A Tale of Two Cubas: Why An Exile Still Won’t Return by Judy Bolton-Fasman

For the past half-century, my mother has desperately missed her native Cuba.

Yet the recent and stunning reversal of Washington’s long-time policy towards Havana has left her resolute that the Americans are coddling the Castro brothers’ dictatorship. Cuba is still as closed to her as the day my grandmother, after an extended stay to take care of me, her newborn grandchild, boarded one of the last commercial flights from New York to Havana in 1961.

“I’ll never set foot in my country as long as Fidel and Raul are in charge,” says my mother with an exile’s fervor. She wants the doors to open to the Cuba she once knew, not the country she sees as grotesquely frozen in time. When I show her pictures that I took just a few years ago of her house on La Callé Merced in Old Havana, she weeps.

My mother epitomizes the suffering of her fellow Cuban exiles.

My mother epitomizes the suffering of her fellow Cuban exiles. I first saw it as a little girl, when she stood at our kitchen window in Connecticut and moaned, “Hay Cuba como te estraño.” For my mother’s sake, I missed Cuba too, even though I had never been there.

The closest I got to Cuba back then was Little Havana in Miami. I was 9-years-old the first time my mother took me there. It was 1970; the height of Cuba’s isolation, and my family was hungry for news of our relatives trapped on the island. We headed towards the dull neon of my cousin Estersita’s Miami Beach neighborhood. All I knew about her and my other Cuban relatives was that they had escaped from Castro’s oppressive regime a few years earlier. They settled near Lincoln Road, among other anti-Castro Cubans, while waiting to return to Havana.

The courtyard, as seen in 2012, of the house on La Callé Merced in Havana, where the author's mother once lived. (Judy Bolton-Fasman/Courtesy)

Every morning in Little Havana, my mother treated Estersita and her family to café con leche and eggs at the Cuban diner. She slathered our pan Cubano with butter the same way she applied our suntan lotion against the strong Miami sun.

My mother, who immigrated in 1958, was the first in her family to come to the United States. She married my American Dad a couple of years later. No one in my mother’s family had ever married out of its Sephardic-Jewish-Latino constellation. In Miami, she played the role of an affluent Americano’s wife in earnest, never letting on that she and Dad had separated.

Like my relatives who pined for Havana, I waited for a sign that my father had not forgotten me. I hoarded dimes to call him in secret from a payphone around the corner.

In the evenings, I sat in the living room of my relatives’ small apartment as Estersita’s husband Pepé adjusted the rabbit ears on the television. The electronic snow gave way to a fuzzy picture of Castro with his woolly, raggedy beard. Castro, in his drab military uniform and lidded cap, spoke in one long streak of breath, like the Cubans I knew in Miami. “Patria o muerte! Venceremos!” — “Fatherland or death! We shall overcome!” he said. Pepé and his poker buddies screamed, “Hijo de mala madre” — “son of a bitch” — at the screen. The ladies at Estersita’s kitchen table, where she gave manicures in front of Spanish soap operas, novelas, during the day, joined the men in cursing the television.

Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade over Cuban radio and television as seen on a television monitor at Key West, Fla., Oct. 23, 1962. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Castro jabbed an index finger in the air. The broadcasting interference made him sound as if he were hoarse. Yet he spoke in a pellucid Spanish that came to us all the way from La Plaza de la Revolución.

I got up for more ice cream, and just as I passed the television, the room burst into exclamation. “Para!” One of the poker players screamed at me to stop. “No te mueves!” — “Don’t move!” I had stumbled upon the sweet spot in the room where the reception happened to be perfect. I, the Americanita, had brought Fidel Castro into focus. They watched him with the same curiosity with which one gawks at an accident.

Por Dios,” cried my mother. “Castro talks forever. La niña can’t stand there all night.”

“She can for 10 cents an hour,” Pepé bellowed.

I was a human antenna, catching signals from Cuba.

From then on, night after night, in real time, I was a human antenna, catching signals from Cuba.

When I arrived in Miami, I spoke a clunky, simple Spanish that Estersita and the others thought sounded funny. I struggled to read menus and understand the novelas. But with each passing day, I slipped deeper into the language until one day, when I realized that I understood Castro without first having to translate him in my head. I was becoming fluent but tried to stop myself from sliding completely from American to Cuban, from two parents to one.

