here are the handouts for teaching at Shavuot tikkun in DC. More after the holiday.
“The Lake” = Mizrach/Kedem.
Tzafon/S’mol is North/Left (Evanston).
Teiman/Yamin is South/Right (Chicago Heights)
Achor/Ma’arav = West/Behind (Oak Park and Cicero).
A Teacher-filled Tale and Blessing
This session (Fall 2022) at SVARA, I have been part of a small group exploring “The Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir.” We began learning of Rabbi Meir’s tendency to add so many “faces” or facets or perspectives to an issue that his colleagues “could not stand on the end of his insight.” We looked at how his colleagues viewed R’ Meir and some of his students fared (Eruvin 13b).
We detoured — or maybe entered the heart of the matter — to discuss the sheretz, its ritual status viz a viz purity, and its relationship to the death penalty (Shabbat 147b).
We explored Rabbi Meir’s initial arrival before Rabbi Akiva, where he could “not stand on the heart of” his learning and went to Rabbi Ishmael, where he gmara‘d g’mara and then returning to R’ Akiva where he svara‘d svara (Eruvin 13a). This was “mei-ikar,” in the beginning or maybe, from the essence of the thing.
Then we learned (returning to Eruvin 13b) about the years-long dispute between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and the bat kol that settled the practice while widening the teaching.
All this called to mind for me active parallels with my own learning, from youth to whatever age I am now, and from early days of the Havurah movement to wherever things are today. One result of my more organizationally-oriented musings is this “Teacher-Filled Tale” document, which concludes with “Blessing for Recitation by Descendants of Rabbi Meir.”
Some aspects of more individually-focused musings were shared earlier as “Bowie and Hendrix and God and Meir.”
In deep gratitude to my study partner, teachers, entire dazzling bet midrash, and SVARA as a whole, and to all my teachers.
Image featured is section of the PDF shared.
Bowie and Hendrix and God and Meir
Another set of resources that might or might not make sense outside of SVARA’s “Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir” Class. (The large PDF repeats two pages from earlier; plain text version, with image descriptions, follows.)
Sefaria Source Sheet on barzel [iron] and the verb chadad [or maybe yachad]
“Eyes and Teachers” in graphic layout and just text plus image descriptions.
Plain text version, with image descriptions (this is PDF, cannot upload RTF, sorry)
David Bowie and Rabbi Meir
reflections coming later maybe, meanwhile just saying this line from Eruvin 13b
יכלו חביריו לעמוד על סוף דעתו שהוא אומר על טמא טהור ומראה לו פנים על טהור טמא ומראה לו פנים
[full text and translation here at Sefaria]
— which we are exploring in SVARA‘s “Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir” with Bronwen — reminds me of David Bowie’s 1972 “Changes” and the way folks had no clue what to make of Bowie in 1972, and maybe he didn’t yet know what to make of himself:
“Turn and face the strange”
Straight text follows the text-box-heavy graphic version in this PDF–
Luxury and Sin: A dictionary path
Is “living in luxury” the root of all “sin [chet]”?
The high holiday liturgy is filled with the word, “chet,” usually translated as “sin,” as in the prominent confession:
“For the sin we have sinned… […עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ, al chet sh’chatanu…].”
One root-meaning of chet is “[to miss], to fail, err, sin.” Archery metaphors abound this time of year. And considering how, where, and why we “missed the mark” is an important endeavor for the season. But rarely** are we asked to focus on another definition for the same root letters: “living in luxury” or “well-dressed, polished, cleansed.” Exploring the intersection of “luxury” and “sin” can be an important addition to our self-reflections.
There are plenty of resources out there for exploring the intersection of wealth, privilege, and “sin.” See this year’s Hill Havurah resources, for just one example. But here, as an offering for this season of return and repentance, is a basic exploration of the dictionary path less traveled.
**In fact, I don’t know of any such discussions and would appreciate any citations.
Please note: Geekier details appear further below, following an attempt at a more narrative approach.
Although this is my own exploration, this post was inspired by Elul studies at SVARA: The traditionally radical yeshiva, and by learning with Hill Havurah and sister organization, Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
Chet I, Chet II
The biblical lexicon, Brown-Driver-Briggs, has only one long entry for “chet,” based on the root “miss the mark,” with comparison to an Arabic word with a similar root-meaning. The Jastrow Dictionary, however, offers word has two separate entries for the same root-letters: The second (II) is the commonly cited “miss the mark,” and the first (I) is “to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c.” based on a root-meaning “to stroll idly, saunter.”
