This past weekend, 49 alumni returned to campus to remember and celebrate a life-changing experience they shared almost 50 years ago—their eight-week Oberlin College Choir tour of the Soviet Union. This occurred at the height of the Cold War, and just a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The former choir members and instrumentalists who returned to campus for the weekend represent about 75 percent of the surviving alumni who took part in that historic cultural exchange.
In March and April of 1964, the Oberlin College Choir toured the Soviet Union and Romania as part of a cultural exchange program organized by the U.S. Department of State. The choir members, directed by the great Robert P. Fountain, were students from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Conservatory of Music who sang from memory a range of programs in English and other languages, performing brilliantly. The group delighted audiences in cities that included Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and Bucharest.
Back on campus a half century later, our alumni recounted their encounters with people at the various venues, and described how cross-cultural understanding grew from a shared love of choral music and from many discussions with their hosts and the public. Alum after alum said that these experiences transformed their lives profoundly.
Such “ah-ha” moments or experiences often occur during our college years, and continue throughout our lives. That seems to apply especially to Oberlin alumni. Jad Abumrad ’95, the MacArthur Fellow who cohosts the NPR show Radiolab with Robert Krulwich ’69, described during a campus visit a few years back how flashes of insight stemming from his undergraduate days still come him to him as he goes about his daily life. He called them “Oberlin moments,” when he suddenly connects something to a professor or a class he took at Oberlin, “and you go, ‘oh, that’s what that was about.’”
Ah-ha Oberlin moments can be found in Alison Bechdel graphic novel, Fun Home. The 1981 graduate’s book, which is now a stunning Off Broadway musical starring her classmate, the fabulous Judy Kuhn ’81, recounts her intellectual and personal coming of age here at Oberlin. I highly recommend the show, which has been extended through January!
Ethan Seidel ’80, a double-degree alum in math and piano performance, is now a rabbi in Washington, D.C. He is also a father whose daughter graduated this past May. In a sermon earlier this fall, Rabbi Seidel spoke about returning to Oberlin for his daughter’s Commencement. This being Oberlin, attending recitals and concerts was a big part of his visit. Rabbi Seidel wrote very movingly about the power of musical performance, describing the transcendence of hearing Camille Saint-Saëns’ duet for violin and harp performed by two students. This led him to think about the extent to which we may never fully know and appreciate others’ talents.
Just last weekend, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) visited campus to give the Harvey Gittler Memorial Lecture. While Mr. Romero is not an alum, he did provide an “ah-ha” moment when he urged students to reach beyond their “comfort zone” intellectually and politically. To quote Mr. Romero, the “free and frank exchange of ideas … will make us stronger.” He spoke specifically about the beneficial effect of hearing the viewpoints of such groups as the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians in creating a healthy sociopolitical climate. He also mentioned that a number of Oberlin graduates have worked or are working for the ACLU.
We all believe that college years should be a time of growth—personally, intellectually, artistically. These years, at their best, will bring multiple ah-ha moments or experiences. As we head into the Thanksgiving season, let us be thankful for the many faculty, staff, and students who inspire such moments, and let us all recommit ourselves to being receptive to these transformational opportunities.
Last but not least, I encourage everyone to see the film 12 Years a Slave, which is playing at the Apollo Theatre. It is a graphically powerful reminder of this country’s history that should have special resonance given Oberlin’s history as a hotbed of abolitionism.
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