I finally collected enough dimes to call my father a thousand miles away in Connecticut. When I got him on the line, he called me sweetheart and promised to come down to see me. A few weeks later, he made good on his word. We packed our bags and left Little Havana to move into a fancy motel on Collins Avenue for the occasion. My parents reconciled, and we went north to a place where Castro was once again a silent picture in the newspaper. No longer just 90 miles away from Cuba, we were north, where my mother will always miss the Cuba that was.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti (http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2015/08/04/opening-cuba-judy-bolton-fasman), the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station

Story: Judy Bolton-Fasman

Originally posted on Extract(s):

welcometocuba

Customs General of the Republic – Welcome to Cuba
Passenger Customs Declaration

 

Name

Judy Bolton-Fasman

Date of Birth

December 30, 1960. I was born one year and ten days after my father called off the first wedding to my mother. Nine months and four days after my parents finally wed.

Nationality

Half-American, half-Cuban. Actually, all-American most days but completely Cuban on others.

Arrival to Cuba

I arrive on the island on November 15, 2012, returning to a place in which I have never set foot.

By Air or By Sea

By air. A chartered flight filled with ex-pats bringing computers, bicicletas and Costco-sized portions of medicine and food staples to relatives on the island. A woman checking in a microwave and Wii told me that she goes to Cuba three times a year. I do a quick calculation. I could have been to Cuba over 150 times if Fidel…

View original 641 more words

The Spy Who Loved Me by Judy Bolton-Fasman

At the end of my father’s life, he was raspy and small, forever lost in a storm of neurotransmitters backfiring from Parkinson’s disease. When he called me, the oldest of his three children, by his mother’s name, I grieved over the cold, hard reality that it was too late to ask him certain questions — questions that had been gnawing at me since my frequent childhood treasure hunts through his highboy to figure out who he was. Questions about my long-time suspicion that he had been a spy.

For years I tried to write my way to the truth by amassing anecdotes about my father the patriot, the man who was careful never to be a character in his own tales. There was the regimented father, the former naval officer, who marched my sister, brother and me around the house on the Fourth of July to the booming brass of John Philip Sousa. That was the father with his hand over his heart singing the Star Spangled Banner at his alma mater’s football games. There was also the picture of Dad as a young man — a scallop-edged photo in which he wears billowing khakis and a pith helmet; it was marked “Guatemala 1952.” I had found the picture in his sock drawer when I was 10. He grabbed it from me and issued his standard warning about curiosity and dead cats.

Yet the more I wrote about my father, the more I realized how little I knew him. Those who did were either dead or lost to me.

And then I remembered David.

My father had always called David a caballero, a gentleman. They had been the best of friends in business school, which Dad left before completing his post-war degree. David was from El Salvador, the son of a former ambassador, and served as the guide for my father’s frequent and lengthy travels in Latin America in the 1950s — trips that accounted for Dad’s American-shellacked Spanish. Trips that were said to be stints Dad did as an accountant for the United Fruit Company.

I tracked down David’s email address on a reunion roster for the Citadel, a military college. He responded to my email within the hour. He wrote in a blizzard of exclamation points: “Miracles do happen!!!!” He had been thinking of my father recently, he wrote, and it was as if he had willed me to find him.

The author's father, K. Harold Bolton, on a supply ship somewhere in the South Pacific in 1942. He was 23. (Judy Bolton-Fasman/Courtsey)

Forty years after I discovered that photo of my father in Guatemala, I was in David’s no-frills pied-à-terre in midtown Manhattan, let in by his housekeeper. As I waited, I studied David’s family photographs, so familiar to me from the frequent Sunday visits we made to David and his family during my childhood. The pictures — so many of them — were crammed on a bookshelf in the living room.

When at last David appeared, I saw that he had aged into an amiable patrician.

I never really believed that curiosity could kill a cat. Curiosity was the path to clarity. It was power. My father’s naval records, which I obtained, gave him high marks for unwavering patriotism but revealed nothing more. A Freedom of Information Act request also yielded nothing.

So by the time I met David in New York, I had only my lifelong gut feeling that my father was hiding something from me, that, for an accountant from Connecticut, he had spent an awful lot of time in Latin America. That he was outgoing, yet elusive—almost as if he had already lived out his real life before I came along.

David was the only one left who could answer the question that no other source or authority had been willing or able to answer. I had come to ask if my father had been in the CIA. (The Agency itself, when I had asked, would “neither confirm nor deny” that my father had been in their ranks.)