The chet I entry is filled with references to midrashic texts that develop meaning through word-play and sound associations. (The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria.)
The first example finds that “chet” means “purify” through a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter [veshacḥat] of a bull) with “cleansing” [chat] centered on a body part that bends [shach]. (See bend below.)
Examples of “chet” used to mean “to be gratified” and “to ask petulantly” are also explored. (See gratification below.)
An example linking “chet” with luxury centers on a midrash involving Abraham refusing gifts from the King of Sodom and Daniel refusing gifts from Balshezar. (See luxury below.)
The chet I entry does not offer straightforward grammar to explain the nature of sin in biblical or rabbinic thought. It does present a fascinating glimpse at rabbinic word-play over the centuries. And the mere existence of this entry offers food for thought on links between wealth and sin:
- What can we learn from the examples of Abraham and Daniel rejecting wealth from rulers associated with excess and oppression?
- Why did Jastrow include this speculative exploration here? And how can it help us this season of return, repentance, and repair?
- With this entry as preamble to the one on “missing the mark,” what might we learn about how “living in luxury” and “being accustomed to comfort” affect our ability to hit the mark in all manner of thought and action?
Further exploration of the chet I examples follow, with some additional details also linked.
Luxury and Its Rejection
The chet I entry includes several citations to commentary on the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim Rabbah. (Jastrow uses the Latin-based abbreviation “Cant.” to refer to the bible book [“Canticles”] and “Cant. R.” to refer to the midrash collection.)
Shir HaShirim Rabbah, dated roughly to 800-1000 CE, offers homelitical explanations for each phrase in the Song of Songs. To illustrate a reflexive form of “chet” as “to show one’s self a nobleman, to be generous, proud,” Jastrow references a midrash on Song of Songs 7:7, “How fair you are and how pleasant you are, love, in delights.”
The phrase, “love, in delights,” is explained with reference to biblical incidents involving riches:
- Abraham refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from the King of Sodom (Gen 14:22-23) after helping the king recover captured people and goods;
- Daniel refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from Belshazar (Dan 5:16-17), while providing him the service of reading “the writing on the wall.”
In each case, the biblical hero would have been expected to accept goods and recognition for services rendered. Refusing could seem insulting. In these instances, however, Abraham and Daniel are praised for doing so. The King of Sodom and Belshazar are associated, in their respective biblical stories, with a variety of excesses in their conduct and oppression in their rule. Abraham and Daniel stand in contrast. Their refusals to take “earthly delights” are understood as expressing love of God.
It seems clear that both the bible stories and the midrash hold Abraham and Daniel as righteous; it is less obvious (to me, anyway) how the midrash and grammar function: Who, in the midrash, exemplifies this sauntering show of luxury?
- Are Abraham and Daniel showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (avoiding sin by) rejecting luxury? OR
- Are the King of Sodom and Belshazzar showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (committing the sin of) flaunting luxury?
Abraham is clear and succinct that his rejection of the gifts is about NOT giving credit to the apparently generous King of Sodom:
I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ — Gen 14:23
Daniel’s response to Belshazzar is more complex:
You may keep your gifts for yourself, and give your presents to others. But I will read the writing for the king, and make its meaning known to him….
[to Belshazzar] You exalted yourself against the Lord of Heaven, and had the vessels of [God’s] temple brought to you. You and your nobles, your consorts, and your concubines drank wine from them and praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear, or understand; but the God who controls your lifebreath and every move you make—[God] you did not glorify!
[Eventually, Daniel is given the gifts at Belshazzar’s command, and then Belshazzar is killed.]
— Dan 5:17, 23, [29-30]
While both Abraham and Daniel end up with riches at various points in their stories, cautionary elements remain in their tales and in Jewish commentary over the centuries. (See also “Belshazzar and the Wall.”)
The chet I entry offers opportunities to consider these tales in the approach to the high holidays or in other consideration of “sin” and what it means to “miss the mark.”
BACK to Chet I, Chet II
The chet I examples for “being raised in luxury, being delicate” include more commentary from Shir HaShirim Rabbah as well as some from Kohelet Rabbah, commentary on Ecclesiastes dated to about 750 – 900 CE. In addition, this meaning is supported by citations to the Targum, Aramaic translation of the Torah, from the early centuries of the Common Era:
The man who is gentle [דְמֶחְטֵי, d’mechtei] and refined among you will look with evil eyes upon his brother, and the wife who reposes on his bosom, and upon the rest of his children who remain.
