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Interfaith Lecture Preview

‘Get Up and Go On — Together’: Preacher, author Bass returns to Chautauqua to close interfaith season, ‘resilience’ theme

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Bass

Closing the 2021 Interfaith Lecture Series at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 25 in the Amphitheater is author, speaker and preacher Diana Butler Bass.

Her lecture, titled “Get Up and Go On — Together,” will also close the Interfaith Series’ take on Week Nine’s theme, “Resilience.” 

“Bass is a global thinker from both her head and her heart,” said Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno.

Bass has authored 11 books, her most recent being Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence, published this past March. In it, Bass depicts her evolving perspective of Jesus. 

Freeing Jesus explores the many images of Jesus we encounter and embrace through a lifetime — and how we make theology from the text of our lives in conversation with scripture and tradition,” reads the book’s synopsis. “Freeing Jesus invites us to liberate Jesus and free ourselves when it comes to the ever-compelling and yet often-elusive figure at the center of Christian faith.”

Publishers Weekly has named two of her books, Strength for the Journey (2002) and Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006) among the best books of the respective year. Her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (2018) earned the Wilbur Award for best nonfiction book of the year from the Religion Communicators Council, as did Grounded: Finding God in the World (2015). Grounded was also named book of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association.

“(Bass) writes and speaks with great insight, with acuity, with intelligence and with depth of compassion and caring,” Rovegno said. “Hers is the perfect voice to bring this week’s conversation, not to closure, but to a breadth of motivated understanding for the going forward of our days and years.”

Bass has had bylines for several national media outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and she has made appearances on numerous outlets like CBS, CNN, PBS and NPR. 

“Diana’s passion is sharing great ideas to change lives and the world,” says her website, “a passion that ranges from informing the public about spiritual trends, challenging conventional narratives about religious practice, entering the fray of social media with spiritual wisdom and smart theology and writing books to help reader see themselves, their place in history and God differently.”

Bass has visited Chautauqua before for the Interfaith Lecture Series. In 2016, she spoke about cosmopolis amid globalization and a new understanding of God beyond tradition. Two years later, she discussed the intersection of sports and spirituality

As the 2021 Summer Assembly draws to a close, Rovegno reflected on the season “with great gratitude that our work in planning has borne such abundant fruit. The goal is always to present new ideas to our Chautauqua family, with an emphasis on ‘new.’ We never want to present what our intelligent and caring audiences already know.”

Rovegno said this year’s speakers added insightful perspectives every week, each being an “angle of vision” to the Chautauqua Lecture Series. 

“I like to quote the famous Mr. T from ‘The A-Team,’ ” Rovegno said. “I love it when a plan comes together!”

National Book Award winner McCann to discuss courage, storytelling for ILS

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

McCann

Colum McCann is all about bringing people together, no matter what seemingly insurmountable obstacles might exist.

He’s done so most recently in his February 2020 novel Apeirogon, which in mathematics means a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. In his novel, it’s the story of one Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and one Israeli, Rami Elhanan — men taught to hate each other who instead form a friendship over grief: Both of their daughters were killed in conflict over the Holy Land.

“When they learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them,” reads a Penguin Random House synopsis. “Together they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace — and with their one small act, start to permeate what has for generations seemed an impermeable conflict.”

McCann will speak at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24 in the Amphitheater for his lecture, titled “Resilience: The Life You Find in Your Stories,” part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Resilience.”

While a fictional novel, Aramin and Elhanan are two real people that McCann met through his organization, Narrative 4.

“Narrative 4 is a global nonprofit story exchange organization, fronted by artists and teachers and activists, using storytelling to change the world,” McCann said.

McCann, inspired by the men’s ability to see themselves in each other, wanted to tell their story. 

Apeirogon … uses their real-life stories to begin another — one that crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful,” according to the synopsis. “The result is an ambitious novel created out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material, with these fathers’ moving story at its heart.”

McCann hopes readers listen to the story of the men’s friendship, and how it was formed despite growing up on opposite sides of the conflict that took their daughters’ lives. 

“I hope that people will listen to their message that we don’t have to love one another across differences, or even like one another, but we better learn to understand each other,” McCann said. “Otherwise, as Bassam says, we will all meet each other six feet below ground.”

Narrative 4 has produced other success stories, McCann said. A recent program brought together high school students from the Bronx with ones from rural Appalachia, which he described as mostly Black, urban, left-wing kids with white, rural, right-wing kids. 

“Some of the young people admitted that they were nervous to the point of being unable to talk at first,” he said. “But when they began telling stories to one another — and then telling those stories back to their partners — the fear faded, their imaginations expanded and they began to see the world in an altogether different way.”

He also mentioned a current program in the Joe Slovo township of South Africa, where kids initiated a “Trash to Treasure” program to clean up neighborhoods. 

“All of this came from the courageous act of listening,” he said. 

McCann also wrote Let the Great World Spin, a novel that earned him the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International Dublin Literary Award, one of the highest paid literary awards in the world. 

His 2013 novel, TransAtlantic, brought comparisons to Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison. Apeirogon is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Carnegie Medal. 

For today’s lecture, McCann wants to talk about courage alongside resilience.

“I also want to talk about the art of storytelling and how important it is for us to understand one another in an increasingly atomized world,” he said.

Telling stories about what happens when people observe the complexity and difficulty of their lives keeps McCann going each day, he said.

He described the men from Apeirogon as courageous and empathetic.

“There is a line from an ancient Arabic poem: ‘Is there any hope that this desolation can bring us solace?’ ” McCann said. “They are the hope.”

Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Myers, survivor of ‘18 synagogue shooting, to open Interfaith Lecture Series approach to resilience theme

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Myers

On the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, as Shabbat services took place, a gunman opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people. 

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers was there. 

“In the aftermath of the massacre … Myers has stood out for his indefatigable moral clarity and inspired spiritual leadership,” wrote Michael Weis, a friend of Myers, in a November 2018 post on Cantors Assembly.

Myers will present his lecture, “A Ticket to Ride: The Roller Coaster of Resilience,” at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23 in the Amphitheater. It is the first of three Interfaith Lectures for Week Nine, the final week of the season, dedicated, as is the Chautauqua Lecture Series, to the theme of “Resilience.”

