Hebrew School

A guitar.

I have an old nylon string guitar that I recently got fixed. It needed a lot of work done to it– neck was splitting, tune peg missing, warping of all sorts– but it was well worth it: The guitar was a gift for my bar mitzvah when I was thirteen. It has sentimental value.

Of course, when I was thirteen, the first thing I did was to pick it up, take a heavy Fender pick to it and ride it full throttle, putting my theretofore unchanneled energy into the stultification of any perceived injustice or indignity to my thirteen-year-old psyche– as any mama-loving Jewish boy would. So, some wear and tear was experienced from the beginning. Though somehow, it continued to sing sweetly.

I also began to write songs on it pretty much immediately. At one point in my teens, I believe I had catalogued 100 or so. I studied jazz theory at around that time and learned all the jazz chord fingerings. I had a friend who lived down the street with whom I would collaborate. He liked playing this guitar, too.

It made the trip to college with me, where I continued more or less along the same path (though I was studying the trumpet in school). The guitar even stowed away with me to India, where I studied abroad for a year, dependably holding court among the Israeli, German and Japanese hostel-dwelling set.

Graduating, I moved to the West coast with only a frame pack and my sarangi, having correctly surmised that the town I was moving to would have no dearth of mellow and generous axe-wielders. At any rate, my guitar by then was at my mom’s house and already in a state of disrepair. Fortunately, my younger brother fixed it up when I moved out and learned to play it himself.

Since then, it’s stayed with me wherever I’ve gone, and even when I’m not in a song-writing mood I will, as any guitarist does, pick it up just for the satisfaction of strumming into existence the majesty of sound I get from it. And of course it’s great for the random sing-along or that type of thing. Moreover, I love that it’s stayed with me through my current work with Hebrew School, where it seems to be just as vital as ever.

Frank O’Hara, “A Mexican Guitar,” from A City Winter (1952)

Actors with their variety of voices
and nuns, those arch campaign-managers,
were pacing the campo in contrasting colors
as Jane and I muttered a red fandango.

A cloud flung Jane’s skirt in my face
and the neighborhood boys saw such sights
as mortal eyes are usually denied. Arabian day!
she clicked her rhinestone heels! vistas of lace!

Our shouting knocked over a couple of palm trees
and the gaping sky seemed to reel at our mistakes,
such flashing purple insteps and careers
which bit with lavish envy the northern soldiers.

Then loud startling deliberation! Violet peered,
hung with silver trinkets, from an adobe slit,
escorted by a famished movie star, beau idéal!
crooning that dejected ballad, “Anne the Strip.”

“Give me back my mink!” our Violet cried
“and cut out the heroics! I’m from Boston, remember.”
Jane and I plotz! what a mysteriosabelle!
the fandango died on our lips, a wintry fan

And all that evening eating peanut paste and onions
we chattered, sad, of films and the film industry
and how ballet is dying. And our feet ached. Violet
burst into tears first, she is always in the nick of time.


Antifa Lament
June 26, 2008, 5:36 pm
Filed under: music | Tags: ,

tears on my pillow.

The movement of fascism does not come into existence at the command of the capitalists. It arises out of the conditions created by capitalism at a certain stage of its disintegration as a social and economic system. Its troops, for the greater part, are the petty-bourgeois elements, ruined and driven to frenzy by the crisis. The movement is aimed, at its inception, against big capital as well as against the labor movement. The former take over the movement and hurl it against the workers if the latter do not show sufficient strength to crush the movement of fascism and gain the support of the petty-bourgeois masses for their revolutionary program.

These fundamental considerations should be kept in mind in connection with the various manifestations of incipient fascism in America.

– James P. Cannon

The lake, the pork, the North

This post is a follow-up to this one.

A Jewish gentleman stood before a delicatessen display counter and pointed to a tray. “I’ll have a pound of that salmon,” he said.

“That’s not salmon,” the clerk said. “It’s ham.”

“Mister,” the customer snapped, “in case nobody ever told you, you got a big mouth.”

