Monthly Archives: March 2012

Listen to the Music

 With our Jazz Shabbat around the corner: in just an hour or so – I was reflecting on the first time I truly heard music.  I grew up in a very musical family. Between my mother’s regular crooning around the house and the hi-fi playing show tunes and the occasional Richard Tucker renditions of Jewish and American faves, there was always music in the background.  Whenever we went on car trips of 25 minutes or more, we’d sing rounds.  “Hey ho, nobody home…”, “Frere Jacques,” “You are my sunshine,” were just some that I can recall.  We’d also write and arrange Stern specials: “Under the Tunnel,” for instance, was written for all of the tunnels we’d go through driving to Pittsburgh from Middletown, CT.  Don’t get me started.  In my dark childhood, the singing was one of the few moments of family levity.

But I think the first time I actually “heard” music, when I began to understand the power and beauty of music was in 1971, listening to the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East. The song was an instrumental, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Up to that time I had eschewed instrumentals, always being drawn to the vocals with which I would join in as soon as I learned the words.  However, there I was with a pair of heavy duty headphones on that my friend’s brother had bought in Thailand while on leave from Vietnam.

From the moment Dicky Betts begins to play his guitar sounding almost like a violin, the melody gently unfurls.  Both drummers are in a jazz groove as Duane Allman joins Betts playing the melody together with him.  From there it grows more and more beautiful and intense.  I heard the heart of the song, the animating power that connects all of the players in an intimate expression of the ethereal.  It blew my mind.  It also served as a precursor to my interest in jazz which was to come 2 years later.  Ironically, Duane told a reporter while discussing Elizabeth Reed, “that kind of playing comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.” No wonder it resonated for me!

Music transcends the boundaries of language that can only express so much.  Don’t get me wrong: I am a believer in language.  I love to write, I love to read, I love poetry.  But as Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

We all work so hard; we push ourselves to the limit.  We don’t sleep so well.  We worry about the things in the world that cause us anxiety that we can do nothing about.  We spend a lot of time covering up.  Music can unlock the closed gates, can illumine the places that are cut off from the light.  Whether by singing or listening or both, we can let go of language and let the music take over where words end.  I can’t remember one conversation I ever had with my father, but I remember singing together with him and my family in our Studebaker Lark station wagon.

I’ve wondered why music means so much more to me in my late middle age than it ever has.  It may be that hopeful aspirations are best translated in music.  And it may be that fears of loss and sadness are also best expressed through music.

I sometimes cry at live concerts, as well as sitting listening to music. I can’t help it.  I hear the music. I know that my prayers in temple are dependent on the melody that carries the words.  It means everything to me that the central prayer of our tradition begins with the word, Shema!  Listen!


Shabbat Shalom







Purim and its Meaning

 Purim is considered a minor festival.  You can drive on Purim, go to work, light a fire, take a trip, and so forth.  But like Hanukkah, another minor festival, Purim is a favorite day for many a Jewish child, and for a few grown-ups, too.   And why not?

On Purim, you get to come into the sanctuary and make noise with a noisemaker- indeed, it’s encouraged. In traditional shuls it is still de rigueur to drink in the sanctuary on Purim.  The prime directive, from the Talmud, is as follows: “It is one’s duty to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai)” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b). And the Purim story itself is frankly ribald and more than a bit bawdy, filled with intrigue and women and betrayals and murder.  And if this were not sufficient to make Purim a favorite celebration, consider that it is the only day of the year Jews are allowed, in fact, encouraged! to dress up, including in drag.

I have no idea where this holiday came from – nobody does.  It’s so different from every other holiday.  It drips with excess and impiety.  It lacks dignity.  It mocks literally all that is holy.  So what’s it all about?

Perhaps it’s about turning the world on its head, just for a day.  Like the Amish rumspringa, when Amish adolescents leave home for a few years to get their ya-yas out before coming back home to marry, Purim is a day of abandoning law and order; not too far, but far enough.  Just this small opportunity to let go and get kind of crazy seems to be welcomed, year after year.

As part of this celebration of excess, it is noteworthy that when the Purim story is read, God’s name does not appear – not once.  Purim is not about God and the holy.  Rather it is about a seamy world of lust, sloth, political intrigue and hatred.  It is a story that forces Esther to put herself on the line to save the Jewish people, to test her loyalty to family over maintaining political advantage. 

God does not reach in and save anyone.  This is all about human ingenuity.  On Purim, we are on our own.

Theologically speaking, the essence of the Purim story rings clearly to me.  That is, amidst all the revelry and noisemaking and acting in a boisterous manner in one’s sanctuary, there is some sobering truth to Esther’s and Mordechai’s struggles.  We wait for God to reach in at our own peril.  This is our world and our stage.  God offers us the teachings to guide us, but there is no direct line to the Holy One.  It’s our own judgment upon which we must depend.  That is, amidst the drinking and the noisemaking, someone needs to be the key master to keep an eye on things.

So in the end, Purim isn’t really about drinking and grogger spinning; that’s just camouflage.  It isn’t about fleeing anyone or anything.  It’s about taking a stand in a world where God is watching, but is not involved like a puppeteer. Maybe getting drunk was the only way our ancestors could truly acknowledge that God wasn’t pulling any strings.

Woody Allen’s tragic philosopher, Lewis Levy, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, says: “We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that gives meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying…” 

This may the true text of Purim.  It surely is the truth of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,


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