She who is delicate [דִמְחַטַיְיתָא, dimchatai’eta] and luxurious among you, who has not ventured to put the sole of her foot upon the ground from tenderness and delicacy, will look with evil eyes upon the husband of her bosom, upon her son and her daughter.
— Targum for Deut 28:54, 56
Worth noting, if only as evidence for complex interactions between the related words and their meanings, is the entry for the word, “chitui [חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי].” It includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings of chet, citing both chet I and chet II.
BACK to Chet I, Chet II
The chet I entry includes citation to a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter of a bull). Jastrow’s citation appears in a passage about kosher slaughter techniques for ordinary, non-sacrificial food (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin ([חולין], “ordinary”). The meaning “to make look well, polish, dress, cleanse, prepare” is derived from a play on the Hebrew for slaughter [veshacḥat]:
Slaughter is conducted “from the place where the animal bends [shach],” i.e., the neck; it is purified [chattehu] through letting the blood run out, “cleansing.” Additional citations are to Lev 14:52 (“v’chitei ha-bayit [you shall purity the house]…”) and Psalms 51:9 (“Purge me [techatte’eni] with hyssop and I will be pure.”)
Further discussion in Chullin asks if slaughter could be conducted from the tail, which is also bent. But this is countered with the idea that the tail is perpetually bent, and the requirement is for a body part which is usually erect but bent for slaughter.
It is not explicit in the cited discussion at Chullin 27a, but it is noteworthy that “bending” is key here. The bending aspect of slaughter is also discussed at Rereading4Liberation.
BACK to Chet I, Chet II
Chet I, Chet II: More Details
A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, edited by Professor Marcus Jastrow, was first published in 1903. It is available in many editions (although I do not believe newer versions differ from older ones). It can now be accessed through Wikipedia and Sefaria. More on Jastrow in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.
Jastrow thanks earlier scholars:
In conclusion, the author begs to state his indebtedness to Jacob Levy’s Targumic and Neo-Hebrew Dictionaries, where an amount of material far exceeding the vocabularies of the Arukh and Buxtorf’s Lexicon Hebraicum et Chaldaicum is accumulated, which alone could have encouraged and enabled the author to undertake a task the mere preparation for which may well fill a lifetime.
— preface 1903, p.XIII
Jacob Levy (1819-1892) published the two-volume Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midrashim in Leipzig in 1867-68. The same publishers issued new editions in 1876 and 1881. These include an appendix by Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer (1801-1888), described by Wikipedia as “a German orientalist.” (I think these references are only available in German.)
In Jastrow, Fleischer’s appendix to Levy’s dictionary is referenced directly as “Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict.” These references, including the one in chet I, are infrequent.
BACK to Chet I, Chet II
Chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] has two separate entries in the Jastrow Dictionary. The second is the commonly cited “miss the mark” (II). The first entry (I) in Jastrow for chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] is quite different:
[to stroll idly, saunter (v. Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict. I 424,2)] to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c. (cmp. פנק, פרנק).
The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria. And here, for convenience, are the two verbs listed for comparison:
פָּנַק (b. h.; cmp. פּוּק) [to go out,] to be a freeman; to live in luxury (cmp. חָטָא I).
פִּרְנֵק (Parel of פָּנַק) to delight; to treat with dainties.
Hithpa. – הִתְפַּרְנֵק to enjoy dainties. Cant. R. to VII, 2 מִתְפַּרְנְקִין, v. חָטָא I.
The midrash contains a repeated expression, with a reflexive form of chet: “…שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא, she-hayah mit-chatei…” — translated as “excuses himself.”
for Abraham: שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל מֶלֶךְ סְדוֹם
for Daniel שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל בֵּלְשַׁצַּר.
BACK to luxury —– BACK to Chet I, Chet II
BOTH Chet I and Chet II
There is at least one spot where the Jastrow dictionary references BOTH meanings, chet I and chet II. Jastrow entry for the word, “chitui” includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings.
חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי m. (v. חטי I, II) [reference here to the verb chet-tet-yud entries I and II] 1) cleansing, purification. Sifré Num. 126 לכלל ח׳ under the law of purification (ref. to Num. XIX, 12, Naz. 61ᵇ טהרה). —2) delicacy, luxury, enjoyment.—Pl. חִיטּוּיִין. Cant. R. to VII, 2 חיטטין (corr. acc.), v. חָטָא I.
