Author Interview: Alan Lightman

November 22, 2019
alan-lightman

Alan Lightman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Commentary: MFA Boston At 150

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

 

By Robert Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

Profile: Kim Janey, Boston City Councilor

September 18, 2019

Kim Janey, Boston’s District 7 City Councilor, sees the dark clouds of racial and economic disparity that often hamper her constituents from connecting with opportunities for advancement. Yet she is drawn to the light. “You build bridges while the sun is shining,” she says. “You don’t wait for the storms to come.”

Indeed, Janey has built such a bridge. In 2018, she nominated for Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) ten minority-owned businesses – four of which took part in the program. When asked why she was motivated to nominate, she says, “I want to make sure we have an economy working for black people, for those in the Latinx community, for immigrants, for women, and particularly for those who have been marginalized and left out.”

More Than Just Books

One of the businesses Janey nominated was Frugal Bookstore. Located in historic Dudley Square and across the street from ICIC’s office, Frugal is Roxbury’s only bookstore and Boston’s only black-owned bookstore. With the motto, “Changing Minds One Book At A Time,” Frugal prides itself on being a community center, hosting spoken word events, free drop-in homework help, children’s story time sessions, and much more.

“A bookstore is full of knowledge,” says Frugal’s co-owner Clarrissa Cropper. But a bookstore is more than just the books it sells. It’s also about the relationships it helps foster. “If we can be a business where people come and build those relationships, then we definitely want to be that place,” she adds.

It was through the relationship Cropper built with City Councilor Janey, a frequent customer of Frugal, that she learned about ICCC. She credits the program with opening her eyes to strategic pricing. “It hits home,” says Cropper. “It takes a lot of time to put together a book quote for hundreds of books, yet we don’t charge for the time we spend doing it.”

She also learned about the importance of building relationships both in person and online “The impact of social media is huge,” notes Cropper. “But we weren’t active as we might have liked.” As a direct result of the insights she gained from ICCC, social media is now part of Frugal’s marketing strategy, allowing her and her husband Leonard Egerton to better engage with customers.

janey-headshotKim Janey, City Councilor, District 7 in Boston.

Don’t Wait for the Storm to Come

As Chair of the Boston City Council’s Small Business and Consumer Affairs committee, City Councilor Janey does not wait for the storm to come. She proactively connects entrepreneurs in her district and across the city to resources they can leverage to tackle challenges and build capacity. It is in this spirit that she nominated ten additional businesses for this year’s ICCC program.

It’s also how she confronts the rise in empty storefronts in Dudley Square. Concerned but undaunted, Janey told her constituents at a neighborhood meeting to approach these business closures not as insurmountable problems but as challenges they could solve.

“Some people looked to the Boston school department moving to Dudley as the savior of economic activity,” she told The Bay State Banner. “But they are not the savior, and we as residents, business owners and stakeholders are the ones who will put forth solutions that can help save our community.”

And Janey sees the partnership she has with ICCC as one of the solutions to revitalizing her community’s economic vitality. “There will always be challenges – the rain is always going to come,” she says. “That’s why you proactively seek out building relationships.”

**

This profile was written as an assignment for Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) in Roxbury, Mass. To learn more about ICIC, please visit http://icic.org/blog/building-bridges-sun-shining/.

 

 

 

 

A Haiku for Rosh Hashanah 5780

September 12, 2019
rosh hashanah, abstract Jewish holiday icon set. Jewish new year

Rosh Hashanah — the Head of the Jewish New Year — falls on September 29, 2019 at sunset.

By Robert Israel

The Jewish New Year arrives when the light is dazzling, yet warning signs are afoot. Most of us intentionally ignore these signs of seasonal change. We yearn for one more day at the beach, one more long weekend. But, as always, life interferes. School begins. Schedules change. Our pace is accelerated. The evening cool forces us indoors and all too chillingly reminds us that we must make our shelters ready for a new season.

