We are ‘Jewish’ Stardust

By Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Band

On January 4th, 1971, I disembarked from the EL AL Boeing 707 at Lod Airport, suitcase and guitar in hand, in need of a change of scene. What I didn’t expect was the total change of direction I would take from following my dreams as an up-and-coming teen-aged rocker on the Philadelphia (my home town) and New York music scenes. But I need to back-track a little, to mid-August, 1969.

I was driving up the New York Thruway in my little brown Austen-America, heading to Montreal to drop in on some friends. I was running away from two heartaches; breaking up with my high school sweetheart, and my band, Valentine, falling apart. It was a great band. Philadelphia loved us. My girlfriend didn’t ‘get’ me anymore and so we broke up. Missing her gave me some good songs, though.

Somewhere around Yonkers I picked up a hitch-hiker whom I almost immediately poured my heart out to because, well, he dressed like me, had long hair, and had the same goofy sense of humor. As we got ‘goofier’ he asked me if I might want to distract myself at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, starting the next day near Monticello, NY. I had heard about it but had not planned to go. “Hey, dynamite idea!” I said.

‘By the time we got to Woodstock’

It was still pretty early on that Thursday, the day before the concerts started, when I parked near the festival site, somewhere just below Happy Avenue, one of the roads leading to the sloping, expansive meadow of Max Yasgur’s Farm. Along the upper ridge were the campers, tents, artisans and vendors, where it felt like a medieval village populated mostly by jesters. At the bottom of the meadow stood the huge hand-built stage, and the speaker towers. You could hear a band jamming in a closed rehearsal area. My passenger soon drifted away never to be seen again, and as I waded into the growing sea of happy people who also dressed and talked a lot like me, I got an epiphany that this was going to be a life changing event. “Far out, man!”.. I thought.

I was elated to be part of this new social order. I belonged in it. I had worked hard to forget my origins as a First Generation Yiddish speaking Holocaust Survivors kid from Northeast Philadelphia. My music and this culture were my way out and into the melting pot of America. My band-mates and friends were mostly children or grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Few were Jews. We were all looking for the same thing. And, me being me, I interpreted my Woodstock experience as spiritual, in the sense that our generation was in search of peace, love, harmony, anti the Vietnam War, and I was very impressed by the well-known turban clad swami who gave the opening benediction. For those few days we all partied, heard some great musicians and bands, and sang, “Come on people now / smile on your brother!/ everybody get together / try to love one another right now!” Peace brother! The swirls of images of ‘Woodstock’ that remain in my mind are proof- to myself – that I was there. Years later I even caught a glimpse of me in an early scene of the movie. See – I really was there!

One thing led to another quickly; the crowd got larger (500,000!), the music more intense, the weather rainier, and my sense of direction- which normally was quite acute – limited to ‘up or down’ mode. On Saturday night, after some hours of searching, I found my car. Six very helpful hippies helped me roll it out of the mud. I clearly remember feeling grateful to ‘someone’ that my guitars and belongings were still there. I was wet, chilled, and hungry, and stupidly determined to continue northward to Quebec even though the hour was getting late. But a few miles up the road I realized that the snaking center line was not a good sign as my head began to hurt and I started to feel feverish. I turned around and ‘somehow’ found Monticello General Hospital where, after a cursory look by a staffer, I was very kindly shown to a chair in the waiting room, in which I fell asleep.

‘My Yiddish Kite’

I awoke as people began to enter the room at 9 AM. I noticed a number of them were “frum” (although in those days I had no clue about Chassidim vs Misnagdim or Sefardic vs Ashkenazic. But I knew my family was from Vilna and that that made me a Litvak). So there I was – my unwashed shoulder length hair, love beads, well-worn denims, and muddy shoes on display, when I caught the glance of one young ‘yeshiva bochur’ whom I instantly greeted:

“Shalom! Vos machts du?” (Peace! How are you?)
“Vos tust’DE doh?”, (What are YOU doing here?) he asked with surprise.
“Ich hob kekumen tzu Woodstock!” (I attended Woodstock!) I answered forthrightly, as if to impress him.
“Un vus host’du gezucht bei Woodstock?” (And what were you looking for at Woodstock?) he asked with some genuine interest.
Switching to English, I said something about finding G-d in the big experience of unity, and not being limited to a synagogue. Unfazed, but needing to fulfill his mission of visiting a sick friend, the yeshiva bochur apologized for not having the time to continue our conversation and wrote down a phone number and address on a piece of notepaper which he handed to me while recommending “If you’re really looking for G-d and spirituality check this out. Shalom. Zei Gezundt!” (Be well!)

