Friday, November 30, 2018

Jews vs. Jews: Reflections For Hanukkah 5779

So already, Hanukkah 5779 is coming right up--Sunday night, to be exact. Lots has changed in my life since I was a child, but one thing that hasn't is the hushed awe, delight, and peace I feel when I see a lit menorah.*

I'm sure I'll have those same feelings again on Sunday night. But I'll be thinking about the holiday differently this year, primarily because of what I've learned about it in the past year.

Like many American Jews of my vintage, I grew up understanding the holiday as the celebration of the triumph of Jewish resistance in the face of non-Jewish persecution; I now understand that from some perspectives, it's also a commemoration of the struggle between Jews themselves for the future of Jews as a distinctly spiritually defined people. As Abigail Pogrebin explains it in My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,**
"The more complete story, asserted by rabbi after rabbi, is that the Maccabees (aka the Hasmoneans) took on not just Antiochus IV, who in 167 B.C.E. forbade Jewish practice. The Maccabees challenged their fellow Jews for selling out--embracing Greek culture, Hellenization, because they were either seduced by it or afraid to disobey authority" (106).  
So why does this matter? and to whom? And just why should it matter? Pogrebin goes on to say, as she begins to explore the holiday's significance for the present day,
"I know it's too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant while the rest of us are Hellenized. But implicit in so many of the Hanukkah teachings I'm now reading is that Jews are in danger of losing our direction--our distinctiveness--and abandoning the traditions, language, and texts that make us Jews" (107).
Now let me remind you that I am a very assimilated--"Hellenized"--Jew: I'm married to a non-Jewish man, I have an Episcopalian god-daughter, I had a pulled pork slider at a restaurant yesterday, and I can recite the mass in Latin after decades of choral singing. 

Cover Photo on Boston Synagogue Facebook Page
But I also recently joined a synagogue after many years of not having a synagogue affiliation, and I show up there pretty often on Saturday mornings. I still know my Jewish stuff, so I fit right in to this place where worship happens mostly in Hebrew. The existence and integrity of "the Jewish people" matters to me. And I don't like to think of my behavior as contributing to the physical or spiritual demise of the Jewish people. But I also know many would probably consider me too secular to be a Jew who's part of the solution, not part of the problem.

That's why a front page story in the November 28 Boston Globe really spoke really loudly to me. "Newton teachers stand up for history curriculum"* reported on a November 27 hearing in response to the petition of a group of Newton citizens who, having "accused the school system of anti-Israel bias in its high school world-history curriculum," were asking that the superintendent be fired and the high school history curriculum be revised. 

Newton teachers turned out to stand in opposition to the petitioners' assertions and demands. The photo that accompanies the online version of the article, shown here,*** has the following caption: "Newton public school teachers protested during a public meeting at Newton South High School in support of their colleagues, who have been accused of teaching pro-Muslim curriculum."

There's so much to discuss here, and I say that knowing only what the article reported.**** Still, I recognize that the Newton story raises a lot of the same questions that the Hanukkah story raises: What should our children be taught? How should they be taught it? What kind of lives are we preparing them to lead--and in what kind of a world?

It's the photo's caption that lets me know the Newton story represents a minefield. While it's doubtful that the caption was written by one of the Newton stakeholders, the word "pro-Muslim" potentially conveys a number of meanings. Does "pro-Muslim" imply anti-Jew or anti-Christian? Can a curriculum be pro-Muslim, pro-Jew, and pro-Christian simultaneously? Is "anti-Muslim" the opposite of "pro-Muslim"? Would an anti-Muslim curriculum be just as unacceptable to the curriculum critics? And a curriculum that ignores Muslim people and Islam altogether: to whom would that be acceptable?

With my limited knowledge of this situation, I still find myself siding with the supporters of the curriculum, for the reasons laid out in a letter signed by 400+ recent Newton North High School graduates: "The curriculum 'has not taught us what to think, but how to think critically and cross-reference with independent sources . . . In today's increasingly polarized and sensationalized discourse, such skills are particularly empowering and simply necessary.'"(9). 

For Newton North's recent grads--and I have no idea how many of them are Jewish--what seems at stake is the capacity to engage in the informed civil discourse that's essential for a well-functioning democracy. For the petitioners carrying "Educate Yes. Indoctrinate No." signs--and again, I have no idea how many of them are Jewish--what seems at stake is ensuring that civic institutions like public schools do not intentionally or unintentionally foster antisemitism and thereby put Jewish people and "the Jewish people" at particular risk. 

Is there some place where these different priorities actually intersect, where the twain can meet? I'm not sure, but I think so. I do know for sure that I'm glad that Tuesday night's passion-filled meeting was civil: no Maccabean military might on parade. 

All of that said, I must confess that I wouldn't be writing about the Newton story were I not feeling deeply for one teacher who's been particularly singled out by the opponents of the curriculum. Had they called me out as they called out history teacher David Bedar, I can imagine having said exactly what he said: "'The allegations of anti-Semitism--they are a personal affront to me as a professional educator, as a Newton resident, and as Jewish person myself, . . ..'" (1).

