Concert Notes- Neranenah 7/30/21

Amazing band lineup featuring:

Will Robertson- guitar, vocals, songwriting

Caroline Goldberg- vocals

Melvin Myles- vocals

Joe Alterman- piano

DJ Burel- drums

Robby Handley- bass

Julia Filson- fiddle

Micah Lapidus- guitar, songwriting

Liner notes for songs:

Intention– this is a Shabbat celebration through music. It is a spiritual concert. This music isn’t meant to be performed, it’s meant to be shared. The dichotomy between the band and the audience is a false one that only diminishes the shared experience that we want to co-create. Without listening there is no music. Since this music is new to most, if not all, and some of it is in Hebrew, I’ll provide some orientation and framing of each song. The goal isn’t to fill the space with words, but to provide enough of a frame of reference so that all of us can enjoy and participate in the music together. Though these are original compositions that I’ve created with the help of many talented and generous friends, they don’t belong to me. Their meanings don’t belong to me. If you choose to share in this music, they belong as much to you as they do to me.

Isaiah’s Nigun- A melody inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah who envisioned the redemption of humanity and nature with the words, “then shall your light burst forth like dawn,” (Isaiah 58) and, “your deserts shall become eden,” (Isaiah 53). We start our concert with a nigun, a wordless melody, as a way of helping shift our energy and focus. By removing words and allowing the melody and music to speak for itself, we lower the barrier toward meaningful encounter between music and performer, music and listener. Those that wish can meditate on the inspiration behind the Nigun in the form of Isaiah’s hopeful vision, others can simply take a moment to set our thinking minds aside and begin to bind ourselves to the music.

Shfoch Ruchacha- This song is an invocation. Though it may feel awkward in concept, we are invoking the reality of God’s presence and asking God to pour God’s spirit upon us. What does that mean? We are asking God to remind us of the spark of the divine that exists within and all around us, the holiness that permeates all creation from the human heart to the mosquito to the speck of dust. This song serves to remind us that in addition to being here to enjoy some music on a lovely, if hot, summer evening, we are also here to connect, to feel the spirit, to allow for the possibility of angels whispering into our ears.

Violence in the Silence- Inspired by a popular protest slogan during the 2020 summer protests for racial justice, this song is an attempt to speak truth to power. In the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, it is a message of both harsh critique, but also a call to action. Just as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah were committed to calling out the injustices and hypocrisies of their day, we must be willing to do the same. So long as systems of power perpetuate structural injustice, we will continue to need to do what the prophets of old did in their day, “raise our voice and sound the alarm, join together arm in arm.” This song was co-written with Will Robertson and Melvin Myles. I’m honored that Melvin is here to sing it for us.

The Well- Genesis chapter 28 teaches us that Isaac, son of Abraham, upon returning to the land of Israel, dug anew the wells that his father had dug before him. On the one hand, this is plain old common sense on Isaac’s part. Just as Abraham’s wells had brought forth life nourishing water when Isaac was a child, so too could he assume they would do the same in his adulthood. I’ve long been captivated by the image of Isaac digging anew the wells that were dug by the generations that came before. It seems to me a beautiful way of describing the sacred thread that interweaves the generations. This song, entitled The Well, is a meditation on what it means to to return to the wells of water and of spirit that nourished and sustained the generations that came before us, allowing them to nourish us as well, and connecting us to them.

Love is Love– Another song inspired by a popular slogan, Love is Love offers a slightly different take on the universal and most important message of all faith traditions: love. In this call and response song (please join in), we explore the possibility that our understanding and expression of love can be deepened and even transformed by meditating on the nature of God’s love. The song begins with the idea that “We know love from God above.” It goes on to ask what I consider to be a question of both great importance and also possibility, “Can we show love like God above?” In other words, as recipients of love, from God, from the universe, from our fellow human being, can we become vehicles for expressing love and magnifying the presence of love in the world. It’s also just a fun song to play.

Gentle Like a Reed– When folks listen to the song, Gentle Like a Reed, their minds generally associate the message of this song with the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season.” Truth be told, the origin of this song has nothing to do with those famous words. Instead the opening lines, Gentle Like a Reed/ Strong as a Cedar, come from a rabbinic parable. In that parable, a rabbi is so convinced that he is right about something that he forgets that there are more important things in life than being right. The voice of the narrator comes to chastise him with the words, “Better to be gentle like a reed, than strong as a cedar.” There are times to stand firm, to uphold our ideas, to be strong as a cedar, but more often than not a gentle approach to life will yield greater happiness and wellbeing. Though this song isn’t based on Ecclesiastes, the theme of different seasons is very present in the lyrics. When I think of Ecclesiastes and Gentle Like a Reed, I am inspired by a poem of Yehuda Amichai. In his version of Ecclesiastes, he suggests that we are often laughing and crying at the same moment, waging war and making peace, planting and reaping, loving and hating. I think there’s wisdom in his realization that the human heart doesn’t always line up so cleanly.

