying to prove or disprove anything.

I believe one of the reasons we do not embark on this journey is that we take very little time from our busy lives for reflection. We live in a plugged-in world. We are moving faster and faster. We don’t take even 20 minutes in a day for solitude, for silence, for reflection. We’re constantly plugged into our Smartphones. One of the problems with our modern society is that we aren’t more reflective. Because of that, we aren’t questioning the role of religion and materialism in our lives today and our place within our world.

While you do not provide answers, you do leave the reader with a sense of being on that journey. The voice presented is a person who is constantly seeking. Your experience in Maine, drifting in your boat under the stars, indicates from the onset that you see yourself as someone who is constantly evolving and questioning.

I would say that’s true. I see myself as a person who is continually evolving. When you identify yourself as an evolving person, you do not draw conclusions. I don’t expect to come up with conclusions tomorrow or a year from now. This is what you find out about yourself when you live a meditative life. I am constantly questioning myself: What are my values? What should I be doing? What’s important? What should my attitude be toward existence? I expect to be that way for the rest of my life. I expect to be that way so long as I’m breathing air.

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, by Alan Lightman. Pantheon Books. 240 pages, $16.


  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “An Address,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (The Modern Library, 2000), 63.
  2. Herman Melville, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1, 1851, in The Portable Melville, ed. Jay Leyda (The Viking Press, 1952), 434.
  3. See Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Don’t Identify with a Religion,” Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor. His last piece for the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (Autumn/Winter 2018) was a Q&A with Joan Nathan, about her cookbook King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

Commentary: MFA Boston At 150

November 10, 2019
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Wiki Commons.


By Robert Israel

The Museum of Fine Arts Boston officially celebrates its 150th anniversary in February 2020. In anticipation, however, the institution has issued an announcement – proclaiming that the upcoming anniversary “honors the past and reimagines the future.”

An arts institution such as the MFA has an enormously rich past to draw from. In 1870, the Massachusetts legislature said it was being founded “for the purpose of erecting a museum for the preservation and exhibition of works of art, of making, maintaining, and establishing collection of such works, and of affording instruction in the Fine Arts.”

That’s a rambling way of suggesting that the MFA plays a huge leadership role: to inspire citizens and visitors alike in the myriad ways we define, teach, and learn about the fine arts. And, indeed, the MFA seeks to accomplish just that each day. But there have been times in the museum’s past when it hasn’t lived up to that mission, when it has pandered to the whims of the wealthy — particularly its fat cat benefactors.

Many critics thought that the programming generated under now-retired director Malcolm Rogers paid considerable obeisance to the well-heeled. Gallery space was provided to such garish displays as Ralph Lauren’s expensive cars, Les Paul’s electric guitar, and Herb Ritts’s portrait of rock star Madonna. And then there were a pair of racing yachts, owned by super millionaire William I. Koch (founder of The Oxbow Group), anchored on the MFA lawn on Huntington Avenue. According to one critic at the time, the MFA had become “an unholy combination of an ATM and a Hard Rock Café.”

I viewed the Koch exhibit in 2005. The show was titled Things I Love, and it was a crass display of what excessive riches and privilege can acquire. In an MFA press release, Koch was described as a “devoted father,” among other accolades. Well, he may have been a model dad — but he was also a cad, a serial philanderer who famously tried to evict one of his mistresses, Catherine de Castelbajac, from his Four Seasons condo on Boylston Street by releasing (to Boston’s daily newspapers) her steamy love notes to him.

A noticeable sea change has occurred since Rogers’s departure. After the MFA hired Matthew Teitelbaum in 2015, it showed a renewed dedication to embracing its original mission — to be accessible, instructional, and community-minded. A former museum director from Toronto, Teitelbaum has repeatedly emphasized in his public remarks that the MFA must be “open and generous” to everyone, members and visitors alike. Gone was an accent on “things” (e.g., the Koch exhibit). Instead, the institution is taking a greater interest in “people,” as shown in its current “Women Take the Floor” exhibit (Arts Fuse review), which presents overlooked and underrepresented work by women artists during the past century.

This has, of course, not prevented the MFA from being a victim of Boston’s longstanding racial discord when a racial incident occurred at the museum earlier this spring. A group of seventh graders from Dorchester encountered what they called “blatant racism” during their school visit. The MFA apologized for the incident, revoked the memberships of those who vocalized racial epithets, and launched an investigation (which is still underway). Another concurrent investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office is seeking to determine if any civil rights violations occurred. (A similar incident took place the previous spring during a Boston Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park when a Baltimore Orioles ballplayer was subjected to racist taunts, resulting in ushers ejecting the perpetrators from the grandstand.)

Since that incident, the MFA has announced it is strengthening the institution’s school program, focusing on finding more effective ways of  shaping the expectations of schoolchildren before they visit the museum. In a speech during their season preview last September, the MFA’s chief learning and community manager, Makeeba McCreary, announced that the museum will soon hire a staff member who will devote his or her time to improving school communications.

The sea change in the MFA’s attitude is also noticeable in the exhibits themselves. In addition to the aforementioned “Women Take the Floor,” the current exhibition Ancient Nubia Now features a video interview with a young black University of Massachusetts-Lowell student, Lana Bashir, who talks about what the exhibit means to her, and how it has influenced her to further explore her Sudanese heritage. And the previously reviewed Islamic Cultures Gallery, on the MFA’s main floor, includes an ongoing collaboration with the Islamic Center in Roxbury, which tape records a new chapter from the Qur’an each week. It is difficult to imagine these kinds of projects occurring during earlier eras at the MFA.

Thankfully, there is a new order at the museum. As the press release about the upcoming 150th anniversary puts it: “Throughout 2020, the Museum will engage community members and local artists as co-creators on various opportunities for convening and celebration, from a teen-curated exhibition of 20th-century art by artists of color from the Americas to a community mural project — initiatives that lay foundations for future ambitions.”

In her concluding remarks at the season preview, McCreary admitted “We have a long way to go.” Yes, it will take considerable time for the museum to make good on its commitment to finding more ways to be “open and generous” to all. The good news is that the MFA  — approaching 150 — has come to recognize its responsibility, and is dedicating resources toward achieving it.


A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse, November 9, 2019.