Nobel Prize for Louise Glück

October 10, 2020
Poet Louise Glück.

By Robert Israel

When I learned that Louise Glück, a 77-year-old Cambridge-based poet, had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature award, I flashed back to a wintery night in the ’70s when I first heard her read her work aloud.

Glück was on the faculty at Goddard College back then, located in bucolic Plainfield, Vermont. I had traveled there during intersession from my university studies in Rhode Island. I was a guest of friends who were encamped in a barn at Cate Farm, a sprawling place adjacent to the Goddard campus acreage that they shared with the Bread and Puppet Theatre folk who, like Glück, were artists-in-residence. The landscape was blanketed with snow, but the sub-zero temperature somehow didn’t seem to bother a small cadre of miniature horses that roamed freely in and out of the barn. Most of my memory of staying in Plainfield is blurred — save for encountering Glück and hearing her read her poems in her distinctively haunting voice.

In an interview with Poets & Writers magazine, she recalled her teaching experience at Goddard (she later was selected to be Vermont State poet, an honor she shared with versfiers Robert Frost and Galway Kinnell), as positive: she said it got her writing her again. She had been wrestling with a form of “writer’s block” and had taken a long hiatus.

“But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching — the minute I had obligations in the world — I started to write again,” Glück told the magazine.

To hear Glück (her name rhymes with “click”) read aloud is reminiscent of the recordings of Frost reading his poems, particularly his famous, “Birches,” a quintessential New England meditation in which he speaks of our relationship with the woods, an interrelation that is both cruel but necessary. (“Earth’s the right place for love:/ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”). Frost’s delivery of the poem — he reads it as if it were written as a long, run-on sentence — was devoid of emotion. Glück reads in a similar manner: her voice is dry, like autumn leaves. Yet her words are passionate, and they spill forth, like Frost’s, driven by breath that endows them with life.

While the Nobel committee lauds her for poetry “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” I think of her as a poet who proffers a hauntingly individual power. She doesn’t invite us to share what she writes so much as insist we sit up and to pay attention to it. She crafts her poems with an insinuatingly thorny power that demands the reader pay close attention. Her intention is to quiet our own noisy, distracted inner thoughts.

In 2012, several of her poetry volumes were collected together Louise Gluck: Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York). Several poems here are deeply melancholic (she suffered from anorexia as a young woman, overcoming it with the help of therapy), while others lob epiphanies or offer examples of wry wit.

One of my favorite poems from the aforementioned volume is titled “Lullaby.” It bursts with affection and tenderness. It reads, in part:

“Listen to my breathing, your own breathing/like the fireflies, each small breath/a flare in which the world appears./ I’ve sung to you long enough in the summer night./I’ll win you over in the end; the world can’t give you/this sustained vision./You must be taught to love me. Human beings must be taught to love/silence and darkness.”

It took me back to Robert Frost who, in an earlier version of “Birches,” wrote, in parentheses, this line (later edited from the final version):

“(Now am I free to be poetical?)”

Of course, Glück has always been free to be “poetical,” but now her voice, because of this award, will be amplified, heard, and savored, by a global readership.

**

This piece first appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on Oct. 9, 2020.

A 2020 Rosh Hashanah Haiku

September 18, 2020

“My life – How much more of it remains? The night is brief.”

Shiki (1867-1902)

By Robert Israel

The Jewish High Holidays — known as the Days of Awe which began on September 18 and lasts 10 days — arrives at a time when the light is dazzling and the harvest is aplenty. Yet warning signs are afoot. In 2020, they arrive at a frightful time.

Consider: we are entrenched in a pandemic; wildfires are raging out west; a treacherous political election season is upon us; we have just lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a trusted and courageous member of the Supreme Court. It is a time of struggle, uncertainty, and mourning.

Yet even in the face of these portentous challenges, during this time of year our natural rhythms are out of whack. We yearn for an extended summer’s vacation, for relief from the weight of these accumulated burdens.

But life interferes. Our pace becomes accelerated, the evening cool all too chillingly reminds us that we must make our shelters ready for a new season. We feel an uneasiness, a jolt to our senses, to our spirits.

