Get in the Pink at the MFA

Pink brings out the worst in me. I chafe and cringe, feeling trapped in a sorority I never pledged. Blame it on my vestigial 60’s feminism, or the resentment I still harbor over the pink butterflies wallpapered to my bedroom ceiling without my knowledge or consent when I was seven. Whatever. Just bring me pink as undiluted red.

My spousal equivalent, on the other hand, is as keen on pink as I am not, especially when it comes to flowers. Only recently he finally gave up the challenge of changing my mind with a bouquet of the right shade of pink. He, like me, was convinced that it simply didn’t exist.

Until, that is, the MFA’s gender- bending “Think Pink,” an exhibit devoted to exploring design and gender with a wide range of all things pink from the 17th century to today.

The compact but sprightly show traces the evolution of pink with clothing, jewelry, accessories, graphic illustrations and paintings drawn from the museum’s collections. The fashions are stunning, with examples from Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta. The hats, in particular, are whimsical and striking.

We learn that both males and females claimed pink as their own, until the 19th century when men started wearing dark business suits and pink took on a feminine identity. Over the centuries, cultural, artistic and technological changes have swung the pink pendulum from rose to magenta to shocking pink and back again. Artificial dyes inspired neon, nervy, shocking pink, a color sometimes surrealist in application. Since 1992, pink has come to symbolize the global effort to fight breast cancer, thanks to the efforts of Estee Lauder and former SELF Magazine editor Alexandra Penney.

Pink HatWoman’s hat Flo-Raye, New York 1945–55 Plaited straw and artificial flowers * Gift from the Collection of Violet Manno Shumsky through her estate

Amidst the yards of charmeuse, feathers and sequins, the most eye-catching is a sleek, pink, wool twill man’s suit, designed in 2013 by Ralph Lauren for Vogue International editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles. The ensemble is intended to copy Robert Redford’s costume from the 1974 film version of “The Great Gatsby.” It would look great on David Bowie, too.

Another standout is Kenneth Paul Bock’s “Model in Sweeping Pink Coat,” a watercolor illustration for an Oscar de la Renta W Magazine design.

 Pink PaintingFemale model in sweeping pink coat by Kenneth Paul Block (American, 1925– 2009)1980sWatercolor and black marker on paper * Gift of Kenneth Paul Block, made possible with the generous assistance of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

 “Think Pink” is informative, thought-provoking and for some, transformative. As society embraces more fluid ideas of gender and color, perhaps it is time for this stubborn holdout to do the same.

Photographs­ MFA, Boston

Bernie Madoff: Jewish Rogue or Rogue Jew?

We humans pay a price for our free will, and that price is accountability for our actions. According to Jewish thought, we are born with two opposing inclinations, one good (“yetzer ha-tov”) and one evil (“yetzer ha-ra”). Yetzer ha-tov gives us the opportunity to become closer to God. Yetzer ha-ra is not a demonic external force, but rather an undisciplined abuse of natural appetites and passions. These God-given instincts are not intrinsically evil, but harm ensues when we cede them control.

It is through our knowing and willing acts that we indulge our evil or good impulses. Our bible is full of characters who exemplify this dualism. Cain and Esau are no less human than Abel and Jacob; they simply have made different choices. The underlying issue becomes not judging one good and the other evil, but rather understanding what motivated them to act as they did.

In “Imagining Madoff,” Deborah Margolin’s 2010 provocative and compelling play, we meet two such men. Both are Jewish. Both weave biblical parables, Talmudic quotes and Jewish jokes into their conversation. One is Bernie Madoff; the other is Solomon Galkin, a synagogue treasurer, former concentration camp inmate, and poet/Talmudic philosopher. Galkin is based not so loosely on Elie Wiesel. Madoff is unabashedly based on the Ponzi maestro. The play’s spotlight mostly alternates between Madoff’s maximum-security cell, where his consciousness streams aloud to an invisible biographer, and Gaulkin’s plush study, where he and Madoff bond during an all-nighter fueled by scotch. They yak like boyhood chums, alighting on such topics as baseball, sex, lust, humor, friendship, money, God, guilt, Judaism and the Holocaust.

“We acted like old friends,” Madoff tells his biographer. “But that was just us being Jews. We didn’t really know each other.”

Through her insightful and skillfully crafted monologues and dialogues, however, Margolin lets her audiences get to know these two men and discover what makes them tick. Margolin resists prototyping Madoff as an inhuman monster, or Galkin as a paragon of moral authority. She assumes we all know the who, what, when, where and how of each man’s story. Instead, she presents them as multi-dimensional human beings, and trusts her audience to draw their own conclusions about the “why.”

