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AMERICAN MOSAIC — September 5, 2003: The Music of Stephin Merritt / Relations Between Christians and Jews / Grandparents University - 2003-09-04



Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC -- a VOA Special English program about music and American life that also answers your questions.


This is Doug Johnson. This week, we answer a listener’s question about different religions in America, and listen to music by Stephin Merritt. But first a report about an unusual kind of university.

Grandparents University


Almost two-hundred-fifty young and older Americans have completed an unusual summer school at the University of Wisconsin. Older adults and their grandchildren studied together at the school’s Grandparents University.

Grandmothers and grandfathers helped show the children what a university does. The grandparents helped the children recognize the value of a university education. Faith Lapidus has more.


One-hundred-sixteen grandparents and one-hundred-thirty grandchildren attended the yearly Grandparents University this summer. The children were ages seven to fourteen. For two days, young and older students attended classes and activities together. The program took place in the university’s center in the city of Madison, Wisconsin. Most students stayed in the school’s student housing.

Those in the grandparents program could learn about subjects including archeology and food science. They could study fine arts or animal health.

School officials say professors use words that children can understand during the classes. But they do not try to make the material easy.One summer school goal is to provide children with an idea of what they might want to become as adults. Their grandparents have chosen their life’s work. Many have already retired. But their grandchildren must make this decision in the future.

At the end of the program, the old and young students take part in a graduation ceremony. They receive documents showing that they had completed their studies.

Most of the grandparents say that studying at the University of Wisconsin is like returning to their younger days. Two-thirds of the grandparents attended that university. Most are from Wisconsin. But the grandchildren live all over the United States.

Older adults also can take part in other courses at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. For example, Senior Academy offers studies in two living centers for older citizens in Madison. These classes are taught over a period of four weeks. This summer, Senior Academy students took part in a course called “Life History Services.” The students received help in sharpening their memories and learning to write their life stories. One popular course offered earlier this year told about the music of George Gershwin.

Religious Freedom


Our VOA listener question this week comes from China. Ham wants to know about relations between Christians and Jews in the United States.

Religion has been a major influence on American history. Many people came to America to escape religious hatred in other lands. The Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion to every American. This policy has helped Christians, Jews and people of other faiths live together peacefully. Recently, documents from the history of that religious freedom were celebrated at America’s oldest Jewish religious center. It is Touro Synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Touro Synagogue was built in seventeen-sixty-three. Its first members were Jews from Spain and Portugal. They had fled from unfair treatment in South America and islands in the Caribbean. In nineteen-forty-six, the United States Congress approved a measure to protect the Synagogue as a national historic place. The Synagogue is important to history because the country’s first president wrote a letter to its members and visited the building. Every summer, people gather there to hear a reading of the letter that George Washington wrote in seventeen-ninety.

That was more than a year before the United States accepted the Bill of Rights that guarantees religious freedom. On August seventeenth, a synagogue official named Moses Seixas (SAY shus) wrote a letter to President Washington. Mister Seixas was hoping the president would guarantee religious freedom in the new nation. He expressed this concern especially because people in other nations had treated Jews badly for centuries.

President Washington’s letter said the Jewish people should continue to enjoy the good will of others in the United States. He wrote that every person should, in his words, sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This year, for the fifty-sixth time, Touro Synagaogue invited several officials to read these documents. Providence Mayor David Cicilline ((Sis eh ‘LEE nee)) read the words of Moses Seixas. A retired United States Navy official, Barbara McGann, read President Washington’s reply.

Today, visitors to Washington, D.C. can see both of these letters. The President’s letter also can also be seen at the Touro Synagogue in Newport.

Stephin Merritt


The Gothic Archies, the Sixths, the Future Bible Heroes, the Three Terrors and the Magnetic Fields. These are the names of some of the musical projects of New York songwriter Stephin Merritt. He has recorded thirteen albums under these names since nineteen-ninety-three. Shep o’Neal has more.


Critics have said Stephin Merritt’s songwriting talents are similar to those of world famous composer Cole Porter. The words of his songs often represent unhappy people whose lovers are leaving, already gone, or have never really been present. They are dark, funny, and always smartly written and recorded.

Stephin Merritt also mixes musical styles freely. He often moves from country songs to disco-pop to love songs popular during World War Two. Here he sings “Papa Was A Rodeo.”


Stephin Merritt’s most popular and critically well-received work is called “Sixty-Nine Love Songs.” The work is just that: sixty-nine love songs on three albums. His longtime friend and band manager is singer Claudia Gonson. She also performed on the album. Here she sings “Reno Dakota.”


Stephin Merritt is now working on a film musical with writer Daniel Handler. You can find out more about all of Mister Merritt’s projects at We leave you now with Stephin Merritt singing “Busby Berkeley Dreams.”



This is Doug Johnson. Do you have a question about American life? Write to us at American Mosaic, VOA Special English, Washington, D.C., two-zero-two-three-seven, USA. Computer users can send questions to mosaic at v-o-a news dot com. If we use your question, we'll send you a gift. So make sure to give your name and mailing address.

This program was written by Bob Brumfield and Jeri Watson. Our producer was Paul Thompson. And our engineer was Bob Doughty.

I hope you enjoyed our program. Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC -- VOA’s radio magazine in Special English.