For the Japanese haiku poets, these passages of time and season were opportunities to record, in minute detail, the wisdom that is gleaned from observing the lessons of everyday life.

The poet Shiki (1867-1902) wrote: “My life – How much more of it remains? The night is brief.”

Shiki could have been writing about the Jewish High Holidays. Falling as they do at the end of summer, Jews assemble to hear the sound of the shofar – the ram’s horn – the clarion call that awakens us from our summer stupor. The sounds that emanate from this ancient instrument are elegiac, especially when we hear them repeated again on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which falls on sunset on September 27. During these times, Jews reflect, as Shiki wrote, on the brevity of life. We gather to evaluate, to store, and to savor life, and to reflect on lessons learned. One of those lessons is a reminder that we must acknowledge our mortality.

During the High Holidays, we do not seek to discard experiences that have shaped our lives in the previous year – forgetting is not an option. Instead, we grapple with accumulated lessons that come, hand-in-glove, with vexing questions. We may well ask: Why must we continually experience hatred against Jews on a global basis? What must we do – as individuals and as citizens – to safeguard our homes and neighborhoods? How can we, as Jews and as global citizens, re-dedicate ourselves to repairing our broken world — tikkun olam — and enlist Jews and non-Jews to join us in this mission? Indeed, how can we help ourselves and our neighbors through a pandemic so that we are all healthy enough to carry out other tasks?

Although I find myself weary of accumulated burdens as one year ends and another begins, I never tire of this jolt to my senses and spirit, this purposeful accounting. Beginning at Rosh Hashanah, I view this time as an opportunity to renew my commitment to activism and to arrive at the clarity the Japanese haiku poets were so adept at recording, using so few words. The arrival of the High Holidays forces me to confront myself and to learn from what I have gone through and what I am facing.

The night is brief, Shiki wrote. So, too, is our residence on Earth. We stand in awe of the splendors of the late summer and the early darkness of autumn. We summon strength to fight life’s battles — those that are seen and those that are unseen. As the New Year unfolds, we are reminded not to drift, or to squander, that which is really never ours to keep.

Finding Hope in the Unthinkable

August 25, 2020

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Sakue Shimohira

I am seeking support to return to Japan in 2021 to interview atomic bomb survivors and to provide updates on the status of the disarmament movement during these dangerous times.

 

By Robert Israel

Introduction

In 1986,  Mrs. Sakue Shimohira, a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) from Nagasaki, Japan, spoke in Providence after appearing before the United Nations Assembly on Disarmament. I was the only newspaper reporter in attendance.

“To tell the truth, I’d like to lock away that painful and sorrowful scar at the bottom of my heart, and not talk about it,” Mrs. Shimohira said. “I feel that I must pass the story on. I speak to you in the belief that accurately telling the facts in the testament to my life.”

Mrs. Shimohira’s story — and the stories of other survivors  — has stayed with me all these years. Drawing from “that painful and sorrowful scar,” she told of the years of struggle after the atomic bomb destroyed her hometown of Nagasaki (she was eight years old at the time). She told of finding her mother reduced to a heap of cinders. She spoke of undergoing years of medical treatments and of being ignored by her own leaders who resisted to pass the Hibakusha Relief Act to provide her and other survivors with help to pay for medical expenses due to their struggles with radioactive poisoning.

As time passed, her struggles to communicate her painful story were not in vain. Mrs. Shimohira and her fellow hibakusha were recognized when they were cited as the inspiration behind the decision to award the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

**

As a journalist who has reported from Japan on two fellowships, I seek to return to Japan in August, 2021, to determine if the hibakusha’s efforts — dedicated to working with ICAN and others toward the elimination of atomic weapons, ending climate erosion, and educating current and emerging generations — is achieving the global impact they envisage.

I invite you to review my proposal. It includes a budget estimating costs to visit Japan and to later produce articles, lectures, and, ultimately, a book. It can be found at the end of this proposal. Your help — I welcome comments/recommendations — is gratefully appreciated. (My contact information is below.)

Closer to Midnight

doomsday_clock-_2.5_minutes-640x353-1Doomsday Clock: 100 seconds to midnight.

