Ruth Wisse will discuss her new memoir, “Free As A Jew,” in person at JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on November 7

Ruth Wisse

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ruth Roskies Wisse is no shrinking violet. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, she and her family escaped to Montreal in 1940, where her parents’ home became a salon and safe haven for Jewish writers, actors and artists who had also fled the Nazis. After graduating with a BA from McGill University in 1957 (where she befriended Leonard Cohen), she earned a MA in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America that offered such a program at that time. She returned to Montreal to raise her family and finish her Ph.D.. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found a program that would become the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill.

No less a trailblazer academically, Wisse became a joint professor in the Departments of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 1993, where she taught until she retired in 2014. Her gender, religion, subject matter (Yiddish) and conservative political and social views set her apart from the get go. Her razor-sharp intellect and prolific authorship made her views impossible to ignore.

In 2000:, she received the National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship for “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture” and in 2007, she received the National Humanities Medal, which cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

Along the way, she developed relationships with Nobel Prize winning authors, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a bevy of Harvard University students, faculty and administrators.

A staunch neoconservative and supporter of Israel, Wisse is a prolific author. She has collaborated on Yiddish collections, penned numerous political essays (many of which appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic and The Jerusalem Report), and authored several books, including the controversial “If I Am Not for Myself…The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” a Zionist critique of the American Jewish climate.

No less controversial is her new book, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation,” a no-holds-barred memoir. Wisse will discuss her book with Andrea Levin, Executive Director and President of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), as part of the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on Sunday, November 7 at 3 pm at Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead. The in person event includes a reception and book signing.

According to Wisse , she began writing about parts of her life as a way of understanding the world around her. “Free As A Jew” takes her to the point of her retirement from Harvard in 2014. “One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate is in the interesting people I’ve come to know. I’ve tried to write this as cultural history, and about myself as a minor participant in that history,” she said by email.

She chose the title carefully and deliberately. “I call it a personal memoir of national self-liberation because I concentrate on the public, intellectual, cultural, and political events I witnessed: most extraordinarily, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish country. The defeat—at least formally—of German Fascism and Soviet Communism were great victories. Not for a moment can we afford to take those civilizational achievements for granted,” Wisse said. “But they are being taken for granted.”

The direction of current political and cultural life concerns her, particularly the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and what she calls “contemporary loss of confidence.”

“It is no secret that the ideological and military war against the Jewish people has in many ways revved up rather than quieted down in recent decades. When people are under assault, many grow frightened, or apologetic, wanting to stay out of trouble. Some respond by trying to appease their attackers, or by becoming more like them. Jews have many things in common with other minorities, but no other minority is under the same sustained attack. This is confusing. Many lose confidence in their Judaism and blame their fellow Jews for the attacks against them,” she said.

Wisse stresses that her memoir is intended as neither homily nor “how to” book, but rather as another tool in one’s toolbox. “In explaining how I came to think about certain things, like the modern challenges to women, the nature of community, liberalism and conservatism, how literature works and why it matters, education and Jewish education, and so on, my story may be useful to others. No two lives are alike, but we all tend to have certain problems and opportunities in common,” she said.

The Exodus story of the Jews leaving slavery Egypt for freedom in Canaan particularly resonates with Wisse and also influenced her book’s title. “Jews learn that escape from bondage is only the first step of the process. We are a rabble — miserable, needy, and anxious — until we accept our pretty stringent set of laws. To be free as a Jew means to assume the responsibilities of freedom and to realize how liberating that really is,” she said.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

Patty, Bari and Luann at work at the fulfillment center
(Photos by Mark S. Howard)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s deceptively profound Be Here Now opens with an almost slapstick scene. Three women (Patty and Luanne Cooper and Bari) sit on yoga mats as the blissed-out disembodied voice coaches them to look inside themselves and “let go.” Patty (Shani Farrell) and Luanne (Katherine C. Shaver), dressed appropriately in latex, comply, closing their eyes and sinking into their mats. Bari (Samantha Richert) clearly marches to a different drummer. She is fully dressed (as in a midi dress and huge coat-sweater) and keeps her eyes defiantly open, widening them at each suggestion she close them. Her face portrays the furthest state from bliss possible. This woman is irredeemably and unapologetically miserable.

Turns out she has every reason to be.

She has lost her job at a university in New York City teaching — drum roll — nihilism because she is ABD (all but dissertation). She is 17 days away from her ultimate deadline; she has been working on it eight years. And she has been having bone-crunching headaches.

