Remembering John Ferrari

January 4, 2021

By Robert Israel

When I first met John Ferrari some years ago — he worked for 40 years at the Union Oyster House on Blackstone Block in Boston where I was a constant customer and died at age 89 on December 31, 2020 — I wrote in my journal: “John’s face looms over the carcasses of oysters he shucks.” But that one sentence description — written decades ago when I had just moved to Boston after graduate school — did not do John justice. Yes, John was tall, and he had a serious demeanor. But if you took the time to get to know him as I did over many years, he revealed himself to be a kind, soft-spoken gentleman who possessed a wonderful — some might say wicked — sense of humor. He honored me with his friendship.

At the time of our meeting, I was working as a teacher at a halfway house for dropout high school kids in Roxbury, Mass., a neighborhood wracked with violence and drug abuse. (I later chronicled my experiences there in a feature story published in Boston magazine titled “Kids and Cocaine.”) I was living in cramped quarters on Sheafe Street in the North End, a short walk from the Oyster House. I’d pass by the restaurant every day after exiting the subway at Government Center. More times than I care to recall, I’d give in to the magnetic pull of the place and stop in for beers and oysters and conversations with John. He’d introduce me to patrons seated beside me at the horseshoe bar as “Mr. Israel.” He’d always add, “Mr. Israel is a teacher.” This practice of formally introducing me — to total strangers — continued long after I quit teaching and he knew I had taken a job downtown as a newspaper editor.

John was born in northern Italy, on a farm (he retained ownership of the property throughout his life), and came to the States as a teenager with few financial resources available to him. He possessed the same ambition as my grandparents (who emigrated from Kiev, Russia): to work, to raise a family, to buy a home, and to live peacefully amongst neighbors — modest goals that today seem increasingly impossible to achieve.

John Ferrari

Over the years of our friendship, I learned that John was married and had a son (whom I met when he worked briefly as a busboy at the restaurant), and that he owned a two-family home in Medford. I learned that his job included all the multiple tasks expected from working at the “front of the house” — shucking oysters and clams, ladling cups of chowder, fetching plates of fried seafood from the kitchen, clearing soiled dishes, loading the dumbwaiter with pint glasses of beer, and ringing up checks — but it also included helping out in the kitchen on other days when he’d arrive early to help the sous chef prepare food. I never heard him complain: he was grateful for the work. Years later, when I moved to Arlington, we’d commute together into the city via the Orange Line train and he’d tell me stories about his early years in Italy.

His jokes were awful: “Do you know what the girls say in Samoa? ‘Some more, some more.'” When a patron asked him if he ever found a pearl embedded in an oyster, he’d say, “Yes, years ago, and I married her.” He’d attribute this quote to Benjamin Franklin by saying, “Love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener.” And there were numerous jokes that were saltier (I won’t repeat them): he’d whisper these in my ear.

John introduced me to celebrities: “Exorcist” film director William Friedkin, film actors Leonardo di Caprio and Richard Chamberlain (who he enjoyed teasing about the purported aphrodisiacal powers of consuming oysters), and others. Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy greeted him by his first name. And there were many others whose stories fascinated me.

On one occasion, he introduced me to a young woman seated beside me who sparkled with expensive jewelry and tipped him generously. She ordered oysters and champagne, and sometimes took the shucked oysters to go in a styrofoam container. (“You can’t afford her,” he later quipped, remarking that he had learned she was a mistress to a married financier who paid for her expensive digs on Beacon Hill’s Pinckney Street).

John had a deeply serious side. When one of his co-workers committed suicide, he spoke lovingly of him, describing the funeral to me in detail and how others at the restaurant had tried to intervene — (the co-worker was on anti-depressants but had taken himself off these drugs) — but were unable to help him. And then there was the road-weary salesman I met who told me that he was proud to do business with a woman he had learned was a Holocaust survivor (she and her family owned several downtown Boston hotels). The salesman said, “I’m just an ordinary guy. I make my sales rounds. But every time I call on her, she invites me into the kitchen and offers to fix me a cup of tea.”