“Resilience is a characteristic of humanity and all of nature that ensures continuity of life — a virtue among virtues to be prized and practiced to create a future,” said Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno. “It is important to celebrate this essential characteristic this week, as we recognize what we as a community, and indeed as a world people, are living and must continue to value.”

Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2017, Myers spent decades in ministry in New Jersey and Long Island. He also earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

“The ability to manage and administrate and act in a politically savvy manner, all the while placing his ego in check and putting the welfare of his community members first is the hallmark of a great clergy person, no matter the title of rabbi or cantor,” Weis wrote. 

Myers’ words following the shooting, the worst attack on the Jewish community in United States history, left an imprint and offered healing, Weis said. 

“They floated through the air with grace and reached our ears with unparalleled perfection in the moment of need,” he wrote for Cantors Assembly. “By his words, the cries for hope were heeded; the need for healing was attended; the prayer for peace was delivered and the promise of a tomorrow void of hate was handed over to the collective whole through his words, both penned and uttered.”

In a November 2018 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tree of Life Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun described Myers as “America’s rabbi,” but Myers, in the same article, said it was never about him.

“It’s about hate,” Myers said in the article. “How tragic it was that people without an ounce of hate had hate inflicted on them.”

He then called for the shooting to be a watershed moment.

“As easily as we spew hate, we also can spew love,” he said. “To me, if that can begin to happen, then the deaths of these 11 people will not be in vain. If there’s no change whatsoever, then it confirms our worst fears about the path we’re heading down, and it’s the wrong path.”

In 2018, Myers received an honorary doctoral degree in Jewish music from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2019, he was one of three recipients of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Medal of Valor.

“Medals of Valor were given out to those who exemplify the good deeds of outstanding individuals who honor mankind and whose courage and bravery shine a light in the darkest of places,” said a press release issued by the Center. “Myers’ medal had the inscription, ‘He who saves a single life, it is as if he saved an entire world.’ ”

Looking at this week and today’s lecture, Rovegno said resilience answers the question of what drives people to keep going despite all of life’s challenges. 

“The Jewish people have been resilient for millennia,” she said. “In our time, resilience now uniquely defines the congregation that Myers leads.”

Fuller Seminary’s Murphy to discuss history of soul in Christianity

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Murphy

What is “post” about postliberal theology? Nancey Murphy, with her late husband, wondered that at a conference with several lectures dedicated to the subject. 

“We realized these were philosophers who, in a sense, were redefining the questions that had plagued modern philosophy for 300 years,” she said. 

Modern philosophers believed there needed to be a solid foundation in order to build knowledge, she said. Then, she went on, the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine helped question that. 

Postmodern philosophers, like Quine, see knowledge more like a web or net in that it is all interconnected, she said. 

“When we’re dealing with knowledge problems, we’re never starting from nothing and building all the way from the ground up,” she said. 

Murphy, a senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, will present her lecture “We Are Our Souls: Multi-Aspect Monism in Christian Thought” at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18 in the Amphitheater, the final Week Eight Interfaith Lecture themed “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.”

Murphy has given over 200 lectures around the world, including in Iceland, South Africa, China, Australia, Russia and Iran. She has written and edited dozens of books and volumes. In 1992, she won the American Academy of Religion award for excellence for her first book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning.

She will use postmodern philosophy to tackle this week’s theme. One way to think of postmodern philosophy, she said, is language. 

The word “dog,” for example, is the familiar four-legged furry pet — this is simple, she said.

“What about when you get to abstract concepts?” she said. “What do they refer to? How do we get their meaning? The answer is not to think of the word over here on one side and language over there on the other.” 

It’s to recognize language itself as a part of our world. They are already interwoven. It’s not ever a problem of starting from scratch. … It’s a problem of finding words.”

For her lecture, Murphy said there will be overlap with Ori Soltes’ Interfaith Lecture from Monday (see Page 5).  

In the first section, she will discuss the soul in Christianity from Biblical times through the rest of the millennium. 

Biblical scholars believed the soul was not separate from the body, but rather a part of a whole person’s being, she said, making it a monistic viewpoint instead of dualistic. She will then discuss how this was later influenced by Greek philosophy, putting a dualistic lens on Christian teaching. 

Catholics were influenced by Aristotle, Murphy said, who believed plants and animals had souls which had similar aspects as a human soul. Plants provide the powers for growth and reproducing, and animals provide desires like thirst and emotions, she said. 

Protestants and Catholics carried on this teaching until the beginning of the 20th century, she said, when Biblical scholars realized the same word could have different interpretations by people who lived centuries apart, she said. They thought life after death meant bodily resurrection. 

Today, people question if humans even have souls.

“Do we actually need to have a soul to explain our abilities?” Murphy said. “Or is it just because we have such an incredibly complex, flexible brain in such complex cultures, with a long history of thinking in various ways?”

Her second section will answer the question of how humans started believing in an inner spirituality rather than bodies acting in the world, she said. 

Murphy will also discuss near-death experiences, like Interfaith Lecturer Bruce Greyson did on Tuesday, and whether that idea supports dualism. 

Postmodern philosophy may help dispel some mystery with the soul, she said. 

“The soul is only a mystery if you don’t know all the history,” Murphy said. “What is really the mystery is: What does it mean to be resurrected?”

University of Virginia scholar of near-death experiences Greyson to share findings from 50 years of research

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Greyson

Nobody knows what happens to us when we die, but Bruce Greyson, through research and observations spanning a half-century, may have a decent guess  at least of what happens right before death. 

Greyson’s March 2021 book, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, presents his findings from the last 50 years. It is also the focal point of his Interfaith Lecture at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17 in the Amphitheater, part of Week Eight’s theme, “The Human Soul: Our Ineffable Mystery.”

At first, Greyson was skeptical of any such experience. He had grown up in a scientific household with a materialistic, tangible perspective on the world.

“When I started my psychiatric training, I started meeting psychiatric patients who described to me things like leaving their bodies when they were close to death, and seeing things accurately from that perspective,” Greyson said. “That just made no sense to me at all. I assumed they were hallucinating.”

Then, Greyson’s colleague, Raymond A. Moody Jr., published Life After Life, which coined the term “near-death experiences.”

These stories sounded familiar to Greyson.

“I realized these stories I was hearing from my patients were a part of a huge phenomenon that’s occurring around the world,” he said. “That meant we should try to study them, not ignore them.”

Thus began his own personal exploration of near-death experiences. 