I did continue looking for G-d for the next year – in a small Jewish-Buddhist-Christian cult and through the Timothy Leary – ‘Doors of Perception’ method, while writing and performing songs written in that vein. But by September of 1970, when my last American band, Freehand, was getting good reviews in New York at the most notable Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, I was a mess and felt lost. I quit the band and within a month I reluctantly went home to my family back in Northeast Philadelphia. They were actually quite glad to see me. But the family dog, Dolly, was not happy to meet my cat, Thumb, who disappeared soon after.

I had one last encounter with possible fame that December, when a show business contact personally introduced me to legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway” and more) who took an interest in me for their new record label.

‘A Greener in a Green Land’

Well, I actually took that trip to Israel in 1971 with my mother, Edith, Aleha Ha’Shalom, and my Aunt Helene, Aleha Ha’Shalom. The family thought it would be good for me to get away from ‘everything’ and I decided that taking a break to see some of the world couldn’t hurt before I resumed my career. I called Barry and Cynthia to postpone my test sessions in New York for few weeks, which they were OK with.

When we landed all I could think was how green and fresh everything looked. It was in fact a brand new country – only 23 years old! I was 20. Something began to stir. I was excited to be there. Why? I wasn’t observant. I hadn’t gone to synagogue in years. What could it mean? I did try to volunteer to go to Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was only 16 so the consulate rejected me. That was it. I also went to my Godmother’s funeral around that time too. That was Jewish, but.. Yes, I was feeling all kinds of feelings, seeing things I didn’t expect to see, asking all kinds of questions, and hearing the sounds of bubbles frequently bursting.

One afternoon as I walked along Rehov Allenby near our hotel, I noticed another guy carrying a guitar case. He looked American, the case looked like it might be carrying a quality instrument, and so I flagged him down. I was right on both counts, and soon Sam from Chicago and Allen (my English name) were jamming our way across Israel on buses, at Hebrew University Campus, and one cloudy but enlightening afternoon in the back of an Old City Arab smoke-shop, where we got “hookahed up” and played some good ole boy country music for the un-country-like, loose garbed patrons – and they loved it! From there, Sam led me to my first encounter with The Wailing Wall (which of course I now only know as The Kotel HaMaaravi) and a rabbi who had me put on Tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The sounds of Hebrew prayer all around me woke something up, and as the rabbi attempted to coach me in reading the blessings, my mouth had already formed the words – that flowed sweetly out across my tongue: “Shema Yisrael / Ado-Shem Elokeinu /Ado-Shem Echad…”

Just like that. What a long, strange trip it had been.

End of Part 1.

If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos- levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah- the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172-174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)

 

The BT and the SuperBowl

The NY Times has a good article about Alan Shlomo Veingrad, the Professional Football Player who won a Superbowl with the Dallas Cowboys and became an observant Jew afterwards.

The Ba’al Guf and the Ba’al Teshuva

A promotional flier announced the evening’s subject as “Super Bowl to Super Jew.” There was truth in that advertising. Mr. Veingrad goes these days by his Hebrew name, Shlomo. He wore a black skullcap and the ritual fringes called tzitzit; he wore the Super Bowl ring he won in 1992 with the Dallas Cowboys and the Rolex watch that was a gift from Emmitt Smith, the team’s star running back.

Within his 6-foot-5 frame, Mr. Veingrad embodies two Jewish archetypes that do not often meet. He is the ba’al guf, the Jewish strongman, and the ba’al teshuva, the returnee to the faith. While two Jewish boxers on the scene now — Yuri Foreman and Dimitriy Salita — also are prominently observant, Mr. Veingrad may well be the only Orthodox athlete from the United States’ hugely popular team sports.

“I believe I played in the N.F.L. and have that ring so I can share my story with other Jews,” Mr. Veingrad, 46, said shortly before the U.S.C. event.

During it, he told a spellbound capacity audience, “The Torah is a playbook for how someone can live their life.”

Sports, America and the Golus Yid

For Jews, abundant as fans but uncommon as top players, the visibility of a Shlomo Veingrad serves both reassuring and cathartic roles. Having a Jew to root for — whether Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax or the Israeli N.B.A. rookie Omri Casspi — “has a lot to do with our desire to define ourselves as Americans in the most American way, which is sports,” said Jeffrey S. Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and the author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports.”