For the Japanese haiku poets, these passages of time and season were opportunities to record, in minute detail, changes worth remembering. 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 Days of Awe, a period of 10 days at the head of the Jewish calendar that commences with Rosh Hashanah, which this year occurs on sunset on September 29. Falling as it does 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 October 8. During both these times, Jews reflect, as Shiki wrote, on the brevity of life. We gather to evaluate, to store, and to savor life, but we also assemble in a communal acknowledgement of our mortality.

During this time 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 vexing questions. We may well ask: Why, during this past year, have incidents of hatred against Jews increased globally? Why have so many of our co-religionists been gunned down at houses of worship in these United States? What must we do – as individuals and as citizens – to safeguard our homes and neighborhoods? How can we, as Jews, re-dedicate ourselves to repairing our broken world, and enlist non-Jews to join us in this mission?

Although I find myself weary of accumulated burdens as one year ends and another begins, I never tire of 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, using so few words.

The night is brief, Shiki wrote. So, too, is our place in the world. We stand in awe of the splendors of the late summer and acknowledge the early darkness of autumn. On September 29, as the New Year arrives at sunset, we are reminded not to drift, or to squander, that which is really never ours to keep.

**

Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

At the MFA: Viewing Islamic Art Gallery

August 7, 2019

By Robert Israel

 

Lunette (about 1573), fritware with polychrome decoration under transparent glaze. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Conflicts raging in Iran, Iraq, and Syria pose major threats to ancient art and artifacts, which are housed within mosques and other historic sites. Pieces are being plundered and then sold on the black market — or, worse, destroyed.

“Islamic sites in northern Iraq, for example, continue to sustain incredible damage,” Michael D. Danti, an archeologist and academic director at the American School of Oriental Research at Boston University, warns. “These include sites of ethnic and religious importance. If they haven’t been plundered by looters, the bombs and mortar fire are obliterating them.”

This ongoing devastation should inspire concern and some urgency, such as a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston’s newly “reinstalled and reinterpreted” Arts of Islamic Cultures gallery, which recently opened. Here one can find a calming perspective  on the current cultural desconstruction, generated by a sense that at least some art has found safety. This is a space the encourages reflection and engagement — the artworks one gazes upon are far from the scorched earth of their origins. There must be a way to protect others.

There is another aspect of this gallery that is startling: its size. The MFA claims to have a vast collection of over 5,000 objects, yet only 69 of them are on display. Some of these acquisitions date to 1877, seven years after the museum was founded.

Minbar (pulpit) door (14th–15th centuries), with later additions. Wood (ebony, Aleppo pine, abura, boxwood) and ivory or bone. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The gallery is easy to miss, but that’s not because of poor signage. MFA visitors, after viewing works in larger galleries devoted to American and European art, walk past the space along a corridor that leads to the museum’s restaurant, bookstore, and auditorium, which is located just beyond it.

During my visit prior to the July 20 opening, Laura Weinstein — MFA’s Ananda Coomaraswarmy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art – served as my guide. She has devoted the last eight years consulting with the Islamic community and exploring the vast trove of Islamic objects, much of which is archived in the bowels of the MFA’s storerooms.

The Arts of Islamic Cultures gallery succeeds, in large part, because of Weinstein’s syncretic vision. Working in concert with curators, imams, scholars, ceramicists, and other artists and artisans, she has assembled an impressive visual representation of Islamic cultures, geographies, and histories. And she has flavored the gallery with a unique Bostonian accent: there are objects acquired by early MFA benefactors as well as pieces from contemporary Massachusetts artists.

One of those objects acquired in 1877 sits at the entranceway, a Minbar, or pulpit found at the entrance to a mosque, dating from the Mamluk Period, 14th to 15th century. Weinstein explains it was purchased by the first MFA director and later donated to the museum when the MFA was located in Copley Square. It was discovered, like many other pieces, in the MFA storeroom. Now it assumes a prominent place at the gallery’s entrance, offering a warm welcome to a world of faith and solemnity.

