Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto's website


Articles

  • 2014

    • The Unique Way the Dutch Mourn , Time.com
      July 23, 2014

      A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities – far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough – but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality, they will suddenly turn blasé, as if the celeb were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

    • On a General’s Trail , New York Times
      July 18, 2014

      When we told friends last year that we had decided to move from Europe to the mountains of western Maryland, we got the same response (complete with italics) over and over: Why? Point taken. Our new home, while it excels in hiking trails and glorious views, is not especially great for culture, restaurants, night life or even good coffee. But we had several reasons for moving where we did. High among them was that I was about to launch into work on a book about the American Revolution. My new town, Cumberland, would place me near the center of the action, within driving distance of battlefields and libraries up and down the East Coast…

    • How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World , New York Times Magazine
      April 9, 2014

      In December 2012, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was on vacation in Berlin when he decided to detour to the Netherlands. He wanted to get a firsthand sense of the famed Dutch approach to water management. Hurricane Sandy struck six weeks before, and in the aftermath, President Obama asked him to lead a task force, whose objective was not just to rebuild but also to radically rethink the region’s infrastructure in light of climate change.

  • 2013

    • The Ghosts of Amsterdam , The New York Times
      September 27, 2013

      It only recently occurred to me that one very fine if not exactly intentional purpose for historic preservation is to keep dead people alive. Having spent the past several years living in Amsterdam and researching a book about its history, I now find that virtually anywhere I walk in this city, whose center has been so tenderly and smartly maintained, I am jostled by ghosts…

    • Digging Up Family Roots in Sicily , New York Times
      August 16, 2013

      As a writer I’ve always tended to seek out origins. My first book, about the search for the historical Jesus, was an attempt to get at the “real” story behind my Catholic upbringing. After living in Manhattan for several years, I wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” a book about the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, the seed from which New York City grew.

    • Quirks of Amsterdam, Revealed During Lunch , New York Times
      April 19, 2013

      The Haarlemmerstraat in Amsterdam is a narrow enough thoroughfare that from my office window I can easily see into the shops across the street. There is the olive oil boutique, with its rows of metal barrels and its sign inside saying “Check Your Oil,” and the coffee shop that young, nattily dressed tourists wander into to get licitly high. (Most visitors know that in Amsterdam a cafe is for coffee, and a coffee shop is for marijuana.) Looking up, I have to crane my neck to take in the succession of gable types on the brick facades — step, bell, spout — that signal the changing fashions among real estate developers during the city’s golden age in the 17th century.

  • 2012

    • The Way Greeks Live Now , New York Times
      February 13, 2012

      In a little brick-walled taverna in Athens, over a lunch of Cretan salad and stuffed grape leaves, a Greek journalist named Aris Hadjigeorgiou was holding forth one day in late November about the calamitous state of his city and country as only a veteran metropolitan reporter could. He explicated the insidious ways in which the upper echelons of Greek media were intertwined with the political structure, which prevented reporting of financial mismanagement and also clouded any hope for resolving the crisis. And he noted little things, like the leaflets on car windshields advertising moving companies: literal signs of the way the economic crisis was affecting Athens, as people angled for escape routes, either abroad or to the countryside. And how the mayor’s office was at that moment considering a quaint but cockeyed approach for the season’s Christmas lighting scheme: stringing lights around the city’s hundreds of shuttered storefronts.

  • 2011

    • Marine Le Pen, France’s Kinder, Gentler Extremist , New York Times Magazine
      April 30, 2011

      Step inside an office building in the town of Nanterre, just west of Paris, and you are confronted by what the nostrils register as an odor of the past, for it’s a rare thing these days to encounter the lingering taint of cigarette smoke in public spaces. The trail of it leads upstairs to a corner office and to the woman who has, in the past few months, come to dominate French newspapers and chat shows, where she is depicted variously as the new face of European bigotry or a herald of a new European political realignment. Article continues…