Exiled to her economically depressed small hometown its small-town people, she works at a fulfillment center (which is anything but) with Luann and her Aunt Patty Cooper, both Christian “believers.” Thirtyish Luann believes her choice to have faith and BE-LIEVE is behind her happiness (the anti-depressants don’t hurt either). “You can choose to be happy. Or you can choose to be sad. I prefer to be happy,” she explains to Bari.

“Whatever you choose, sooner or later it will end in grief,” Bari glumly replies. The spunky, honest, funny and compassionate camaraderie among these three provides both comic relief and fodder for deeper consideration — Does it really matter how one finds happiness? Is it really anybody’s business but your own?

Patty (also no stranger to mood enhancing drugs) decides to set Bari up with her cousin Mike (everyone in Coopersville has the surname Cooper except Bari), who has his own baggage and, literally, garbage. Bari outright refuses, immediately experiences the first of many forthcoming seizures, and ,with this seizure and its repercussions, playwright Laufer has penned the lynchpin on which the rest of the play’s message depends.

As Bari comes to, the sound shifts to the Zen meditation we heard at the beginning. For the first time in her life, Bari feels happy. She suddenly feels like everything matters, especially meeting Mike for a blind date. Suddenly she has “urges” that she must immediately satisfy. She loves this new euphoric Bari and will fight tooth and nail to hang onto it, whatever the price.

Turns out that price may be her life, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Under the spell of post-seizure after glow, she meets Mike (Barlow Adamson) and promptly has another seizure, this one more of a doozy. When revives, she hears yoga music and a sea of Oms. The sees auras. She is a poster child for ecstasy. She is terrified the feeling won’t last and goads him into coming home with her and having sex.

Girl gets boy that night, girl loses boy next day when she kicks him out so she can write, girl begs forgiveness from boy by presumptuously showing up at his sparse cabin unannounced.

There is a lot more to Mike than his eccentricities of collecting garbage (“found objects”), living without cell phone or a car, and cohabitating with a crow might indicate. His tragic backstory carries a motherlode of pain, guilt and despair. Yet, he is determined to rebuild his life (literally) by creating MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant-worthy shelters from these found objects.

He is trying to keep his life small. No one has ever been to his cabin until her. “I can’t take on anything more,” he says as Bari relentlessly presses him for more.

He is convinced Bari’s headaches are caused by a brain tumor, her post-seizure euphoria a medically common side effect. He agrees to let her stay as long as she forks over her cell phone and understands he will dial 911 if she has another seizure.

Bari rhapsodizes about how she feels with her “new brain.” She doesn’t want to give it up and doesn’t want to know if it is a tumor that will kill her. She knows now that happiness exists; does it matter if its source is religion, Zoloft, meditation, sheer will of choice or a deadly tumor? For the first time, she feels alive. And she loves it.

Of course, she has another seizure. Of course, Mike calls 911 and accompanies her to the hospital. She has a kiwi-sized tumor and will indeed die — and soon — unless it is removed. Yet she is afraid she won’t like Mike, that he won’t like her, that she will become anhedonic without it. Does it really matter how we achieve happiness, even if it kills us?

What comes next would be a spoiler to reveal and this is a play that really should be seen, so I’ll stop here.

The actors give uniformly beautiful performances. Barlow Adamson stands out, bringing both gravitas and grace to the smart, wounded, quirky visionary Mike. Adamson is a big guy, yet manages to  transform himself into a fragile bird with a broken wing.

Samantha Richert takes Bari though her highs and lows at breakneck speed. But is the interplay between Shani Farrel (Patty) and Katherine C. Shaver (Luanne) that are a delightful reprieve from the sometimes relentless Sturm und Drang. Farrel is as practical as Shaver is mercurial and the way they play off each other is a pleasure to behold. Think the cast of “Steel Magnolias” or “9 to 5” and you get the idea.

Finally, Courtney O’Connor’s directing, Janie E. Howland’s clever set, Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting and especially Dewey Dellay’s composition and sound design elevate the production in notable yet nonintrusive ways.

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Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

‘Be Here Now — Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland. Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Composition and Sound by Dewey Dellay. Starring Barlow Adamson, Shani Farrell, Samantha Richert and Katherine C. Shaver. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St. through October 17.