Bostonians traveled in droves to the Islamic world during the nineteenth century, Weinstein explains, and they brought back textiles, pottery, jewelry, and other objects, many of which found their way to the MFA. Not all represent the Islamic faith. Christian and Jewish objects are on display here, too, illustrating how these religions, which had their origins in the region, flourished. A silver Chanukah menorah from Algeria, for example, caught my eye because of its simplicity and elegance; I envisaged it fully illuminated, glowing with burning oil.

Opposite the menorah is a copy of the Qur’an, and outside the glass enclosure where the holy text is housed there’s a headset where one listens to an imam from the Islamic Center in Roxbury read a representative chapter. The sounds of the words, intoned with a lulling musical cadence, reminded me of  how Hebrew Torah scripture strikes the ear when it is chanted, calling to mind the interwoven threads that bind all Abrahamic faiths. Hanging nearby is a 2007 porcelain plate by Cambridge artist Wasma’a Khalid Chorbachi which draws on words of the bismillah (found at the opening of most chapters of the Qur’an). Curator Weinstein selection is about creating a dialog that — at least in this room — unites faiths, eras, artists, objects, and Holy Scripture.

Weinstein says that the light-sensitive paintings in the gallery will be rotated every six months; textiles will be rotated annually. Other objects will be brought from storage and displayed.

This plan, and the gallery itself, according to Syrian-born Nasser Rabbat, a professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, does not do justice to Islamic art.

“The Profession of Faith (Al Shahada),” Wasma’a Khalid Chorbachi (American, born in Egypt), 1994, Porcelain with matte glaze. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Given the MFA’s collection,” charges Rabbat, “the museum needs to expand what the public views. Weinstein has done a wonderful job, but Islamic art shouldn’t be sandwiched into a corridor. It deserves a larger viewing space. The museum needs to show the influence of Islamic art and how it fits into the larger history of art.”

Rabbat’s criticism is not lost on Weinstein.

“All curators look to have more space for works of art to be displayed,” she responds, “myself included.”

**

A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston) on July 30, 2019.

Review: James Tate’s “Fakelore” Poems

July 18, 2019

By Robert Israel

James Tate, poet and University of Massachusetts professor of English, died at age 71 in 2015 at his home near Amherst. His book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion (Ecco/Harper Collins), which I reviewed for Arts Fuse, was accompanied by a statement from his editor, Daniel Halpern: “I’m grateful that Jim was able to see a copy of his new collection of poems before he died.”

Halpern’s farewell led me to assume that Pavilion was Tate’s last hurrah. I was not alone: in the many tributes that followed, readers and reviewers alike drew the same conclusion. His book reflected his patented insouciance, sustained throughout his seventeen books, a style that earned him numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Turns out, my assumption was wrong. Tate, ever the prankster, had completed more than three-dozen additional prose poems, now collected in The Government Lake. No doubt Tate would be pleased with this posthumous collection: he gets to thumb his nose at the undertaker.

james-tate

James Tate

Most of the poems are written in a jocular vein. Several are laugh-out-loud hilarious. But while Tate — in both of his “last” books — may have believed he was creating a new poetic form, he was really contributing to an American literary genre that dates back to Colonial times: the tall tale.

To apply a phrase coined by historian Richard M. Dorson, who founded the Indiana University Folklore Institute, Tate dabbles in “fakelore,” or creating “urban legends which never happened told as true.”

Many of Tate’s pieces involve animals. It’s not a stretch to imagine Tate having been influenced by the tall tale of Babe, the gigantic Blue Ox (said to have been 10 feet tall and 8 feet across at his front hooves), and his owner, the humungous lumberjack Paul Bunyan (said to have been 18 feet tall and 5 feet across at his base).