    • The Nanny and Her Sister , NRC Handelsblad
      April 27, 2011

      [Note: This is an English-language version, slightly revised, of an opinion piece that appeared in Dutch on 4/24/11] Not long ago my son’s Moroccan-born gastouder (daycare provider) asked if I would sign an immigration document in support of her sister, who wanted to come to Amsterdam to visit. I was confused at first: I thought one was required to get such statements of support for people who intended to emigrate, not who merely wanted to visit family. I subsequently learned that it is necessary in the Netherlands for people from certain countries to file extensive applications, including having residents vouch for them, even if all they want to do is see the canals and tulips. I signed the form. Then a few weeks later I heard that the sister’s application had been denied. The reason given: she was “onbetrouwbaar”–untrustworthy. When my son’s gastouder asked, through an immigration lawyer, for clarification, she was told that due to “ties” in the country, it was feared that the sister might stay in the Netherlands. Our gastouder and her family are legal, upstanding residents of the Netherlands. She is registered in her work; her husband drives a city bus; they have two young children and they speak … Continue reading

    • The Irish Affliction , New York Times Magazine
      February 11, 2011

      Andrew Madden is one of a relatively new breed of Irish celebrities who would just as soon be less well known. He was among the first people in Ireland to go public about being sexually abused by Catholic clergy — one of those who set off the intense bout of soul-searching that has racked the country lately… [full story]

  • 2010

    • The Integrationist , New York Times Magazine
      May 28, 2010

      UPDATE, January 2011:  This article was written during the very small window of time when Job Cohen–who as mayor of Amsterdam was internationally lauded for keeping a densely multiethnic city together during the post-9/11 era–stepped into the frontrunner’s position in the race to become prime minister of the Netherlands.  Even as I was finishing it, the situation was changing rapidly.  As it happened, Cohen ran an abymsal campaign (Dutch mayors are not elected; note that it’s probably a bad idea to make your first political race the one to run a country); his Labor Party came a close second behind the Dutch Liberals (who are actually conservative).  Cohen and his leftist colleagues also botched the negotiations to form a coalition government, with the result that Geert Wilders, the right-wing anti-Muslim mudslinger, whose party is not in the coalition, is in effect the most important political force in the country.  As I hope this article shows, Cohen had done some remarkable things in his decade as mayor–things that could be used as a template in other parts of the world struggling with diversity issues.  But he failed to capitalize. WHILE SLOUCHING against a wall in a former cigarette factory in the … Continue reading

    • “Making Haste From Babylon” (Book Review) , New York Times Book Review
      May 21, 2010

      In 2006, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote “Mayflower,” a history of the Pilgrims that attempted to wipe centuries of mythic buildup from the dour features of America’s European primogenitors. Now Nick Bunker has written another history of the Pilgrims, which tries to do more or less the same thing. Yet the two books — both admirable — are utterly different, and so to a large extent is their subject matter. Philbrick, a New Englander, concentrated on the settlement of the colony of New Plymouth, and read its meaning through the prism of King Philip’s War of 1675-76, which would set the tone for later relations between settlers and natives. Bunker, an Englishman, had what is perhaps a more alluring idea: to devote himself largely to the prehistory of the men and women who founded the colony. His book roams through archives and repositories in the British Isles. From county record offices and church account books, he teases out traces of William Brewster, William Bradford and the other principals who would later found the colony. His objective is to answer the very good question, Who were these people? In their day the men and women we refer to as Pilgrims were called Separatists or … Continue reading

    • How Christian Were the Founders? (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      February 11, 2010

      LAST MONTH, A WEEK before the Senate seat of the liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy fell into Republican hands, his legacy suffered another blow that was perhaps just as damaging, if less noticed. It happened during what has become an annual spectacle in the culture wars. Over two days, more than a hundred people — Christians, Jews, housewives, naval officers, professors; people outfitted in everything from business suits to military fatigues to turbans to baseball caps — streamed through the halls of the William B. Travis Building in Austin, Tex., waiting for a chance to stand before the semicircle of 15 high-backed chairs whose occupants made up the Texas State Board of Education. Each petitioner had three minutes to say his or her piece. “Please keep César Chávez” was the message of an elderly Hispanic man with a floppy gray mustache. “Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world and should be included in the curriculum,” a woman declared. Following the appeals from the public, the members of what is the most influential state board of education in the country, and one of the most politically conservative, submitted their own proposed changes to the new social-studies curriculum guidelines, whose adoption was … Continue reading