John bestowed upon everyone this same quality of respect. And if he liked you, he’d chide you mercilessly. When he’d see me walking through the swinging doors at the entrance to the Oyster House, he’d call out, “Oh, no, Mr. Israel! Not you again! I thought you died!” This boisterous greeting never ceased to tickle him. because he followed it with peels of laughter. After a moment he’d say, “You know, Mr. Israel, I really don’t mean it. You’re my bread and butter!”

Union Oyster House, Blackstone Block, Boston (Boston Globe photo)

When Boston re-emerges from the depths of the pandemic, I look forward to passing along Blackstone Block and honoring John Ferrari with a wave of my hand as I approach the windows of the Oyster House, because this is often how we greeted one another when I couldn’t stop in to chat.

Here’s a toast to John: a hard-working man with a generous, kind heart. I will always remember that he saw in me — and in many others — something worth acknowledging. I offered him my hand in friendship; he repaid that gesture by offering his hand in return.

Review: “Field Music” by Alexandria Hall

December 16, 2020

By Robert Israel

I was first introduced to poet Alexandria Hall in a 2013 music video filmed at Shenanigans, a strip club in White River Junction, Vermont that includes a pool hall/bowling alley. (There’s also a no-tell motel located nearby). In the video, the waif-like Hall and her (unseen) band Tooth Ache perform an electronically dreary dirge while she dons the traditional bullfighter’s traje de luces, complete with montera, tassels, and rosy red lipstick. The highlight of the three and a half minute film — titled Matador — are appearances by pole dancing, booty-thumping strippers, and a live bull waiting to lock horns with Hall as she struts across the Shenanigans parking lot. (She’s wearing stilettos instead of brandishing an estoque, the sword matadors plunge into a wounded bull’s hide).

Flash forward seven years later: Hall, still looking rather waif-like, has published an impressive first collection of poetry, Field Music. She’s won a $10,000 National Poetry Series Award. She’s shed her skin as a singer with Tooth Ache and Beth Head, two bands she performed with around Burlington while she was an undergraduate at University of Vermont and earned an MFA sheepskin from New York University. Her biographical note tells us she is now a Ph.D. student at University of Southern California.

She’s no academic poet, however. This is made clear by the first poem in the collection titled “Cowbird,” when she writes: “Nothing ever stays where it ought:/runoff dragged into the river/by summer rains from shit-covered fields–/my thickly perfumed Vermont.”

Hall grew up in Addison County, Vermont, home to the bucolic town of Ripton (population 400), where Robert Frost wrote his poems in a rustic cabin on his 150-acre farm that abuts Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus. But she’s no Frost-wannabe. Hall’s Vermont is a place of trailer homes, goat herders, folks that barely get by and speak in that dry swamp-Yankee drawl: “All night the whimpering hills,” she writes in “On Beauty.” “Transmission on the truck’s broke. Winter pushes my father and his home and his froze-up pipes and piles of scrap to a grater and grates, These gift-basket ideas solve little. Awful nice a ya, wheezes Pa.”

Hall’s work has more in common with the late Vermont poet Hayden Carruth (who lived and taught in Johnson, in the Northeast Kingdom, and wrote about isolation and insanity), than with the two Vermont State Poets, the late Galway Kinnell (who lived in Sheffield), and this year’s Nobel Laureate, Louise Gluck, (who lived and taught in Plainfield). In one of the best poems in her collection, “Practice Test for Insatiable Loneliness,” one can sense Carruth’s influence in the line “If you leave your name and number/my hunger will get back to you as soon as possible.”

Hall’s Vermont is hardscrabble. It is a place that reeks of the aforementioned manure and “skunk…and lilacs.” She writes of the town of Ferrisburgh in “The Lake House”: “At night, when the neighbors’ cows get loose and sashay/around the yard. This trailer’s just a dinghy slapped/ in their waves.” At the poem’s end, she observes: “No one ever knocks/at the door./Occasionally, though, the cows float by.”