David had been my father’s closest friend and ally in those years of secrecy and travel. He freely admitted to having worked for the CIA, first to help overthrow the Guatemalan government in 1952, and later to feel things out in Havana after Castro had come down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Sitting beside David on his worn sofa, drinking a cup of coffee, I learned what I had always suspected. My father had worked alongside him. I thought of the photograph of my father in Guatemala.

“And after that?” I pressed. “What about after Cuba?”

David shrugged. “After that? Love.”

My father had fallen for the much younger Cuban woman who would become my mother.

Love had complicated his mission. Love for my mother, followed by love for me, the unplanned baby girl conceived on their honeymoon.

After that, there was the relatively quiet life of an accountant who tried to take his secrets to the grave. And then there is me, his daughter, who finally learned the truth about her father, the spy, but not in time to know him.

This essay originally appeared on Cognoscenti (http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2015/07/03/the-spy-who-loved-me-judy-bolton-fasman), the ideas and opinion page of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station

Reading Don Quijote With My Mother by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My mother was among the first wave of women in the mid-1960s who went back to school for a post-college degree. Her goal was to earn a Master’s degree in Spanish literature along with a teaching certificate.

But before she took command of a classroom, my mother had to get through a disorienting year of reading Don Quijote. No matter that she was a native Spanish speaker from Cuba, Cervantes’s saga was the longest, most difficult book she had ever attempted to read. But my mother was story-driven. She delved into the work as she stirred pots of hapless beef stew that she made with ketchup.

For my mother, a non-cook, the most important utensil in the kitchen was a gunmetal cookbook holder. The small stems held down the stories she read to me. I was five when she began her Master’s degree and loved listening to her pretty voice even though I barely understood Cervantes’s seventeenth-century Spanish. Yet I grasped that Don Quijote was a fellow fantasist. A character who thought of himself as a gallant knight in shining armor when he was little more than a deluded man with a rusting coat of arms.

My mother, who finessed an autobiography in which she, a Sephardic Jew, was a descendant of the Duke of Albuquerque in Spain, had no paper trail leading back to a Bachelor of Arts degree. She only had her illusions about studying at the University of Havana. When Don Quijote’s library burned, she said, “He was too influenced by his books.” As if that observation also explained our charred dinners, the exoskeletons of which we scraped off Pyrex pans.

My mother’s school books came to us wrapped in brown paper bearing postage stamps from Spain. These were books with ragged pages bound together that had to be parted with a letter opener. They felt more precious, more delicate than the bulky Michener paperbacks my father read about Iberia, the South Pacific, and Hawaii.

But no matter how much literature my parents read about exotic, unimaginable places like Spain, they never wandered far from our home in Connecticut. My father was tethered to routine and mid-life fatherhood. My much-younger mother was trapped in the dining room in a blizzard of balled up papers and false starts. Books were haphazardly piled atop of one another. The most impressive of them was The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy—a door-stopper of a book that also came directly from Madrid. Every word in the Spanish language was defined between its brown marbled covers—words waiting to be arranged into the labored term papers my mother was required to write.

On Sunday nights the house was abuzz with the sound of her typing on the baby blue Smith Corona. The white onionskin paper in the typewriter was as fragile as she was. The return carriage grazed the typewriter’s metal teeth at full speed as she raced to meet a deadline. The house filled with the insistent rhythm of type and return. Type and return in between mom’s crying jags. Type and return as my father tried his hand at boiling hot dogs or sculpting meatloaf. Type and return until I fell asleep underneath the vibrating dining room table. Type and return until my mother accumulated five pages of haphazard analysis of Don Quijote.

My mother successfully typed her way to graduation. On the day of the commencement she posed on the driveway in a rented cap and gown. The tassel on her mortarboard was as jittery as she was. The new pocketbook that hung on her left arm was a graduation gift from her parents-in-law. Beige and square and anchored with her initials in blocks of silver, the purse was empty save for a couple of white-and-blue-lined 3×5 index cards on which my Americano father had written out the words of The Star-Spangled Banner.

In addition to being newly graduated, my mother was a recently minted American citizen who pledged allegiance to the United States of America haltingly despite intense coaching from my father. In the dining room cum study hall for my mother, they went over the pledge.

“Even Judy knows the words,” said my father.

I was fluent in my father’s patriotism, reciting the pledge flawlessly and always with my hand over my heart. My mother, however, devised her own strange mnemonics to the national anthem. “Oh say can you see,” became the call letters of the local radio station, WTIC. “Oh say TIC.” WTIC was also very much on her mind when she sang, “My country TIC, sweet land of liberty of TIC.”