  • 2009

    • Going Dutch , New York Times Magazine
      April 29, 2009

      PICTURE ME, IF YOU WILL, as I settle at my desk to begin my workday, and feel free to use a Vermeer image as your template. The pale-yellow light that gives Dutch paintings their special glow suffuses the room. The interior is simple, with high walls and beams across the ceiling. The view through the windows of the 17th-century house in which I have my apartment is of similarly gabled buildings lining the other side of one of Amsterdam’s oldest canals. Only instead of a plump maid or a raffish soldier at the center of the canvas, you should substitute a sleep-rumpled writer squinting at a laptop. For 18 months now I’ve been playing the part of the American in Holland, alternately settling into or bristling against the European way of life. Many of the features of that life are enriching. History echoes from every edifice as you move through your day. The bicycle is not a means of recreation but a genuine form of transportation. A nearby movie house sells not popcorn but demitasses of espresso and glasses of Dutch gin from behind a wood-paneled bar, which somehow makes you feel sane and adult and enfolded in civilization. Then there … Continue reading

    • “The Invention of Air” (book review) , New York Times Book Review
      January 23, 2009

      The Age of Categories is dead. Strangely, it never went by that name, or any name. Also curious is the fact that its boundaries are unclear: it overlapped the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason and some others, but succumbed to the atomizing atmosphere of the Information Age. Knowledge, it held, went hand in hand with nomenclature and delineation. As science developed, branches formed. Elemental to the college and university were academic departments, each of which came surrounded by high walls. A datum was deemed to fit within the confines of chemistry or sociology or the history of spoons or whatever, and that was more or less that. From “The Invention of Air” Joseph Priestley’s tools. Now we perceive the limitations of those old categories and scoff; we value multidisciplinarianism and genre-bending. The life of the mind is more chaotic, but also more exhilarating. Often a new boundary-crossing perspective comes simply from going back to original sources — to the time before categories hardened. Study the famous late correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Steven Johnson notes, and you find only five references to Benjamin Franklin and three to George Washington, but 52 to Joseph Priestley, the scientist/theologian who is often … Continue reading

  • 2008

    • Childless Europe (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      June 29, 2008

      IT WAS A SPECTACULAR LATE-MAY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN ITALY, but the streets of Laviano — a gloriously situated hamlet ranged across a few folds in the mountains of the Campania region — were deserted. There were no day-trippers from Naples, no tourists to take in the views up the steep slopes, the olive trees on terraces, the ruins of the 11th-century fortress with wild poppies spotting its grassy flanks like flecks of blood. And there were no locals in sight either. The town has housing enough to support a population of 3,000, but fewer than 1,600 live here, and every year the number drops. Rocco Falivena, Laviano’s 56-year-old mayor, strolled down the middle of the street, outlining for me the town’s demographics and explaining why, although the place is more than a thousand years old, its buildings all look so new. In 1980 an earthquake struck, taking out nearly every structure and killing 300 people, including Falivena’s own parents. Then from tragedy arose the scent of possibility, of a future. Money came from the national government in Rome, and from former residents who had emigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere. The locals found jobs rebuilding their town. But when the … Continue reading

  • 2007

    • Keeping the Faith (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      April 8, 2007