In Tate’s world, we meet Elvis, not the human rock ‘n roller, but, a raccoon (who snuggles and smooches with the narrator after devouring bowls of cereal and milk). There’s a story about Mildred, part-woman, part-hen, who complains of a “stomachache, and after a few days she laid an egg,” Tate tells us. There’s another about a dog named Roscoe, still another with a title, “The Sky is Falling Like Bunnies.” In each poem, Tate invites us to join him on these and other outrageous leaps of fancy so phantasmagoric that you can almost hear him snickering, or, in some pieces, chortling.

Tate is not the only American poet to have flirted with writing “fakelore.” The late Charles Olson, who penned his Maximus Poems while living in Gloucester, Mass., enjoyed similar literary forays. In one of his poems (Olson was more ribald than Tate ever dares to be), Olson describes a nymphomaniac who fornicates with a snake and who later dies because she is unable to pass on the venom to the last of her five husbands (who, earlier in the poem witnesses her in flagrante delicto, and, although she implores him to bed down with her, he refuses her entreaties.) Olson wrote another “fakelore” piece about a man wandering in the wilderness who miraculously carries his house on his head, swaps the house with a passerby for the man’s raccoon skin (could it have been Tate’s Elvis?); when the new owner takes possession of the residence, he morphs into a bird that flutters with newfound wings up to the rafters.

Tate’s last poem in this collection is unfinished. “I sat at my desk and contemplated all I had accomplished,” it begins. The Government Lake reproduces the manuscript in a photograph in the frontispiece and, later, in print on the book’s last page. The photograph shows the poem just as Tate left it, curled up on a typing paper in his IBM Selectric, rife with typos. In this last poem, Tate boasts about all his bogus achievements while simultaneously debunking himself. “I had won the hot dog eating contest on Rhode Island. No, I hadn’t. I was just kidding. I was the arm wrestling champion in Portland, Maine. False,” he declares. He wants to see if we can catch him in the act of writing “fakelore.” He wants us to be co-conspirators. He succeeds.

Tate used his linguistic gifts like a mischievous child, giggling in the corner after having pulled pranks on the adults in the room – relishing in his insouciance. Tate didn’t invent the genre of “fakelore”: he expanded upon it. He succeeds in doing something else, too: his last collection leaves us laughing.

**

The Government Lake, Last Poems, by James Tate, Ecco/HarperCollins, New York, $24.99.

 

Montreal Jazz Festival: Harmony & Chaos

July 13, 2019

By Robert Israel

The 40th Montreal Jazz Festival this past week was, for the most part, a marvel. At both indoor and outdoor venues, I heard a cavalcade of top-notch performers who hailed from Canada, the States, Chile, Norway and beyond. Standing sardined amidst throngs on Ste. Catherine Street in the heart of city’s center, I grooved to tunes while basking in the late Quebec summer twilight that lingered high in the sky long past nine p.m.

The Festival would have been more successful had it not been for the bad timing of planning construction that are ripping apart the city. Montreal is repairing a crumbling infrastructure, in downtown, in Chinatown, in Old Montreal, and in the streets surrounding Marche Jean Talon, the city’s popular outdoor marketplace. Streets and sidewalks are pocked with open, fetid pits. Sandy pumice befouls the air. Pont Champlain – the main bridge that crosses the St. Lawrence — was closed: I moved about in dead-ended circles; poor signage heightened my sense of malaise.

How do Montrealers cope with chaos? Marc Lebrèche, a Montreal-based stage performer and television personality, in an interview in the Arts Fuse, explained it best:

“I come from a culture that has gone through so many hardships over so long a time and yet, like my fellow Quebecois, I am jovial, ebullient, cursed with an unquenchable joie de vivre,” Lebrèche said.

**

Celebrating this joy of life – with its inherent hardships and fleeting elations — that rule the day in Montreal, works out to be a splendid backdrop for jazz, a music born of struggle and repression. Jazz lifts our spirits, and, a moment later, sends those spirits on a downward spiral to despair.