“The more cases I collected, the more unexplainable they seemed to me,” he said. “I started trying to make sense of them all. Fifty years later, I’m still trying to make sense of it.”

He knew one thing for certain: The materialistic mindset he grew up with and took to college was no longer plausible, at least in this endeavor. 

Among his discoveries over the years, a surprising one was the commonality of near-death experiences. About 5% of people have had one, he said, or about one in every 20 people. 

Another interesting discovery for him was these experiences had nothing to do with mental illness.

“They’re normal experiences that happen to normal people under unusual circumstances,” he said. 

Near-death experiences also suggest the mind and brain are two separate entities, he said. 

“We have people thinking more clearly than ever and seeing and forming memories when the brain is not capable of doing those things, when the brain is compromised,” he said. 

He wonders if this is still possible when the brain itself dies.

Now a professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the co-founder of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, Greyson hopes to give a sense of spiritual lessons people can learn from near-death experiences during his lecture.

Near-death experiences should teach people that they are not separate individuals, but rather a part of something greater, he said. 

“Therefore, we have some responsibility to treat each other kindly and to take care of each other, as well as the rest of the natural world,” he said. “That living life according to the golden rule makes our life much more meaningful and fulfilling.”

Georgetown professor, Chautauqua favorite Soltes on being ‘an eternal student,’ to open Interfaith Lecture Series on human soul

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Soltes

Often a speaker at Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series has one or two primary areas of expertise, or studies of interest. Not Ori Z. Soltes.

Soltes is a professor of theology, art history, philosophy and political history at Georgetown University. 

Over the course of his life, he has been asked by various institutions to teach courses outside of his comfort zone, he said, but he simply couldn’t say no to a physically, intellectually or emotionally challenging endeavor. 

Going back to his freshman year of college, Soltes remembers eagerly and passionately learning as much as he could.

“I felt like a kid let loose in a candy store,” he said. “There were all these things I hadn’t even thought about that I was interested in learning about. I was always taking seven or eight courses when the standard course load was four. … Fortunately, I have a lot of energy, so I could work without a lot of sleep.”

After a couple of years in school, Soltes said he had enough credit hours to graduate, but he stayed all four years. He still wasn’t satisfied.

“I felt like I still didn’t know anything,” he said. “I thought that if I went on to get a Ph.D. and become a professor, I could be an eternal student without the stigma attached to that phrase. The scam is they think they’re paying me to teach — but they’re really paying me to go on learning.”

Theology and philosophy have remained some of his strongest interests. He also teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization, is the former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and he was theologian-in-residence at Chautauqua in 2007. 

Soltes returns to Chautauqua at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16 to present his lecture “What Are We? Three Early Visions and Versions of the Soul,” the opening Week Eight Interfaith Lecture Series themed “The Human Soul: An Ineffable Mystery.”

The soul, he said, is a universal idea. 

“There are so many different ways in which humans in different times and places have thought about the soul, and part of that relates to how and why in different times and places there are different forms of religion, different concepts of God, all ultimately rising from the same theories of issues and considerations of what it is we as a specific think and worry about,” he said.

People hold different beliefs based on a seemingly endless range of factors, he said. It can be based on topography and geography, the type of community where one grows up and one’s particular personality. 

“It’s a kaleidoscope of issues and ideas that over time and space we’ve come up with, but they can all be traced back to a singular series of concerns,” he said. 

Judaism and Christianity are good examples, he said, because they have several similarities but also some key differences. Recognizing those similarities, and especially differences, should not make one feel like their belief or knowledge is threatened, he said.

“In the end, what I believe and what you believe, we believe because we believe that,” he said. 

In math, two plus two equalling four is an indisputable subject, but topics like the soul and God goes beyond humans’ concrete understanding of the world, he said. 

“If I understand that, I cannot just be accepting, but be embracing of the fact that your perspective and mine are different without feeling that somehow means I’ve reduced my connection to my sense of those things,” he said. 

Once, Soltes was asked to teach a course on the Middle East, so he became interested in that region. He realized that the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it was billed to him, was an oversimplification, he said. 

The conflict is not just about Arabs and Israelis, he said, but the terminology is interesting, he said. In the 7th or 8th century, when Mohammad was alive, there were pagans, Jews and Christians, some of whom became Muslims, he said. 

Too often, he said, politicians, pundits and academics create this oversimplified narrative. 

“It’s a much more complex reality with a much, much longer history that I found myself framing than most of what I read about the region,” he said. 

Soltes is the type of person who can dig deeply into multiple projects and subjects at once, he said. When he is feeling strained by one, instead of taking a break and having nothing else to do, he refocuses on another project. Eventually, he comes back to the original feeling refreshed.

As a professor, he loves seeing the “a-ha” moments from students and hearing the questions they ask. He can get the same feeling from a public lecture, too, he said. 

Eventually, for some topics, he felt certain things weren’t being said — ideas he wanted to share. So, he began writing books. He has now authored over 280 books, articles, exhibition catalogues and essays. 

Despite his lecture billed at three visions, he said he will actually discuss four. 

Soltes will begin with the ancient Egyptians and describe what went on in that period, then translating that to the first two chapters of Genesis, he said. That will be followed by how people like Socrates and Plato thought about the soul. Lastly, he will look at religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

Humans have always seen themselves as beings with a soul, not just compared with rocks and plants, but against other animals, too, he said. Ideas of the self may help explain why that is, he said. 

“What I want people to come away with, in essence, is (that) the soul is a large part of what we think we are,” he said. “I want people to come away with a sense of commonality, diversity and, I guess above all, humility.”

‘New York Times’ opinion columnist Ross Douthat hopes to find middle ground in economic discussion

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Douthat

Ross Douthat understands his unique role as a conservative opinion columnist at The New York Times.

“Our readership, as you may have heard, is somewhat liberal,” he said. “I think I have a somewhat distinctive role where I’m, more than a lot of columnists, writing for people who tend to disagree with me somewhat.”

Douthat said he expects a similar situation at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11 in the Amphitheater when he will present his lecture “Secularism and Stagnation: How Our Economy Became Decadent,” because he suspects most of his audience will be politically left-leaning.

But Douthat will still ask everyone from both sides of the political spectrum to find middle ground. 

Giving the last Week Seven Interfaith Lecture themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All,” Douthat said he will explain how decadence, a focal point in his 2020 book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, means economic, cultural and political stagnation. 