To know the future

The future isn’t ours to know. But one thing is for sure, we’ll never know what the future holds until we know what the present holds.

What I mean is this: If we don’t attend to the present moment, we will be endlessly frustrated in our attempts to greet subsequent present moments (i.e. future moments).

Mindfulness is the umbrella term for the host of strategies that we can employ to help us become more aware of the present moment. Mindfulness offers us the possibility of experiencing the present moment in greater detail and with greater focus than we might otherwise be able. Through mindfulness we can experience the present moment more fully, see it more clearly, and savor it more joyfully. To the extent that we can sustain our mindful attention we can begin to be present for future moments as well.

Ti da di da di

It’s 1am. I don’t write much at this hour, at least nowadays. But I got a text message with some upsetting news and can’t fall asleep. The news doesn’t affect me directly, but it upsets me directly, and my mind and soul are cracked open. And the screen is here to listen.

Today I disposed of a heavy burden I’ve been carrying with me for the last month or so. By that, I mean I finished Amos Oz’s memoir, Love and Darkness. I’ve been calling it a novel, but my friend Steven is right, it’s a memoir. It’s the story of a man looking back on his life, telling his story based on memories, fragments of memories, and out of the shards and broken pieces.

Throughout the memoir and at the very end, Oz recalls a songbird that would sing outside the window of his childhood home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham. Elise, he called her, because she would always sing the first five notes of Beethoven’s iconic composition, Fur Elise.

Because Steven and I were both racing to the finish of Love and Darkness, we’ve been able to banter quite playfully about the book. I finished the novel just as we were stepping off the bus for lunch at the Alonim Junction in Israel. To indicate that I had completed the seemingly insurmountable task of scaling Mt. Oz I told Steven, “Oz has ruined Beethoven for me forever.” He smiled knowingly.

Eventually we came to Jerusalem, where much of Love and Darkness took place. We met with rabbinic colleagues at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. HUC-JIR is a place with many memories, fragments of memories and more than a few shards and broken pieces (most of them soft around the edges, at least for me). It’s the Kerem Avraham of my Jerusalem.

While on campus, Michael Marmur taught us a passage from a novel called, “Et Hazamir.” The passage was about a fictional Hasidic rebbe who had an unusual prayer for the Jewish people during the time of the War of Independence. I drew a line of connection because both the author of Et Hazamir and Oz, the author of Love and Darkness, look back at the War of Independence, but in very different ways. On a personal note, the title, “Et Hazamir” struck me because I used that same image, taken from Song of Songs, as the title for an album of lifecycle music that my wife, Loren, and I created and which includes songs that we wrote for family celebrations. “Et Hazamir” means “Season of the Songbird.” I don’t know if Elise from Love and Darkness was a Songbird (with a capital S), but she certainly sang a song.

Tonight I had dinner both “on my own” and “alone.” By choice. It’s a rare treat for me to walk the streets of Jerusalem with nothing but my own memories, fragments of memories, shards and broken pieces. Walking back from dinner in the city center, I stopped in a bookstore, but nothing caught my eye. Heading back to the hotel, I came to Hillel Street, a block away from Ben Yehuda. There I heard the faint sound of music. Since I’d last been on Hillel Street, perhaps 5-6 months ago, someone had placed a grand piano in one of the leveled courtyards that occupy a portion of the road. Not unlike the grand piano I saw yesterday at the Polyphony Foundation in Nazareth, I found myself wondering quite mundanely, how did that piano get here? The faint sound of music was coming from the piano where sat a young woman. And of course the song that she was trying to play, with just one hand, and quite incorrectly, was Fur Elise. She got the first notes right, but lost the tune from there. It was such an obvious gesture of the Divine and/or the ghost of Amos Oz, that it didn’t strike me as particularly special or auspicious when it happened. It was, in fact, the most natural thing in the world. The only possible song in all creation that could emanate from that young woman and that piano in that moment. Beethoven both ruined, and in some odd way, rendered cosmically hysterical and also perfect.

