5 questions with…anthropology professor, national champion bonsai grower Mel Goldstein

Mel Goldstein bonsai
Professor Melvyn Goldstein (right) with Japanese bonsai sensai Kunio Kobayashi at his nursery in Japan.

Just two months ago, Melvyn Goldstein was awarded one of the university’s top faculty honors: the Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize, given to those who have made extraordinary contributions to the university and to their academic field. It’s a high honor among a lengthy list of accomplishments for Goldstein, the man known as the father of modern Tibetan studies for his groundbreaking work in the region.

But last month Goldstein, the John Reynolds Harness Professor of Anthropology, added another—much different—honor to his résumé: national champion bonsai grower. He took home first place at the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition in the shohin bonsai category (trees under 9 inches).

Goldstein’s interest in bonsai began when he started traveling to China in the mid-1980s; he was the first international researcher allowed into Tibet to study. While there, Goldstein became enthralled with the gardens, especially the bonsai. Ten years later, when he finally had a home with a yard large enough to grow the trees properly, Goldstein began taking lessons. He eventually became so serious about bonsai that he acquired a license from the United States Department of Agriculture to transport trees home from China.

Regulations have since tightened, so Goldstein no longer imports them. Plus, he’d hardly have room for them anyway: His collection includes more than 100 trees that he exhibits at regional and national shows.

Nor would he have the hours required to take care of them; already, the upkeep could be considered a full-time job at times. Goldstein specializes in azalea bonsai, and to trim these specific plants, he has to take off each flower by hand. With more than 20 azaleas in his collection, Goldstein has to call in the troops: groups of friends who offer to come in and assist with the flower removal so Goldstein can get back to his studies—and his students.

Think it’s an interesting hobby? You’re right. So find out more about Goldstein with this week’s five questions.

1. What superpower would you most like to have?
To know all the languages of Asia.

2. What’s your favorite place to dine in Cleveland?
I like McDonald’s early in the morning for a quick breakfast and then an hour or two of distraction-less editing of the hard copy of whatever chapter or paper I worked on the previous day. I have done this for my last four books.

For real dining, I like the food and atmosphere of my neighborhood restaurant, The Grovewood Tavern in Collinwood.

3. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In grade school and high school, I dreamed of being an Olympic half-miler, but since my undergraduate days in Ann Arbor, I wanted to be just what I am now.

4. What accomplishments are you most proud of—personally and professionally?
Professionally: Negotiating and signing in 1986 the first collaborative research agreement with Tibet (the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences). It opened Tibet to anthropological fieldwork and also resulted in a number of Tibetan researchers from TASS coming to study English and anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Tibet’s first PhD in anthropology is a graduate of our department.

Personally: My two children—and my bonsai.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve University?
Wonderful students and an institutional commitment to assist faculty to be the best scholars they can be.