Moreover, he will talk about how this stagnation manifests itself in the economy, and how problems like declining birth rates in developed countries or the opioid epidemic are connected between the economy, culture and politics. 

At the Times, Douthat writes two columns each week, typically about politics, religion, moral values and higher education. His recent columns include “How Strong Is Trump’s Grip on the G.O.P?” “The Ungovernable Catholic Church,” and “How to Reach the Unvaccinated.”

“I see part of my job as trying to find a certain amount of common ground in our extremely polarized era,” he said. “Part of my job is to sort of challenge my readers’ preconceptions about the nature of the world.”

In his forthcoming book, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, Douthat details his six-year-long battle with a chronic form of lyme disease, an illness caused by certain types of ticks. 

“Most people get better with a couple courses of antibiotics, and some highly debated percentages of people don’t get better,” he said. “There’s a huge debate within American medicine about what this means — whether people who don’t get better are still sick with lyme disease, or whether they have some sort of post-treatment syndrome that isn’t directly connected to an infection.”

Although he focused on lyme disease in the memoir, he hopes it adds to a larger discussion about mysterious long-term symptoms, particularly with those associated with COVID-19.

That book will be released in October.

The pandemic has also caused a strange period in economic policymaking, he said.

“Because of COVID, we’ve done all kinds of things we’ve never done before,” he said, “like shut down the entire economy, and spend enormous sums of money paying people not to work for extended periods of time.”

Douthat thinks there is a narrative among Democrats and left-leaning people that the U.S. has just experienced another Gilded Age, where the rich have gotten richer and others have struggled. 

“Therefore, (they think) a lot of our problems can be simply solved by redistributing wealth from the super-rich to the rest of society,” he said. “I think there is a palace for certain kinds of redistribution, but I’m hoping to convince people that our problems are more about stagnation than they are about wild, out-of-control growth.”

Issues with inequality might be better addressed with a more dynamic economy, he said, while noting he doesn’t have an exact answer on how to achieve that, though he doesn’t think anyone is entirely sure.

Both the right and the left tend to associate issues with either social, cultural or economic trends. Douthat will instead argue that these are all associated with one another.

“There’s a tendency on both the right and the left to only take one side of the story — so if something is wrong in American society, the right blames the culture and the left blames the economy,” he said. “Actually, they’re usually bound together in this way where you have to see the problem in both senses in order to get closer to solutions.”

Fewer Americans marrying or having as many kids is one example of this, he said. The right might argue it’s an issue with individualism and the breakdown of traditional values, while the left might argue people can’t afford to have kids, he said.

“I’d like everyone to consider the possibility that both things could be true,” he said. 

Political economy professor Benjamin Friedman to discuss religion’s understated influence in the economy

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Friedman

In 1972, Benjamin Friedman walked into Harvard University for his first year of teaching. This upcoming school year, he will walk into Harvard again for his 50th year of teaching, now as the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy. 

He’s spent even more time at Harvard, though — he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in economics there. 

“I am very aware of what an extraordinary privilege it has been to spend my entire academic career at an institution where I have such amazingly talented and energetic colleagues,” Friedman said, “and also such a splendid group of interesting, energetic and also very talented students.”

In his time, he’s written over a dozen books and more than 150 articles in professional journals. Of his writings, he’s published a few books for the general public, including Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, released this past January. 

Friedman will present his lecture based on and named after this book at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater. It is part of Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All.”

Over the last half-century at Harvard, Friedman said he’s noticed a positive shift in the types of students who come to the university.

“The students are enormously more energetic and talented than they were 50 years ago,” he said, referring especially to undergraduates.

 He is not 100% sure why that is the case, but he has a few theories. One of those is that students are simply better today than they were before.

Another possibility is Harvard’s more diverse pool of students, he said. When he was an undergraduate student, he said most students came from schools in New York or New England, particularly prep schools.

“That percentage is way down, and it’s matched by an increase in the number of people from elsewhere in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” he said. “I think the reach of the college in terms of the kinds of people it attracts is much greater now.”

Moreover, Harvard has a gigantic pool of applicants with little room to swim. He estimated around 50,000 students apply each year, and only around 1,650 are accepted, meaning an average of around 3% of applicants are accepted.  

Friedman’s two other books for a general audience are The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth (2005) and Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After (1988). 

His 2021 book is a history of ideas, he said, whereas his last book was about the interaction of economics with social and political history.

“Importantly, in this (new) book, it turned out that the role of religious thinking was not just powerful, but central in the emergence and subsequent evolution of economic ideas that I was exploring,” he said. 

Although he mentioned religion and religious thinking in his previous books, it did not have as much of a spotlight as it does in this newest one. 

Additionally, he covers a wider range of history in his new book, exploring the timeline from the Bible through the New Testament, to the early church fathers, the Reformation, the evolution of religious history, the 18th century and to the present day, he said. In his last book, his earliest data was from the early 1800s, he said. 

“The book comes right up so the last chapter very frontally addresses the role of religious thinking in our current day debate on economics and economic policy in the political sphere in the United States,” he said. 

Friedman did not get data from the 2020 election when he was finishing the book, but does have data up to the 2016 election, he said. 

For his lecture, he wants to highlight religion’s influence on the economy.

“The unifying theme is that religious thinking has been a very powerful influence on the early development of and subsequent evolution of economic thinking, right from the beginning of modern economics,” he said. 

The common narrative, he said, was modern, Western economics is based on the Enlightenment, and that he agreed. 

“But then people normally go on from there to conclude that because the Enlightenment was not about religion. … If anything the Enlightenment is seen as a movement away from religion, therefore people conclude that the development of economics in our modern sense has nothing to do with religion,” he said. 

Friedman hopes he disproved this idea in his book, and will argue why in today’s lecture.

Looking at modern day, he still sees a significant religious influence on the economy, especially in the United States, and he will also discuss that.

“Religious thinking has been and continues to be very important,” he said, “even in this realm where it’s normally not taken to be important.”

International lecturer, award-winning author Sr. Joan Chittister to open Week Seven Interfaith Series on equitable economy

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Chittister

Sr. Joan Chittister is set to return to Chautauqua at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater.

“Sr. Joan has been a blessing for Chautauqua for over 35 years, and she is so beloved here,” said Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno. “She is one of only a few who receive a standing ovation just for walking out onto the stage.”

