If you looked up “self-starter” in the dictionary, we’re pretty sure you’d just find a photo of Lisa Stein ’21. Or maybe, since she became known for handing out boxes of oat products during the 2017–18 school year due to her surplus supply, she’d be under the “oats” entry. Even before she arrived at Wes as a first year, Lisa was steeped in the mythology of Wesleyan, a place where, for her, the impossible can happen. On campus, she has created or revived multiple musical communities, including the Wesleyan Nigun Circle and the Mazel Tones, which have grown throughout her time at the University. The Argus Zoomed with Stein to hear about finishing college during such a strange year, her involvement in a cappella, her creative way of addressing plagues, and more.
The Argus: First off, why do you think that you were chosen to be a WesCeleb?
Lisa Stein: I started a lot of things during my time at Wesleyan, and I think I’m decently well known for the communities that I have birthed and grown.
A: What qualities allowed you to thrive in this way at Wesleyan?
LS: I love having crazy big ideas that seem impossible, and I thrive in spaces where people will listen to my ideas and their response is not “No, that sounds ridiculous, don’t even try,” but “That sounds ridiculous, let’s do it.” I think that’s exactly the type of people and the type of endeavors that grow really naturally at Wesleyan. There’s a lot of space to do the impossible.
Actually, my mom and my brother both went to Wesleyan, so I grew up kind of intrinsically knowing this, even before I set foot on campus. As a student I had so many things I knew I wanted to do, and I already internalized the fact that Wesleyan was the place to do these things.
A: What was your perception of Wesleyan prior to coming, and how has the real Wesleyan matched up?
LS: It definitely changed as I grew up, because the first time I went to Wes I was two years old. I think as a kid it was just a fun place to visit, and it felt like home because we would go to reunions every five years. Reunions also used to be really cool. I mean, I don’t know what reunions are like now, but they used to go all out, and they would have people on stilts and pulled [out] all the different music. I mean, we have a video of me doing West African dancing as a two-year-old, and that’s just so incredibly Wesleyan. That just seemed normal to me because I saw it all the time. My brother is five years older than I am, and we went back and forth all growing up, that if he wanted to go to Wesleyan then I didn’t want to go and if I wanted to go he didn’t want to go.
Getting to experience it as a Wesleyan student was different than seeing it through their eyes, I think a big concern for me was that it was their Wesleyan and it would never be my Wesleyan, but once I actually got on campus, that kind of all faded away instantaneously. And it felt like I was able to take this place that felt like home and make it my own home and make it a home for other people.
A: How are you able to manage all of the groups and activities you’ve started?
LS: It’s funny. People ask me all the time, “How do you manage everything?” and I don’t know. I did start a lot of things freshman year. The first thing, which isn’t an official student group, is that I held tea parties in my room on Friday nights every single week freshman year. It was open to anyone who wanted to come, and I’d have like 20 different people in my room every week. I didn’t think of it as that big a deal at the time; it was just a fun way to meet new people, and people love hanging out. They would stay until like 3 a.m. talking, playing games, drinking tea. But looking back, I’m like, that was a big time commitment! Opening your doors to anyone who wants to come in every single week. That started like the first week of freshman year kind of naturally with a few friends and kept growing. But then beyond that I had wanted to start—or restart—a Jewish a cappella group the spring semester. I knew that, going in, that was one of my things.
The Nigun Circle actually kind of came out of nowhere. I helped plan an event for the Wesleyan Jewish Community, where we brought this Jewish singer Joey Weisenberg to campus and he led a nigun circle for students. There were about 80 people there, and it was really an experience like none other. I was taking a CSPL class called “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship” at the time, and we were developing solutions to stress and anxiety in college. It was just like a class project with no intention of actually starting anything outside of the class. The assignment the week that Joey Weisenberg came to campus was to observe your friends when they’re the most stressed and the least stressed. So [Weisenberg] led this nigun circle, and an hour and a half later people came up to me individually afterwards and said “That’s the least stressed I’ve been all semester.” I was like “Whoa I have a class project, that’s great!” So I developed it fully within the context of the class and then pitched it to the class on the last day. A senior who I barely knew raised his hand during the Q&A and said, “Can you actually start this, I want to experience this,” and at that point, I had never led a nigun circle myself.
I should probably say: A nigun is a soulful wordless melody that comes from the Hasidic Jewish tradition, and the practice of singing together is not religiously exclusive and is a way for people of any religious background or musical training to come together and sing together. He asked me to start this, and I was already planning to start Mazel Tones [the Jewish a cappella group] in the spring. I had been doing a lot of graduate music recitals along the way—I did not have any extra time in my schedule. But I had just convinced the whole class that this needed to exist at Wesleyan, and I was like, “Okay, then I guess it kind of needs to exist, and I guess I kind of need to start it now. That sounds cool.”