But it was La Bayamesa, Cuba’s national anthem, that my mother knew perfectly from start to finish. “That’s not the song that’ll be played at your graduation,” my father scolded.

Days before she received her diploma she gave up on The Star-Spangled Banner like a petulant child and sang La Bayamesa constantly, brazenly in her best patriotic Spanish: “To live in chains is to live in dishonor and ignominy. Hear the clarion call. Hasten brave ones to battle.”

“That’s the anthem I would have sung at my original graduation if the university had stayed open,” my mother said.

“Stop with the fiction,” my father countered. “The only anthem they’re belting out down there is The Internationale.”

For my father Cuba was a cautionary tale. For my mother it was a fairytale. Once upon a time there was a beautiful blue green jewel of an island—the star of my bedtime stories and the inspiration for my mother’s term papers. She resented that she had to palm an index card with lyrics about the dying light of a twilight’s last gleaming as she received her diploma, her first, on a warm day in May—a diploma from the same school from which I would graduate a dozen years later.

This essay was originally published on The Rumpus

Feathering the Nest by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Dear Son:

The other day you got in the car, took a deep breath and cheerfully declared that it smelled like your childhood. I had just gotten a manicure—something I did more regularly when you were little—and I too was transported back in time. But what struck me even more was you referring to your childhood as your past. At seventeen, in the homestretch of your senior year of high school, and just shy of six feet tall (where does your height come from?) you are most definitely no longer a child.

in just a few months you’ll be expected to conduct yourself like an adult. I suggest you jettison the idea that you will be grown up by the fall and simply concentrate on being a college student. If there is ever an in-between stage in your life, college is that time. You go to college to engage in the life of the mind, but along the way you bump up against coping skills you need to have.

Your high school advisor recently told you that if she had to pick the most important housekeeping chore you need to learn, it would be to get in the habit of ironing. Much to my embarrassment, she must have noticed your wrinkled shirts over the years. As much as I love and respect your advisor, I’d say in the domestic realm you must first and foremost remember not to machine wash and dry your sweaters. There are dry cleaners near campus; I’ve seen them.

But alas I will not be near campus, and I’ve been anticipating this inevitable change, this moving out of our house, throughout your nail polish-scented childhood. The campus is a proving ground as much as it is a launching pad. You’re an astronaut of sorts, and I’ve been watching you soar since the day you were born. You belong to the stars; you are part of the ocean.

Which brings me to telling you that I’ve tried to give you the things, to expose you to the experiences, that I didn’t have. For example, I never went to camp and don’t know how to swim, but I made sure you and your sister learned. That’s just one of the many things in which you’ve surpassed me. In fact, one of the most humbling moments in parenthood for me was when I realized that you and your sister were more intelligent, more capable than I. I don’t say this to be self-deprecating. I say this filled with wonder. And although I always knew that would be the case, I was still happily surprised.

A&A

A strong word of advice regarding your prodigious intellect: there will always be someone smarter than you in the lecture hall, the dorm, even the party. You’ll encounter those people very early in your college career. Don’t compete with her. Don’t resent him. Admire her. Learn from him. Jealousy mars true scholarship; it taints the soul.

For these past few months, people have been telling me that my nest will be empty come the fall. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loathe the expression, “empty nest.” When I hear it, I think of random feathers floating in the air. The rest is just twigs and mud and loneliness. You’ve been my constant companion for these past few years when your sister has been at college and Dad has been on the road for work. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit you’re the reason I cook dinner. You’re the guy around whom I structure my workday as a freelance writer. But I won’t miss sounding like a foghorn in the morning, screaming at you to get up. And it will give me great joy to look at your consistently tidy room while you’re away. I will travel a bit with Dad, travel a bit for myself. I’ll even come visit you at school once in a great while to take you to dinner. As sick as you are of my chicken potpie (what can I say, I’m a one trick pony in the kitchen—once I learn a recipe I latch on to it), you’ll be sicker of cafeteria food.

As for that nest of ours—it won’t stand empty. I’ll do a bit of rearranging, but always leaving room for you and your sister. Please know that our family is the best thing that ever happened to me. This life we have together surpasses my dreams. I hope and pray that your adult life— it will happen to you sooner rather than later—exceeds all of your expectations. And for the record, it never mattered to me whether or not you were the smartest guy in the room. I just wanted you to have the kindest soul of anyone in the world. I think you do, wrinkled shirt and all.