Opening Week Seven’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All,” Chittister will present her lecture “To Exist, A Society Based on Money Needs a Population Based on Heart.” Chittister is a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania. Her awards, distinctions and titles are seemingly countless. 

“For 50 years, she has passionately advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues and church renewals,” according to her website

“A much sought-after speaker, counselor and clear voice that bridges all religions, she is also a best-selling author of more than 60 books, hundreds of articles and an online column for the National Catholic Reporter,” her bio reads.

She has won numerous awards for her works, including 16 Catholic Press Association awards. Her latest release, 2019’s The Time Is Now: A Call for Uncommon Courage, will soon be followed by The Monastic Heart: 50 Simple Practices for a Contemplative and Fulfilling Life, set to release on Sept. 21.

“The activist, nun, and esteemed spiritual voice who has twice appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday (in 2015 and 2019) sounds the call to create a monastery within ourselves — to cultivate wisdom and resilience so that we may join God in the work of renewal, restoration, and justice right where we are,” reads the book’s synopsis by Penguin Random House.

Chittister is a founding member of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, which is partnered with the United Nations. Last year, Chittister’s Interfaith Lecture, held on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, was during a week on feminism, and her lecture was titled “A Woman’s Life: A Good Event/Bad Event World.”

Her name is etched in Erie’s history, too. The Joan Chittister Lecture Series began in 2014 at Mercyhurst University in Erie, along with the founding of the Helen Boyle Memorial Archive in Honor of Joan D. Chittister, according to her website. She was the prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie for 12 years. She received her master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and her doctorate from Pennsylvania State University for speech communications theory. In 1996, she was an elected fellow at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University. 

Rovegno said that Chittister is the perfect keynote speaker for this week’s theme. 

“The Benedictine spirituality has shaped her life and work with a deeply compassionate heart that cares for others in all ways — spiritual, physical and material,” Rovegno said. “Sr. Joan is a pragmatist who has never failed to speak truth to power.”

Chittister understands the world’s culture is centered around materiality, Rovegno said.

“Her lecture title,” Rovegno said, “… arises from her lifelong work of proclaiming, in her own inimitable style and power, a preferential option for the poor.”

Homeboy Industries’ Jose Arellano and Steve Avalos to discuss life stories, from gangs to mentors, humanizing people in Interfaith Lecture

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Arellano

Sometimes, the mere presence of Jose Arellano and Steve Avalos is enough to impact someone’s life. 

While in Chautauqua this week, Arellano said a neighbor introduced himself. The man grew up in a predominantly white community as a person of color and had been coming to Chautauqua for around a decade. Just seeing Arellano and Avalos on the grounds impacted the man’s life.

This gives Arellano and Avalos the inspiration to go back to Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world, where they are co-directors of case management and navigation.

The Homeboys will take the Amphitheater stage at 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5 for their lecture “The Power of Empathy: Live It or Create it.” It is the final Week Six Interfaith Lecture themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Before becoming Homeboy “navigators” — who help “trainees” by assisting with the transition out of the gang lifestyle and culture — Arellano and Avalos were trainees themselves.

Arellano’s family was in gang culture. Despite excelling at school, Arellano got involved with a gang by age 12. Three years later, he was in jail for the first time. 

Arellano said there was always someone to give him hope even in the darkest times, including when he was facing a life sentence in prison.

“I had given up,” Arellano said. “I felt it in my soul, like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and I remember I couldn’t even get out of bed, I couldn’t eat.”

His cellmate was an older man from Pakistan. 

“I remember he tapped my bunk one day, and he said to me, ‘I can’t sit by and watch you do this to yourself,’ ” Arellano said. “I got up and said, ‘Watch me do what to myself?’ He said, ‘Watch you go through what you’re going through. You know what your problem is? You don’t keep your mind and your body in the same place. Your body is in here, but your mind is out there. If you keep your mind and your body in the same place, you will have perfect peace.’ ”

Avalos

That changed his life. 

“I said, ‘Damn, how even in this dingy cell do I get blessed with this human being that in one of my most hopeless states, he was able to infuse hope in me?’ ” Arellano said. “That’s been the story of my life.”

Arellano and Avalos met about eight years ago, working through the program in Los Angeles separately. 

“We both had separate roles in the organization early on, and just kind of seeing him and where he was at, he walked it, he talked it, so I always found inspiration from him, but we never really talked much,” Arellano said.

At Homeboy Industries, problem-solving as navigators is a complicated and complex task. 

“It’s complex trauma, so it can’t just be so simple a solution sometimes,” Arellano said. “We really have to assess every situation because we’re dealing with people’s lives. Human beings, we’re complicated, and our population, they come from extreme trauma and poverty and some of the stuff they go through on the daily and some of the stuff they’ve been through is very complicated. There’s a lot of layers to it.”

Avalos said his relationship with Arellano has strengthened from working together with trainees, leadership and sitting in counsel. 

“A lot of times we disagree and then we come to a middle. It’s good,” Avalos said. “Sometimes, I don’t see it his way until the end, and sometimes I do. It’s one of those relationships, but we know our intentions.”

Ultimately, both want an intentional process while working with trainees.

“We don’t want to just make decisions rapidly,” Arellano said. “We want to talk through every process with the individual. We want to be sure they feel seen, that they feel heard and they have a part in their transformation, as well.”

Avalos loves the work he does at Homeboy, and he feels more drained when he isn’t working. He doesn’t even see it as work, he said.

“You see a lot of gang members or people you would maybe avoid, or walk on the other side of the street, and then you realize how kind and compassionate they are — and when they’re not, it’s because they’re broken,” Avalos said. “When you start to see those things, that changes everything.”

Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno compared the Homeboys’ story to that of Tuesday’s speaker, Edgar Rodriguez, the pastor and police chief from Moville, Iowa.

“Their stories are the rest of the story, where we’ve got the chief of police who does this compassionate policing, and Jose and Steve have both been recipients of that compassion,” she said. “Homeboy Industries walks the talk of caring and compassion in the way we wish every organization, every church, every company and every community would live and be and do.”

The two will take turns sharing their stories and wisdom at today’s lecture, she said. 

When someone makes a wrong decision, people tend to dehumanize them, unless it’s their child or someone they are close to, Avalos said. He wants that same perspective applied to everyone, even strangers. 