Hall’s book also takes readers to New York, Spain, Peru, and Germany; there are homages to poets Elizabeth Bishop and to Rainer Maria Rilke. These poems, however, are less successful because they across as academic exercises — they lack the sense of place so keenly etched in her Vermont poems. When she writes of Addison County in the line, “There was too much moon over the night in Middlebury/so I put a man’s face in front of it, and then I loved/that man,” we are transported to an evening spent rambling across the fields near Frost’s farm in Ripton.

Hall’s first collection suggests her days of living as a chameleon, an artist/performer who gets her kicks from hanging out in dive bars in White River Junction and dressing up as a matador may be over. The voice in Field Music is disciplined, its cagey earthiness unfailingly engaging our attention. The challenge for Hall will be for her to remain true to her roots. When she ventures onward, she’d be advised to keep in her nostrils — for sustenance and inspiration — the aroma of that “thickly perfumed” fetid Vermont soil.

**

This review was published in The Arts Fuse (Boston, MA), on December 16, 2020.

Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

December 12, 2020

By Robert Israel

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on August Wilson’s play. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Produced by Denzel Washington.

A scene from Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The film version of August Wilson’s stage play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is lavish and theatrically vibrant, propelled by bravura performances that deliver sharp kicks in the gut. A work of fiction, the script draws on true-to-life details about the life and career of the legendary blues shouter Ma Rainey (1896-1939), a talented, egotistical diva who, as dramatized here, actually recorded a “race” record in Chicago in 1927.

To his credit, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson stayed loyal to Wilson’s script. The plot revolves around Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her troubled relationships with her road-weary band members who, unbeknownst to her, are being prodded by young upstart trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) to join him on new musical ventures. The musicians, albeit enticed by Levee’s vision of greener pastures, choose to stay with Ma. After all, they get paid, in per diem cash, after each show. It’s the life they’ve always known (it sure beats poverty). They cling to a stick-with-the- devil-you-know attitude, fearful that, by surrendering to Levee’s pipe dream of what tomorrow might bring, they could well be left destitute. The film uses the freedom of the camera to graphically capture the chaotic tenor of the times: a nation seething with violence, teetering on the verge of the Depression, suppurating with the scourge of racism — troubles that still fester among us in the 21st century of these United States.

Consider the backstory: Wilson workshopped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT, for a production that arrived, by way of a tryout at Yale Rep, at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 1982. He crafted the play around two themes: music and pugilism, subjects he knew a lot about. (Ma Rainey was a singer and a street smart fighter: unlike other Black musicians during her time she succeeded in her struggle to gain economic stability.) In the winter of 1978, Wilson told a group of barflies and ink-stained wretches in St. Paul, MN (myself among them), that he was haunted by unnamed characters who were chattering in his mind — he and they were obsessed with Ma Rainey. Most of us –- we gathered at a watering hole near Penumbra Theatre, an African-American troupe — had never heard of her. Wilson knew there was a story to tell: he continued to play the vinyl records of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that he had bought in pawnshops in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He listened hard to the messages he found in those female vocalized blues.

The result was a blues spirit that informs his epic accomplishment, plays that chronicled 10 decades of the African-American experience in the US in the 20th century. Wilson articulated his characters’ personal and painful histories in plainspoken yet poetically infused language, speeches that, on occasion, sing. Two of his plays went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for drama. He did not write his scripts in chronological order: he began with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ended with “How I Learned What I Learned,” a memoir of his craft and his rough-and-tumble days in Pittsburgh, completed before he succumbed to cancer in 2005 at age 60.

