“Whatever world you are thinking of entering, whatever world you are afraid of entering, whatever world you don’t really understand, [or] you’re already in the center of, all you have to give is who you are and what you know.”
Pre-pandemic, I showed up to a stranger’s house in Roxbury for dinner at the invitation of a friend.
Once inside the stately home, hugs, name tags, marbles, and glasses of wine were offered. While we waited for other guests to arrive, a diverse crowd milled about chatting in the foyer.
Soon, we gathered at the table, where each of us placed our marble into a mason jar before digging into dinner. Later, we delved into a facilitated discussion about a poem, “The Company of Lovers.” We laughed, talked, and lingered a little too long at the end of the night.
The event was hosted by the Jar, a small but ambitious organization that aims to produce cultural encounters that delight, ignite, and unite a diverse and vibrant community. They use art—poetry, theater, songs, paintings, and more—to spark conversation among strangers at their (now virtual) salon events. Those who are invited are asked to bring someone they’re normally in community with, along with someone they’re not, to ensure diversity. Usually, after sharing personal interpretations of the art in question, genuine connections, often interracial and intergenerational, form.
Guy Ben-Aharon, formerly of Israeli Stage, is the co-founder of the Jar, which launched last September. The idea for the organization came from “a yearning to gather [people] and to change the way we experience culture,” he said. But more than that, Ben-Aharon was bored. He was tired of being in rooms where there were one or two kinds of experiences.
“It’s kind of like [getting] a chance to travel,” he said. “When you travel, you meet people from different parts of the world and sink into a different reality, but that’s not permanent, right? It’s a fleeting moment in time. And it’s magical, but then it disappears. The Jar was born out of this need to say, Oh, what would happen if that kind of magic was sustained over time?”
Creating that magic starts with the art and ends with people. So far, the Jar has held six in-person events, including three performances, as well as more than 50 virtual events that explored a variety of work, from hip-hop by Kendrick Lamar and Nas to visual art by Paul Klee and photography by Gordon Parks. The art allows participants “to talk about how they feel and what the artwork engenders in them,” said Marybeth Flanders, a graphic designer and artist. It provides “a marvelous way that opens up the world to help you see through another person’s eyes.” Flanders hosted the very first Jar event at her home in the South End.
Ireon Roach, an actress, poet, and the Jar’s curator-in-residence, said that vulnerability, listening, honesty, and just being yourself are part of what makes these gatherings special.
“The ethos is very much come as you are, because that is the best you can give to this world,” she said. “Whatever world you are thinking of entering, whatever world you are afraid of entering, whatever world you don’t really understand, [or] you’re already in the center of, all you have to give is who you are and what you know.” The more honest and open you are, the more radically vulnerable you can be, Roach offered.
Peko Ku, originally from Taiwan, witnessed vulnerability firsthand at a Jar salon back in March. Ku went to the event with coworkers that she didn’t know well; the night before, they were all sent a Tom Waits song called “Come On Up to the House.”
“When I listened to the song by myself at home, the song sounded dark and scary, [it was not] a nice feeling,” Ku said. But after sharing with the group, “in a room full of strangers … the song felt warm. … It was actually bringing a lot of hope, from humanity and then from understanding each other’s pain and vulnerability,” she explained.
Ku, 37, and colleague Bob Moran, a 58-year-old veteran, bonded that night. On the bus ride to the event, the two discussed their childhood trauma. The Jar experience helped start their friendship; within a couple of weeks, Ku, Moran and three others were in a WhatsApp group. Throughout the shelter-in-place order, the new friends talked via Google Meet most Tuesdays.
“I would definitely say that they’ve been significant and helpful in terms of navigating COVID,” Moran said. “It was nice to talk about and listen to how people were navigating their life situation, you know, relationships and things like that.”
On Aug 2, Moran, Ku, and their friends had a socially distant picnic at the JFK Memorial by the Kennedy School. It was the first time they’d seen each other in person since the Jar. Ku said she has leaned on the group through some tough life changes, including breakups and job losses. “They all offer me a lot of emotional support.”
Ku and Moran aren’t the only ones who left a Jar event with new friends. I started a friendship with Flanders after attending a virtual salon on Zoom. I presented a Nikki Giovanni poem, “A Journey,” that piqued Flanders’ curiosity, and we kept in touch. During the lonely, early months of COVID, Flanders and I talked over email about our lives, our gardens, and our husbands. She shared new sketches inspired by “A Journey” with me, and I offered up my favorite red snapper recipe.
There are many stories about friendships forged at the Jar, but will they endure? And if not, do the positive effects from these friendships, however brief, last?
“There are lots of ways our friendships can be important, even if they don’t last for decades,” said Janice McCabe, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Friendships provide emotional support as well as enjoyment, she explained. Studies show that friendship also increases a sense of belonging and reduces health risks.
Whether or not these friendships will last is debatable. What seems important now is that these connections, developed over art-focused conversations, are helping those who are in them right now. Ben-Aharon has the data to prove it; so far, people from 14 states and six countries have called in to the virtual salons, and those surveyed say they’re hearing perspectives they wouldn’t normally hear, they feel a sense of belonging, are making meaningful connections, and are willing to bring new friends.
That excitement reflects the heart of the work that Jar organizers are doing. People aren’t simply cultivating community at salons; they want others to experience it, too.