Monthly Archives: January 2023

Old Time Religion

In my Internet meanderings, watching old film clips from the greatest movies ever produced, I stumbled across a famous scene from Inherit the Wind, a film loosely based on the Scopes story. The Scopes Trial, also known as the “Monkey Trial,” was a legal case in 1925 in which a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was charged with violating Tennessee state law by teaching evolution in his classroom. The case became a national sensation and attracted widespread media attention.

I‘m almost certain that I saw it for the first time in 1961 from the back seat of my family car at the Portland Drive-in. And while I remember the giant tub of popcorn more than the plot of the movie or the stellar performances of Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly,  and Fredric March, a specific scene always stuck in my mind, one that popped up on YouTube the other day.

A huge crowd of citizens is gathered for a rally in the fictional town of Hillsboro, TN. They hold signs, some warning America to disavow science and embrace Jesus, and other placards that scoff at the very idea that humans are the descendants of apes. The crowd feels self-righteous and resolute as they begin to march, singing, Gimme That Old-time Religion. The scene shook me up, as it still does over 50 years later.

Why a young child would recall that scene is a mystery. Why it does now is evident to me. The nostalgic yearning for the old days, for something supposedly simpler and, thus, better, is a fearsome thing. The idealization of the past is a means to stall progress. It belies the notion that we can learn from the past or use history as the foundation upon which we build a better world without it limiting our reach.

This issue related to nostalgia and a yearning to restore the world as it was, is a constant theme in Jewish life. There is a continuous undercurrent in Judaism that accentuates our earliest ancestors, how they revered God, and how we must follow in their footsteps. Traditional Judaism is built on the notion that certain verities must be upheld and laws obeyed because that’s what God wanted then and wants now. To paraphrase the song, give me that old-time religion.

Reform Judaism was birthed a few hundred years ago in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the rise of the secular state. Our Reform ancestors did not seek to annihilate Jewish tradition. They did seek to recast our spiritual yearnings as the same as those of our ancestors of the Middle Ages. They said it was time to acknowledge the rise of the rational and the ascent of reason. They suggested that our ideas of God, Torah, and Israel evolved. Practicing certain rituals like keeping kosher or separating linen and wool because it was always done that way did not compute; it did not match the growing expansion of the world of intellectual inquiry.

How do we navigate this parlous path between innovation and old-time religion? How do we preserve what we love about our Judaism without certain trappings driving us away because they are irrelevant and insignificant? How do we invoke the new without losing the thread to our shared past?

This dilemma is not new, but it continues to be urgent. Understanding how to find our way forward is all about shaping Judaism for the next 25 years. How do we make coming to Shabbat services a nourishing and spiritually fulfilling experience? More Hebrew or less Hebrew? Traditional prayers or contemporary poetry? Reading from the Torah and haftarah or…? What if it’s a major Jewish holiday like the beginning of Sukkot or Shavuot, and nobody shows? Do we cancel the holiday and close the temple?

The questions about old-time religion are real ones. They challenge us to evaluate what endures and what is transient. Jews are storytellers with endlessly good material. Legends of the past will continue to inspire us even as we dare to create tales woven from the future.

Carry Me

When did I first hear Crosby, Stills & Nash? By my calculations, I was 16 years old. I was primed for good music, a disciple of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and James Brown, to name but a few. The Vietnam War was raging, as were my hormones. It was a time to march against the war and be in love.
How perfect, then, was CS&N? Their music was a gorgeous mix of lilting love songs and anthemic anti-war and anti-establishment vitriol. Almost every song they performed scratched the itch of baby boomers seeking a new way to express outrage and to break the bonds of traditional American mores.
In the perfect mix of their voices were harmonies as daring as a high-wire act and as heartbreaking as the end of a love affair. In their songs was an invitation to lean way in, to listen closely and enter the music. I bought their first album –I can conjure up the cover art instantly – and I sang along. I learned every melody and belted it out—from Suite Judy Blue Eyes to Wooden Ships – every song. Sitting on my bedroom floor, I must’ve played that album ten thousand times until their second album, Déjà vu, was released. And then I played that one.
Amid the music, with a clear, smooth tenor, was David Crosby. Crosby’s voice had an exceptional quality, a certain je ne sais quoi, that thrilled and moved me to rapture and tears. His magic was an umami blend, and I always wanted more.
I used to think that Crosby’s uniqueness, the thing that moved me, was inspired by his love of jazz. By my estimation, jazz is a foundation for musical creativity and daring, and Crosby had that. He always wanted to explore new dimensions of music and push the envelope of vocal and instrumental possibilities.
But now I know that Crosby’s gift was his ability to reach deep inside and pull out his deepest self. Croz could be funny and generous. But he was also an absolute mess, by his accounting, a terrible person who lied, cheated, stole, and lost most of his millions. So much of his life was about excess: women, wine, heroin, guns, cocaine…
Crosby lost people he loved, most famously a girlfriend he’d lived with for a long time who died in a car crash. But he also lost friends. None of the oldest and closest friends from his early years would talk to him again. Graham Nash, who never spelled out why he shut Crosby out of his life, could barely contain the anger he felt towards Crosby.
Crosby was an addict, locked in a relentless wrestling match with an unquenchable drive to destroy himself and a spirit so pure as to be compared to a saint. He spent time in prison. He got a liver transplant. He messed up so many times.
Through it all, there was the music. Rich and deep, joyful, angelic, heart-crushing. All of us who loved Croz and his music are so sad today. An iconic presence is gone. A master of the music that lit up our lives when we fell in love and provided us with a balm when we broke up, who expressed our rage with the war machine and with injustice, is gone. In the shadow of this loss, we are grateful for all the music he made. Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and yes, Graham Nash, among others wronged by Croz over these many years, were all able to write words of sympathy and genuine sadness.
David Crosby released For Free a few years ago, his final album. The song below, I Won’t Stay for Long, is a gorgeous and heartbreaking song about loss and bridges burned. It’s a testimony to resilience and pain and what it means to live on after losing so much. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about David Crosby. Rest in peace.