Experiences shape people, Arellano said, so finding one positive experience or relationship in a sea of negative experiences can change someone’s life. 

“It will reshape the way you see yourself, and it will help reshape the way you see the world,” he said.

Pastor, police chief Edgar Rodriguez to encourage empathy, share work in small Iowa town for Interfaith Lecture Series

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Rodriguez

Edgar Rodriguez is perhaps one of the most important people in the city of Moville. There, a place with a population under 2,000 people on the western edge of Iowa, near the state’s tripoint border with Nebraska and South Dakota, he holds two distinctive positions: the lead pastor of New Hope Evangelical Church and the city’s police chief.

It seems natural to him.

Born in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Rodriguez moved to the next town over, Eagle Pass, Texas, when he was a toddler. After high school, he served for four years in the Marine Corps. 

In 2010, Rodriguez, his wife — whom he met in the Marine Corps — and their five children moved to Moville. The goal: revitalize Moville Evangelical Church into New Hope. Three years later, he joined the county’s sheriff’s department. 

Rodriguez will enter Chautauqua’s Amphitheater at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3 to present “Empathy: The Key for Human Survival,” part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Both of his roles have plenty of overlap, he said.

“I do a lot of community policing and connect with as many people as possible,” Rodriguez said. “They know me as a pastor, so when they see me in my police gear, it doesn’t really change or faze them much. They talk to me just as easy as they do as a pastor.”

Getting to talk with people doubles as his ministry, he said. 

“They know me as a pastor, so they’ll tell me about personal things and ask me personal questions and ask for advice and prayer,” he said. “I get to do that while I’m on duty.”

Despite Moville’s small size, it’s a hub within the county, hosting the county fair and drawing in people from neighboring towns. It’s half an hour from Sioux City, Iowa, an hour and a half from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and three hours from Iowa’s capital and biggest city, Des Moines. 

U.S. Highway 20 (a 3,365-mile coast-to-coast route) has only one four-way stop, which is in Moville. Rodriguez said it causes a couple fatal accidents each year — part of his job is monitoring the intersection (Rodriguez had to pause his interview with the Daily because a car ran the stop sign, nearly colliding with two other vehicles, he said).

Rodriguez said his ministry is serving, loving and helping people.

“It’s serving through the church, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with people and helping people grow in their faith,” he said. “That’s been my life.”

He said he gives plenty of advice to those as a police officer.

“I’ve led a lot of people to Christ heading down to jail in the back of my car,” he said. 

Sometimes, he does have to be forceful with people who have had difficult pasts. 

“A lot of times, you deal with people and they don’t know anything other than the hard life they’ve led,” he said. “A life of lie after lie after lie, just trying to get out of things. A drug life, that’s all they know. An abusive life, that’s all they know.”

Even in those situations, Rodriguez’s patience, sympathy, empathy and understanding are a short reach away. 

“Once I deal with the law side of things, then I deal with the human side of things,” he said. “Sometimes, it has to be in that order. I have to be safe first, then I can give them my heart. I look forward to those moments, and I get them often.”

At the church, he also focuses a lot on community life. He said a local family had a child in an Omaha, Nebraska, hospital, two hours away, and are finally coming home. They’ve been reaching out to let the family know the community is praying for them, even if they can’t see it, he said. 

Rodriguez’s empathetic heart will be at the heart of his lecture today. He said humans need connection, encouragement, understanding and recognition. Too often nowadays, he said, people react too quickly to mistakes others make. 

“In this fast-paced world, people don’t give each other their time anymore,” he said. 

He will use stories from his life and how God prepared him for this life and being empathetic to help others in his lecture, he said. 

“I hope when people leave my talk, they can think better on how they view people, and not so quickly judge people by their actions, but take a step back and ask why,” he said. “Why did they do that? Why did this happen to them? Why are they living this way? There’s a big story behind that immediate action.”

People should exercise sympathy and empathy, or perhaps empathy followed by sympathy, before judging others, he said. 

“Let’s be good human beings,” he said. “Let’s encourage one another, let’s root for one another and let’s believe in one another. I think that’s what we’re missing in our society today.”

‘Faith After Doubt’ author Brian McLaren to speak on finding faith, building cultures of empathy

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

McLaren

Faith has almost always been a part of Brian McLaren’s life. Conversely, so has doubt.

“I am a committed Christian, but doubt has been my companion really throughout my whole life,” McLaren said.

Faith and doubt are the highlights of McLaren’s latest book, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, which came out in January. 

McLaren, although born one hour east in Olean, New York, in 1957, will make his first in-person visit to Chautauqua. He will present his lecture “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?,” at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2 in the Amphitheater, the first of three Interfaith Lectures for Week Six themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

His recent book is deeply personal to him, he said.

“I grew up in settings where doubt was something to be ashamed of, maybe hidden or covered up, and I came to understand in my own life that doubt wasn’t the enemy of faith, but pretending wasn’t good for your faith,” he said. “On a personal level, that’s important.”

Although raised in the church, McLaren felt himself drifting away from Christianity during his teenage years. 

Then, one night changed his life.

“I was lying under a clear, starry sky one night and had an acute sense of not just looking up and seeing beauty, but of being seen by that beauty, seen and known and loved,” he said. “I felt that love fill me, so powerfully that it felt a little scary — more than my human heart could handle.”

Later that night, McLaren saw his friends with the same level of beauty and love.

“From that night forward, I have felt in my deepest self the truth of what John said in the New Testament, that God is love, whoever lives in love lives in God,” he said. 

His career since then has been focused on helping people find the most loving versions of themselves, he said. He was a pastor for over 20 years, and he is currently a faculty member at The Living School for Action and Contemplation. McLaren has received two honorary doctoral degrees, one from Carey Theological Seminary in Vancouver in 2004 and another from Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) in 2010.

For all these years, people have come to McLaren, bringing with them their questions, problems and doubts. He’s seen a steady increase recently, though.

“In the last six or seven years, I’ve just seen an almost tsunami of people needing to talk about their questions and doubts,” he said. “People are watching the way a lot of Christians have been involved in politics, culminating really on Jan. 6 when we saw ‘Jesus Saves’ flags not far from gallows being raised to hang somebody. All of this created somewhere between a crisis and catastrophe for many people in their faith.”

