This is my last piece as the arts and culture reporter for JewishBoston. As I step back, it stuns me when I quantify the time I’ve spent in this role—seven years and three months works out to 87 months, 2,610 days, 62,640 hours and 3,758,400 minutes. This time has been realized in 800 columns, articles and interviews. It has been expressed in almost a million words, and through encounters with close to a thousand people.
I never thought of myself as a beat reporter in this job but a story finder. So, in that spirit, I began many interviews with a simple request: Tell me your story. Listening to those stories, I bore witness to the quiet glories inherent in a person’s deeds and heartfelt work and impassioned art. I thrilled to discover the inextinguishable flame inside each person.
During these years at JewishBoston, I worked with a remarkable, talented and supportive team. Kali Foxman, Ashley Jacobs, Kara Baskin and Miriam Anzovin buoyed me with their wisdom and care. These women gave me the space and time to accommodate the expansive wingspan that develops with the privilege of doing this work.
Much has happened in the Jewish world and beyond these past seven years. There has been a domestic surge in antisemitism unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. The worst mass shooting of Jews on American soil occurred in 2018 in the Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Jews, who were murdered in their synagogue, died on what began as a quiet Shabbat morning.
In 2020, the pandemic struck, terrifying and isolating people all over the world. In response, I started “The Coronavirus Diaries.” My first diary entry was about the significance of hand-washing in Jewish tradition. In other entries, I contemplated what it was like to be alone and together in worship. I wrote about “The Brady Bunch”-like squares that set the parameters of our newfangled lives on Zoom. I read poems with poet and scholar Joy Ladin and Rabbi Naomi Levy.
So much art and film and theater and literature came my way these past seven years. Boston Jewish Film’s various festivals provided windows into Jewish life globally and historically.
It never stopped thrilling me to see people making meaning through their art. I was privileged to take private tours of exhibitions with curators at the Museum of Fine Arts. Simona di Nepi, the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, graciously gave me a two-hour tour of the museum’s growing collection.
One of my favorite shows was Philip Guston’s retrospective in 2022. Bold black strokes delineating disturbing images often clashed with bubblegum pink backgrounds, improbably making Guston’s paintings intense visual commentaries on racism, antisemitism and the Holocaust. These mid-20th-century paintings carried an eerie, contemporary resonance.
Public artist Nancy Schön invited me to her home studio in Newton where I viewed works in progress. Her iconic sculpture “Make Way for Ducklings” has been variously costumed for over three decades to reflect Boston’s sports victories, current events and social justice issues. The ducklings and their mother, Mrs. Mallard, wore Red Sox T-shirts after the team’s first World Series win. They sported pink “pussy hats” in advance of the Women’s March in 2017. I spoke to Schön about the Mallard family’s incarnation into undocumented immigrants in 2020. A local artist placed the ducklings and their mother in chicken wire cages, and Schön called the representation “thoughtful” and a “wonderful way to teach lessons.” The nonagenarian’s most recently exhibited work anchored a 2022 group show also featuring art by her daughters and granddaughters.
In 2020, artist Deb Putnoi shared her novel interactive Haggadah, which distinguished beloved seder rituals. A couple of years later, we spoke about an exhibit of her artwork in Boston’s City Hall that addressed racism and signaled optimism in the context of Black-Jewish relations. Putnoi is also a generous, dedicated teacher who fiercely believes anyone can and should make art.
True to her vision of art for all, she invited me—adamantly unartistic—to her studio for a drawing lesson. The first rule under Putnoi’s tutelage is that I was not allowed to say I can’t draw. Another rule was to suspend self-judgment of my work. I drew with her for two hours—my hands and face getting sooty as I used a thick piece of charcoal to make marks and continuous lines, sometimes with my eyes closed. I drew to music and interpreted it on the page. I touched textures I purposely could not see and responded to them with more marks and lines on paper. And, true to Putnoi’s ultimate golden rule, I had fun.
I could not have covered the breadth and depth of Boston’s Jewish art scene without Laura Mandel’s generous partnership. Mandel’s formal title is executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, but she is the heart and soul of the organization’s mission to present artists and new art forms to Boston. In 2018, Mandel introduced me to “Pathways to Freedom,” a public art exhibit that was a mix of information garnered from 2,000 personal encounters in Boston and community mosaics reflecting those encounters laid out on the Boston Common.
Mandel and artist Caron Tabb were my guides to a 2022 groundbreaking public exhibit called “Be The Change.” Six artists, including Tabb, created original pieces highlighting social justice issues. Their work was on display for a month on the Fenway. The exhibit also introduced me to the evocative portmanteau “artivism,” a mashup of art and activism.
Mandel and her team have also been behind the spectacular annual “Hanukkah at the MFA” programs. Artists, musicians and writers participated in interactive programs at the museum next to commissioned public art for the event. This hubbub of activity sparked attendees to think deeply about what comes to light when choosing to integrate social justice into their lives.
Over seven years, I met many of Boston’s incredible clergy. At the risk of inadvertently leaving someone out, I cite profiles I wrote of Ravs Tiferet Berenbaum and Claudia Kreiman, Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger, Rabbis Barbara Penzner, Sonia Saltzman, Elaine Zecher and Cantor Elias Rosemberg. Clergy across the Jewish spectrum provided wise counsel for pieces I wrote incorporating Jewish law and holiday observances.
I met Jewish communal leaders who opened my eyes to the good works happening effectively, often quietly, in the community. Jeffrey Savit, president and CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters is a lawyer turned social worker. When he warmly shook my hand at the beginning of our interview, I immediately knew this man was born to help people. Over the years, in no particular order, I learned so much from Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Idit Klein, president and CEO of Keshet, Carrie Bornstein, outgoing CEO of Mayyim Hayyim, Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive, and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe and Amy Sessler Powell, executive director and communications director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. These inspiring leaders contributed immeasurably to my work.
I met activists who changed my life—the Rev. Clementina Chéry, who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester in memory of her teenage son, Louis, murdered in gang crossfire; Gold Star father Khizr Khan; and Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was shot to death in a stairwell of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Each of these warriors amplified their grief into love and peace.
Khan reverentially spoke of the Constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, searing that memory in my heart. He came to Boston the following year to address middle and high schoolers under the auspices of the ADL. I told these three heroes, who lost their beloved children, that they were “lamed vavniks“—one of the 36 righteous people who hold our world aloft. It’s not surprising they were modest when I placed them in that reverential group. Khan humbly told me, “I think you are describing my son.”
I choked up as I talked with the luminous Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi advocating for LGBTQ+ people, often at his own peril, with “all his heart and soul.” He is on my lamed vavnik roster too.
I wrote a series of occasional columns called “And Then” because there was always another story and more love to discover. The columns were often my responses to news events, thoughts on what I had been reading or sharing my mental health challenges with anxiety and depression so readers felt less alone. I wrote memorial pieces for the children of Uvalde, George Floyd, Elie Wiesel, Congressman John Lewis and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I ended the series with my heart—an essay for Pride Month about my beautiful queer son’s tattoo.
A writer I admire said that each essay he wrote was an attempt to stare God in the eye. To that end, I had the honor of seeing divine sparks emanating from each person inextricable to the work I have loved doing these past seven years. I hope and pray those sparks will light my new path.
And to you, my dear readers: There is no me without you. Thank you.