I remember sitting in the Allbritton classroom while everyone else was presenting and thinking like, “Am I crazy, like should I actually start this thing?” Like this feels so necessary in a way that I could have never imagined, I really feel like I need to seize this opportunity to create something from nothing. I went up to the senior, his name is Liam Trampota [’18], and I said “Okay, I will start this, but if you start it with me,” and he was like “Okay.” So I went to this training workshop on my own over winter break, and then the first Monday of my spring semester freshman year was the first Nigun Circle. I posted stuff on WesAdmits, I reached out to like 80 different friends, and people showed up. Like 30 people showed up to a Fisk classroom and were like, “I don’t know what this thing is, but I’m willing to try it out because it sounds cool.” It’s happened every single Monday night since then. Including pandemic times. It still happens virtually, which I could have never imagined, but that’s just who I am and who Wesleyan is.
A: It really seems like the people, especially that come every week almost—I don’t want to say, like rely on that space—but you know anticipate it, enjoy it, rely on it, especially right now. You created it, but now it’s a part of other students’ experience. How do you feel about how it’s grown over the last four years?
LS: I think that was very intentional. The way I first established it, I wanted it to be a resource for people, where they don’t need to commit to coming every week but they know it’s there if they need it. Some people need it more than other people need it, and that’s totally okay. So if you come every week, that’s wonderful. If you come once a month, that’s wonderful. If you come once in your life, and that suits you, that’s fine. But it’s there, and I think that’s why now it’s more important than ever, because we need something to hold on to. No matter what, on Monday night, Nigun Circle will happen. If anyone reads this and wants to come, we’re so happy to have new people.
It’s grown outside of the Wesleyan community, which is so special. We have siblings of people, friends from other schools, people who have graduated. But answering your question about how it’s grown over the past four years, and I can say this for both Nigun Circle and Mazel Tones: Starting something from nothing is hard. Getting people to understand what it is and respect it takes a lot of hard work, and I think my freshman spring was just a lot of putting everything into it. My whole heart is always in it, but it was definitely really hard at the beginning.
My sophomore year was a lot of getting to see that grow slowly, still putting a lot in and trying to develop traditions with the knowledge that at some point I’m going to graduate and I want this to continue in some way. Not for my own ego or legacy, but just that it’s a good thing and it’s working. Junior year is definitely the time when I got to start stepping back and seeing like, “Oh, if I can’t come on a Monday night, it can still run without me,” or, “I don’t need to be leading Mazel Tones rehearsals because the younger members of the group are so incredibly capable.”
And also like you said: They need that space, they feel that connection to that community—even beyond the people who are members of the a cappella group, people who come to our concerts. We have people fighting for the spot of number one Mazel Tones fan.
A: Do you have advice for people who maybe see these groups and are like, “That’s really cool, I kind of want to be part of that,” but might be kind of apprehensive?
LS: In terms of joining new communities, they’re just so many different types of communities at Wesleyan that it can be scary to put yourself out there and go to a new space and be like, “Hey, I want to be a part of this thing.” But at least from the communities I’ve been a part of, people want you to be a part of them. It’s so exhilarating to get to be in a space with so many different types of people and learn their stories. We’re only [here] for four years—we want to get to know each other in different ways. I’m not trying to diminish the vulnerability it takes to take yourself into a new space, but at least from the ones that I’ve been a part of, we want you to be there.
To speak to starting new communities and just starting things in general, I want to talk a little bit about the opera because that’s another big part of my Wesleyan experience. A big reason I didn’t want to go to Wesleyan was that there was no opera going on, or at least I didn’t know of any opera going on. When I decided that I was going to go to Wes, I was like, “Okay, so I’ll just start an opera, that’s cool.” I literally have a text exchange where I was like, “Yeah I feel pretty good about Wes, there’s no opera, but I guess I’ll just start one.”
I mentioned it to a bunch of people freshman year, and everyone was like, “What, opera? That’s weird, no.” And honestly I just kind of let it drop to the side. I got involved in a lot of different music things, I obviously was busy with Nigun Circle and Mazel Tones. I started studying classical South Indian singing and percussion and classes, and I’ve done that over the past four years. Actually, I counted it up recently, and I was in over 60 performances in a little less than three years. So I definitely had a lot of music stuff going on, and I felt relatively musically fulfilled. The Music Department and music scene more broadly is just spectacular at Wesleyan—so good at supporting holistically what music can be.
But this opera thing, it kind of disappeared for a year and a half, and then I was at Athenian Diner with some friends late on a Tuesday night sophomore spring. I don’t know why it came up, but I said to a friend, “I really miss opera, I wish I could be singing opera stuff with people right now.” He said “So start one,” because that’s the classic Wesleyan model. And I was like “Okay, sounds good.” That’s all it took honestly—that’s all it took to decide that I wanted to do it. It was also incredibly hard to jump through all the hoops of producing a student-run opera, but that being said, we did it, and we performed an opera two weeks before lockdown last spring. The performances sold out, and it was an incredible experience with really, really hard music. We performed “Song From the Uproar” by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek. They wrote it in 2012, and I actually got to speak with Missy a few times afterwards, which is really cool. She’s an up-and-coming modern opera composer. She just got a commission with the Metropolitan Opera. She’s incredible.