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Melissa Aldana

The set performed by Melissa Aldana, a Berklee College graduate, tenor saxophone virtuoso, composer and bandleader, is a perfect example: she performed both upbeat and dark hued tunes.

When Boston-area concertgoers last heard Aldana, it was at a Celebrity Series event for Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour at the Berklee Performance Center that offered only a glimpse of her talents. Her late night June 27 Festival performance in Montreal let her strut her stuff. Chilean-born Aldana showcased her own band (now on a world tour) and featured selections from her new recording, Visions.

 From the stage at Le Gesu (a performance space carved out of the nave of a nineteenth century Montreal church), Aldana explained that her new album was inspired by the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. She’s aligned with “Los Fridas,” a group of fans formed in the 1940s, defined by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as an example of “Fridamania,” or “a fascination with all things Frieda.”

For Aldana, Kahlo is not just an idol: the late Mexican painter embodies the struggles many Latinas, past and present, have faced in a culture that celebrates the achievements of men at the expense of women. In her composition “La Madrina” (“The Godmother”) she takes us on a “vision” quest with a Latin beat that is reminiscent of street sounds and midnight wailings. A physical performer, she stoops her lanky frame low to bring forth the notes and then follows by rising up from bent knees so that her tenor sax can hit the higher octaves.

Frida Kahlo’s paintings took viewers on a similar trip, tapping into a world of the subconscious, drawing on folklore and family ties that explored her Mexican traditions. Aldana, the daughter of Chilean saxophonist Marco Aldana who tutored her as a youngster, honors her traditions while also setting herself on a new path. Her compositions echo the strains of Coltrane, Monk, and Getz, but her sound is her own. She is also a generous collaborationist. In one composition, she interfaced with drummer Tommy Crane who circled his cymbal with the wooden tip of his drumstick – the way one might wet one’s finger to produce a hum from the rim of a crystal glass goblet – producing a sound that Aldana carried forth, lifting that high, single note and, once grasping it, bringing it low, mesmerizing the audience.

**

Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana finds inspiration in Frieda Kahlo. Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen finds his in the works of J.S. Bach and Montreal-born songwriter Leonard Cohen.

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Tord Gustavsen

Returning to Montreal after an absence of 11 years, Gustavsen entered the Gesu auditorium on June 28 and proceeded to pay demonstrate why J.S.Bach lends himself to jazz interpretation.

He called Bach “a famous Buddhist” because the German composer excelled at mastering his internal life and emotions. Gustavsen admitted that “this is very dark music,” but added, “It is from the deepest sorrows that we appreciate life,” sounding a bit like Marc Lebrèche’s description of his fellow Quebecois.

Playing a Steinway grand, he produced darkly stirring notes, with warm complex tones punctuated by sudden rhapsodic light, lyrical bursts and well-timed pauses. He wove Norwegian folk tunes into his compositions, and freely interpreted Leonard Cohen’s verse from “Came So Far for Beauty” that includes this refrain: “I came so far for beauty/I left so much behind/My patience and my family/My masterpiece unsigned.”

**

Despite the noisy cacophony that comes with odious construction, music remains a part of Montreal. In Old Montreal, near St. Suplice cathedral, a line of several hundred people formed to hear an organ recital; across the square opposite the church, a flamenco guitarist with his own amp performed Spanish melodies, later passing the hat for change. Around the corner, on St. Francois Xavier St., Bonaparte restaurant manager Martin Bédard told me that construction for his venerable establishment – it is housed in a building that dates from the mid-1800s – took over three years to complete. The old streets around the building are cobblestoned and skinny; the traffic is abominable. And yet, despite all these hurdles and inconveniences, the work was completed. Today, the dining room shines.