The Netflix production of Ma Rainey does just about everything right. Davis embodies the blues diva completely, spiritually and physically (she gained weight for the role and wore a fat suit as well). She told Deadline that she was inspired to take the part after having seen the late actress Barbara Meek, a longtime resident performer at Trinity Repertory Company, perform it on stage in Providence when she was a student at Rhode Island College.

“In Ma Rainey, everybody’s fighting for their value,” Davis told the New York Times, “and the thing that holds us back is being Black. I wanted to show that. No — ‘show that’ is not a good term for an actor. I wanted that to be a part of Ma Rainey. I wanted people to see what lay in the heart of her being. Which is: I know my worth.”

Boseman’s Levee clashes in several scenes with Rainey in a futile attempt to steal her limelight. This was the talented actor’s final performance: he died of colorectal cancer at the age of 42 while the film was in postproduction earlier this year. Like Davis, he commands his role; the trumpeter is an artist who is struggling to know his worth (his ambition is a mirror image of Ma’s) with authority, rage, and unbridled lust.

Kudos go to producer Denzel Washington — who starred in and directed Wilson’s “Fences” (a film that earned Davis an Academy Award), and who, like director George C. Wolfe, also insisted on adhering to Wilson’s script.

It remains astonishing, however, to see Ma Rainey given the opulent Hollywood treatment. The budget for this production was estimated to be between $20 and $30 million. Wilson’s script, which he envisaged taking place on a minimal set (a recording studio and a rehearsal room), is expanded with gusto: the visuals include street scenes, cabarets, and a large supporting cast that includes scantily clad hoochie-koochie dancers. There’s also a winning score by Branford Marsalis (who wrote the music for the Broadway production of  Fences). Dramatist Wilson, who eschewed numerous offers from Hollywood until late in life — when he agreed to write the screenplay for Fences — would have been agog. (The film version of Fences had a budget of $24 million and reaped a whooping $64.4 million at the box office).

Still, the budget is beside the point. This film is a stellar artistic accomplishment, a blazingly powerful dramatic experience. See it at home or in the movie house. And here’s hoping that its success inspires more attempts to film Wilson’s canon.

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston, MA) on Dec. 10, 2020.

Review:”Before the Coffee Gets Cold”

November 19, 2020

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot. Hanover Square Press, 272 pages, $20.99.

Review by Robert Israel

Reading Toshiazu Kawaguchi’s novel — set in a magical basement shop on a narrow Tokyo lane where one orders a cup of coffee and is transported back in time — I remembered my visit to Tokyo some years ago. I, too, wandered down a labyrinthine alley like the one described in Kawaguchi’s book. My ramble, in the Roppongi district, was an attempt to lose my jet lag. I passed numerous rabuho (love hotels) and broom closet-sized stalls where everything from live crickets and ducklings to knockoff Rolexes were sold. Mesmerized, I could have been mistaken for one of the starry-eyed characters in search of a human connection that populate Kawaguchi’s novel.

Kawaguchi, at the age of 49, is best known in Japan for his plays and collaborations with a theater troupe called Sonic Snail. This is his first novel, and understandably it draws on his dramatic skills. The magical coffee shop, with its shabby interior, serves as a stage through which his characters must pass into another dimension. The larger world enters only when we learn their backstories.

Of course, Kawaguchi is not the first writer to enable time tripping by way of some sort of phantasmagorical vehicle. Turn back the dial of the Wayback Machine to the year 1895 (you remember that contraption from the animated cartoon Rocky and Bulwinkle show, don’t you?). H.G. Wells first developed the theme in his novel/socialist polemic The Time Machine. Like the knockoff Rolexes I saw being hawked in Roppongi, Kawaguchi stands on the shoulders of numerous scribblers who have exploited Wells’s scenerio in stage plays, radio programs, comic books, and in popular films like Timecopstarring the “Muscles from Brussels” kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Oh, and let’s not forget the successful franchise, the Back to the Future trilogy of films, starring Michael J. Fox.)