In the 75 years since atomic weapons destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are we closer to destroying our world or to repairing it?

Are the efforts and testimonies of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha) – who work alongside global activists to eliminate atomic weapons, halt climate erosion, and educate the current and future generations — being heeded?

From 1947-1952, the hibakusha were prohibited from sharing their stories during the American occupation of Japan. Others –- like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists –- advocated for disarmament. Since 1947, the Bulletin annually unveils the Doomsday Clock – a barometer that measures the potential for nuclear weapon destruction. In 2020, they identified two conjoined threats — climate erosion and atomic weapons – and advanced the Doomsday Clock’s hands to 100 seconds to midnight.[1]

The timing of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), was prescient, spearheaded by failures to dissuade two nations, Iran and North Korea, from developing atomic weapons. Sanctions and consequent economic depravations failed. When the United States declared, in 2015, it was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran countered, “it would no longer abide by the limits of its unraveling nuclear deal (signed in 2015) with world powers…”[2]. Concurrently, the North Koreans developed a weapon with the capability to strike the contiguous United States.

President Trump contributed to the breakdown in détente with bellicose statements that resulted in deadly consequences. By ordering the 2020 assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, he provoked the Iranians to fire retaliatory rockets at a U.S. airbase that narrowly missed killing troops stationed there, and then to fire weapons upon a Ukrainian commercial airliner, resulting in death to all onboard. An open question went unanswered: When future global hostilities inevitably flare, will the endgame be deployment of nuclear weapons?

Trump threatened to do just that when North Korea said that it would “bolster its nuclear deterrent in the face of ‘gangster-like’ U.S. pressure,”[3] after he made this bellicose statement on August 8, 2017: “They will be met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen.”[4] (The world had seen it: Trump’s threat coincided with the 74th anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on August 6 and 9, 2017.[5])

Given today’s volatile and nuclear trigger-finger brinksmanship, will the strategies of the hibakusha and ICAN reverse this destructive course?

Hibakusha have worked tirelessly to accomplish this reversal and were cited by Nobel committee as having influenced the decision to present the Peace Prize to ICAN. Despite their dwindling numbers and infirmities, they refuse to be mired in the past as evidenced by their commitment to educating young people and addressing assemblies, like the United Nations, where they warn that “the sin must never be repeated.”[6]

Secretary General meets with Executive Director, International Campaign to Abolish
Nuclear Weapons.

ICAN’s Beatric Fihn

Is the world paying attention? According to Ploughshares Fund, “the world’s combined stockpiles of nuclear weapons remains at unacceptably high levels.”[7] Yet ICAN’s Beatric Fihn believes change is possible: “The biggest problem is that people feel it isn’t possible to change….We’re trying to change that. When the rest of the world says, ‘No, it’s unacceptable,’ the pressure on these nine proliferating countries is going to change exponentially.”[8]

Hibakusha Stories

I was struck by the hibakusha’s commitment to this mission when, in Nagasaki in 1987, I listened as Sumiteru Taniguchi (author of a 2014 book)[9], described being a sixteen-year-old lad making postal delivery rounds when the second atomic bomb destroyed his hometown.

 

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Sumiteru Taniguchi

“When I woke up,” Taniguchi said, “the skin of my left arm from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers was trailing like a rag. Bodies, burned black, voices calling for help from collapsed building, people with flesh falling off and their guts falling out. This place became a sea of fire. It was hell.”

The Nobel committee noted this in their citation to ICAN: “For its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

By focusing on hibakusha and their work with ICAN and other groups to educate the current and future generations, I will inform readers as to their successes, failures, and strategies toward achieving change.

Proposed Articles

  1. Hibakusha: Past, Present, Future

With the assistance of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center, the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper and others, I will report on the personal and political activities of the hibakusha in Japan, measuring progress – or lack thereof — to advance their mission. What obstacles do they face? What strategy is in place to achieve their demand that Japan sign the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty?[10]

  1.   Radioactive Sickness: A Report

I will interview medical professionals at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, and others regarding current medical treatments for hibakusha — sickened for years from radiation exposure – and prospects for future treatments.

