Monthly Archives: May 2023

It’s the Music

I dedicate this Before Shabbat to our Cantorial Leader, Susan Glickman, on the eve of her retirement. Her love of music and ability to convey that love with authentic joy and kindness is a gift to the hearts and souls of us all. Thank you always, Susan.

This weekend, Taylor Swift is performing at Gillette. You might think the Messiah was in town. It’s all over social media, news, even weather reports. There are apocalyptic traffic warnings and suggestions on what to wear to the show. I don’t know what it is about Taylor Swift that accounts for her extraordinary popularity and the desperation of her fans to see her. I could climb on my high horse and strongly critique her pouty, post-adolescent, coming-of-age music, but I was taught a long time ago never to judge someone else’s music if it came from a sincere place, and I think Taylor Swift seems sincere. There is something in Swift’s music that touches particular hearts, and that’s beautiful.

Like my siblings, I have a deep, abiding love of music. We grew up with a high-end stereo system (McIntosh preamp and amp), and music played often. There was a limited selection of lps: some classical, some show tunes, and a couple of Richard Tucker albums, one featuring opera and the other Jewish greatest hits.

My mother’s singing was more important than the music playing in the living room. She sang all the time: at home, in the car, and while she shopped. Much to my chagrin, she sang along to the muzak at the Food Fair supermarket on Route 66. I was convinced that she would be arrested. Or worse – someone would see me with her and then shame me at school. “Oh – you’re the dope with the singing mother!”

I realize now that no one cared that my diminutive mother sang as she shopped. If anyone had anything to say about it, they’d probably mention that she had a great voice – and she did! If you were to ask her why she sang all the time, she would shrug her shoulders and say that it made her feel good – she couldn’t help it!

My sibs and I have music in our DNA. We can’t help it. Listening to music, performing it, going to concerts, turning up the volume, and needing to hear it are all manifestations of the centrality of music in my life. I need music around me always. Sometimes it’s about comfort. As the William Congreve quote goes, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak.” Sometimes it’s about the peculiar pleasure I get in listening to a sad song, which apparently has a chemical origin. “It is conjectured that high prolactin concentrations are associated with pleasurable music-induced sadness.”

I want music in happy or sad times, celebrations, or break-ups. I have soundtracks in my head for various occasions, accompanying me on my way. I’ve told my children that if, God forbid, I become extremely ill in my old age and no longer want to listen to music, that’s the time to pull the plug. I identify music that closely with my life force.

Music floats through many souls and twists around lots of DNA strands. The message over and over is that music defines and enhances the human experience. It is fundamental to human consciousness. The oldest musical instrument ever found comes from a cave in Slovenia. It’s a flute made from a baby bear femur by a Neanderthal over 50,000 years ago. That’s older than the cave drawings in France!

But long before the femur flute was tooled, ancient homo sapiens and Neanderthals undoubtedly banged on tree trunks and stalagmites with sticks, clapped their hands, and vocally emitted sounds of joy and ecstasy and pain. Because, like us, they sought to express themselves when there were no words. They knew that words would never be enough even if they had a vocabulary. Like us, they sang and swayed as they laughed and cried because they understood the briefness of life, its bliss, and its sorrows. They loved music and sang because they couldn’t help it.

The Chance to Dance

Sometimes when I get up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep, I get some inspiration from – King Achashverosh – you know, Esther’s husband from the Purim story. When he couldn’t sleep, he called on one of his servants to read to him (it’s good to be the king).

Alas! I have no servant to read aloud to me, and I am not waking up my wife… So what’s a commoner to do? Luckily, I have an equivalent source of good reading. I have to read to myself.

In those insomniac times, I peruse my Evernote account, which is jammed with hundreds of articles I’ve clipped, recipes, sermon ideas, links to various music and movie websites, etc. I’ll often randomly click here and there and see what interests me at a particular time.

This is how I found an article from the New York Times I’d clipped 17 years ago. It’s about Joann Ferrara, a physical therapist who runs a special ballet class in Bayside, Queens, NY. Once a week, she instructs eight girls, all of whom have cerebral palsy and other debilitating physical conditions, in the art of ballet.

Some girls can’t walk; others wear braces or need canes and walkers. The girls all know that they are not like “the others.”  They already know that they will never run, jump, or walk without assistance. But their mobility limitations have not extinguished their dreams of wearing a pink tutu and fluttering across the stage. 