Jeremiah Kissel possesses the role of Madoff with a brilliant sense of electric urgency. His Madoff is complicated and contradictory. One minute he is charming, handsome and smart; the next, he is sleazy, foulmouthed and foul-tempered. He relives crying after he told his first lie as a child, sensing, like a crackhead after his first hit, that he would forever be powerless and addicted to duplicity.

“It was so easy it was painful,” he recounts. “I just told the truth in a completely false way.”

As Galkin, Joel Colodner brings a quiet, weighted, calm confidence to the role. Here is a man who survived evil and doesn’t blame the God who created the men who committed it. If anyone could justify a free pass on amorality, it is Galkin. Instead, he takes solace and refuge in his religion, embracing Torah, ethics, ritual and the goodness of the Jewish people. He, too, is complicated and contradictory.

Ultimately, we see that Madoff and Galkin are two sides of the same Jewish coin. One talks the talk; the other walks the walk. Both have made choices in their lives, but those choices do not alter the fact that they are both Jews. The audience’s job is to notice, not to judge.

When asked why she wrote this play, Margolin answered by email, “The theater is the place where writers and actors ask: Who is this person? Why does he behave as he does?”

“When all is said and done,” she continued, “both Madoff and Galkin are just men. I wanted to ask a dramatic question that explores the seductive beauty and the real and present dangers of absolute faith, either in God, or in men.”

“Recommend” is too tame a word to use in reference to “Imagining Madoff.” I extol it as a sublime work of art, from its brilliant set to its inspired acting to its gifted writing. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.

Pictured above: Joel Colodner (left) starred as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in “Imagining Madoff.”

Celebrating the Beauty of a Hindu-Jewish Fusion Wedding

Mass medical students Jhilam Biswas and Danny Barker met in 2006, before classes had even started. His undergraduate academic interest was anthropology; hers was sociology. They shared passions for world travel and global health issues, and both valued religion, culture and family. Jhilam is Hindu and Danny is Jewish.

Early in their relationship, they committed to learning about each other’s traditions, observing the High Holidays, Passover and Durga Puja with their respective families and friends. During their courtship they attended interfaith weddings that featured two distinct ceremonies — one for each religion. But when it came time to plan their own nuptials, Jhilam and Danny wanted to integrate their two unique cultures into one fused ceremony.


Jhilam Biswas

“Initially, Jhilam and I were both nervous,” Danny reflected. “Would the wedding feel ‘too Hindu’ or ‘too Jewish?’ Would we dishonor our traditions by mixing them together? Could we incorporate both cultures so that each family felt respected?”

Prior to their October 13, 2013 wedding, the couple engaged in many conversations with their religious officiants — Rabbi Lev Baesh of Austin, Texas, and Jhilam’s uncle, Dr. Ranen Chatterjee.

“It was out of our conversations that the parallels and overlapping symbolism were uncovered and woven together,” Rabbi Baesh said.

The Jewish chuppah, for example, is a smaller version of the mandap, the Hindu wedding canopy. In both traditions, the number “7” carries symbolic meaning. In a Hindu wedding, the bride and groom circle a fire seven times; in traditional Jewish ceremonies, the bride circles the groom seven times. The Seven Blessings (Sheva B’rachot) and Seven Steps (Saptapadi) are key parts of each service. Finally, at the conclusion of the traditional wedding ceremony, the Jewish groom breaks a glass and the Hindu bride steps on a clay pot. Both rituals symbolize the strength, care, love and respect needed to nurture and protect the marital relationship.


Danny Barker and Jhilam Biswas under their mandap chuppah.

For Sharmila Biswas, Jhilam’s mother, researching and planning her daughter’s wedding actually taught her something new about her own tradition.

“I did not have a baraat (Hindu marriage procession) at my wedding. It was not part of a Bengali wedding when Anup and I married in 1975. Today, every Indian wedding has a baraat. It is fun and gives people a chance to relax and feel part of the festivities. Through helping to plan this wedding, I was introduced to certain rituals of a modern Hindu wedding,” said Sharmila, who now lives in Norwell.

The baraat was actually a highlight of Jhilam and Danny’s wedding. Danny donned traditional Hindu clothing and rode a bejeweled horse down Worcester’s Main Street, all to the beat of the dhol (an Indian drum) and the rhythm of Indian music. The entire wedding party followed: dancing, clapping, laughing and kvelling.


Danny Barker rode a bejeweled horse down Worcester’s Main Street as part of a baraat (Hindu marriage procession).

When planning the wedding, the families met regularly to discuss ideas. There were difficult conversations, and compromises on both sides.