McLaren sees empathy as a way forward. As he is the first interfaith lecturer for this week’s theme, he wants to set a theological, psychological and historical framework about empathy.

“I want to talk about the possibility of our faith communities across religious traditions becoming places that actually build a culture of empathy,” he said. 

He calls these studios of empathy, meant to help the community at large. 

One of the issues with empathy right now is that nobody necessarily thinks it is their job to wake up each day and figure out how to build a culture of empathy, he said. He hopes people walk away with a sense of wanting to create that culture.

“I would hope each person who is present goes away feeling like, ‘This is my job,’ ” he said. 

Comedian Benji Lovitt to share stories from Israel, power of laughing through adversity in lecture

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Lovitt

Although confined to Zoom last year like most other people, comedian Benji Lovitt is used to going out and about all around the world.

Born in Dallas, Lovitt, who is Jewish, visited Israel several times with a Jewish youth group. He later spent his gap year there. He loved visiting every time, he said. 

By the age of 30, Lovitt was living in New York City — but he didn’t like it. 

“I had this idea that I’ve got nothing tying me down, so why not spend some time in Israel?” he said. “If I don’t do it now, I might regret it forever.”

That was in 2006, and Lovitt still lives in Israel. He’s also performed in the United States, South Africa, Australia, England and more. 

“It’s a blast to be on stage,” he said. “There’s no shortage of material when you’re an immigrant, especially an American in Israel.”

Lovitt has returned to the United States to present his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 28 in the Amphitheater. 

It is the final Interfaith Lecture Series for Week Five, themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle,” a week in partnership with the National Comedy Center.

“We sort of say it’s a Jewish tradition to laugh to deal with adversity,” Lovitt said. 

While he enjoys Israel, Lovitt said, it was difficult adjusting to life there when he first moved. 

“Most immigrants don’t make it,” he said. “They end up going back to their own country because it’s one of the most unnatural things in the world to transplant yourself to the other side of the planet. Humor has been a great tool to deal with my experience here.”

Lovitt said Jewish history involved thousands of years of persecution, and a sense of humor is something that’s helped Jews through adversity. Israel as a country, too, gives Lovitt plenty of stand-up material, he said.

“Israel is where the East meets the West, where old meets new, where religion meets secular,” he said. “It’s a young country, and when you’re an immigrant with an outside pair of eyes, everything is different, so it’s not hard to come up with things to laugh at or comment on.”

His outsider points of view have been published across Israeli media and in USA Today, BBC Radio, Time and The Atlantic. Now that Lovitt has learned about himself and his character on stage — which he said was the hardest part of his career — he feels comfortable making jokes about more serious topics.

“There’s almost nothing that can’t be mocked if done appropriately by a professional,” he said. “I feel like this is the year when the world sort of figured that out.”

COVID-19 halted most normal aspects of life, but Lovitt said people didn’t stop laughing. He’ll discuss this, plus his experiences in Israel, during his lecture.

“We have to laugh or we’ll lose our minds,” he said. “We should never feel guilt laughing, even during tough times. Just as it’s perfectly human to cry, it’s equally human to laugh.”

Lovitt felt comfortable laughing through the pandemic because of this mindset, and he was happy to see others were understanding that mindset.

“The feedback I got from the public was, ‘Yes, we need to laugh. We need you to entertain us because we’re suffering here,’ ” he said. 

Comedian Leighann Lord to bring entertainment, enlightenment to Interfaith Lecture Series

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Lord

Leighann Lord had not one, but two first loves: writing and theater. For the last couple of decades, she’s pursued both loves as a stand-up comedian.

“I love writing,” Lord said. “I love getting an idea, then writing about it, then developing it on stage in front of people to see whether it works or not. And when it does, oh my gosh, there’s no feeling like that. It’s absolute magic.”

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Lord will give a mix of a stand-up routine and a lecture, titled “I’m Not Funny, I’m Brave.” It’s part of Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.”

She joked that her intention is to make people laugh, but if they don’t, then she’ll call it a lecture.

“That uncomfortable silence? I intended that,” she said with a laugh.

Lord has been in love with stand-up for about as long as she can remember.

“As a kid, I loved watching stand-up,” she said. “There was something about it — the ability to tell truths through laughter is a gift.”

Ultimately, Lord attended Baruch College at City University of New York, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and creative writing. She was then accepted into City University’s master of fine arts program, but she declined the offer. 

Instead, Lord entered the corporate world for five years.

“I was miserable, absolutely miserable,” she said.

Whereas plenty of people get stage fright, Lord found the corporate world terrifying.

“Like, you go to work? In the same place? Every day? With the same people? Shudder, shudder, clutch the pearls. Like, I can’t,” she said.

Lord understands that others experience stage fright, but she has an opposite reaction to being onstage. 

“I’ve talked to professional actors who are terrified of stand-up because it’s a very specific thing,” she said. “You’re on stage by yourself. There’s no fourth wall. … People say to me, ‘How do you get on stage?’ and I say, ‘How do you not?’ I understand stage fright, but the first time I stood on stage to do stand-up, I felt like I found my calling. I felt like I found my safe space.”

Currently, Lord is in the midst of recording Showtime’s third iteration of “Funny Women of a Certain Age,” the same name of a group Lord frequently performs alongside. 

“This is big for me, to be attached to this special,” she said. 

Throughout COVID-19, Lord has continued working through virtual shows, but she is now busier than any time she can remember. 

“Everybody wants to go out, out, out now,” she said.

To Lord, the best part of stand-up is bringing positivity to people’s lives, especially if any audience members are going through a particularly negative period. 

“To know that on really, really good days, I’m making people either forget about their pain, or laugh about it for just a little while. It’s a very brief respite, but that’s what art and entertainment does,” she said. “What I can do through stand-up, through laughter and letting them build up the endorphins and have a good time, I feel like I’m doing something good.”

During today’s lecture, Lord will make humor out of topics that she said, on the surface, are not funny. These topics include education, religion, health, politics, family, ageism and inequality. She said people will probably wonder how she will make those funny.

“I do, and I have for a while,” she said.

Part of the equation for good comedy is tragedy, she said. 

“If you’re just having a lecture or a speech, it might not resonate in the same way that you can deliver a message or relief with laughter,” she said. 

Lord wants attendees to feel entertained and enlightened. Her lecture will be a combination of stand-up, then spending time to reflect on what was said.