      Walk into a shop to buy a newspaper or a wurst or a Game Boy in the German city of Regensburg and your server will probably welcome you with a brisk “grüss’ Gott,” shorthand for “God greet you.” It’s the local form of hello: street-corner dudes and grandmas, everyone says it. This is Bavaria, Germany’s Catholic heartland, a region that gives the lie to the popular notion that Western Europe has tossed its Christian heritage in history’s dustbin. Bavaria is as modern as you please — a center of the European telecommunications industry, the home of BMW (as in Bavarian Motor Works) — but on any special occasion you see couples wandering around looking like Hansel and Gretel, in lederhosen and dirndls. Elsewhere in Germany, Bavarian jokes serve the same function that Polish jokes used to in the United States. Bavarians will tell you they hold to tradition, religion and antique styles of speech not out of stupidity or addiction to kitsch but because they believe these things encompass what is real and true. Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times Crowd Pleaser Despite his professorial style, Pope Benedict often outdraws his more theatrical … Continue reading

  • 2006

    • Contra-Contraception (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      May 7, 2006

      The English writer Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for creating the ultimate escapist fantasy, “Robinson Crusoe,” but in 1727 he sent the British public into a scandalous fit with the publication of a nonfiction work called “Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom.” After apparently being asked to tone down the title for a subsequent edition, Defoe came up with a new one — “A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed” — that only put a finer point on things. The book wasn’t a tease, however. It was a moralizing lecture. After the wanton years that followed the restoration of the monarchy, a time when both theaters and brothels multiplied, social conservatism rooted itself in the English bosom. Self-appointed Christian morality police roamed the land, bent on restricting not only homosexuality and prostitution but also what went on between husbands and wives. It was this latter subject that Defoe chose to address. The sex act and sexual desire should not be separated from reproduction, he and others warned, else “a man may, in effect, make a whore of his own wife.” To highlight one type of then-current wickedness, Defoe gives a scene in which a young woman … Continue reading

    • “Slavery in New York” (book review) March 19, 2006

      HISTORICAL amnesia has always been with us: we just keep forgetting we have it. How is it that societies can block out or deny whole chunks of their past for which there may be cartloads’, libraries’, mass graves’ worth of reminders? Maybe this kind of knowing and not-knowing is a necessary thing for a people’s sanity: in order to move toward some decent future, we have to turn our gaze away. There are, of course, nastier possibilities. On that note, here’s a news flash: The North had slaves too. It may have been banished in the 1860’s, but slavery has been booming in the past couple of decades as an area of amateur interest and professional inquiry, and recently historians have been exposing the howler that it was unique to the South. “Slavery in New York,” a profusely illustrated volume of essays produced by the New-York Historical Society to accompany its blockbuster exhibition of the same title, examines the complex situation that New York found itself in as a Northern slave city. (Full disclosure: after I had written this review, and without knowledge of it, the Historical Society asked me to join an advisory council, which I agreed to do.) … Continue reading

    • This Very, Very Old House , The New York Times Magazine
      March 5, 2006

      In 1625, a carpenter named Pieter Fransz built a house on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He was young, ambitious and lucky enough to belong to one of history’s greatest generations: his life spanned the course of his country’s golden age, when tiny Holland became an empire and Amsterdam grew into Europe’s wealthiest city. Fransz walked the streets with Rembrandt; he saw a forest of masts grow in the harbor, as ships returned from the East Indies laden with pepper and nutmeg, a sack of which could make a man wealthy for life. He and his family prospered along with the city; 17 years after building his house, he was rich enough to buy the one next door, into which his daughter and her husband moved. In 1683 he was still listed as the owner of both properties. Happiness isn’t registered in municipal archives, but the image of this one not terribly consequential human life that remains on the palimpsest of time speaks of contentment: a man who has lived beyond the normal life span of his era, surrounded by family, financially successful. Most of us leave no lasting traces that recall our stay on the planet, but through accident and … Continue reading