“The parents followed their children’s lead in what would be incorporated in the ceremony,” said Jeri Barker of Swampscott, Danny’s mother. “The planning process, and negotiating all the details, brought us all closer together.”

Anup Biswas, Jhilam’s father, agreed. “I always thought our families were very similar. It pleased me greatly to see so many of our wedding traditions intermingle with each other.”

Once the structure of the ceremony was sketched out, the couple designed a booklet for guests explaining the traditions and their meanings. Friends and family members contributed their unique talents and skills.

Dr. Peter Barker, Danny’s father and a passionate gardener, worked with the florist. “My neighbors, friends and I enjoy growing the big, beautiful, dinner plate dahlias,” he said. “I wanted to personalize the wedding flowers by including our dahlias. Some guests got a kick out of recognizing their flowers in the displays.”

Jhilam and Danny chose to be married in Worcester, the city where they met. They fell in love with the elegant and sophisticated Mechanics Hall, a beautiful Renaissance Revival concert hall built in 1857. For Jhilam, whose family has a long history of musicianship, the venue had special significance.

“In the months leading up to the wedding, I described the ceremony to my family and friends as ‘half-Hindu and half-Jewish,’” Danny said. “Looking back on it, that description doesn’t seem quite right. I now recognize it was possible for the ceremony to be fully Hindu and fully Jewish, all at the same time.”

Danny elaborated on this point.

“On the wedding day, I was raised onto a horse during a traditional Indian procession called a baraat, and my Hindu mother-in-law was raised on a chair during the hora. We had a wedding canopy with features of a chuppah and a mandap. My sister wore a beautiful saree from Bangalore, and my father-in-law wore a suit. It was a seamless blend — but most importantly, it was our own,” Danny said.

Jhilam agreed. “Wedding planning was a microcosm for relationship issues that got worked out earlier in our lives rather than later. In the end, we all came together and celebrated our hearts out, side by side,” she said.

Photos by David Tucker


This Is Not Not Your Bubbe’s Bible

“Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle With the Torah” presents 54 of the edgiest and most inventive d’vrei torah imaginable. There are poems, stories, essays, memoirs, plays, recipes, an architectural rendering and a graphic novel. They are penned by contemporary Jewish luminaries such as A.J. Jacobs (“The Year of Living Biblically”), Joshua Foer (“Moonwalking with Einstein”), Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), Jill Soloway (”Afternoon Delight” and “Six Feet Under”) and Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”).

“Unscrolled” had its genesis during animated Torah discussions at the annual meeting of Reboot, a national network of young Jewish creatives and intellectuals devoted to grappling with questions of Jewish identity, community and meaning. The lively Torah dialogues morphed into a book where 54 individuals wrestled with a single section of the Torah, yanking it into the 21st century.

These unorthodox riffs are as uneven as they are varied. While some are serious and traditional, others are hilarious, and some may really offend certain readers. The best stories are in Genesis and Exodus. The results are simultaneously reverent and irreverent; sentimental and raunchy; somber and humorous. While there is not a dull one in the mix, there are a few that confuse profanity with profundity; blasphemy with innovation.

What resonates, however, is how each author succeeded in personalizing the characters and tales of the stories we have heard over and over, year after year. This alone makes “Unscrolled” a work of consequence.

For example, we sit beside Pharaoh at his computer as he Googles “boils,” “lice” and “frogs” on WebMD. We watch Zipporah pout, sulk and vamp as Moses’ neglected wife in a graphic novel version of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. We hear a pensive Miriam muse to herself how she, “star of the sea, star of the river,” delivered her brother Moses not once, but twice. We meet a saucy, mouthy Rebekah at the well, and Esau, “the first Jew to wish he wasn’t.” We rethink “an eye for an eye” through a wise and touching poem. The Tabernacle, all 7,200 cubits of it, finds a home in Manhattan as a vertical skyscraper. Another chapter lists it on MLS.

You get the idea.

Physically and organizationally, the book is a pleasure to read. Each section contains a synopsis of the parsha, with the particular verse that inspired the commentator’s interpretation. These synopses, faithful to the biblical text, read with a narrative ease and fluidity. Their pages are bordered in luscious hues. In the back of the book is a userfriendly listing of each contributor, with just enough biographical detail to enhance reading his or her commentary.

We have all heard that humor is part of what binds us as Jews. The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans reports that 42% believe “having a good sense of humor” is an essential attribute of being Jewish, ranking it higher than being part of a Jewish community, observing Jewish law or eating traditional Jewish foods. While “Unscrolled” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, for the Pew Study’s 42%, this book is a refreshing hoot.

Unscrolled: 54 writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah; Edited by Roger Bennett Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2013