All my love,

Mom

Bearing Witness and Feeling Other: The Poetry of Jehanne Dubrow

The Arranged Marriage is Jehanne Dubrow’s powerful new volume of poetry, and it bears witness to her Jewish Honduran mother Jeannette’s complicated life story. Her family left Germany in the late 1930s for Honduras, and Jeannette was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1946 for medical reasons. Immediately after the birth, mother and child returned to their family in Central America where Jeannette lived until she was 15.

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow

Dubrow, who is an award-winning poet, captures her family’s traumatic departure from Europe in a poem from the book called “Limen.” She writes: “I think of my mother’s family, circa 1936—/folding Warsaw and Berlin in their steamer trunks, /beneath prayer shawls, pictures of the dead./That shipped to Honduras.”

In a recent interview Dubrow notes, “My mother came from a Yiddish, German, Spanish speaking household.” Her father was the son of assimilated German Jews who made their way to Miami through Cuba just before the Holocaust. He spoke German as a child and Dubrow remembers her grandparents’ heavily accented English.

Dubrow, who was born in northern Italy in 1975, also grew up in a stew of languages. Her parents were in the American Foreign Service and were posted to countries that included the former Yugoslavia, Zaire and Belgium. Her first languages were English, Serbo-Croatian, and later French and Swahili. “When I was very little my mother tried to speak Spanish to me against the backdrop of whichever country we were posted to at the time, but in those spaces many languages were happening simultaneously. I can sort of understand Spanish, but I feel guilty that I don’t really know it.”

Jehanne Dubrow

Her Latino family’s hybrid identity is one of the three stories that Dubrow braids together into a poignant, poetic history. A second strand encompasses poems that the poet Claudia Rankine has described “as a mosaic of violence.” The impetus for those verses came out of Jeannette’s nightmare experience as the hostage of a man who escaped from an insane asylum. She was just 20 when she was held for over 24 hours.

A third strand picks up after Jeannette’s father bullied her into a first marriage to a young man from a wealthy Jewish El Salvadoran family. Jeannette was forced to abandon her college education for a ketubah — a marriage contract — with a man she did not love.

The inevitable dissolution of the marriage came with Jeannette’s parents, particularly her father, sitting shiva for her. Dubrow portrays that tragic and extreme reaction in a poem called “My Mother, Temporarily Disowned.” She begins: “For seven days she was gone to them. They sat in a room the way mourners do, mirrors dressed in black, black garments rent at the sleeves. Daughter: a synonym for disloyalty.”

Dubrow, who is also an associate professor of English at Washington College in Maryland, notes that “I wrote this book with my mother’s permission. The material is based on interviews I did with her so I could present a more formal conversation about these stories.” Dubrow also points out that the process of “transforming a narrative into a poem can turn it into a different story. Poetry can fictionalize or fetishize the experience. I worked closely with my mother editing the poems, ordering the poems. And I mingled the strands to evoke living with trauma over a long time.”

The prose poems in The Arranged Marriage are also notable in that they represent a structural departure for Dubrow. “I’m usually thought of as a formalist. I use traditional rhyme and meter and I love writing sonnets. But the [sonnet form] felt inappropriate for my mother’s story. These poems had to be more detached in order to avoid going into a mode of hysteria. This meant that I could not call attention to craftsmanship in the same way a sonnet does. By working in the prose poem I was able to create a naturalistic effect.”

Dubrow’s technical virtuosity is on display in her previous books. Many of those poems have detailed her experiences as a military wife as well as growing up as a Jew in Poland. “All of my books speak about being alien somewhere. I’m comfortable with being different, but I also feel a kind of otherness.”

While the experience of otherness is beautifully captured in The Arranged Marriage, one of the poems in the book, “Rules for Passover in the Tropics,” introduces the subtext of adjusting expectations. “Your matzoh won’t arrive. Convene a kaffeeklatsch. Debate the leavening of corn when mashed to meal. Wine will break in transit. Invent a substitute for the crate of shards and purple stains.”

Dubrow further explains that the poem is also about “making do and making your own version of Passover. [Honduran Jews] are not frivolous or flighty about Passover, pre-Internet they just embodied different forms of observance [out of necessity],” she says. “A shank bone may have come from a goat that someone killed down the road. ”

It’s not a surprise that Passover is Dubrow’s favorite holiday on the Jewish calendar. “It’s such a wonderful narrative in which food and story are brought together,” she explains. “It was also one of the times when my mother’s stories [about growing up Jewish in Honduras] were actually funny.” The holiday is also an opportunity to have “conversations about interpretation.” The same sentiment holds true in reading Dubrow’s poems — verse that exquisitely addresses the nuances of survival, adaptation and exile.