חִיטּוּיָא m. ch. (v. preced.2) , being raised in luxury, being delicate. Targ. Y. I Deut. XXVIII, 56. [Some ed. חִיטוֹיָא.]
BACK to Gratification
Reading the three texts of Shabbat Chazon [Vision] and Tisha B’av together can easily feed a sense of despair:
On this Shabbat of Vision, we stand at the river’s edge, imagining the world on the other side, the one our ancestors were, decades before, led to believe was just around the corner. And yet, as Deuteronomy opens, we are listening to Moses describe all the ways we’ve already disappointed and erred since taking those first tentative steps toward what we hoped would be better days. “How?! How can I bear the trouble/burden [torach] of you?” Moses moans (Deut 1:12; see PDF in previous post).
On this same Shabbat, we are treated to the prophet Isaiah’s speech from across the river, inside that imagined world. He, too, is explaining just how thoroughly we’ve failed, turning vision into a burden even God cannot bear: “[Your rituals] are become a burden [torach] to me…Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:14-15). “How?! How did a dream of justice and righteousness become a city of murderers?” (1:21, paraphrased)
With Eikha, that imagined world has collapsed, and we are on the road out of the ruins. “How?! How did what once appeared so vibrant turn into this painful mess?!”
It seems that we’ve been crying, “How?! How did things get this bad?!” for so long that we might as well simply declare that nothing ever changes, that people are just as rotten to one another today as they were in Isaiah’s time or King Josiah’s or at the time of Exile, and our problems have been basically the same for 2700 years.
But we can also understand these three readings — offered to us at the lowest point in the Jewish calendar — as an age-old acknowledgement that there will always be failures, that the better days envisioned will always be ahead, that we are always facing an ending…with, we must hope, a new beginning beyond it.
“Where is the ‘so’?”
In the kinot for Tisha B’av, Chapter 13 offers a series of verses beginning “אֵי כֹּה” [ei ko], translated as “Where is the [ko-based] promise…?” (Sefaria offers the Hebrew for Chapter 13 but no translation.) Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s commentary, found in Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (Koren, 2010), explains:
In this kina, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir treats the word eikha as though it were a composite word consisting of two separate words, ei and ko, and therefore, the meaning of the word is not “how?!” but rather “where is the ko, the ‘so'”? Where are the promises that God made to the Jewish people using the word ko?
The author of the kina is asking, R’ Soloveitchik says, why the promises were not fulfilled, and ultimately God responds: “Do not worry, the ko will be realized; sooner or later there will be no need to ask Eikha” (p. 327).
Maybe, however, we should read “where is the ‘so’?” from another angle: For nearly 3000 years, we’ve been warned that there is blood on our hands and work to be done. And so?
And so: 1) “Cease to do evil.” 2) “Learn to do good.” 3) “Devote yourself [to repair]” and, only then, 4) Atone/seek restoration of relationship.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.” (Meshivat Nefesh #38). We will always mess up, and always be called to keep going.
Vision, Blood, and Learning
UPDATED 8/7/22 evening with note on transliteration and link to epilogue
Three challenging Bible passages come together in the Jewish calendar in the next two days:
- Devarim (Deut 1:1-3:12), the first portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1:1-3:12);
- Isaiah 1:1-27, the prophetic reading which gives this Shabbat it’s special name, “Shabbat of Vision,” or Shabbat Chazon; and
- Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av.
In some years, there are several days between Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av — offering a chance for us to take the admonitions to heart before entering into the deepest day of mourning the Jewish calendar and then beginning the slow climb toward the new year. Some years, like this one, leave no space between that last Shabbat of Affliction (or Admonition) and Tisha B’av. So we’re about to enter a complicated couple of days.
Historical and Literary Context
A bit of history is useful for viewing the confluence of readings for Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av:
- Eikha/Lamentations is probably, current scholarship says, from the middle of the 6th Century BCE, although some parts may be older; the book as a whole is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-570 BCE).
- Jeremiah was active at the time of King Josiah (c.640-609 BCE), from the 13th year of the young king’s reign through Exile and the destruction of the First Temple. Substantial portions of the Book of Deuteronomy are also linked with King Josiah’s era.
- The prophet Isaiah lived a century earlier, with the year 733 BCE a prominent date for his vision… which led him to criticize focus on ritual when what is required is tending to those in need:
Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates…
Your hands are full of blood (stained with crime).
…Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….