  1. Hiroshima’s Peace Museum: A Profile

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Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Park

The Peace Museum preserves the A-Bomb Dome, a visual reminder of the bomb that explored 570 meters above it. I will report on the efforts of the archivists to create interactive displays, and describe other educational efforts in Japan and globally.

  1. Nagasaki: The Last Atomic Bombed City

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The Peace Statue in Nagasaki Peace Park.

Nagasaki has proclaimed itself to be the last city to have suffered atomic destruction. My reports will show how they communicate this message to native and global visitors.

  1. Profiles of Activists: Achieving a Non-Nuclear Future

I will report on the progress, or lack thereof, that the hibakusha, ICAN, and other groups are making by interviewing members of organizations such as Ground Zero, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, to determine their impact.[11] I will investigate what programs and strategies are working; what challenges activists like Joanna Macy, educator with Hibakusha Stories, and Ray Acheson of ICAN, face in outreach to the current and next generations; how students respond to teachings and how they are learning to chart their own destinies in pursuit of a healthier today and tomorrow.

  Heeding the Hibakusha

I have heeded the message of the hibakusha since 1986, the year I met Sakue Shimohira. I hail from Rhode Island, the only U.S. state to observe Victory over Japan Day, V-J Day, as a mandated state holiday.)[12] Mrs. Shimohira recommended me for a journalism fellowship to Japan to interview other hibakusha, and, later, to meet John Hersey, author of Hiroshima[13]. That fellowship enabled me to spend 9-weeks in Japan among survivors, researchers, and others involved in the survivors’ mission to abolish nuclear weapons. My reports appeared in daily and weekly newspapers[14], with a full report published in the Montreal Gazette.[15] In 1989, the Consul General of Japan invited me to return to Japan to interview survivors to produce additional articles.[16]

In 2020, my work has taken on renewed urgency due to the aforementioned global flashpoints, the ongoing threat of climate destruction, and the advancing age and frail health of the hibakusha. (Attempts to report on the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Regarding COVID-19: while climate change did not cause the outbreak, scientists see it as a contributing factor to the rise of pulmonary diseases globally.[17] I intend to investigate this, as healthcare is a key aspect of my reporting.

The hibakusha have had their lives inextricably altered by catastrophe. They have witnessed and endured the unthinkable. Yet they refuse to be typecast as casualties of World War II. By joining an ever-expanding number of global climate and disarmament educators and activists, they have attracted legions of followers who share their mission to eliminate atomic weapons and to prevent further erosion of our planet’s fragile ecology. My reports will examine their successes, failures, and challenges and offer readers resources on ways they may join efforts, should they so choose, to push back the hands of the Doomsday Clock.

Endorsements

My work is endorsed by the Association for the Bereaved Families of the Atomic Bomb, Hiroshima, Japan.

Mayor Tad Akiba, mayor emeritus of Hiroshima, has endorsed my work.

Akira Tashiro, reporter/editor emeritus of Choguku Shimbun newspaper, has endorsed my work.

Let me know of your interest — I will gladly add your endorsement here!

Financial

I estimate expenses to amount to $11,000.00 (USD) to cover travel to and within Japan during August 4-18, 2021, with funds used to travel to and from New York and Washington, D.C. to interview activists.

Cost breakdown:

Roundtrip airfare Boston-Tokyo ($3500.00); Roundtrip train travel within Japan (Tokyo-Hiroshima, Hiroshima-Nagasaki, ($1200.00); Food/lodging, Tokyo,Hiroshima,Nagasaki, ($2400); Translators ($2000.00); Travel/lodging within U.S. ($1500.000); additional expenses ($400.00).

I am actively seeking names of those who might be inclined to invest in this proposal, and will follow-up on all recommendations.

Contact information:

Robert Israel, risrael_97@yahoo.com, 37 Churchill Ave., Arlington, MA 02476, (781) 648-7842.

About the Author

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Robert Israel

Robert Israel was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Roger Williams University and a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island. He worked as a staff writer and editor for the Providence Phoenix, Rhode Island Jewish Herald, The Jewish Advocate, and as a contributing writer to the Boston Globe and Harvard University Divinity School Bulletin. A recipient of Hibakusha Award (Akiba Project), his reports on the lives of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Nagasaki, Japan appeared in the Montreal Gazette and other newspapers. His stories and pieces currently appear in numerous online and print publications.