  • 2005

    • All Political Ideas Are Local , New York Times Magazine
      October 2, 2005

      In January 1861, as Southern states were in the process of seceding from the union, Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York, made a modest proposal to his city council. New Yorkers – whose city profited from the shipping of Southern cotton – weren’t crazy about the idea of a civil war. Wood’s idea was that if the South severed its ties to the United States, New York should, too. Under his plan, the city would refashion itself into “a free city” called Tri-Insula – comprising Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island – which would do business with both the North and South as they fought each other, thus sidestepping carnage and substituting business sense for patriotic fervor. Tri-Insula never happened, but Americans have always tended to treat New York as if it had. The “it feels like a foreign country” line is a standard souvenir that visitors from other parts of the nation take home with them. New York is different – both literally and metaphorically insular. And, for more than a generation, it has been far from the center of American politics. It once held sway over the national political scene, but there hasn’t been a New Yorker … Continue reading

    • What’s Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      June 19, 2005

      The small but grandiose building at the corner of Eighth and G Streets NW in Washington, tucked directly behind the National Portrait Gallery, holds its own in a city packed with monumental architecture. You step into the lobby and automatically look around for a plaque, figuring that with its dark wood paneling and marble columns, this must be the onetime home of Rutherford B. Hayes or some other historical personage heavy with Victorian-era dignity. As it turns out, the structure, with its architectural signals of tradition and power, was built in 1996 for its tenant: the Family Research Council, the conservative public policy center. In the gift shop just off the lobby — where you can buy research-council thermoses and paperweights and the latest titles by Peggy Noonan, Alan Keyes, John Ashcroft and Pat Buchanan — sits one of Washington’s most unusual museum displays. Moms and dads who are planning to take the kids to the nation’s capital this summer for an infusion of American history might want to add it to their itinerary, since it carries the lesson up to the present and right into their own living rooms. Beneath a large wall-mounted plaque emblazoned with the group’s slogan … Continue reading

    • Shangri-La-Di-Da , GQ
      May 1, 2005

      Appropriately enough for one of the most intense countries on earth, the experience of the kingdom of Bhutan begins before you get there: Hanging in 10,000 feet of blue sky, you see the rippling knuckles of the Himalayas arrayed below and snowbound ridges falling into green-black clefts. It’s a landscape that could serve for a Bond-film intro, and you can almost hear the theme music kick in as the pilot does what he must to get you on the ground—a theatrical bank-and-drop maneuver into an hourglass-shaped bowl in the mountain contours, a feat so rare for commercial air traffic it requires special pilot training. After the quick descent, the next bit comes up fast—threading the neck of the hourglass while the aircraft barrels in just above the tree line. There’s a stand of stressed-looking pines on the right that, on my flight, the wing came moderately close to paring. Why place an airport in such a nervy spot, you might reasonably ask, unless it’s to give visitors a quick indoctrination into the Buddhism that infuses the place: practice in the art of letting go of mortal concerns? The logic of the answer is impeccable and a clue to everything about the … Continue reading

  • 2004

    • Faith at Work (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      October 21, 2004

      Across the Judean desert, over the opal waves of the Mediterranean, along stone-paved roads that scored the plains of Syria and Asia Minor and carried into the heart of Rome, the Word spread 20 centuries ago. And as it did, it transmitted itself less in houses of worship than in the tents of carpet sellers, in wine shops and bakeries and maybe most of all at the tables found in every market town where stacks of coins signaled the indispensable presence of the moneylender. The market was the central place of human interaction. It was where change happened, where ideas lighted from one mind to the next. And so it remains. Chuck Ripka is a moneylender — that is to say, a mortgage banker — and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ. When he’s not approving mortgages, or rather especially when he is, Ripka lays his hands on customers and colleagues, bows his head and prays: ”Lord, I pray that you will bring Matt and Jaimie the best buyer for their house so that they have the money to purchase the new home they feel called to. And I pray, Lord, … Continue reading