A few days ago I told Steven that I intended to make a pilgrimage to Kerem Avraham, the neighborhood in Jerusalem where Oz was born and much of Love and Darkness takes place. I figured, I’ve never been there and I should check it out. Steven suggested that I could simply walk the more familiar cafes of King George and Jaffa Street as they too are important landmarks in the memoir and likely more interesting. And that’s precisely what I was doing at the time.

And now as I type at this atypical hour, awake and alert for reasons that make my stomach turn, I realize that in that moment I was Amos Oz, the young woman was Elise, and the piano was the songbird’s voice. And I realized that just like Amos Klausner tried to leave Jerusalem behind and changed his name to Amos Oz, so too did Ernest Pollack, whose grave we stood by on the shore of the Kinneret, try to leave Vienna behind and changed his name to Natan Ikar. And just as it took Amos Oz most of his life to be able to create meaning out of his childhood and life experiences, so that only from Arad, and as an older man, he could see Jerusalem, and his childhood, so too today could be a day that I might one day wish to revisit and tell as part of my story. But before I write a memoir I have a lot of remembering and a lot of forgetting to do, and one thing is for sure, it won’t be written in the middle of the night.

Simple Reminders

  1. Today is a new day. It has never existed before nor will it ever exist again.
  2. Each moment is an opportunity to be present physically as well as spiritually.
  3. Today will be full of experiences whose meanings will be different for each of us, perhaps instantly known, perhaps veiled in mystery.
  4. Openness is a posture we can assume, a choice we can make.
  5. Our senses are our points of contact with God’s creation, may we honor them and may they serve us well.
  6. We can be a blessing to others and they to us. There is nothing more natural.
  7. Creation is always singing. If we listen we can hear the song and sing along.

Inevitability and Possibility

Yesterday I found myself thinking about inevitability and possibility.

I found myself thinking about inevitability because of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. Towards the beginning of the portion we read about how Jacob loved Joseph more than his other 11! sons and 1 daughter. In Genesis 37:4 we see how Jacob’s disproportionate affection triggers the other sons:

And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

Reading the verse, I feel a sense of inevitability. The brothers see the favoritism, are filled with hatred, and can no longer speak peaceably to him.

While such a response is understandable, it is anything but inevitable. Both the hatred and the ensuing breakdown in communication are only one possible response to the situation.

How do we know this? First, there’s some ambiguity in the verse. While we know based on subsequent details that the hatred was directed toward Joseph, it could’ve just as easily been directed toward Jacob. After all, the verse says “they hated him” without specifying who they hated.

But hatred of any kind is also only one possible response. In a short discussion with some Middle School students yesterday we brainstormed a number of other possible responses. For example, they suggested that Jacob’s favoritism might lead the other brothers to reflect on why Joseph was favored, searching their hearts for deeper understanding. They also suggested that they could express their hurt and disappointment to their father rather than channeling the energy in the direction of hatred. And, instead of closing the lines of communication with their brother, they could’ve shared their feelings with Joseph as well.

Any of the above possibilities, all reasonable and easy to envision, could’ve radically shifted the fate of the entire family and maybe even the entire fate of the Jewish people. Instead the brothers’ hatred feels inevitable as does the breakdown in communication, the rupture of the relationship, and the eventual violence that leads the brothers to leave Joseph for dead.

As I look around the world today I see the triumph of inevitability. I see a profound shutting down of possibility. I see a kind of grim determinism. I see people surrendering to ideas like “it is what it is.” A lot of people feel like events have been set in motion with outcomes and consequences that feel dreadfully inevitable.

But the existential truth is that we all live in a context of ultimate possibility. Every moment we are faced with choices. Every moment we are invited to exercise the inviolable autonomy that defines our humanity. Every moment of our lives we have the ability to plant, water, nurture, and grow from a place of possibility. We might find ourselves in the midst of tremendous suffering, difficulty, or hardship, but even there, possibility endures.

Inevitability is easy. Inevitability is fed by our fear of what’s possible or by our intellectual and emotional laziness which always favors our default, automatic, and habitual responses. But given the challenges we face as individuals, in our communities, and even as a species, it’s time to set aside the inevitable in favor of the possible.

Life Lessons 11/14/19

  1. Sometimes you have to relearn your own song.
  2. The playground matters.
  3. Fall is either your favorite or least favorite season. Rarely in between.
  4. Cold weather= more pockets!
  5. There’s more going on in this moment than can ever be fully appreciated.
  6. Hope rushes in the instant something bad starts to get better.
  7. Sometimes you have to pick the key that works best in the moment.
  8. Not everyone will “get” your Friends reference.
  9. At some point each of us needs to learn, internalize, and then embody the simple truth that it’s not all about us.
  10. Headlines and titles can be misleading.
  11. More often than not, the Wizard is a bad guy.
  12. Prayer is there to remind us of the script when our soul forgets its lines.
  13. You can learn a lot about a person based on how they enter a room.
  14. Funk is a universal language.