Footnotes

**

[1] Time, January 23, 2020, https://time.com/5769610/doomsday-clock-100seconds/. The Scientists’ statement reads: “We can’t afford to address one threat without addressing the other. The international cooperation required to reduce and prohibit nuclear weapons would likely also lead to cooperation to save us from deadly climate disruption.”

[2] The Associated Press, https://apnews.com/11ddaf35bf84c4c13b4dbafcf1f32158, January 5, 2020.

[3] The Associated Press, https://apnews.com/3262c51730fe25feb2a81f036971a56b, January 1, 2020.

[4] CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/08/trump-warns-north-korea-threats-will-be-met-with-fire-and-fury.html, August 8, 2017.

[5] New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/09/world/asia/north-korea-trump-threat-fire-and-fury.html, August 9, 2017.

[6] Robert Israel, “Nuclear Horror, The Sin Must Not be Repeated,” The Globe Post, https://theglobepost.com/2017/08/06/hiroshima-nuclear-atomic-nagasaki/, August 6, 2017.

[7] Ploughshares Fund, https://ploughshares.org/world-nuclear-stockpile-report – https://ploughshares.org/world-nuclear-stockpile-report.

[8] Minneapolis Star-Tribune, http://www.startribune.com/abolosh-nuclear-weapons-yes-it-s-an-idealistic-goal-but/493348841/?refresh=true, September 14, 2018.

[9] Robert Israel, “Book Review: The Atomic Bomb on My Back – Witness to the Apocalypse,” The Arts Fuse, August 3, 2020.

[10] The Associated Press, “Survivors Mark 75th Anniversary of World’s First Atomic Attack,” August 6, 2020.

[11] Jon Coburn, “How Anti-Nuclear Movements Can Really Make a Difference,” https://theconversation.com/how-anti-nuclear-movements-can-really-make-a-difference-71959, February 10, 2017.

[12] Robert Israel, “Victory over Japan Day, 68 Years Later,” Providence Journal, August 12, 2013, page A10: https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20130812/OPINION/308129996

[13] Robert Israel, “John Hersey: Reporting Truthfully—At All Costs,” The Arts Fuse, https://artsfuse.org/183799/book-review-john-hersey-reporting-truthfully-at-all-costs/, April 29, 2019.

[14] Partial list: Boston Herald, New Paper, Rhode Island Jewish Herald, New London Day.

[15] Robert Israel, “Witness to War, Working for Peace,” Montreal Gazette, August 7, 1988, page A7.

[16] Robert Israel, “Japanese A-bomb victims seek to pass on memories of horror,” Providence Sunday Journal, August 6, 1989, page A9. See also: “Cross Cultural Communication: Foreign Trade, Nuclear Proliferation, and the Global Peace,” Rhode Island, University of Rhode Island, Spring/Summer 1990, page 19.

[17] “Most countries don’t take it seriously enough and aren’t doing enough given the scale of the harm that air pollution is doing to all of our health,” Beth Gardiner, Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution, University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Nagasaki @ 75: Remembering Taniguchi

August 4, 2020

By Robert Israel

The Atomic Bomb on My Back: A Life Story of Survival and Activism by Sumiteru Taniguchi. Compiled by Hisashi Tomokuni. Rootstock Publishing, Montpelier, Vermont.

The 75th anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs – observed on August 6 and 9 this year — is fraught with portents. We live in a nation that possesses a stockpile of these weapons; our President, an atomic weapons proponent, this year warned he might use them in confronting bellicose threats from North Korea and Iran, two “rogue” nations who have defied economic sanctions in vigorous pursuit of acquiring their own atomic weapons arsenals. And, while it’s true that these weapons haven’t been deployed since 1945, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists point to them as one of the elemental dual threats facing our planet – the other is climate erosion — forcing the organization to advance the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight.