So how does Kawaguchi differ from the others? Does he get away with recycling a hackneyed literary (and cinematic) gimmick? To his credit, Kawaguchi is a canny enough craftsman to give the cliché a healthy spin. Early on, he acknowledges the legions of writers who have pilfered Wells’s original theme — and assures readers that his variation on a theme will be different.

That’s quite a sales pitch. Yet he pulls it off by cleverly weaving fantastic strands into what turns out to be an entertaining tale. He convinces us that there’s a rumor floating about Tokyo, attributed to sensational stories that have appeared in the tabloids, concerning the existence of a magical café. It’s an “urban legend,” he tells us. But no one seems to know exactly where it’s located. If you should stumble upon it, it will appear, at first blush, to be a normal place of business, like the numerous stalls I encountered in the Roppongi district. If you linger longer, you might notice the abnormalities (strange clientele that lurk for what seem to be hours, weird comings and goings, backroom whispering). But, chances are, you might also find these happenings commonplace. It turns out that you have to engage the gatekeeper, a waitress named Kazu Tokita. Make it past her scrutiny and you are invited to partake in the specialtie de la maison, namely time travel — but there are rules you must follow. (I won’t spoil the plot by giving all the rules away except to say that when one agrees to time via this café portal, one cannot expect to return to alter the present outcome of one’s life at all).

A scene from the 2018 film version of Before the Coffee Gets Cold.

Being a clever dramatist, Kawaguchi builds suspense from scene to scene, carefully selecting his narrative clues. He punctuates his story with sonic cues: his characters’ entrances and exits are marked via a  bell that rings when the door of the magical coffee shop is opened: “Clang-dong.” And he draws on a a rich Japanese theater tradition (read: kabuki) by including supernatural spirits, ghoulish ghosts who are trapped between the physical and spirit worlds (and who, comically, get up from the table every now and again to use the bathroom).

Once you grant Kawaguchi the necessary suspension of disbelief, the story moves along fairly well. Though there are occasional potholes because of Geoffrey Trousselo’s awkward translation. For instance, when the author introduces the character Fumiko, she is described “like a model from a fashion magazine…a beautiful woman who would draw anyone’s gaze…who combined intelligence and beauty.” Groan. Lugubrious descriptive sentences like this – which in the original Japanese might emit more nuance or sophistication — are found peppered throughout the prose. (An alternative would be to reprint the original Japanese word or phrase and then refer the reader to a glossary at the end of the book.)

Unlike H.G. Wells, who used the futuristic context of The Time Machine to explore the horrific disparities between the haves and have-nots of Industrial England, Before the Coffee Gets Cold doesn’t examine social or cultural complexities. It provides scant political pizazz. Rather, the book is a deep-dive into melodrama, revolving around characters who long to reconnect to others for a second chance, to make amends, to rekindle passion. We are all victims of that poignant yearning to rewrite history. But, as Ray Bradbury suggests in his classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” even a tiny change — such as squashing a bug — might change the course of history for the worse. Kawaguchi shuts down that tragicomic possibility.

A footnote: Originally published in Japan in 2015, Before the Coffee Gets Cold was noticed by the movies: in 2018 Ayuko Tsukahara directed a film version. Who knows? Maybe the book, if successful over here, will inspire a Netflix series?

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston) on November 19, 2020.

Review: Black Food Matters

November 4, 2020

By Robert Israel

The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, by Marcus Samuelsson. Voracious/Little Brown, $38.

The Rise is the rare cookbook that does more than offer a culinary and educational journey. It inspires.

Celebrity chefs – particularly those with televised cooking shows – are a curiously driven lot. Charged with making everything from simple, hearty meals to fancy feasts look easy to prepare, they storm about ornate kitchen sets with enviable manic energy. In the space of thirty-minute segments, these alchemists toss together ingredients with aplomb; they rarely measure or taste-test anything along the way. Of course, a crew of food stylists, sous chefs, assorted runners and the lot do the dirty work off camera, enabling the chefs to create the illusion that you, too, can accomplish culinary magic at your own home. But even the best chefs follow recipes (a fact that is plugged when the credits roll and you are invited to purchase their cookbooks and DVDs).