Beloved Boston Radio host Jordan Rich kicks off JBM Speaker Series

By Shelley A. Sackett

Jordan Rich

Although the venues may have shifted over the decades from news to music-drive-time-FM-host to podcaster and talk show host, Jordan Rich’s impressive career weathered a half century in the mercurial field of Boston radio. In his new memoir, “On Air: My 50 Year Love Affair with Radio,” the longtime host of WBZ AM 1030 Radio’s ‘The Jordan Rich Show’ chronicles his remarkable run in his home town.

“It was my dream as a kid in junior high to impact and entertain on air, and I continue to live it out every day. Audiences here in Boston are like no other,” Rich said by email. “The greatest reward of my 50-year career has to be having the luck and opportunity to ply my craft in this market for so many years.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm, Metro Boston fans of Rich and the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series are also in luck for this double treat: the popular series will kick off its 27th year with an in person opening night event at the JCCNS featuring Rich.

His book is chockfull of stories about the personalities local audiences know and love, and the changing landscape of Boston radio from the 1970s to the present. It also includes intimate details of Rich’s struggles with depression and how his honesty with his radio audience helped him to heal. “When the voice in the night, the trusted, calming, funny voice reveals his human side, beautiful things can happen — and did for me,” Rich explained.

One story not in his book is the way he has coached and advised dozens of people, mentoring broadcasting students on their way into the business just as he was mentored in his young days. One mentee, writer, editor and educator Matt Robinson, is delighted he’ll be interviewing Rich at the October 5 event. “In addition to being a friend, he is an inspiration and ardent supporter,” Robinson said.

The remaining 11 events will take place between October 14 and November 16 in COVID-mindful formats. “We’re hoping that, in whatever way you feel comfortable, you will plan to ‘join’ us for this year’s series, which features a combination of in person, virtual and hybrid events,” JBM committee Chair Diane Knopf said.

Four novelists will share behind the scenes details about their latest works of fiction. Authors Ronald H. Balson (“Defending Britta Stein) and Pam Jenoff (“The Woman with the Blue Star”) will speak about their WWII historic novels, both inspired by true events (Oct. 14, 7 pm on Zoom). Internationally best-selling Israeli author David Grossman will talk about “More Than I Love My Life,” the story of three generations of women on an unlikely journey to a Croatian island with a secret that needs to be told (Oct. 21, 12:30 pm on Zoom). Rounding out the category is Joshua Henkin’s “Morningside Heights: A Novel,” the sweeping and compassionate story of a marriage that survives immeasurable hardship (Nov. 9, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Although memoir is a popular genre among this year’s lineup, the four authors differ dramatically in the experiences they share.

Jenna Blum’s “Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog” is a valentine to Woodrow, the treasured black lab who had been by her side for 15 years (Nov. 1, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Tracy Walder tells the larger-than-life story of her journey from sorority sister at USC to CIA Middle East undercover operative and FBI counterintelligence specialist in the gripping, action-packed memoir, “The Unexpected Spy” (Oct. 26, 7 pm on Zoom).

Widely published columnist and Harvard University professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse chronicles her life’s journey from her childhood escape from the Nazis to her trail-blazing fight to gain academic equality for Jewish literature and Jewish women in “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead will host the in person event on Nov. 7, 3 pm.

Nhi Aronheim’s inspirational survival story starts with her escape from Vietnam through the Cambodian jungles. Eventually, she lands in the US and converts to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man. “Soles of A Survivor” reveals her deeper appreciation for the humanity, diversity and unconditional love she has experienced as a Vietnamese Jew (Nov 16, 7 pm on Zoom).

Completing this year’s literary menu are three nonfiction selections. In “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” Judy Batalion details the spectacular accomplishments of three brave Jewish resistance fighters (community read in partnership with Abbot Public Library, Swampscott Public Library and SSU Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies with a book discussion led by Izzi Abrams in person at the JCCNS on Nov. 3, 7 pm; discussion with the author Nov. 14, 8 pm on Zoom). Mahjong fans will have the chance to listen to Annelise Heinz’s virtual presentation of “Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture” while enjoying a Chinese dinner, wine and — of course — playing mahjong (Oct. 20, 6 pm in person at JCCNS).

Finally, for those who have been dying to know how the Israelis manage to succeed in the start up venture arena, veteran venture capitalist Uri Adoni shares the secrets to Israel’s incredible track record and the principles and practices that can make any startup, anywhere in the world, “unstoppable” in “The Unstoppable Startup: Mastering Israel’s Secret Rules of Chutzpah” (Nov 14, 11 am on Zoom).

