Marc Chagall: The French painter who inspired the title ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

My article appears in The Washington Post.


Artist brings interior radiance to global stage in painting for World Meeting of Families

Neilson Carlin works in his studio in April

Neilson Carlin works in his studio in April

Neilson Carlin is pretty sure that he will soon have the opportunity to cross something off of his aesthetic bucket list: having the pope see one of his paintings.

“That’s obviously a dream come true for someone like me, who has devoted his entire career to serving the Catholic church,” said the Kennett Square, Pa.-based painter.

Anytime he has the opportunity to create art for a parish, it is a blessing, Carlin said, but he never contemplated the idea that “the Holy Father of the entire global Catholic church” would see his art. “As much as I’d hoped for it,” he said, “what’s the reality? I certainly didn’t think that would be the case.”

Pope Francis will see Carlin’s work in person if, as is speculated, he attends the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, planned for Sept. 22-27, 2015. Carlin is the commissioned artist, and his painting of the Holy Family will be on view at the meeting.

But even if the meeting can’t get on the pope’s busy schedule, Carlin says that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput is bringing a digital version of his painting to present to Francis. “So if he hasn’t seen it yet, I’m sure that very shortly he will,” Carlin said.

Read more of my article “Artist brings interior radiance to global stage in painting for World Meeting of Families” in National Catholic Reporter.


U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum adopts new rules to attract digital generation

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as staff members and visitors alike are wont to repeat, is unlike other museums. The memorial to Holocaust victims, with its sobering galleries and artifacts, inspires the sort of quiet contemplation more associated with houses of worship than art museums. Even the architecture — particularly the atrium’s steel-ribbed ceiling — suggests visitors have passed through a portal to a different world than the one they left outside.

But a year after celebrating its 20th anniversary, as survivors age and the era without eyewitnesses looms, the museum has been forced to evolve. On Sept. 10, it launched a mobile app designed to complement a museum visit, effectively reversing a ban on smartphone use in its permanent collection. (The launch was so soft that several days after the app was live, museum staff members were still directing incoming visitors to turn off their phones.)

Museum officials say they will announce a reversal of the ban on photography in the permanent exhibit later this fall. The ban has been in place since the museum opened in 1993.

Read more of my Washington Post article “U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum adopts new rules to attract digital generation.”


In faith-based communities, college completion may be uniquely emphasized

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1960s and ’70s, Odell Cleveland leveraged his basketball skills to land a college scholarship. The 6-foot-3 Cleveland would go on to earn a place in the University of South Carolina Upstate’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

“I’m one of those individuals who came from just a poor, poor background, and because at the time I was able to play sports in America, I was able to go to college, get an education. I saw that education itself helped turn my life around,” said Cleveland, now a senior pastor and chief administrative officer at the 4,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In addition to his church role, Cleveland chairs the advisory board for the college completion initiative Degrees Matter!, which receives funding from the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based nonprofit that tries to get more students enrolled in college.

He’s not the only one who thinks that houses of worship can partner with local postsecondary schools to preach the importance of higher education.

Read more of my article “In faith-based communities, college completion may be uniquely emphasized” in Deseret News.


Remembering a 20-Year Protest for Soviet Jewry

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

Long before Occupy Wall Street, protests were held from 12:30 to 12:45 p.m. every day from December 10, 1970, until January 27, 1991, in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., in an effort to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Soviet Jews. Those demonstrations, held rain or shine — including through muggy District summers — are the subject of the exhibit “Voices of the Vigil: D.C.’s Soviet Jewry Movement,” which is on view at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md., until October 19.

“Washington Jews organized rallies and marches, waged letter-writing campaigns to pressure politicians, sent packages and Rosh Hashanah greeting cards to refuseniks, and visited Jews in the Soviet Union,” according to the exhibit website.

Read more of my Jewish Daily Forward article “Remembering a 20-Year Protest for Soviet Jewry.”


MBA Recommendation Letters: 5 Tips for Convincing Admissions to Say Yes

My article “MBA Recommendation Letters: 5 Tips for Convincing Admissions to Say Yes” appears on the blog Brazen Careerist.


Jews of the Civil Rights Movement

Among the more than 200 items which are slated to appear in the Library of Congress exhibit “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” in Washington, D.C. — which will be on view until September 12, 2015 — are documents written by civil rights leaders, newspaper clippings, legal briefs and artwork.