At a deeper and more anxious level, American Jews continue to grapple with the stereotypical view of the Jew as egghead, nerd, weakling. That dismissive portrayal was a staple not only of anti-Semites, but also of early Zionists, who envisioned their “new man” with his plow and rifle as the antidote to the “golus Yid,” the exilic Jew unable even to defend himself.

“I don’t think those feelings are as conscious as in prior generations, but they still have some resonance,” Professor Gurock said in a telephone interview. “So there’s a residual pride of someone achieving in this very secular world of sports.”

Read the whole article here.

Of Folk, Faith and Famous Father-in-Law

This interview originally appeared in the Forward (www.forward.com) and is reprinted with permission.

By Rebecca Spence
Tue. Mar 11, 2008

Peter Himmelman is an eclectic musician who has earned critical accolades for everything from his television show scores to his folk-rock albums. His work scoring the TV series “Judging Amy” garnered him an Emmy nomination in 2002, and just a few months ago, his latest children’s album, “My Green Kite,” was nominated for a Grammy. “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep,” Himmelman’s 10th studio album, was released last summer. If that all sounds like enough, it isn’t: Himmelman is currently scoring the Fox series “Bones” and ABC’s “Men in Trees.”

The 48-year-old Santa Monica resident grew up in Minneapolis, where he began his musical career while still in high school. One of his earliest collaborations, the new wave band Sussman Lawrence, recorded two albums before Himmelman went on to a solo career. Since then, Himmelman has successfully navigated the waters of multiple, often wildly different, genres and come out rocking in all of them.

Oh, and he also happens to be Bob Dylan’s son-in-law.

Himmelman recently fielded some questions from the Forward.

Why did you decide to expand into children’s music?

I have four children of my own, and so as they were growing up, it was very natural to me to sing for them and make up songs and stories for them. At one point, a company in the Midwest contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in making a record for children. As every artist knows, there’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a fee, and so when I got both those things, my first kids’ record, “My Best Friend Is a Salamander,” came into being. I’ve since made four more.

What are the challenges of writing in so many different genres? Does it ever get musically confusing, so to speak, or do the different genres inform one another?

As a rule, I thrive when I’m doing several different projects at once. It doesn’t get confusing for me because I’m able to focus my attention to whatever task is at hand. It’s difficult to explain, but there is a radically different feeling when I go about making music for children as opposed to making music for adults. The same truths are existent in each, but perhaps similar to the way one talks to a child versus the way he would speak with an adult, the metaphors, expressions and context need to be appropriate for each. A third facet of what I do — aside from performance, which is its own unique universe — is composing for film and television. It’s another perspective, which really requires me to adopt a service mentality. That is to say, when I’m making my records, they are really expressions of my personal vision. When I’m composing to picture, I’m primarily serving the needs of the director or the producers. The structure created by helping another person achieve their goals can be very liberating.

How would you define your level of Jewish observance?

I’m not too comfortable with labels in general, but I suppose you wouldn’t be far off if you characterized me as an Orthodox or observant Jew.

Have you always maintained a high level of observance? How were you raised?

I was raised in a home that was very Jewishly aware. My grandma spoke Yiddish, we were very Zionistic and I attended Hebrew school. We went to a Conservative shul in a suburb of Minneapolis. I started becoming more observant in 1986 while living in New York City.

How does your religious observance affect your music?

Since I write mostly about my observations — as opposed to fictional accounts — the prism through which I see the world most definitely affects the music I make.

How has it affected your career?

There have been many missed opportunities to further my career. I’ve turned down several “Tonight Show” engagements and some major tours, but it’s important to remember that nobody forced me to turn these things down. I did it all of my own volition, and though there was a price to pay, I believe that the rewards I continue to get from having success on my own terms have been well worth any short-term sacrifices.

Does being an observant Jew in any way conflict with your role in pop culture? Can they co-exist peacefully, so to speak?

I don’t think I have a role in pop culture. All my roles are played out in my family life and in my community. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I have any role in or any allegiance to pop culture. In fact, it’s something I try to protect myself and my family from. If you mean to ask, can an observant Jew be an artist and make a living creating things, the answer in my opinion is yes, of course. There is no conflict in that.

What do you think of the Matisyahu phenomenon?

I like Matisyahu both as a musician and as a person. I think he’s an extremely talented person who, like any real artist, is on a quest. I’m always anxious to see where it leads.

Given that your father-in-law is Bob Dylan, has he been a particularly influential figure in the development of your music? Has that relationship affected your work?

Every musician from St. Louis to Botswana has been influenced by him. Why would it be any different for me?