How [Eikha] is the faithful city…once full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
–Isa 1:14-17, 1:21
That mournful cry, beginning with the word “Eikha” in Isaiah 1:21, is echoed in both Deuteronomy and the book of that name.
For the record, “eikha” appears only the once in Isaiah, four times in Eikha, and five times in Deuteronomy, plus twice in Jeremiah and once each in four other books of Tanakh. (See handout, “Eikha and Chazon,” below).
Isaiah’s vision prompts us to consider any number of collective crimes. The compressed time period of Shabbat followed immediately by the day of mourning makes it difficult to process or respond. But Isaiah doesn’t just leave us with blood on our hands; he suggests a way forward:
Learn to do good.Isaiah 1:17 (see “Isaiah page one” handout, also below)
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
We can read this message as a simple “do better.” And, of course, that is what we are being told to do. But we must also heed that first commandment: Learn.
For nearly 3000 years, Isaiah has railing at us that we have blood on our hands. And for just as long, the prophet has been telling us that the first step — before trying to undertake the work of justice, provide aid, uphold anyone’s rights, or defend the most vulnerable — is to learn.
We can inform ourselves about the problems and issues. We can listen to the voices of those most affected by crimes in which we have participated, however inadvertently. We can get to know what solutions others are already working to implement. We can learn more about Jewish history, practice, and philosophy to shore up our ability to respond Jewishly — and/or steep ourselves in other traditions that inspire us.
For nearly 3000 years, Jewish tradition has been calling us to do better by learning better.
TRANSLITERATION NOTE: The Hebrew word ” איכה ” is pretty commonly transliterated “eicha” (and this blog often used that spelling in the past); eikha is used here, though, in an effort to make clear the distinction between the chet of “[חזון] chazon” and the khaf of “eikha.”
Handout for Hill Havurah, six-page-PDF includes both “Eicha and Chazon” (5 pages) and “Isaiah page one” (1 page) in one document. Also below: separate pieces.
Eicha and Chazon (five-page-PDF, originally prepared for Temple Micah in 2019 and re-shared with Hill Havurah and Tzedek Chicago in 2022) —
Isaiah page one — (one-page-PDF) three translations for Isa 1:15-18 and some definitions.
Footnote to “Setting Out”
Blues musician Bob Margolin, who was on- and off-stage with Muddy Waters, for the 1976 Last Waltz concert, just posted the below reminiscence on his Facebook page. It’s a lovely story in its way, but it’s it’s also another illustration of what life was like for Joni Mitchell and her few female peers back then.
“Joni Mitchell with Rick Danko at a The Last Waltz, 1976. I was there with Muddy Waters. In the green room, she thanked Muddy for his music. Muddy didn’t know who she was, he didn’t know about young Rock Stars. But her beauty was breathtaking. Muddy hit on her. She backed out of it gracefully. She probably did that many times every day. A couple of months ago, I listened to a playlist of her greatest hits on Amazon Music. I was deeply moved by the width and depth of her artistry. For many of us it is a big thrill that she played at the Newport Folk Festival last weekend. Me too, I cried. She conquered time and illness and gave us a gift we didn’t expect. Thank you Joni Mitchell”
Image Description: Still showing stage with Rick Danko playing guitar and Joni Mitchell playing hers, facing a microphone to sing.
Posting this as a footnote to yesterday’s “Setting Out”
This week’s Torah reading includes a series of stages reported like this:
[The people set out from] _Place X_
[and encamped in] _Place Y_.
E.g., (Num 33:5): וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּֽת
[Bnei-Yisrael set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth.]
This series of journeying stages, or “marches,” begins at the start of the second portion in this week’s double-Torah-reading: Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and Masei (Numbers 33:1- 36:13). The idea of leaving one stage to reach another was reverberating for me while Joni Mitchell sang at the recent Newport Folk Festival:
Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
and a big yellow taxi took away my old man
don’t it always seem to go
you don’t know what you’ve lost til it’s gone
Watching video from Mitchell’s surprise appearance on 7/24/22, I was reminded of something I learned many years ago, from Amy Brookman at Fabrangen Havurah, in reference to the portion Masei: We have to “set out” to get to anywhere new.
From One Stage…
It is now possible to see Mitchell’s “Last Waltz” performances — The Band’s farewell, 11/25/1976, at Winterland — via the Music Vault on YouTube. Robbie Robertson and the crowd enthusiastically welcome Mitchell, and she performs two songs from her Hejira album/tour: “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues.”
