My story begins with my student Max Levi Frieder, who came from Colorado to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
When Max took my class, “The Jewish Narrative,” he paid profound attention to a Holocaust survivor who spoke. He asked me to visit his painting studio, where he mixed Jewish symbols with other logos in wildly inventive and imaginative graffiti-style murals and large canvases that were pinned to the walls. The colors were expressionistic and Max wore brilliant outfits with all the hues of his brush in a Dadaist display of his personality.
During the “Occupy Providence” of Kennedy Park in downtown Providence, Max took it upon himself to create a collaborative project with the homeless and lost souls who were living in lean-tos. He also invited them to drop in to the RISD campus. That was the only time I ever saw Max without a grin on his cheerful countenance, as his teachers disapproved of him playing host to those who were homeless.
Other than that, Max’ presence was a blessing on town-gown connections. He celebrated the Providence Children’s Museum with a musical extravaganza. He collected bike parts and broken instruments from an early morning trash pickup. He asked children at local schools to make happy, banging noises and write or paint something on doors and room partitions.
He parlayed that sort of thing into the RISD Museum and, later, in many lands and refugee communities around the world, far, far from his boyhood streets of Colorado. He traveled to Jordan and worked with displaced Palestinians. He won a chance to gather Israelis at the Beth Hatefutsoth Diaspora Museum to display their signatures and symbols.
He is planning a reunion of Holocaust second-generation survivors at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem with the same concept – using blue and white pigments to compose something they wish to say about their lives and their parents’ lives in our Holy Land.
My story continues, and concludes, with the account of a wondrous coincidence. It seems that Max met a boy whose father is the renowned British foreign correspondent, Martin Fletcher, who came to Providence last year. I had used Fletcher’s book, “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation” (St. Martin’s Griffin, September 2011), in one of my classes. As Max hadn’t quite finished reading the full text of Fletcher’s memoir/essay/travelogue, he took it with him during his sojourn in Israel. Every word in print took on vitality as he visited the places that Fletcher, a novelist and journalist, had described in a series of conversations and anecdotal adventures.
Max called me at my riverside cabin and promised he would urge Fletcher to call and invite me to meet him in person, rather than solely through the covers of his book.
And Fletcher did! I complimented him in detail about why I had assigned his book to students from around the world. I liked that he wrote while walking – with interruptions that were visits from his wife, a sabra (a native-born Israeli) – and his inconclusive judgments, more perception and quest than propaganda, opinion or diatribe.
“Your style is perfect for poets and painters!” I told him in our long-distance phone conversation. “Next time I fly El Al, I want to do a major bird-watch at Hula Valley to watch the migrations of Europe’s birds,” I added.
“Perfect plan,” he responded, adding a longed-for word of encouragement. “You must stay with us. I am not a citizen of Israel. I did not make aliyah. I reside here, and have done so for over 35 years. My wife and children are native-born [Israelis]. If I took out the papers to switch passports, it would jeopardize my career. We’ll have a lot to discuss.”
When I told him that I admired his work, he suggested that I try his newest novel, due to reach libraries and bookstores in October 2013. It’s about German Jews – survivors of the death camps who return to reside in Germany.
I reminded Fletcher of how moved I was by his “love letter” with which he concluded his trek around Israel.
We also shared enthusiastic impressions of Max Levi Frieder. “He’s a mythological creature!” I declared, fondly and respectfully, not mockingly. “We love him here, as well.
So this is a tale of two cities.”
Providence and Jerusalem, two comrades, friendships that cross generations and borders, art and poetry that bring diverse people together gaily, resourcefully and in gladness and honesty, not in caution and hostility.
Mike Fink (email@example.com) is an English professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.