To be accused falsely of doing harm to the Jewish people, or to do actual but unwitting harm to the Jewish people through my actions or choices, even if no one detected that I'd done so--both would wound me deeply--and necessitate lots of self-reflection. I'd definitely have to ask myself a variation of Pogrebin's Hanukkah-related question: "Would the Maccabees have viewed me as a threat to Jewish life?" (107).

It's very important to me to be a member in good standing of both an inclusive American "we" that embraces and cultivates democratic values and practices, and an inclusive, flexible Jewish "we" that preserves its core Jewishness. That's why I felt relieved to read Rabbi Mychal Springer's response to Pogrebin's questions about those Hellenistic impulses that the Maccabees disapproved of because, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explained, they had become "internal" to so many Jews that, for all intents and purposes, "The Jews disappeared as a people" (109):
Hanukkah Card by Annita Soble*****
     "I think Judaism has survived because of Hellenistic impulses . . . Over the generations we've incorporated good things from the world around us. Judaism isn't ossified. And sometimes we get frightened and say we've gone outside of the bounds, but that's part of the process of recognizing what's sustainable. I can't only be afraid of external impulses, of absorbing. I don't think they're only bad.
     " . . . The idea that nothing changes is ahistorical. Judaism has always evolved. Hanukkah isn't commanded anywhere in the Bible. . . . So even Hanukkah itself is a radical act" (110).
It's the nature of people to disagree about what should be done and how, and for Jews to disagree about how to be an American and a Jew simultaneously. So if this is the given, the more important issue is how we should act when we do disagree, especially given the goals, purposes, and dreams we share despite our differences. Our convictions--as educators, as people of faith, as parents--are too strong, real, and important for us to lay them aside for the sake of "getting along." But coming together is essential. Too much is at stake from so many perspectives. Happy Hanukkah! And wishing you the light, delight, awe, and peace that are part of this season for people of so many different religious and cultural traditions.

* Menorah in the window on the eighth night. (photo credit: AMANDA FIELD). Accompanying the following article: Rubenstein, S. (2018, November 29). Survey: Hanukkah is more important to American Jews than Israelis. The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from
** Pogrebin, A. (2017). My Jewish year: 18 holidays, one wondering Jew. Bedford, NY: Fig Tree Books.
***Crimaldi, L. (2018, November 28). Newton teachers stand up for history curriculum. The Boston Globe, pp. 1-9.
Photo by Barry Chin of The Boston Globe:
**** One of my former bosses for whom I have total respect has always cautioned me about assuming that press-covered education stories are presenting the whole story.
***** Annita Soble's work may be viewed at She has a link to the Etsy site where you can buy her greeting cards.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Björk, Baudelaire, Blake: Poetic Echoes in Scott Ketcham's Recent Work

So already, the painting you're looking at is called "Chrysalis," and it's fascinated me since I first saw it some weeks back. It embodies the monstrous humanness, primal urgency, and lulling darkness that often co-exist in Scott Ketcham's work--and that  frequently resist my efforts to reconcile them.

I share it with you here because Scott Ketcham's open studios are this weekend--November 17 and 18--in Rockland, MA.* The work that Scott will be showing this year represents a wider range of categories--portraits, abstract figurative works, landscapes, and still lifes--than it has in recent years. But all of it thrives on seductive ambiguity and unsettling tensions. That's why it reminds me of the poetry of Björk, Baudelaire, and Blake.

So what is it about "Chrysalis" that draws me in? First there's the imbalance of it: so much energetic intensity on its left-hand side, so much blank greenish-gold on its right-hand side. Then there's the chrysalis***, forceful, animate, and free-floating, as dominant an element of the picture as the figure emerging from it. Finally there's the androgynous figure, its closed eyes telegraphing different possible messages about the experience of emergence: are the eyes closed in concentration as the figure fights to emerge, or in effortless sleep as the chrysalis labors to expel it? Maybe it's neither of these.

Echoes of Björk
Emergence has been a longtime theme of Scott's work. But the other day as I contemplated the ideas of emergence and urgency, the two words fused to become "emurgency," bringing to mind the refrain from Björk's "State of Emergency" (sung here by Renee Fleming):

  Emotional landscapes
  They puzzle me
  The riddle gets solved
  And you push me up to 

  This state of emergency
  How beautiful to be!
  State of emergency 
  is where I want to be.****

"Spinning Dreidel"
Those words seem to fit equally well with "Spinning Dreidel,*****" which also combines athletic tension and inscrutable bliss; "how beautiful" to unfurl and twirl while free-falling through nothingness--perhaps. 

As onlookers, we're repelled, envious, or both, uncertain whether the figure feels powerless, free, or simply too peacefully ecstatic to care. Since her black hair hangs down rather than flies straight out, it's possible we're seeing languid stretching rather than taut, rapid spinning. In that case, she's more like a pole dancer without a pole than a spinning top. Hmmm . . .