    • The Industry Standard , The New York Times Magazine
      October 3, 2004

      A story about music could do worse than to begin at Carnegie Hall. We’re here for a little night music — or rather, more than a little. The plan is to see three performers this evening, and the complication that two of them will be appearing on different stages at the same time only adds the spice of challenge. We reach our seats in Zankel Hall, a newly built, smallish, ultramodern performance space, just as Audra McDonald takes the stage. She’s a singer who moves easily between musicals and serious classical soprano roles, and tonight she’s in a slinky black gown, accompanied by a six-piece band, to perform ”The Seven Deadly Sins,” a set of Broadway-style songs, each one written by a different prominent composer-lyricist team. The music is witty, sultry and poised, with McDonald seated on a stool torch-singer-style, chatting and joking between songs with her no-less-elegantly attired audience. We stay for the first five sins, then duck out after Sloth and vault up the staircase to find that the stately and storied main hall has come undone, 2,800 people rocking, conga lines going up and down the aisles. David Byrne is onstage, backed by a rock band and … Continue reading

    • The Future of the Past , The New York Times
      September 12, 2004

      “To take no sides in history would be as false as to take no sides in life,” the historian Barbara W. Tuchman once wrote. If that applies to the written word, it is just as true for the presentation of history in museums. Museums can’t be objective because history isn’t. To be meaningful, a museum needs a slant. On the other hand, a museum dedicated to the history of a place is supposed to be broadly representative. So there’s the contradiction: if a museum is doing its job, you might say, it’s ticking somebody off. By that yardstick, the custodians of three of the main museums devoted to New York history are doing a terrific job. At receptions, in the newspaper, at meetings of their boards, the future of New York’s past is being discussed in strident terms. The heightened political climate this fall is adding effervescence. And the backdrop and catalyst is the event of three years ago that refocused New York in the eyes of the world. For a long while, people have lamented a lack in New York. Go to London, Sydney, Amsterdam, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and you’ll find a museum devoted to that city’s past. It’s … Continue reading

    • Al Franken, Seriously (cover story) , New York Times Magazine
      March 21, 2004

      I’m in a rental car with Al Franken, and we’re driving across New Hampshire on the Sunday before the nation’s first primary, heading to a John Edwards rally. The Democrats are in a kooky mood following the sudden collapse of Howard Dean in Iowa, and Franken — comedian, celebrity, scourge — is spending two days in the state not in any official capacity but as a sort of good-will representative from the party’s satiric wing. He is not, as you might think from the outrageous trappings of his comedy, an extreme lefty but rather a devout party man, one who says, for example, that the Democratic Leadership Council is a moral force for good. He believes in the process; he’s friends with several of the candidates as well as many members of the press corps; he’s here to soak it all up. We’re an hour late, and there are still 30 miles to go. Franken is doing the driving, and he’s full of energy, bursting with ideas, bits of comedy history (Bob and Ray, the Dean Martin roasts), political insults, patches of anger. The president of the United States has been doing some things lately that would get any political … Continue reading

    • My Life on Darts , GQ
      March 1, 2004

      I am not a warrior by nature. Except, of course, on Friday nights. Then, with the dusky odor of adrenaline in the air, I can be spotted arching forward, taut but loose, fingertips gripping hard steel, the world reduced to a single spot seven feet nine and a quarter inches away. As a hush envelopes the five fellow combatants ranged around me, I let my weapon fly…and, by God, see it strike home, quivering, sinking deeply and satisfyingly into a red patch of sisal fibers known as the triple-twenty: a surrogate enemy heart, a stand-in for the warm red center of every desirable female on the planet. Or else I miss and say, softly but vehemently, “Shit.” The sensation of raw pleasure on hitting the perfect dart is elemental—for a moment, you share a channel with Early Man—but it fades fast. So, fortunately, does the shame of fucking up. Last week, after I blew three tries at a double that would have won the game, Dave said in his offhandedly grating way, “I thought you’d stopped choking.” But before I could begin to gnash my teeth, Ken was back from the bar with a fresh round of Bud longnecks. Then … Continue reading

    • The Streets Where History Lives , The New York Times, Op-Ed
      February 9, 2004

