Not many people dedicate much of their professional lives to the study of their home town history. But then again, not many people grew up at the birthplace of the Revolutionary War. Serena and her husband Chris now live with their three sons in Northfield, where she teaches History at Carleton, and he teaches Classics at St. Olaf.
We initially met this past summer, when they attended, and I moderated, one of the house meetings that led to the Tzedek Summit organized by Jewish Community Action. Since we wanted to focus on the economic justice topics at hand, we agreed to connect later for this Humans piece. The day before we met again, we crossed paths this past weekend at the Cooks of Crocus Hill, for one of the events with chef Tina Wasserman. This photo was shot as Serena began to prepare Tina’s signature classic, Salmon en Papillote (which it seems is French for Salmon in Papillote).
I was born in the Boston suburb of Lexington, MA and lived in the northeast through most of my college years. My father Albert is a lawyer, and has done mostly plaintiff litigation. He is not quite fully retired, and is currently a volunteer for Boston area legal services. He had always handled class action suits – asbestos, tobacco, DES. I cut my own teeth on asbestos as a paralegal for him when I was in college.
My sister in law is a staff lawyer with the Boston legal services, and does immigration tax work. As my father began to think about retirement, she talked him into helping them out. He uses his expertise to support these incredibly overburdened, much younger lawyers, with his interest now mostly in housing and mortgage matters.
My mother is a psychiatric social worker, with a small private practice, and I have two brothers, including an older brother who is also a lawyer, and is married to the sister-in-law I mentioned. He is an assistant DA in Boston, where he does homicide cases. So that’s the lawyer family. It makes for fabulous dinner conversations, as you can imagine. Her clients who are being deported, and his clients – who are dead.
My other brother lives in Jakarta and works for the State Department, where his wife works with refugee children who have special needs. They end up being transferred somewhere new every couple years, and my parents have visited them, but we haven’t yet. Though two years ago we did have a great trip. My brother suggested that Africa was half way between him and us, so we took nearly our entire family – sixteen people altogether – on a safari to South Africa, Botswana, a little bit of Zimbabwe.
That must have been exciting.
It was, but I learned that I was afraid of wild animals. You sit in these open jeeps, and the lions are like here, and the elephants are right there. I thought, “this is not right!” And one night we slept out in a tent, in a tree house. And some of them climb, and you can hear the hippos at night. I have to say I did not sleep well the entire time, but it was very exciting.
Can you describe your family tree a bit?
My father’s mother’s family had come from Germany in the 1800s, and many had assimilated, and were well to do. Some became Episcopalian, and some changed their name to Griffith – from Silverstein. But my father’s father’s family had come more recently, from Russia, and they were not at all assimilated, or wealthy. So my grandmother was essentially cut off when she married my grandfather, the Russian Jew.
And my parents were both born in America – they met while they were both at Brandeis, in the late 50s.
How about you, what were you active in growing up?
I don’t really remember what I was active in. I was interested in language clubs, and I went to France a couple times on exchange programs in the 9th and 11th grades.
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and I became a bat mitzvah, but I was not allowed to read from the Torah. In fact, they really wanted the girls to have their bat mitzvahs on Friday nights, with no Torah reading at all. So my parents pushed for the Saturday morning, but there was still no Torah reading.
So I am going to read Torah for my son’s bar mitzvah next summer.
What did you do after high school?
I went to Bowdoin, and I was there for four years, though my junior year I spent the first term at Columbia and lived in NY, which I loved. And I spent my second term in Rome. It was a lot of fun – I was a Classics major so I was studying ancient stuff.
Ancient stuff! And Rome is the place to do it. It was great. I love Rome, it’s a wonderful city.
Oh, and I sailed in college, I sailed competitively. Bowdoin is on the coast of Maine, and it’s beautiful there. So we would sail in the bays, in small boats with just two people – a skipper and crew.
I like small boat sailing, but I also did a lot of cruising when I was a kid – I went to sailing camp for several summers. My parents would drop me off at some camp – and 12 kids with 3 college kids would get on these three big boats and our goal was to see how far you could sail up the Maine coast and come back in time for your to parents to pick you up again three weeks later. So they just send you off with a radio, and that was it. And now I think ‘Wow!’. But that was fun.
How about after college?
I went on to graduate school in the Classics, at North Carolina in Chapel Hill. That’s where I met Chris, we started at the same time, and now he’s a Classicist – and he speaks fluent Latin, but I don’t anymore. My focus starting out was Latin poetry, which was fun for a while, and I got my Master’s degree in that. But after a year or two I decided that I would try to find something else. And my undergrad adviser was teaching the course in Rome that I had taken at Bowdoin, so I moved there to essentially become her au pair, while I looked for a topic.
I lived in Rome for a semester, and also for a couple summers Chris and I had gone back there to study with the Pope’s Latinist. He ran a summer program in spoken Latin for high school teachers and grad students, and he is quite a linguist. He had this belief that oral Latin is not a dead language. So his day job was to translate Polish to Latin for the Pope, who at the time was Polish, and at night he would teach our group. He is actually a Carmelite monk from Milwaukee.