Echoes of Baudelaire
For both Scott and Baudelaire, beautiful, languorous women--the "Spinning Dreidel" woman might be such a woman--are a favorite artistic subject. And for both of them, opulent hair often contributes to the women's thrilling power.

"Friendly Grasp"
"Indescribable Feeling"
Whether the figure seems to evince little or no consciousness of the seductive power of her mane--as in "Friendly Grasp"--or is enraptured by her own hair, as in "Indescribable Feeling," the poet and the painter are intensely aware of it. 

"Life Study"
Scott's "Life Study," in which the figure could be sleeping innocently or feigning sleep in order to maximize her seductive power, seems to pair perfectly with the final two stanzas of Baudelaire's "La Chevelure" ("Hair")****: 

    Blue-black hair, pavilion hung with 
    You give back to me the blue of the vast 
        round sky;
    In the downy edges of your curling 

    I ardently get drunk with the mingled 

    Of oil of coconut, of musk and tar.

    A long time! Forever! my hand in your 
        thick mane
    Will scatter sapphires, rubies and pearls,
    So that you will never be deaf to my desire!
    Aren't you the oasis of which I dream, the gourd

    From which I drink deeply, the wine of memory?*******

Given Baudelaire's many poems about mysterious, voluptuous women, I imagined that I would be stoking Scott's figure-painting fire when I gave him Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) last Christmas. So I was surprised when the book inspired him to paint a series of floral still lifes.

Les Fleurs du Mal (#2)
Les Fleurs du Mal (#4)
Like the two seen here, all of them are beautiful but also somewhat sinister, or even lugubrious, more suggestive of cosmic disorder than a tended garden beyond the back door.

Echoes of Blake
This suggestion of decay in Scott's flowers, emphasized by the feverish palette Scott chose for them, is what led me to think of Scott's work in connection with William Blake's illustrated Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. "O Rose thou art sick" begins "The Sick Rose" from the Experience section of Blake's collection..******* 

"Nothing gold can stay" in Robert Frost's world, and nothing innocent can stay in Blake's. In Blake's engraving of the poem, the sick, bulbous rose slumps, succumbing to the worm's "dark, secret love" before an intensifying background blue; "crimson joy" fades to graying maroon. The thorny stems bend to form a pricking arch--or is it a crown of thorns? What's darker than love that destroys the beloved? Here's a state of emergency that lifts up and carries no one. And still, its depiction is beautiful.

There's another Scott-Blake similarity: the works of Scott and Blake often provide views of the same subject from different perspectives. Blake offers a poem called "The Chimney Sweeper" in each of the two sections of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience; Scott offers the same cherished place during two different "phases" in two recent plein air landscapes:

"Brook, Dark Phase"
"Brook, Light Phase"
I love both of these paintings of the brook that runs close to our cabin just west of the Berkshires. But I was startled at first by Scott's titles for the two works. I knew that "Brook, Dark Phase" had been painted on a sunny mid-afternoon and that "Brook, Light Phase" had been painted on a cloudy late-afternoon; hence, I immediately associated the former with light, and the latter with darkness. Scott's titles, however, made me look again. This time, I appreciated how much darkness there was "Brook, Dark Phase," even though the grotto-like space also sparkled with brilliant sunlight. And I recognized how much light bounced on water and rock despite the day's hidden sun in "Brook, Light Phase,"

In Scott's work--and also in the works of Björk and Baudelaire--light and dark are inseparable companions rather than sworn adversaries as they sometimes are in Blake's poems. They meet in the shadows, overlap, even change places.

Untitled New Painting in Scott's Studio
As a younger person, I glanced quickly at beauty that intimidated me, then moved on from it. Now, I look at it directly and keep looking. Every year, there are beautiful Scott paintings that disturb me. But I hang in there, and as my relationship with them changes, so too does my relationship with the world and myself. I love that art--especially Scott's art--gives me that opportunity.

If the paintings you've seen here intrigue or delight you, please come see many more of them this weekend at Scott Ketcham's open studios**!

* All of Scott's paintings can be found at
** Scott's studio is on the fourth floor of The Sandpaper Factory at 83 East Water Street; open studios are from 12:00 to 5:00 on both Saturday, November 17, and Sunday, November 18.
*** Screen shot of a photo of chrysalis found in the following blog: Elliott, Barb. “Raising Monarchs.” Backyards of Nature, Valley Forge Audubon Society, 20 Aug. 2012,
**** Text copied from CD album jacket of Renée Fleming: Distant Light, Decca B0026096-02, released in the USA on 13 Jan 2017.
***** A dreidel is a 4-sided top; a traditional game is played with the dreidel during the Jewish holiday of Chanukah.
*(6) Translation by William Aggeler inThe Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954):
*(7) I think Blake would have loved these lines from Björk's "Virus": "Like a virus needs a body/ As soft tissue feeds on blood/ Some day I'll find you, the urge is here"