And no doubt, Montreal will shine, too, when next year’s Montreal Jazz Festival comes around, whether the city postpones construction long enough to accommodate the thousands of international visitors who will return to the city in search of jazz. Music is intertwined in the Quebecois culture. Whatever force threatens to derail it, the music will most assuredly play on.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston), on July 13, 2019.

Report: There Goes the Neighborhood

May 8, 2019

By Robert Israel

A strange thing happened on my way to see a show last week: I got lost.

I was en route to the latest Gold Dust Orphans show, The Ebonic Woman, at The Machine nightclub on Boylston Street in the Fenway when I became disoriented. I had not anticipated the stark changes in the neighborhood. For a while, I was adrift, there were no familiar landmarks in sight. Finally, thanks to a bouncer I met who was standing at the entrance to a bar, I was directed to my destination.

Turns out I wasn’t the only person dazed. I queried several people waiting in line to see the Gold Dust show, and, they, too, had a difficult time navigating the “new” Fenway neighborhood.

It’s only going to get more confusing. Developers will soon raze the block where The Machine, a long-standing gay nightclub, is nested in a homely building just a stone’s throw from the green and grassy Emerald Necklace.

Ryan Landry founded the Gold Dust Orphans over two decades ago. He and his rag-tag troupe of thespians have long called The Machine their home (except in the spring and summer, when they relocate to Provincetown). He’s always had a Boston performance space to return to.

Not anymore.

“I saw it coming three years ago, when there was a frenzy of development in the Fenway,” he told me in an interview this week. “Now the neighborhood looks like a corporate mall.”

The Fenway looks like a mall, but it is really being transformed into a lucrative adult playground, with an expansive food court. If you take a leisurely stroll from Kenmore Square on a weekend night toward Fenway Park — it doesn’t matter if the Red Sox are playing a home game or not — the local boutique-ish venues are raking in the greenbacks. Long lines of revelers wait to gain entry at the House of Blues, to play in Lucky Strike bowling tournaments at Jillian’s, or chug shots of bar whiskey and pints of draught beer at Oliver’s (just one of many watering holes in the area). Hoards of free-spending, freewheeling folks (overloaded with tourists) pack these places to their maximum legal capacities.

The Fenway is fragrant as well, now that recreational marijuana is legal. Walk down Landsdowne, or Haviland, or Kilmarock, or Jersey, or Van Ness streets: Mary Jane smoke blows and billows. You might just get a contact high.

The other night, when I finally made it past the cordoned off, open trenches of construction, I found a re-vamped version of Boylston Street populated with chain restaurants – Regina’s Pizza, Tasty Burger – open to please the tenants and ballpark fans who live in the new, expensive, glistening high-rise apartment complexes that line the street.

A scene from the Gold Dust Orphans latest show, “The Ebonic Woman.”

Does theater fit into this profit-oriented civic operation? “We were getting our new show ready, and I found out that the developer had plans to raze the block,” Landry recalled. “So, I called Joyce Linehan, policy director at Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, to ask her if she knew of any spaces for us to rent. To my surprise, she said that she had talked to the developers and they were open to discussing a project to build a theater space in the new building that could house us. I was shocked.”

(An email and telephone call I placed to Ms. Linehan requesting comment on this story went unanswered at the time of writing this report).

According to National Real Estate Investor, Scape, the British developer, expects to build a 15- story building to house approximately 500 private dorms for graduate students. Scape CEO Andrew Flynn told National Real Estate that “…we’re very pleased to have planted our flag here in Boston…we think that our brand is very well aligned with Boston and a lot of the core principles that Boston has really exhibited in recent years, including a real spirit of innovation and entrepreneurism and a deep knowledge economy.”

But what about housing an existing — and thriving — gay bar and a gay theater troupe?

“To my surprise, the Scape developers told Linehan that they were open to building a space for us to perform in,” Landry said. “So, we announced we’d have a meeting to discuss this with the community. Word got out, and various groups showed up to voice what turns to be more about their personal greedy designs to turn the proposed new space into a ‘gathering space’ for them. We couldn’t bring everyone together. It fell apart.”