For more information and to buy tickets, visit

Make SpeakEasy Stage’s Impeccable ‘The Sound Inside’ Your First Stop for In-Person Theater

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in ‘The Sound Inside’ All photos by Nile Scott Studios

By Shelley A. Sackett

If your Covid Comfort Zone now includes attending indoor events, gallop on over to SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a trifecta of what makes for exalted theater: flawless script, acting and directing. This two-hander doesn’t just hit a home run over the green wall; it launches it into outer space.

That said, it still takes a leap of faith to believe that it is safe to be packed together as tightly as a fully booked economy cabin as long as everyone is fully vaccinated and masked. It took me several minutes before my anxiety leveled off and I could be entirely present for the play.

And what an extraordinary play it is.

In a nutshell, Rapp has written a 90-minute intermission-less drama about two writers: Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a 53-year-old Yale professor of creative writing who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Mailin), her student who marches to a different drummer than his peers.

Through their intellectually intimate and intricate conversations, we glimpse the moving targets of their lives’ stories and the fictional lives each has woven as cover and cover up. We also glimpse their pain, isolation, loneliness and pessimism. They are as different as night and day, as similar as two peas in a pod.

There emerges an undercurrent of dormant dread and tension underlying their relationship., but also the hint of potential relief and comfort. Their hyper-articulate, erudite dialogue takes them on a roller coaster ride, sometimes igniting storage bins of disillusion and defeat. Other times, their conversations are the magical balm that soothes their aching souls. Rapp keeps us guessing whether grief or solace lurks around every encounter, as thoroughly engaging and enjoyable as good page turner.

Jennifer Rohan in ‘The Sound Inside’

Under Devorah Kengmana’s brilliant lighting design, the play opens in darkness. A spotlighted Bella emerges and begins to address the audience. As if workshopping a novel, she describes her experiences, thoughts, and disappointments. She is scathing and dispassionate, especially when critiquing herself, the author of two novellas and “an under-appreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay alive.” She is also not above petty jealousy. Although she adores James Salter’s “Light Years,” rereading it every year, she refuses to teach it because “it is a rare work of fiction that continues to reveal new things with each reading…It’s so good it enrages me.”

The set (by Cristina Todesco) is sparse, dark and efficient, a single table and two chairs. When Bella addresses the audience from the table and the lighting shifts, we are transported to her office. Christopher arrives without an appointment (for which she admonishes him, but doesn’t send him away). He speaks to Bella and she speaks both directly to him and to the audience in frequent pithy asides. Alternating who gets to play narrator is a device Rapp employs to great effect throughout the play.

Christopher is a Yale misfit, surly, full of contradictions, with a chip on his shoulder and a mind as focused on and in love with writing as is Bella’s. He is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is out of step with his generation (“Twitter is for people who are terrified of solitude”) and at heart an old-fashioned romanticist (“Email’s not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort”).

In some ways, they are yin and yang; she’s all about following rules and protocol, while he simply follows his own instincts. Yet something sparks when they are together. They admire — and, surprisingly, seem to trust — each other. He loved her published works and cites long passages as he paces her office, praising her novel (after which she seems to melt, and tells him to call her Bella instead of Professor Baird). She is impressed by his ambition (he is writing a novella with himself as the protagonist) and prodigious intellect.

Under Bryn Boice’s spot on direction, the rest of the play (no spoilers here!) weaves a tapestry borne of their conversations. They become more honest and unguarded with each other, exposing an almost erotic, yet chaste, intimacy that lifts each out of his fundamental sadness. It is no surprise that Christopher’s novella bears a quote from “Crime and Punishment: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”

Jennifer Rohn brings a gorgeous nuance to Bella, imbuing her (many, many) lines with pathos, compassion and, when called for, playfulness. Her body language shifts on a dime; her vocal pacing and tone are subtle and effective.

As Christopher, Nathan Mailin brings the same qualities he did as a runaway star in ‘Admissions,’ the 2019 SpeakEasy Stage production where he debuted as a 20-year-old BU student. He has tempered and honed his style (which still has enormous range and presence) and brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have easily become a caricature in less capable hands. Individually, each is superb; together, they are simply sublime.

Cannot be recommended highly enough.

Presented by Speakeasy Stage in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct 16, 2021.

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Nathan Malin and Jennifer Rohn in ‘The Sound Inside’