When we cast a backward glance on this ominous anniversary, we tend to limit our view to  taking stock of its deadly toll: a combined estimate of 180,000 Japanese men, women, and children were incinerated, along with their cities, moments after the blasts. The bombs put an end to World War II and enabled American troops to return home – my father, an Army officer stationed in Asia in 1945 was one of those men who returned. This makes the anniversary a personal story, not only for families like mine, but for those individuals who miraculously survived – many of them children or teenagers at the time — known in Japanese as hibakusha. And it also serves as an opportunity to memorialize the souls of those who lost their lives.

As a reporter in Japan in the late ’80s, I interviewed a number of hibakusha for stories that were later published in the Montreal Gazette. Among the men and women I met was writer and activist Sumiteru Taniguchi, who died at the age 88 in 2017. His book, The Atomic Bomb on My Back, originally published in Japanese in 2014, has recently been translated into English, and it will be released on Nagasaki Day — August 9.

When I met Taniguchi in Nagasaki in 1987, he was guest speaker at a middle school assembly. He told the youngsters – who had placed garlands of multi-colored paper origami cranes, the symbol of the hibakusha peace effort, on the school cafeteria’s floor – that he had not been much older than them when the atomic bomb fell on his hometown.

“I was a postal delivery boy,” he tells the youngsters in a story recounted in his book, “riding my bike to deliver the mail to my neighbors when the bomb fell. When I awoke, the letters in my postal bag was swirling all around me, and I attempted to gather them up. That’s when I collapsed. The skin of my left arm, from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers, was burned and trailing like a rag. Bodies, burned black, voices calling for help from collapsed buildings, people with flesh falling off. This place became a sea of fire. It was hell.”

Taniguchi describes the numerous operations he endured in order to have his wounds treated. He was finally discharged from the hospital in 1949. But, he writes in The Atomic Bomb on My Back, he never experienced enduring relief; he needed to return for treatments dozens of times to remove lumps that kept forming in his back.

He also writes painfully of the social stigma he endured as a survivor, of his marriage to his wife Eiko ten days after meeting her, and of his anxiety of showing her his scars on their honeymoon, fearful that she would reject him.

When I heard Taniguchi speak to the youngsters in Nagasaki, he said he did not want to have to tell these stories. He insisted he was a private man who did not want to share his agonies. He preferred to have lived his life apart from others. But when a photo of his “reddened back” appeared in public, he joined the Japanese anti-nuclear movement. As detailed in his book, he made numerous public appearances at rallies. He wanted to reach young people, he said, because he believed they would be the ones to continue the necessary political work begun by the hibakusha, who are now elderly and frail.

Reading Taniguchi’s book brought back the memories of meeting a man who had seen the unimaginable. He had walked away from a hellish maelstrom and lived to tell about it. A thin, haunted man, his speech was labored as he tried to draw breath to form sentences. His book captures his halting, labored efforts to articulate what he had seen. I liken him to the Ancient Mariner from Coleridge’s poem, compelled to share his horrific story, who passed “like night, from land to land” with “strange power of speech.”

Taniguchi, at the time of his death, was under consideration to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In The Atomic Bomb on My Back he has left us disturbing eyewitness testimony as well as a moving call to action. The book comes, like the anniversary, at a propitious time. We are not only collectively struggling to emerge from a pandemic, but to confront the sins of American history. The terrible legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — our unwillingness, to his day, to face the truth behind the mass killing of civilians — must be part of our moral reckoning with our past, if only to create a safer future.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in the August 3, 2020 edition of The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston).

One Year Later: Arson Incidents Unsolved

June 1, 2020

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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.

**

Notes:

[1] “Arlington shows solidarity with Jewish community following Chabad fires,” https://arlington.wickedlocal.com/news/20190520/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, https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/antisemitic-incidents-hit-all-time-high-in-2019.

[5] “Brighton Rabbi Asks Congregation to Bring Guns to Synagogue,” WBUR, June 24, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/news/2019/06/24/shaloh-house-guns-defense.

[6] “The ‘Tactical Rabbi’ helps synagogues defends against anti-Semitic violence,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-chabad-security-after-poway-20190510-story.html.

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

Visualizing a Reopened Boston

May 20, 2020

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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

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“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.

***

Notes:

  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

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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

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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.