So yeah: Jews like to dig on the swine. And while I’m admittedly the worst possible spokesperson for American (let alone world) Jewry, I can safely declare that most Jews do not observe the laws of kashrut, nor do they shy away from pig partaking. No guilt, no sense of over-indulgence, just eating. This may seem obvious to Jewish readers, but I’m often bemused by non-Jews who are shocked that I (or you, or you) eat pork.

The whole thing only became enigmatic this past weekend when a group of us, embarking on a trip to enjoy New Hampshire’s beautiful nature and lakes, rolled up to the Yankee Smokehouse on Route 16 in West Ossipee. Boasts of the “largest open-pit this side of the Mason Dixon line” along with claims of Southern authenticity piqued our interest. (Also, we were very hungry.) And since our party happened to contain four Jews, two of whom were from the South (Atlanta and Tennessee), we were intent on setting the record straight.

In addition to it being the Shabbos, we also forgot that it was motorcycle weekend.

Fortunately the bikers mostly wanted to sit outside which meant there was still space for us.

The Friday night spread: pork ribs, baby-back ribs, beans, cole slaw, corn on the cob, a whole chicken, sliced beef, sliced pork,…

… really good sauce (I thought).

But without further ado, the judges weigh in. Continue reading

I Heart Hug New York Because…

…your local temple had a vodka tasting, and alternate-side parking was suspended for Shavuot.


And that you instead of doing either saw Isaac Hayes in Prospect Park.

Jew, Where’s My Karma?

Last night, the Six Points fellows gathered for a talk with Aaron Dorfman, Education Director at American Jewish World Service. AJWS gives money to charity projects throughout the developing world, and offers Jews and non-Jews the opportunity to volunteer in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Dorfman began the talk by laying out a hypothetical challenge for giving. We were presented with two scenarios, the first being that you receive a mailing asking you to send $100 to starving children in Africa. In the second scenario, you are driving along in a nice car, the one luxury item you can afford. You’re somewhere out in rural New Jersey and spot a bird-watcher who’s bleeding profusely. Without medical help, his leg may need to be amputated. The cost of helping the man is nothing, but his blood will ruin your treasured vehicle’s upholstery, costing you $5,000. The question: Between the two, where would your money go?

Most folks in the room agreed on the latter. I did not, though to be honest I was not about to go for the $100 option either. The question seemed overly theoretical, and the assumed reliance on the paradigms of charity and morality too thorny. Morality in a capitalist society, I argued, is a commodity to be bought and sold. Since commodities are beacons of status, why not make the larger expenditure if you can, especially if it means you get to keep the nice car? From a different angle, which as a result of affect will seem to taste better: a $100 bottle of wine, or a $5,000 one?

While my weltanschauung was seen as overly cynical– and it may have been– I could not doubt the truth in it.

In essence then, the questions for me in this engaging conversation revolved around the conceptions of right and wrong in contemporary society, and, for what it’s worth, happening to be Jewish at the same time.

While there’s nothing particularly “Jewish” about giving to charity, it’s clear that the Jewish communities of the United States came into the giving game under a particular set of historical circumstances. I’m no scholar in the history of this sort of thing, but a unifying ideology behind contemporary Jewish philanthropy would have stemmed from the Jews’ experience in World War II and the Holocaust. Jews did their best to help their brethren out of war-torn Europe, to get to Israel, to get to New York. (The universal operative expression for this phenomenon at the time was indeed, “They’re starving back in Europe.”) In the ’60s, Jews gravitated towards activism, supporting civil rights, the New Left, and the radical left.

Perhaps unsurpisingly, as Dorfman illustrated, the authority of Jewish scripture on these matters is fairly indeterminate. One Talmudic passage states that Jews should take care of themselves before helping others; another states that Jews should be indiscriminate when aid is needed, if only for peace. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, opined:

David Hume noted that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?

Dorfman, in his work at AJWS at home or abroad, concluded that the best outlook to maintain was one of “productive discomfort.” By this, I think he meant the will to move forward and act while maintaining a critical recognition of the multifarious nature of disasters like famines, tsunamis, earthquakes, and systemic poverty. (How one copes in this type of work environment is beyond me; I didn’t have a chance to ask.)