The Honorable Emanuel Celler

The Honorable Emanuel Celler, chairman, Judiciary Committee U.S. House of Representatives/LOC

According to a library release it constitutes “some of the most important materials in [its] collection,” and it “will highlight the legal and legislative challenges and victories leading to its [Civil Rights’] passage, shedding light on the individuals — both prominent leaders and private citizens — who participated in the decades-long campaign for equality.”

What there won’t be are troves of artifacts tying Jewish activists to the struggle for civil rights. “It’s not a show that specifically deals with the role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement,” said Betsy Nahum-Miller, one of three directors of the exhibit. But, she added, Jewish elements exist.

Read more of my Jewish Daily Forward article “Jews of the Civil Rights Movement.”


The Wonder Women of Video

Dara Birnbaum

Dara Birnbaum

Nowhere, perhaps, is the distinction between interior and outside space more pronounced than in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Prince Prospero and his privileged colleagues hole up in “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys,” which is decorated with the prince’s “eccentric yet august taste.” The outside world, plagued by the Red Death, “could take care of itself,” Poe writes. All sorts of pleasure “and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

No masked corpses traipse through the 18th-century German castle Schloss Ettersburg in Janaina Tschäpe’s 2004 film “Lacrimacorpus,” but the artist, who was born in Munich in 1973, clearly meant to address outside ugliness permeating and contaminating beauty within. The castle, which housed dignitaries like Goethe, overlooks the concentration camp Buchenwald.

The film’s title refers to a mythical creature that, when captured, melts into tears and bubbles. The dancer in “Lacrimacorpus” wears a dress, a large bonnet suggestive of E.T. and a ring of balloonlike bubbles around her neck. She twirls for a few minutes in the castle parlor before collapsing on the floor. Outside is the shadow of the crematorium; inside, death has gained its foothold.

“Lacrimacorpus” is one of 10 works on exhibit in “Total Art: Contemporary Video,” on display through October 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, D.C.

Read more of my Jewish Daily Forward article, “The Wonder Women of Video.”


All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

Winged lions at a Cleveland synagogue. Credit: Matt Klein

The ark at Cleveland’s Orthodox Green Road Synagogue looms on an intimidating platform above the congregation. Alternating tan and umber rays — evocative of the divine lights that emanate from the sun in ancient Egyptian art and of St. Francis’s stigmata in Christian paintings — culminate in diamond-shaped niches above the chairs reserved for synagogue officials. There is, as one would expect, an eternal light, and beneath it, a depiction of the Ten Commandments: the double-humped variety recalling the McDonald’s logo.

But the two fierce beasts guarding the ark in the synagogue — which traces its roots back to immigrants from Marmaresher Sziger, Hungary, who built a congregation in Cleveland’s Woodland Hills neighborhood in 1910 — are unusual.

Instead of naturalistic lions, symbolic of the tribe of Judah and of the rabbinic injunction to be “strong as a lion” for morning services, Green Road’s ark features a pair of winged lions. (I initially mistook them for Gothic-styled griffins, but Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College, corrected me; they are Beaux Artes, art nouveau, or Victorian neo-Gothic, and they lack the eagle heads one expects of griffins.)

Read my article “All God’s Griffins Got Wings at Cleveland Synagogue” in the Jewish Daily Forward.


Mystical Gardening and Digital Art

 Allen Hirsh. Early in the Big Bang

Allen Hirsh. Early in the Big Bang

Growing up in central New Jersey in the early 1950s, Allen Hirsh knew virtually nothing about Judaism as a religion. “My family was rather typical of the community: extremely left-wing labor Zionists,” he said of his parents, who spoke Yiddish at least half of the time in the house. Hirsh’s father, a chicken farmer-turned-landscaper, went to kheyder for 11 years and “was considered a Yiddish language scholar by other farmers,” Hirsh said. His father, he notes, took several “extended trips” to Israel during the Suez crisis “to help build the fledgling chicken industry at Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv in northern Israel.”

As a young adult, though, Hirsh, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based biophysicist and artist, turned to his faith. After what he describes as a “tumultuous period” in his life as a neurophysiology graduate student at Columbia University, he studied Jewish mysticism as part of what he calls “my teshuvah.”

“It has long sat in the background of my life,” he said, “but its rich concepts of an infinite God are compatible with my theological, artistic, and scientific instincts.”

Those instincts, honed at Caltech prior to Columbia and in a doctoral program in plant physiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, have led Hirsh down a rare path. The self-declared “abstract gardener” — whose digital print “Early in the Big Bang” is on display in the exhibit “Fireworks” (through July 27) at Washington’s Foundry Gallery — maintains an exotic garden.

Read more of my article “Mystical Gardening and Digital Art” in the Jewish Daily Forward.