Mark Rothko: Crossing the Boundaries by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Annie Cohen-Solal feels a deep kinship with the artist Mark Rothko, the subject of her excellent new biography, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel. An academic and a cultural historian, Cohen-Solal is also the author of award-winning books on Jean-Paul Sartre and the influential New York City art dealer Leo Castelli. In a recent interview with the Jewish Advocate, Cohen-Solal, who lives and works in her native France, explained the impetus for writing about Rothko for Yale University Press’ series on Jewish Lives. “ Like Rothko I am between nations and cultures and I too am a cosmopolitan Jew.”

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia, now Latvia, in 1903. His father Yacov Rotkovitch, a pharmacist, was a bookish secular Jew. His mother Kate came from a privileged Jewish family in Saint Petersburg that was barely touched by anti-Semitism. The marriage was a social coup for Yacov who brought his bride back to Dvinsk where the couple had four children. Mark, the youngest, was the only child to attend cheder. Cohen-Solal explains that Rothko’s “education in Talmud Torah did not align with his family’s secularism. He was fourteen years younger than his oldest brother and at the time there was this threat of thrusting Jewish boys into the Russian army. He went to Talmud Torah to avoid getting drafted.”

Alarmed by encroaching pogroms, the elder Rotkovitch immigrated with his two older sons to America in 1908. Two years later, Kate followed with her daughter and her youngest son. The family settled in Portland, Oregon where they had relatives. They lived among other Russian Jews in a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Odessa.” Three years after the family was reunited in Portland, Yacov died. Cohen-Solal points out that the family was so secular that ten year-old Mark, who had the most Jewish education among them, was the only relative who said the Mourner’s Kaddish for his father.

Marcus Rothkowitz, as he was known in Portland, excelled in high school and earned admission to Yale University along with two of his Jewish classmates. When Marcus arrived in New Haven in 1921, the campus was a WASP bastion of privilege and anti-Semitism. “He was disillusioned and disappointed,” Cohen-Solal said. “He didn’t agree with the policies of the closed fraternities. He was a rebel at heart and created a newspaper called the Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which destroyed the values of the institution rather than complying with them.” She further delineates the classist rivalry between Yale’s German and Russian Jews. Having immigrated earlier to the United States and succeeded socioeconomically, German Jews had an easier time fitting into Yale life.

After his scholarship was revoked in his sophomore year, Marcus left Yale and went to New York. Legend has it that his art career was launched after he visited a friend studying figure drawing at The Art Students’ League. “At the age of 20 Marcus was already a role model,” says Cohen-Solal, “He was an intellectual, a fighter, an educator. He was an individual who confronted the injustice of American society, the narrow-mindedness he encountered at Yale all the way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art was a form of social action for him.” Young Marcus’ career took off when the American artist Milton Avery mentored him. “Avery was [Marcus’] American role model and a father figure to him.”

The 1920s was also a time when Rothko negotiated his internal tensions between Europe and the United States, the West Coast and East Coast, as well as his Jewish and secular influences. In his artwork from 1928 and 1939, Rothko moved towards his signature style by first painting landscapes, watercolors and oil paintings with enigmatic, phantom-like figures. Come the late 1930s Marcus Rothkowitz became an American citizen and changed his name to Mark Rothko.

Cohen-Solal notes that by the 1940s, “there was so much in Rothko’s work as a painter that could be described and integrated by his Judaism. Like many Jewish artists at the time, he thrived in the abstract, which may have been influenced by the Second Commandment about not making ‘graven images.’”

As for Rothko, many of his Jewish values came together in the paintings he did for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. Commissioned by Jean and Dominique de Menil, the chapel is an ecumenical space dedicated to peace. As Cohen-Solal notes, three immigrants, one fleeing pogroms in Russia and two escaping Nazi-occupied France, created a meditative space that was as much political as it was spiritual.

“What Rothko has done with his art is to talk to the 21st century,” says Cohen-Solal. “Think of the terrorist attacks in which art has been destroyed. An immigrant carries tools that he can turn into destruction or creativity. Rothko’s life is not only a model for immigrants today, he demonstrates that the history of art is the history of hunger over compliance.”

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2015 issue of the Jewish Advocate