And we can’t doubt that Jews, as well as really anyone, will continue to act by virtue of a sense of compassion, inspired by what they see. They will continue do so regardless of the abstractions of morality, the presence or dearth of crocodile tears, the motivation– selfish or selfless– of such acts. Nothing wrong with that. But viewing the world through the eyes of a benefactor at some point belies a more pressing need– in both the “developing” and “developed” world– for more structural change. An ideology of cynicism on that front may prove more deadly.

Thanks to Aaron for closing out Shavuot with an evening of highly stimulating discussion. Check out his article on the topic here.

* * *

John Lennon, “Nobody Told Me,” from Milk and Honey

Everybody’s talking and no one says a word
Everybody’s making love and no one really cares
There’s Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs
Always something happening and nothing going on
There’s always something cooking and nothing in the pot
They’re starving back in China so finish what you got

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — strange days indeed

Everybody’s runnin’ and no one makes a move
Everyone’s a winner and nothing left to lose
There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu
Everybody’s flying and no one leaves the ground
Everybody’s crying and no one makes a sound
There’s a place for us in the movies you just gotta lay around

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama

Everybody’s smoking and no one’s getting high
Everybody’s flying and never touch the sky
There’s a UFO over New York and I ain’t too surprised

Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama

Inadvertent Shavuos channeling
June 4, 2008, 8:46 pm
Filed under: jewish | Tags: ,

I just discovered that my Moses song may have been inadvertently channeled by Shavuot, which begins Sunday.


Spirit, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970)

When this album started speaking to me in tongues over the din of last year’s record fair, it didn’t explain itself to me as an unsung concept masterpiece. Only that it was old and a little scratchy, had a scary looking cover, and cost four dollars– along with some other gibberish about Orwell, animals and various states of the psyche. It was authored by an acclaimed band I had read about in music magazines when I was a kid, but never really checked out.

Sardonicus marked the end of a highly productive time for Spirit, who released their debut in 1968 and quickly followed with three more albums, including a soundtrack to a Jacques Demy film. This fifth album is also notable as the final time the band would record with their original lineup (before an unfortunately lackluster reunion in 1982, and then another etc., etc.).

Readers– or people who listened to FM radio in the ’70s– might be familiar with the hit, “Nature’s Way,” a darkish song concerning the crepuscular quality of both life and death. I love the beauty of this track, which exploits an interplay of pensive folk rock and Bolan-esque protoglam. The standout Hebrew School favorite would have to be “Love Has Found a Way,” which pits a maliciously psychedelic, backwards-tracked verse against a chorus marked by a quiet, descending diatonic chord progression and contrapuntal vocal lines.

Like the epic counterparts of its era, this record is brilliant as an entire piece from start to finish. Yet even in the two tracks I’ve just mentioned, we can clearly see the clairvoyance that Randy California and his crew had about seemingly every aspect of ’70s rock thenceforth. The persistence of a folk ethos, the sing-songy extended harmonies tinged with jazz that would become the hallmark of that decade (read: America, Bread), that indeterminate space where ’60s psych morphed into glam (read: early Tyrannosaurus Rex, Comus) and heavy metal (Spirit having toured with Led Zeppelin early on, who cited them as an inspiration), the deliberate juxtaposition of soft and hard edges.

An extremely satisfying and inspiring listen, through the lead-out, beyond the lock groove.


“Nature’s Way”

It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong
It’s nature’s way of telling you in a song
It’s nature’s way of receiving you
It’s nature’s way of retrieving you
It’s nature’s way of telling you
Something’s wrong

It’s nature’s way of telling you, summer breeze
It’s nature’s way of telling you, dying trees
It’s nature’s way of receiving you
It’s nature’s way of retrieving you
It’s nature’s way of telling you
Something’s wrong
It’s nature’s way, it’s nature’s way
It’s nature’s way, it’s nature’s way

It’s nature’s way of telling you
Something’s wrong
It’s nature’s way of telling you
In a song, oh-h

It’s nature’s way of receiving you
It’s nature’s way
It’s nature’s way of retrieving you
It’s nature’s way
It’s nature’s way of telling you
Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong

More at The Wizard.