      Acre for acre, Lower Manhattan may be the most historic piece of real estate in America. Here the Sons of Liberty plotted revolution, the Stamp Act Congress met to defy taxation without representation, colonists exchanged fire with British ships in the harbor, and General Washington and his officers celebrated their victory. The first president was inaugurated here, and Congress, meeting at Federal Hall, wrote the Bill of Rights. In one remarkable moment in time, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton all lived and worked in these narrow streets. For two centuries, this tiny quadrant was New York — and the gateway to America for millions of immigrants. It was also, of course, the site of the World Trade Center. Both the building of the twin towers and their destruction flow from that deep history, for the events that occurred here contributed not only to the nation’s growth but to the rise in might of New York as global capital and lower-case world trade center. It would seem natural, then, to connect the site to its past. But neither the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial nor any of the public conversation or press attention surrounding it have attempted to … Continue reading

    • A Short-Order Revolutionary , New York Times Magazine
      January 11, 2004

      It starts — just as your mother told you it should — with a good breakfast. Two fried eggs, yolks bouncing brightly. Burly strips of bacon with alternating strata of red meat and glowing fat. The potatoes are nubby and brown, the toast thickly wedged, a light crunch followed by a satisfyingly dense chew. Strong coffee. And milk: don’t muddy it in the coffee; take it straight and unhomogenized, a big cold mouthful, aswirl in lowing bovine immediacy. Tod Murphy, the man behind the breakfast, literally and figuratively, sits in a green vinyl booth in his 60-seat eatery, the Farmers Diner, on North Main Street in Barre, Vt., and deconstructs my meal. ”The potatoes come from Will Allen’s farm over on the Connecticut River. We get our bread from a bakery in Northfield, and believe it or not the eggs come from a little egg farm right in downtown Stowe. Earl and Amy out in Strafford supplied the milk and butter, or rather their Guernseys did. And the bacon came from Andrew.” Andrew is 15 years old, and in his first foray into hog farming he produced what your correspondent is ready to nominate the finest bacon on the planet. … Continue reading

  • 2003

    • The Un-Pilgrims , The New York Times, Op-Ed
      November 27, 2003

      PUTNAM VALLEY, N.Y. — Three hundred and eighty years ago, a huddled band of Europeans set out across the Atlantic to seek a new life in wilderness America. They survived hardship, gave thanks, ate turkeys and eventually flourished. And every year at Thanksgiving we ignore them. No, I’m not talking about the Pilgrims, nor about that other sect often hailed as progenitors of America, the Puritans. There was another group of settlers at the start of things. You might call them the un-Pilgrims, for they lack the neat mythic qualities that won the Plymouth residents their plum role in the national epic. Rather, the Dutch colony of New Netherland — which had as its capital New Amsterdam, precursor to New York City — has a ragged historical profile, which suits it because it was a jumble of ethnicities and had an excess of pirates and prostitutes. But its mixed nature is precisely the point. These forgotten pioneers forged America’s first melting pot, making this holiday a particularly appropriate moment to recognize their achievement. The contribution of these settlers has been overlooked because of that truest of truisms: history is written by the winners. The two great European rivals of the … Continue reading

  • 2002

    • McLaughlin? Is That a Jewish Name? , The New York Times Magazine
      March 24, 2002

      It is a mild december evening in Georgia, and in the community room of their synagogue in the town of Marietta, Felton and Deborah McLaughlin talk with typical parental pride about their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah, which took place earlier in the year. Felton, wearing a purple skullcap, smiles at the memory. ”It was literally the most wonderful experience of my life,” says Deborah, who works as a librarian at a private school in Atlanta. ”It was very spiritual. Everyone loved it — everyone in both of our families was so proud of her.” The grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, moved as they were, needed some help understanding the rituals and language surrounding the Jewish rite of passage to adulthood because none of them had ever been to a Jewish service. Three years earlier, the family — Felton, Deborah and their two daughters, Allison and Elizabeth — converted en masse to Judaism. The conversion ceremonies, which followed more than a year of study of all things Jewish, from the history of the religion to blintzes and latkes, were brief: a hearing before a tribunal of two rabbis and a cantor, then a submerging naked into a ritual bath. When they … Continue reading