Ms. Ferrara heard those wistful dreams and came to a decision. There had to be a way to help these resilient, resolute girls fulfill their deepest, most wistful desire. “I just want them to feel the sheer joy of moving and to be proud of themselves,” Ms. Ferrara said. She assigned each girl an assistant to help them move their bodies and take their positions. “The girls stood in a line onstage, supported by their assistants behind them, lifting and turning them to the music.”  Who were these teen assistants? Angels, no doubt.

Some of our children will cure diseases. Or write a great novel. Or defend an innocent person. Or help people plan exciting events. Or fix a broken bone. Or build a beautiful building. We depend on them to move our awkward civilization forward with good works, generosity, and Jewish values planted deeply in their hearts.

And some of our children will, with difficulty, get by. They will file folders. Or serve French fries. Or bag groceries. And we, their parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, or neighbors, will pray for them. A lot. For the littlest things like kindness and mercy. And we pray that a woman like Joann Ferrara might appear in their lives – and thus, in our lives, granting us blessing, shedding God’s sweet love with her holy acts of understanding and grace. Now that’s a bedtime story worth reading. Every night.

Shabbat Shalom.


Liberty and Justice

In the midst of a hundred news stories that blip on and off every 5 minutes, one particularly caught my eye. Yesterday, four Proud Boys were convicted of seditious conspiracy for plotting to keep President Donald J. Trump in power after his election defeat by leading a violent mob to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

My first reaction to this story was a deep sense of gladness. Of course, whenever bad guys get their just desserts, it’s gratifying. So much of the time, justice is relative. Evil people who commit crimes often find a way to go free by using loopholes embedded in the system. We were able to bring these dangerous racists to court and prove their culpability.

My second reaction was a victorious fist bump. The Proud Boys are taken down a notch or two? Yes! Everything this organization stands for is vile: Here are some of the critical tenets of the Proud Boys’ philosophy:

Western culture is superior to all others.

White people are the superior race.

Islam is a violent religion.

Jews are seeking to subvert the destiny of white people.

Feminism is a cancer.

Women should be subservient to men.

The Proud Boys are a fraternity of men loyal to each other and Western culture.

The Proud Boys are willing to use violence to defend Western civilization.

My third reaction was one of hopefulness. Qualified hopefulness, maybe, but hopefulness is just the same. History has seen many groups like Proud Boys all over the world. They are always men with grievances, guys who can’t catch a break, who see others getting some of what they cannot attain. They don’t get the attention of the media. They seem unable to get the best jobs or the best girls. They feel cheated. Someone is preventing them from getting what is rightly theirs because they are white and Christian. It’s the Muslims who have sought their demise since the Crusades a thousand years ago. Black people get jobs and university placement with affirmative action, which cheats white people. Immigrants steal jobs from white people and seek, at the direction of the Jews, to replace White Christian men in every conceivable context. By building a minority-majority in America, brown and black people, under the supervision of the Jews, will run the government. The US will become “minority white” in 2045. During that year, whites will comprise 49.7 percent of the population, compared to 24.6 percent for Hispanics, 13.1 percent for blacks, 7.9 percent for Asians, and 3.8 percent for multiracial populations. This terrifies white supremacist groups like Proud Boys.

In so many cases, when these fearful white hate groups act out in violence, they are not punished. Often there is a nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude from the police or local governments. The Klan. The Nazi Party. Golden Dawn in Greece are just a few examples of hate groups allowed to spread hate with little official interference.

But not here. There is a commitment from the Justice Department to call out violence against others and call it by its name: sedition. Hate crimes. Fascism. In such moments I feel hopeful that there is still a commitment to the dream of our nation, a multi-ethnic stew of people from all over with different ethnic roots, religions, skin tones, and sexual orientations, and all of us committed to the diversity that enriches our culture and our economy.

I am worried about the ongoing culture clash in our nation. I am vexed by people’s limitless capacity to lie, hate, and threaten, all in the name of promoting a binary vision of the world, a vision of white superiority, Christian fundamentalism, and cultural censorship.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that this successful prosecution means the end of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, or any other hate group. But I am glad, a bit triumphant, and proud that the moral code of my nation, under siege as never before since the Civil War, continues to raise up liberty and justice – for all.