The Last Waltz also included Laura Nyro and the sisters of the Staple Singers, but Mitchell is the only woman on the stage for the closing numbers. And I’ve come to think of that image, one woman among a stage full of men, as a kind of encapsulation of how the industry functioned then. (A cropped section of that final stage grouping is the feature image for this blog; description below.) See also footnote from a musician present at the time
Moreover, when Mitchell appears in the 1978 Scorcese documentary, only “Coyote” is included — the film includes only one number from most of the guest performers; and I believe the director made the choices — and she is introduced on the heels of an interview segment called “Women on the Road” (see below). That is, Scorcese chose to place Mitchell’s welcome onto the stage immediately after leering remarks from The Band about “women” as objects. To be extra clear about the causality: the director of a concert documentary chose to introduce an influential musician and composer with ugly, sexist and unrelated blither, rather than, say, thoughts about musical composition or influences — which the documentary does also include — or just with Robbie Robertson announcing, as in the above raw footage, “Joni Mitchell. Right!” (The audience is yelling her name, as if guessing who was next up.)
The film’s presentation of Joni Mitchell has been stuck in my consciousness since I first saw it at a theater in 1977. On the one hand, this was a boorish artistic move by one man; on the other, it was emblematic of a time. In both ways, experience of the film shaped my brain and body, in ways that I can sometimes recognize today and in ways that I probably do not even know.
….And, for the record: I do love and recommend the movie, for all the anger I harbor toward its director over many of its specifics. It’s available through Kanopy streaming and local libraries. (And I believe there is some kind of remastering with additional numbers originally omitted, including Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues.”)
On July 24 at Newport, Mitchell was surrounded by musicians of different musical backgrounds, gender identities, skin colors, and ages — many of them born long after Mitchell’s last appearance at Newport, in 1969, or her participation in The Band’s “Last Waltz” at Winterland in 1976.
Comparing the two images — Mitchell surrounded by collaborative, supportive (really, adoring) fellow performers in 2022 and Mitchell a powerful, lone woman actively denigrated by the filmmaker (if not her fellow performers) — brought me to that idea, from this week’s Torah portion, of needing to leave one stage in order to get to another. Of course, Mitchell’s reception and introduction in 2022 owes much to the strength of her long career and her personal hard road to physical recovery.
But this is not just a personal progression: We, as a society, had to leave the 1970s to get to later stages in the musical world and beyond. Watching the varied musicians collaborate with Mitchell through “Big Yellow Taxi” and the other numbers shared by Newport Folk Festival, I couldn’t help but think:
yes, often we don’t know what is lost til it’s gone; but sometimes, it’s a blessing to watch that taxi pull away.
Some background footage, FYI:
Here is some material from the film (inexpertly shared, complete with clutter from my den and an annoying lamp reflection):
Beginning: from early in the film — one of the few times we see the director — Martin Scorcese and Robertson talk about “The Last Waltz” concept
1:19 Robertson explains, backstage, that Ronnie Hawkins first hired him saying, “well, son, it doesn’t pay much, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” This is spliced into the launch of Ronnie Hawkins’ performance on stage.
1:43 “Women on the Road,” as the scene is called on the DVD: backstage interview with band members. at 2:55 Levon Helm (1940-2012) offers “I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about it too much” — earning him my personal, undying gratitude from my teenage years onward. Rick Danko (1943-1999) says something about how “as we’ve grown, so have the women,” and Richard Manuel (1943-1986) just leers.
WARNING: Both Canadian and U.S. Confederate flags appear on the walls in this interview scene. (I don’t know enough about The Band to add any context beyond that they were Canadian born and did write songs about the U.S. South.)
This haphazard presentation of clips from “The Last Waltz” is fair use for purposes of review and discussion; it does not include the actual performance of “Coyote” from the 1978 documentary. The latter is widely available on YouTube, etc. in form that will be easier to enjoy — without violating copyright
L-R in still from 1978 Doc — so all in clothes popular at the time: Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson on stage at The Last Waltz concert. Dr. John is wearing a baret and sunglasses, looking at distance. Joni is wearing a long-sleeve leotard-type top and lots of necklaces, looking a little annoyed and (accidentally?) facing the camera. Neil is wearing a t-shirt with an open workshirt over it, smiling in a buzzed kind of way, looking outside the frame. Rick and Robbie are looking down at their guitars, but only Rick’s guitar is visible; both are wearing long-sleeve button-down shirts.RETURN