Several of these celebrity chefs are raving egotists. Take the late Anthony Bourdain, whose popular CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” featured the uber-talented chef and gifted writer traveling the world seeking out and devouring exotic foods. Bourdain, a recovering heroin addict who began his career as a line chef in Provincetown, was a two-fisted drinker; in one of his last episodes, filmed before he took his own life in 2018, Bourdain can be seen teeter-tottering curbside in South Boston at 3 in the a.m., knocking back high octane shots.

A celebrity chef that breaks the self-worshiping mold is Marcus Samuelson. I was first introduced to him via his PBS cooking show, No Passport Required, in an episode wherein Samuelson, who hails from Ethiopia by way of Sweden, explores the culinary heritage of the Cape Verdean, Portuguese, and Brazilian communities in Somerville, Cambridge, Fall River, and New Bedford. Even though he is the creative force behind the show, he always insists that his guests – the real authorities behind the recipes — speak directly to us. He never jockeys to be in each frame or to stir up a cult of personality. He radiates respect and humility. In one scene, Samuelson shares the cooking tasks that go into making moqueca capizala, a South American seafood stew, in the kitchen at a home in southeast Massachusetts. In another scene, he sits at the bar at the soccer club/restaurant Pastelaria Vitoria in Somerville, thanking his hosts before accepting a hearty serving of what looked to be a hearty clam dish.

What’s so refreshing in Samuelsson’s The Rise is his emphasis on humility, respect, and family. We learn from his “Author’s Note” that, at the beginning of 2020, he was set to open his third restaurant, Red Rooster Overtown, in Miami, Florida, but the coronavirus pandemic forced him to cancel his plans. Instead of closing down his operation,  though, he shifted gears. He spoke to fellow celebrity chef/humanitarian José Andrés of World Central Kitchen and they transformed Samuelsson’s  and other restaurants into “a community kitchen to feed hundreds of people a day.” Before long the number of people served had grown to twenty thousand, “with kitchens firing away in Harlem, Newark, and Overtown.” He adds: “I never thought of cooks and servers as first responders. In this moment in America, once again, the immigrants are helping.”

Thus begins a culinary journey that introduces us to chefs around the country, with generous details about how they prepare their favorite recipes ladled out among the way. Each chef is interviewed and invited to expand on the roots of their creations. One profile introduces us to Leah Chase, a nonagenarian chef-owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, who “offers Black customers the respect and finesse of fine dining” in the process “making Dooky Chase’s a safe meeting place for activists” beginning in the Civil Rights era. Her dish contribution: Leah Chase Gumbo, a mélange of shrimp, sausage, rice, and a potent blend of pungent spices and sauce. Another treat in the book that I had the opportunity to sample at Miss Shirley’s Diner in Baltimore —  Fried Chicken and Waffles (secret ingredient: the waffles are made with sweet potatoes). The recipe hails from Harlem, NY by way of South Carolina.

The Rise features an interview with Fred Opie, a Professor of History and Foodways at Babson College in Wellesley, who neatly articulates the mission of Samuelsson’s tome. “Most of my students are unaware of how big Africa is as a continent and are unaware of how many staples within the US food system, from rice to peppers to watermelon to coffee, come from Africa,” Opie explains. “They are blown away.”

And this notion of discovery underlies the complex rewards of Samuelsson’s book. Throughout its pages, the chef reminds us that “we have the opportunity to wake up to the brilliance and beauty around us, as well as to the systemic problems that create issues of justice, access, and representation around race.” The motto of The Rise is that “Black Food is American Food,” and that Black Food Matters. The result is rare accomplishment for a cookbook: a culinary and educational journey that not only enlightens and nourishes, but inspires.

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston), November 4, 2020.

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.