Due to this community rancor, Landry fears that the developer will back out now with their proposed theater project.

“It’s because everyone wants a piece,” Landry concluded. “No one sees the bigger picture of working together.”

In the mean time, while audiences clamor to see the Gold Dust Orphans’ new production at The Machine, it looks as if the troupe will not have a future home in Boston. That might change — in a city known for fast-tracking changes. But, for now, the Gold Dust Orphans are truly orphans, thespian outcasts in a rapidly corporatizing city.

**

A previous version of this report appeared in The Arts Fuse magazine, on May 8, 2019.

Practicing Faith in a Dangerous Time

May 2, 2019
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Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., where a gunman opened fire in November, 2018, killing 11 worshippers and wounding 6 others.

By Robert Israel

When my fellow Jews were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018 I received messages and calls. Many of them were from strangers, like the man in New Bedford, Mass., a Christian., who wrote that he had read my newspaper articles and said he would pray for me and for “the Jewish victims I mourn like my own kin.”

When a gunman opened fire in Poway, California this year, killing a congregant and wounding others at a Jewish house of worship there, fewer messages arrived, proving once again we collectively become benumbed to repeated instances of gun violence, to horror, to senseless loss.

 

But I am not inured to these occurrences. My youth was spent with neighbors, grandparents and parents – many of them immigrants and Holocaust survivors who escaped from anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. I practiced Judaism casting a wary eye on the street while training my other eye on a prayer book. In my adult years, these exaggerated fears showed signs of breaking down. I attended a community event like the Black-Jewish Seder where African Americans and Jews shared the bread of affliction (matzoh) and celebrated our commonalities. We sang songs like, “Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan,” an African American spiritual that exclaims the joys of being liberated from the chains of enslavement.

Recently, I stood in solidarity with my neighbors at Arlington Mass. Town Hall after an arsonist’s attempt to set fire to the home of my Jewish neighbor was foiled. A similar fire was set and extinguished the week before, in nearby Needham, Mass. Culprits in both instance have yet to be apprehended.

But while we may be freed from the chains of slavery, we remain enslaved by shackles of fear. We cast wary eyes, fearful our communities will face murderous violence as it did in Pittsburg, or in Poway. We practice our faith in a dangerous time. We wonder, aloud, in the words of Psalm 137:1-4: “How we can sing praise to the Lord while we live in a strange land?”

Yet I yearn to live unencumbered, to live in a nation as a neighbor who cares for his neighbors and is cared for by them. How do we achieve this? Do install metal detectors at the entrance to our mosques, churches, and synagogues? Do we turn these houses of worship into citadels with armed sentries like they do in cities throughout Europe?

Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University suggests Jews accept our status as “others” in society – the way African Americans and immigrants have come to accept their status — and that in so doing we learn to see how the homogeneous white majority views. This, he believes, is an effective exercise in becoming more prepared to react, to respond, and to rally.

I’ve known this “other” status all my life and insist on moving past it. Community gatherings where we sing in unison are well intentioned, but are often only one-offs. Let’s build on the grass-roots momentum created by these gatherings with campaigns to educate all citizens – not just schoolchildren. Let’s schedule forums throughout the year to keep this issue in the forefront where civic leaders and law enforcement personnel provide updates about potential threats and how to recognize them. Let’s confront those who endanger civil discourse with their vile hate speech by advocating for and passing legislation to further limit this incendiary speech. Let’s renew our efforts for gun control. Let’s practice effective surveillance at all houses of worship — not only during holy days and not only with electronic devices — by creating visible citizen patrols throughout the year. And while we’re at it, let’s liaise with international efforts so we’re all connected to protect our communities – at home and abroad — to prevent future calamities.

**

This article has been updated to reflect recent developments in Arlington and Needham, Mass., involving suspected incidents of Semitic arson.

