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Conversation with Ari Goldman

“I want to inspire people to go back to the things that they love, whether that is learning Italian or French cooking or gardening or singing or getting back on the basketball court.”

By Judie Jacobson

Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and director of the university’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. He teaches a variety of courses, including the popular Covering Religion seminar that has taken students to Israel, Jordan, Russia, Ukraine, India, Italy and Ireland.

On Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 6:30 p.m., Goldman will speak at Prosser Public Library in Bloomfield.

The author of four books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard (1991), his latest book, The Late Starters Orchestra, published in June 2014, was named one of the top 10 music books for the spring list by Publisher’s Weekly. In addition he is author of Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today (2000) and a memoir, Living a Year of Kaddish (2003).

Prior to coming to Columbia in 1993, Goldman spent 20 years at the New York Times, most of it as a religion writer. In addition to the New York Times, his articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Jewish Week, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Daily News.

A native of Hartford, Goldman was educated at Yeshiva University, Columbia and Harvard.

Goldman has been a Fulbright professor in Israel, a Skirball Fellow at Oxford University in England and a scholar-in-residence at Stern College for Women, and has served on the boards of several organizations, including the Jewish Book Council. He is also on the faculty of Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics [FASPE], a Holocaust education program that takes students on study-tours of Germany and Poland.

An amateur cellist, Goldman plays in the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra. He lives in New York City with his wife, Shira Dicker, and their three children.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Goldman about his new book and the challenging task of writing about religion in today’s world.

Q: Tell us about your Connecticut connection.

A: I am a proud Hartford boy. I have deep Hartford roots. My great-grandfather, Efraim Zalman Finkelstein, had a dry good store downtown called Finkelstein’s and my grandfather, Samuel H.L. Goldman, was the police commissioner of Hartford in the early part of the 20th century. I was born at St. Francis Hospital and lived in Hartford until my parents divorced when I was five years old. I moved to New York with my mother but continued to visit Hartford to see my father and my grandparents. My family belonged to the Young Israel of Hartford on Blue Hills Avenue and later moved to West Hartford, where they joined the Young Israel on Troutbrook Dr. I lived with my father, Marvin Goldman, when I was 17 and I graduated from Weaver High School.

I remember many newspapers coming to the Hartford house of my grandparents and father. There was the Hartford Courant, the Hartford Times (an afternoon paper that folded in 1976) and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. We also got two Yiddish papers by mail. Everyone in our house read newspapers. Those papers shaped my view of the world and, in some way, led me to a career in journalism.

I went to Yeshiva University, where one of my main interests was the Commentator, Yeshiva’s undergraduate newspaper. When I was a senior at Yeshiva I became the campus correspondent for the New York Times, a position that started a relationship with the Times that lasted for 20 years. After college, I worked as a copy boy and news clerk at the Times and eventually became a reporter there. In 1993, I left the Times to teach full-time at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Q: What is the take-away lesson from your new book The Late Starters Orchestra? What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a writer late in life?

A: The Late Starters Orchestra is about an adventure that I undertook in middle-age to master the cello. I had been flirting with the cello all my adult life. I took lessons in my 20’s and then put the instrument away for another 20 years. I picked it up when I was approaching 60 and said that I needed to give it one more shot in my life. For me, the cello connected me with my past and with the future. The cello reminded me of my father’s voice in the synagogue and it connected me with my teenage son Judah, who has been playing since he was six years old. In the course of the book, I never quite master the cello but I do get good enough to play in public – at my 60th birthday party. The theme of the book is that it is never too late to fulfill the dreams of your youth. And while I write about music, the lesson is much broader. I want to inspire people to go back to the things that they love, whether that is learning Italian or French cooking or gardening or singing or getting back on the basketball court. Ultimately it is a book about the resilience of the human mind and spirit.

Q: In 1985, you took a year off from your job as religion reporter for the New York Times to study at Harvard’s Divinity School – the subject of your book The Search for God at Harvard. What did your search yield?

A: When people hear the I wrote The Search for God at Harvard, they ask, “So did you find Him?” The short answer is: “No, I am still looking. But I know that He is out there.” (If my wife Shira is nearby she inevitably chimes in: “You mean Her!”) The book, as you note, is about a year I spent studying world religions at Harvard. I write about being deeply rooted in Judaism and being given the remarkable opportunity to study Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. I write about how I arrived at Harvard somewhat fearful of all these alien faiths and how, over time, I found that they enriched my understanding of my own faith. My favorite quote in the book came from my world religions professor, Diana Eck, who told the class on the first day: “If you know one religion…. You don’t know any.” That was the beginning of an exploration for me that continues to this day.

Q: In your book Living a Year of Kaddish you talk about the uplifting experience of connecting to your late father through the year-long experience of saying kaddish. How did that year change you?

A: My father, Marvin Goldman, died in 1999. He was born in Hartford and lived there until he was 70, when he went on aliyah with his second wife, Temi Chill. I said kaddish for my father just as I had seen him say the prayer for his parents. It was not the first time I said kaddish since I had done it for my mother in 1995, but saying it for my father was different. My father was a daily shul-goer for most of his life and, in some way, I felt that I was taking his place in the synagogue. I kept a “kaddish diary” during the year of mourning for my father. I recorded how kaddish changes over time, from the first kaddish said at the grave to the kaddish said at shiva to the one said after the 30-day mourning period known as shloshim. Kaddish three and four and five and eight months into the year is different too. Old mourners leave and new ones come and join you in the synagogue.

In my book, I describe this cycle of life and going through a year without my father. The experience – and writing about it – shaped my view of my father and of the community. One enduring lesson is that I don’t take kaddish for granted. When I am in shul now, I listen to the kaddish of the mourner and I always answer “amen.” With that simple word I feel a kinship with the mourner – and in some ways with my own parents.

Q: Any thoughts on future of Jewish journalism?

A: Journalism has come a long way since I was a boy in Hartford reading the Hartford Times and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger on the floor of my grandparents’ home on Burlington Street on Shabbat mornings. The Hartford Times is gone (as are most afternoon newspapers) but I’m happy that the Ledger soldiers on. Newspaper journalism is in crisis; hundreds of papers have closed. Journalism has moved to the Internet and that is where it will continue to grow and thrive. General interest papers are in the greatest peril. It is hard to sustain that business model in an age when people want depth and can get it on the Web. Ethnic, religious and community newspapers continue to have a place and a purpose, both in print and on the Web. I love reading about my community and hope to continue to do so in great Jewish newspapers, like the Ledger. For me, reading it is a family tradition.

Author Ari L. Goldman will speak at the Prosser Public Library, One Tunxis Ave., Bloomfield, on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 6:30 p.m. Co-sponsored by the Prosser Public Library and the Bloomfield Interfaith Association. For information: (860) 243-9721.

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