As the longest-serving faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, literary arts Prof. Mike Fink has influenced generations of students.
Fink started teaching at RISD in 1957, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and master degrees from Brown and Harvard. His current courses include “The Jewish Narrative” and the film-history class “With a Pen of Light.”
Fink has been a lifelong participant in Rhode Island’s Jewish community. He has been a trustee of Touro Synagogue, the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association’s Notes and a lecturer for the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island. Fink’s writing has been published in secular and Jewish publications worldwide, including in Jewish Rhode Island, where he writes a regular column.
Here are excerpts from a recent Q-and-A with Fink.
Q. How has RISD changed over the course of your career?
A. The most obvious change is that [RISD] began as a local school with a very specific purpose, until a president came in and wanted the school to represent the entire United States. Now, students come from all over the world, and we’re very proud of it.
There are critics who complain that there are so many international students because they don’t need scholarships. RISD has grown, but as all progress goes, you gain something and lose something.
Q. What about changes to Providence itself?
A. I’m very worried about the fate of the Industrial Trust [Superman] building; I don’t like things to go. I used to take students along the rivers, and it disturbs me greatly to see them used as dumps. My Judaism – and I’m very loyal to my Judaism – I cling to the beauty of our rituals and the meaning of our Torah. I look for God in nature.
The world is a holy place, and everything we do should be done with respect. Sustainability, environmentalism, climate change are just words. We’re afraid of God’s Eden.
Q. What changes have you seen in our Jewish community?
A. I think of myself as someone who worries about the Jewish people. In an America of airports and a state where the rich have been overtaxed and moved away, I’m not sure there is a Rhode Island Jewish community. It’s ever-changing; it’s not a static thing. It’s a difficult question for me to answer. I don’t know … how would you answer?
Q. I’m not sure, but I’ve heard a lot of people lament the lack of Kosher restaurants and butchers.
A. Oh, that’s a good answer! Jewish neighborhoods and businesses have changed. The original Jews of Rhode Island have changed, and the Portuguese Jews of Newport have vanished almost entirely. Families come and families go, but the Jewish community, to me, was the delicatessens, the bridge clubs, and they’ve vanished.
It changes every minute, every year, with every holiday, with every death.
Q. What about your interest in film? You wrote, produced and directed “Nature in the City” in 1969; was that your first work in film?
A. I had a childhood in film. You’d go to the movies for the newsreels and the cartoons, and each neighborhood was its own nation, with its own theater. Film is part of my citizenship.
“Nature in the City” was a live TV show. I designed little artificial worlds and interviewed interesting people, including an [American] Indian princess. But “Here We Live Again” [a study of Holocaust survivors who came to Rhode Island] is my most important film. I also made a film about my uncle and his half-brother’s local, post-World War II upholstery-repair business, and I’ve made others to teach students how to conduct interviews.
Q. You’ve taught a wide range of classes, and you’re currently teaching “The Jewish Narrative.” How did that start? What is it about?
A. It began when I was teaching a class on the new diversity. The class produced a lot of chaos, because black, white, male, female, pro- and anti-war students all fought with each other, so the next year I reframed it as “The Jewish Narrative.”
There are films, readings, visits to local Hillel chapters and art exhibitions, and guests [Fink’s guests for this class have included Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel and Art Spiegelman].
It’s a little like that TV show I did; it’s got a lot of surprises in it. The focus is on the American Jewish narrative. I want it ecumenical, not specialized. I want students to see that Judaism is not just a flavor, but a “bite” of the American dream.
Q. Can you tell us about some of your other classes?
A. This semester [Spring 2019] I’m teaching “Birds in Books,” which is connected to environmental issues and literature, with birds as symbols. [Fink, who has an affinity for birds, is the faculty adviser to RISD’s Pigeon Club.] I’m also teaching “With a Pen of Light”; that’s from a quote by [French writer, artist and filmmaker] Jean Cocteau. It’s a film-history class, starting with the silent and going into the Depression, World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee and recent autobiographies.
I teach a journalism class called “Writing With Your Feet.” To pass that class, students have to have a piece published somewhere. I want them to learn to take risks, by making errors or accidentally offending someone.
I also teach “Bible as Art.” We look at the design of the Bible as poetry. How are the stories told and written? We talk about how the Bible is symbolic, rather than divinely inspired. We go to look at mural illustrations at the [Rhode Island] Jewish Museum, the sculptures at St. Stephen’s, and the Holocaust garden. It’s very ecumenical.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your family?
A. As a child, I grew up Orthodox, then became Conservative. I live in the same house on the East Side [of Providence] that I’ve lived in since I was 3; I remember watching the chimney go up.
My wife is also named Michael; it’s confusing, but also amusing. We have two daughters and a son, as well as six granddaughters, aged 1-12.
Q. Do you have a favorite Jewish food?
A. I would say a sour tomato. Sometimes I’ll go to Davis [Davis Dairy Products, in Providence] just to buy a sour tomato. I like Israeli wines, and my wife makes her own challah – it’s superb.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Jewish R.I. and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.