 

Book Review: “Mr. Straight Arrow”

April 29, 2019

By Robert Israel

The title of this “study” of pioneering American journalist and novelist John Hersey (1914-1993) is a long one, obviously meant to draw in readers who are acquainted with his celebrated non-fiction volume Hiroshima, but never knew much about the man who wrote it.

It wasn’t always so. Hersey was once a household name. He was read by legions of men and women who subscribed to Life magazine, or who turned to his front page dispatches cabled during World War II to newspapers like the New York Herald Tribune.

Today, many of these readers — and the publications — are gone. The reason Hersey is important now, author Jeremy Treglown states, is that he labored “to establish positively, painstakingly, and sympathetically, what the facts of a case were.” In today’s Trumpy parlance, he wrote the opposite of “fake news.”

But there is another reason: Hersey, who enjoyed a lucrative 50-plus year writing career, and who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Bell for Adano, took the “straight arrow” approach: stories were never about him, they were always about his subjects. He granted only two interviews during his lifetime: one to Publisher’s Weekly, the other to The Paris Review. He insisted that no biography be written about him. His daughter, Brook, executor of his estate, consented to be interviewed for Treglown’s book; she did not authorize its publication.

I can attest to Hersey’s taciturnity. A few years before his death, we met at his home in Vineyard Haven, on Martha’s Vineyard. I had entered a journalism competition earlier that year and returned stateside after spending nine weeks in Japan interviewing hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, for stories that appeared in several papers. Hersey was one of the judges. The editor at the Chuoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, mailed Hersey my pieces. When I returned home, he sent me a note inviting me to chat with him at his waterfront home.

“Follow the path from the Schamonchi and cut across the lawn until you see a boat with the name ‘Barbara’ on it,” Hersey said on the telephone. His voice was friendly. But once I arrived at his house, he was prickly. No, he said, he would not answer my questions. Instead, he would ask them. What had I discovered in Japan? How were the survivors at the Atomic Bomb Hospital? What did the doctors tell me about radiation sickness — keloid scars and worse — that plagued the survivors? We talked for a couple hours. After lunch, he sent me on my way.

Hersey’s reception was not totally unexpected. My father, a decorated officer in the U.S. Army during WWII, treated me like an enlisted man in his platoon. I received a brusque reception whenever we (infrequently) got together. Reading Treglown’s well-researched book — decades after meeting Hersey —  did more than generate empathic connections: it helped me understand why Hersey maintained such a similar steely demeanor. It was a projection of his journalistic ethos.

Hersey was born to missionary parents in China and attended a school where the teacher routinely beat boys who did not obey. His family returned stateside, he entered Yale, and became a private secretary (read: errand boy) to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (who was an unrepentant drunk). As a WWII foreign correspondent for Life, he survived four plane crashes, including being aboard a plane that fell into the ocean, capsized, and sank (he somehow swam to safety). He witnessed the American invasion of Sicily, writing for Time. He taught at Yale, but happily retreated to a home in Key West during the winter, insisting that it was the work that mattered above all.

Journalist and novelist John Hersey — just the facts.

Hersey returned to Japan to write an afterword for Hiroshima forty years after the book appeared in a single issue of The New Yorker magazine. When I was in Japan, one of the survivors had a framed photo of Hersey he had autographed for her. It occupied an honored place on her shelf. His inscription: “As if on August 6, 1946.”

I asked Hersey why he wrote that inscription when I visited him in Vineyard Haven. It was the only question he answered: “The stories the survivors told me touched me. They are always with me.”

In today’s media-glutted, branding-crazed world, when journalistic ethics (and lives) are endangered here around the world, Hersey emerges in this book as a disciplined writer who held steadfast to an admirably singular goal: to tell stories truthfully, at all costs.

**

A previous version of this book review appeared in the April 29, 2019 issue of The Arts Fuse magazine (Boston).