Life Lessons 11/13/19

  1. Sometimes there’s traffic. Sometimes there’s not.
  2. Sometimes it’s so easy to find a parking spot that you forget to appreciate how easy it was.
  3. While an affront to the drinker, it’s quite understandable to give the Diet Coke to the person who ordered the regular Coke and vice versa.
  4. Just because someone you haven’t seen in a long time looks the same as the last time you saw them doesn’t mean that they haven’t undergone profound change.
  5. Everyone loves Barcelona.
  6. Sometimes music is political, but politics is seldom musical.
  7. Sometimes the old inquire and the young respond.
  8. That seemingly insignificant interaction that you’ve long forgotten– it may be the stuff of legend to someone else.
  9. Sometimes the middle lane is closed for no reason.
  10. It’s no fun trying to meditate with a head cold.
  11. Passionate materialists walk among us– not the materialists who worship “stuff,” but the materialists who understand that stuff matters.
  12. Theory and practice can make strange bedmates.
  13. It’s good to be reminded that you’re loved and good to remind others of the same.
  14. All of us love those moments when they, as pedestrians, make better time than the poor souls trapped in their cars.
  15. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s possible to look out your window and find it.

We are neighbors

Last night our HOA hosted the annual Halloween party for our neighborhood. 40-50 of us gathered in our clubhouse for a pizza dinner before heading out to trick-or-treat. I don’t know what came over me, but I suddenly felt an irrepressible need to make sure that everyone came together for a moment of…something. After all, so many of us were gathered together. Wouldn’t someone say something? At the very least, we could take a moment to thank our neighbor who collected the money and organized the dinner.

So, after confirming that there was no plan for any kind of welcome and seeking the blessing of the organizer, we turned down the music, tapped a glass, and paused for a communal moment.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but here’s the gist of what I wanted to say: Let us take a moment to pause, acknowledge, and celebrate the fact that we are neighbors. That our children are neighbors. That we live on the same streets, that we play on the same streets, that we shop in the same supermarkets, that, on some profound level, our lives are intertwined. That, regardless of the many things that distinguish, divide, and distance us, there are many things that unify, unite, and connect us. So let us enjoy the fact that we are a part of one another’s lives. Let’s use the fact that we are neighbors as an excuse to get to know one another. To care for one another. To look out for one another. To support one another. And to make our neighborhood a paradigm of what community might be.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t get my point across or say it quite as articulately. But I continue to wonder what effect it would have if someone took it upon themselves to offer these or similar observations at every neighborhood gathering that took place across our country last night or any other night. Not because we don’t already know these things, but because saying them out loud is a powerful reminder. Not because we don’t already know and say these things, but because they are so fundamental and yet so self-implicating that we often to prefer to ignore them.

In addition to being a wonderful Halloween celebration, last night presented an opportunity to build, strengthen, and create community. We knocked on one another’s doors, heaped candy on one another’s children, and walked alongside one another on a chilly Atlanta evening. But what else transpired?

A Poem a Day

I just read a poem or two. It’s a rainy day and it seemed like a good thing to do. It reminded me that poets exist. Many more than we will ever know. It reminded me that we might be among those poets. And we might not even know it.

There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Each a poem. To pray as a Jew ensures that you’ll read at least one poem, in the form of a psalm, everyday.

Poems remind us that we are meaning makers. They remind us that grammar and syntax, quite literally, don’t get the last word. They remind us that three of us can experience the same thing and interpret it in a thousand different ways. They remind us that it’s okay to be partial, tentative, broken, confusing, and fragmented, but also whole, confident, audacious, and assertive.

Poems have power. They can remind us of our biases. They can call attention to our metaphors. They can disturb and soothe. They can distract and focus. They can guide and mislead. They can chastise and invigorate. They can evoke and suppress. They can connect and they can alienate. There’s power in a poem.

I read an article recently that said that all the politicians are hiring poets to staff their communications teams. It filled me with hope and dread. It reminded me of the fundamental emptiness of poetry and its elegant neutrality. It made me fear the possibility of weaponized poetry and the devouring appetite of politics.

So I’m telling myself: read a poem a day. Because everything that a poem can do, I need that too. And if I don’t someone else will. And who knows where the road of words will lead?