The trajectory of that was a little bit different. Nigun Circle came out of nowhere, and immediately people were like, “Yes, I’m ready!” Opera was a long time coming. I offered it to the Wesleyan world, and they were like, “No, not yet.” And then all of a sudden junior year, it came back, and it clicked. People were suddenly ready to jump into the deep end and do the impossible with me again. That’s all to say, if you want to start something, keep trying, there are people out there who are probably interested in what you’re doing, and even if you don’t find them immediately, they exist or they will exist, and it’s worth it not to let your dreams die.
A: Can you tell us about your Passover game?
LS: Oh yeah, as you can probably tell from my background I’m not on campus right now, which is very bittersweet. I took the fall semester completely off of classes and produced and directed a benefit concert for an organic farm Jewish sleepaway camp. This semester I’m doing virtual classes so I can still graduate in May. My brother is a professional puzzle designer, so the two of us together designed a social justice Passover puzzle game called Escape The Plagues. Yes, it is as absurd and wonderful as it sounds, and I’m a music and religion major, so I don’t have much experience in the world of puzzles. But as you know, Wesleyan majors prepare you for absolutely nothing and absolutely everything, so designing a social justice puzzle game about Passover is very appropriate. We’ve been working on it since the summer, developing a puzzle game that anybody can purchase now at escapetheplagues.com.
We worked with an artist from Guatemala to have original illustrations and everything. We communicated with lots of different people to share different voices in the story. It’s a modern take on what the plagues are, and what escape means, and what it means to be free, and if we can truly be free if not everybody is free. The process of developing this game, even though it was so outside of my comfort zone and my experience in a lot of ways, kind of took all of the things I’ve learned at Wes and put them in a blender and like pulled from different things.
I’ve seen that time and time again in the past year, because I feel like honestly I haven’t felt like a Wes student since I was on campus even with taking classes this semester, which comes with its sadness, but it also comes with an appreciation for being able to start putting those skills into action. I love the religion major, and also it’s nice to get my hands dirty. I think that’s academia in general. It’s nice to be able to do things with the things that you’ve been banging your head against in a classroom for four years.
A: How do you feel about ending your college career in this way?
LS: The way I’ve come to terms with it is that I kind of had the trajectory of a Wesleyan student in a shifted way. My whole childhood was kind of like my freshman year, because I was getting used to this beautiful wacky ridiculous place. Then my freshman year when I started all of these things was like a sophomore year, and then I got to grow things and see them kind of stand on their own two feet, while I was still there. Also, having Wesleyan be a part of my life kind of forever, I’m not afraid of it disappearing now. I know I’ll be back, and it will be beautiful, even if it’s not in the same way. But I definitely miss it and there’s something just really weird about finishing in a different place.
A: You’re pretty involved in the Wesleyan Jewish Community. Can you just talk a little more about your experience and what you’ve done?
LS: It’s a beautiful community. People who know how to take care of each other, I would say. Just zooming out to other Jewish communities at other colleges in general, Wesleyan is very unique. Most universities have Hillel that are associated with the national organization and get administrative and financial support from the university or from this organization, and Wesleyan doesn’t do that because we’re a bunch of hippies who don’t want to be affiliated with national organizations. So, we have this thing called the Bayit, which means home. It’s a place where we have an incredible rabbi, Rabbi David [Leipziger Teva], who supports us in creating our own community. Whereas many rabbis in college Jewish communities are like leading all of the services and really kind of guiding the community from the front of the pack, Rabbi David is there to support us in figuring out where we want to go, so that manifests itself in Shabbat being led by different students every single week and having students cook their own meals for Shabbat dinner every week. I really like that as a metaphor that we are like feeding ourselves, you know we’re figuring out what we want to eat and cooking it. Then nurturing ourselves with it. So it’s constantly changing, I know it’s in a very different place now than it was when my brother was there, and it’ll be in a very different place in a few years, I’m sure, but that’s what’s so beautiful about it, because the structure allows for students to make it into what they need.
A: To close out, do you have a favorite Wesleyan memory?
LS: The family weekend a cappella showcase my junior year, because I got to perform with Mixolydians and Mazel Tones back to back. There was this one moment when Mixes were performing first, and Mazel Tones were going right after them, and imagine that you’re in Zelnick right next to the Chapel, and there’s that little gateway in between, so Mixes were on deck to perform next. We were chilling right outside the Chapel and Zelnick is all glass, so you could see through the rest of [it] and Mazel Tones on the other side practicing on their own and it was a moment of motherly love when I got to see my child, thriving on its own, and just feeling such a strong connection to these two families. I was able to create this community with other people, and also, I have so much faith that it could continue when I’m not there, because I’m physically, not with them right now, and I see them thriving and I also feel such a strong connection.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Avery Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.