That makes sense. I’m from Milwaukee, and growing up it seemed like half the city was Polish, and Catholic – the whole ‘south side’. So what did you do from there?
It was somewhere around that time that I decided I really wanted to be an American historian, so I went on for my PhD at Rutgers, and for the next eight years at various times Chris and I lived in different cities, and had a variety of jobs.
At one point I moved to New York to do research for my dissertation, which also led to my first book, which was on the early development of capitalism in New York in the 18th century – the relationship between social status, slavery, and women, who at the time were forbidden from various kinds of trade. Married women weren’t allowed to sign contracts. They didn’t have legal standing, or personality. So I was looking at the ways in which race and gender shaped the creation of commerce – when New York was still part of Britain.
And also during those years Chris had various jobs, including teaching Classics at Vanderbilt, and I taught high school Latin for a while in Tennessee.
And what was the path from that to today?
In 2000, I got a post doc at Carleton, and I am now a full professor of History, and Chris teaches Classics at St. Olaf. And first we had Julian, who is now in the 7th grade, and while I was finishing the book we also had twin boys, Leo and Sebastian, who are both in 4th grade.
And while I was at Carleton I had an idea about something that was interesting to me – the Boston Massacre – and about the soldiers who were living in Boston at the time. And I thought I would begin to explore that. So we moved to my parent’s house for a month one summer, and we hired a nanny and I started to develop that idea into a book. And now for many summers we have moved back to Lexington for eight or nine weeks, to finish the research. I do research at the archives. So I’d go into Boston with my Dad – it was a lovely way to stay connected with my family while I am working on the book.
Do you know much about the Boston Massacre?
Sure, but you can remind me.
Well, a couple of years before the Revolution, after the Stamp Act, British troops were sent to Boston to pacify the city, and act as a police force. After about eighteen months there was a shooting in the street, and a few civilians were shot after a riot. Paul Revere was a silversmith and made what is probably one of the most famous engravings of the 18th century – showing the soldiers shooting at citizens. That was one way to convey images at the time, from the engravings in metal they would make many prints, and often those prints would then be hand tinted.
But what we have never realized is that many of these soldiers came to Boston with families. And a lot of the single soldiers met and married women from Boston, and the soldiers were living all over the city. We tend to think of the Massacre as the moment when Americans were ready to become Americans, and to resist British tyranny, but it turned out to be more a moment of neighbors who knew each other a little too well.
Because before the landfill of the 19th century, the peninsula of Boston was only about a mile square, so there were a lot of people crammed into a little area. Tensions were personal, not political. So we can also see the American Revolution as a civil war, this moment in which people who are essentially of the same empire, fighting each other, in the way we think of the American Civil War, where it really is brother against brother.
So that will be my next book, though I have an agent, and it will be more of a popular press than the first. There will be an exhibit, and a book launch.
And I am working with students on digitizing the project, creating an interactive digital map of where these soldiers lived in Boston, and the routes they claim they took the night of the riot, and who they saw, and who they talked to, based on the depositions from the Boston Massacre trials. It’s a multi year project but the undergrads love it – they want to gamify it. Maybe even make it three dimensional.
What can you tell me about Chris?
In addition to teaching, Chris runs a church choir in Northfield. His father is Philip Brunelle, who has been a choral musician and conductor in the Twin Cities since the late ’60s – he is the organist and choirmaster at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, and he also founded a professional choral group now called VocalEssence. So Chris runs his church choir on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, while I am here with the boys. He has sung with VocalEssence in the past, but since the twins arrived he only fills in occasionally – when they need a bass, his dad will call.
And you live in Northfield. What is the drive like to Mount Zion – is it about 45 minutes?
48. We have it timed.
This is a drive. It’s a commitment to come back and forth.
And we are raising the kids Jewish, though they realize that their father and his family are not. We try to have them understand what it means to be a part of their family, even though they are not Christian. So we spend some holidays with his family that they invite us in to enjoy with them, just as we invite them for ours.
Final questions, do you have any hobbies?
I figure skate. I did it as a kid, and then didn’t for a long time. And then a few years ago I signed the kids up for lessons, because I realized that they didn’t know how. And Chris didn’t know how, even though he is from Minnesota. And the woman who taught us became my friend and she has since become my coach. I had skated seriously as a child, and now I do it maybe three times a week. I am ‘silver’ level adult.
Do you have a favorite photograph?
Photograph? Not engraving?
Well my father is a serious amateur photographer, and I love a photo he has of an olive tree that was taken in Greece.
And that, of course, always leads to my final question, do you have a favorite engraving?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these Revere engravings. But my favorite might be one by a different engraver named Amos Doolittle, who did one of the Lexington Green. At first it looks primitive but he has this great sense of space. I love the blocks of areas with soldiers and civilians, and houses and cows and fields.