“I really feel like I’m from the George Carlin school of comedy, where he joked about very serious things and made people laugh,” she said. “I feel it’s after that laughter when you take that cleansing breath and realize what you heard, and you can laugh about it — then, maybe, we can now talk about it.”

Literature professor Michael Krasny to talk history of Jewish humor

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Krasny

Michael Krasny is an educator through and through, in the classroom and beyond. 

Starting in 1970, Krasny became a professor of literature at San Francisco State University. From there, he’s also taught at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, the University of California and in the Fulbright International Institutes. 

A decade after becoming a professor, Krasny began surfing the airwaves, and by 1993, he was the host of KQED’s “Forum, a live call-in show focused on news and public affairs. 

“I also talked to a lot of literary figures and people in the world of the public eye,” Krasny said. “I had the great privilege of interviewing presidents, heads of state and Nobel Prize winners, just a whole range of outstanding and extraordinary people, and also just everyday people, people just in the news.” 

Krasny retired from “Forum in February 2021, but he said he always enjoyed it, just as anyone should enjoy what they do. 

“At first, I was nervous of being in the public eye, but I got kind of an appetite for it,” he said. “I enjoyed doing what educators do, ideally — which is communicating ideas and bringing a higher level of discourse.”

Krasny hopes to bring this type of energy at 1 p.m. Monday, July 26 in the Amphitheater for his lecture “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity,” the first of Week Five’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.”

Jewish humor has a lot of stereotypes, Krasny said, but a true one that stuck out to him is that much of Jewish humor comes out of suffering. 

“But, I realized that as a student, teacher, critic of literature, scholar of literature, that jokes — and jokes aren’t the only example of Jewish humor, there’s Jewish humor in film and television and anecdotes — were built like narratives, and had a great deal of things to be learned about Jewish identity and Jewish experience, but also about life in the broader personal sense,” he said.

Krasny explored Jewish humor in his 2016 book Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means. He is also the author of Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.

“I think there’s a lot to be said about this idea that humor is a catharsis or release of anxiety,” he said. “It can illuminate a great ideal and provide us an understanding that once you start digging in and become an archaeologist with the language and what’s subtextually beneath the language, and the psychology of the stories or tales or jokes, there’s an immense amount there.”

When teaching literature, Krasny said he is really teaching literary theory, history, psychology, linguistics and science. He spent years with a science and humanities convergence program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, he said. 

“I enjoy writing and talking about a whole range of topics,” he said.

One of Krasny’s most enlightening teaching experiences was back in the 1970s, when he was asked to teach a course on Black literature, he said. Krasny is white, and he was hesitant to accept such a role. 

“I don’t think a white person would be asked to do that today,” he said with a laugh.

He ended up accepting the position, and emphasized to students he wasn’t pretending to be an insider or understand the Black experience from that perspective. Instead, he said he was a scholar and an outsider. Now, he is writing a book about this experience.

“It was some of the best teaching, most rewarding teaching of a lifetime,” he said.

For his lecture, Krasny hopes he provides an enlightening conversation about Jewish humor, understanding that seeing humor through an analytical lens can ruin the humorous aspect of a joke. He sees it another way.

“I’m not doing stand-up or anything like it, but something that can be uplifting, but also make people think or expand their consciousness,” he said. “I think that’s what a good talk, presentation or, frankly, a good stand-up routine should do.”

Zola to share story of Jewish history in U.S. through archival documents in lecture

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Zola

Perhaps few other people could best describe American Jewish history than Rabbi Gary Phillip Zola. As the executive director of the largest free-standing research center dedicated to American Jewish history, Zola is his own living, breathing historical document. 

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 in the Amphitheater, Zola will present “American Exceptionalism versus American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History,” the final Interfaith Lecture Series of Week Four, themed “The Evolving Religious Narrative in America.”

In its 75-year history, the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives has had two directors: Marcus himself, who stayed director until he died just short of his 100th birthday, and Zola. 

The archives are housed at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, which Zola said is the longest continuously running rabbinical school in the United States. 

“If you want to write or study or research Jewish life in America, it’s almost a certainty that you’re going to need to come to the American Jewish Archives,” Zola said.

Beyond this certainty, students at the college, which include those seeking a doctorate in American Jewish history, are required to use the archives as part of their curriculum. In addition, the archives serve the public and house researchers from around the world, he said. 

As executive director, Zola said he ensures he promotes the archives, encourages people to donate materials and helps raise money.

Uniquely, Zola is also the college’s Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History. Often, libraries or archives are led by librarians or administrators, but Zola is a historian and professor. 

And he loves it.

“Many people, when they think of the word ‘archives,’ they conjure up in their minds this image of a dingy closet with stacks and stacks of boring paper, and it doesn’t sound very interesting or exciting to many people,” he said. “For those of us who love history and who love learning about the past, the archives literally make you feel as though you’re in a candy store.”

Not a day goes by where Zola doesn’t find a new piece of history, he said. Even if the archives have housed a document for years, it may not be used during that period until it is needed to shine light on a topic. 

“There’s hardly a day that goes by that you don’t find amazing material,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s earth-shattering in that it really is transformational in its importance. 

“Other times, it’s little nuggets of fascinating material that are extraordinary.”

One of the most significant documents at the archives, Zola said, is the Riegner Telegram, which he said is accepted by scholars to be the first communications from Europe to the U.S. that Hitler’s Nazi regime was killing Jews.

Sent on Aug. 8, 1942, this was the first message notifying Americans of actual executions, despite the fact that Americans at the time knew of the ongoing oppression and brutalization of Jews in Europe, Zola said.

“When you look at that, and you see the original and look at that, it’s just overwhelming,” he said.

Zola will use several historical documents in his lecture to help illustrate his lecture’s purpose, which he said is to highlight one of the American Jewish community’s most important contributions to the U.S.

The community, Zola said, has played a significant role in making the country follow through on statements and promises made in America’s founding documents.

“American Jews have been uniquely positioned, though we’re a tiny minority, to have been and continue to be leading advocates for the expansion of civil rights and of liberty, equality and pursuit of happiness in America,” he said.

For anyone who visits the archives, even those who don’t read or study history, it is always an overwhelming experience to see preserved, important documents, Zola said. Perhaps, however, nobody appreciates it more than the living, breathing historical document himself.

“I love studying the past,” he said. “I love these documents.”

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