I Called; We Called

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Returning to the music of “Wordless Verses,” the melody Benshimon shares is one of those created by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for the psalm.

There is a straightforward rendering of the chant posted on Zemirot Database. Its melody, used in many congregations and other settings, focuses on two lines of Psalm 30, verses 9 and 11, usually translated as something like “To you, God, I call, and to God I will plead. Hear, O God, and have mercy on me, be a help to me!”

This translation, from Siddur Eit Ratzon, is intended to be “sung to the same melody” — no information about which melody that is, but the translation does seem to scan with this particular, popular tune:

אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה אֶקְרָא; וְאֶל-אֲדֹנָי, אֶתְחַנָּן
Elecha HASHEM ekra; v’el adonai et-chanan
It is to You that I cried out,
it is to You I did appeal — v.9
שְׁמַע-יְהוָה וְחָנֵּנִי; יְהוָה, הֱיֵה-עֹזֵר לִי.
Sh’ma HASHEM v’choneini; HASHEM heyeih ozer li
Hear me, HASHEM, show me Your light, [be gracious]
please help me draw from Your strength — v.11

Note: “Show me Your light,” although it works with the chant, is an unusual interpretation of what is more commonly rendered, “be gracious to me.”

Calling and Response

“Three Israelis in Phoenix Arizona” recorded at this version at Fiddler’s Dream Coffeehouse. You can hear a little of the call-and-response that many congregations employ with this chant.

In Making Prayer Real, Rabbi Nehemia Polen writes:

…The Baal Shem Tov taught his students that every prayer is answered immediately. It’s reported that his students raised their eyebrows, so it’s not as if people are crazy or stupid, but he insisted, yes, every prayer is answered the instant it is uttered. That is the moment.

What we really want always is intimacy–with God, however I understand God; with other human beings; with the universe; with my own deep self. And when I do this, I feel that intimacy immediately, and that’s “yes.” That’s “yes.”
–p.89 (full citation at Source Materials)

By allowing us to “cry out,” and so be answered, the chant, “Elecha HASHEM Ekra — It is to You that I cried out,” is one way that the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching comes to life.

The “Three Israelis” — identified as “Oren, Ronen, and Ari” in the video — demonstrate another way the chant works in terms of the teaching above: A leader, often with more voices joining in support, calls out, and then others in the room call out, too, separately —

Voice set 1: Elecha — It is to You
Voice set 2: Elecha — It is to You

This is repeated with the second phrase of the verse —

Voice set 1: HASHEM ekra — I cried out
Voice set 1: HASHEM ekra — I cried out

Finally all join together in closing out the verse —

Together: V’el Adonai et-chanan — it is to You I did appeal

Similarly with verse 11:

Voice set 1: Sh’ma HASHEM — Hear me, O God
Voice set 2: Sh’ma HASHEM — Hear me, O God
Voice set 1: v’choneini — Show me Your Light (be gracious to me)
Voice set 2: v’choneini — Show me Your Light (be gracious to me)
Together: HASHEM heyeih ozer li — please help me draw from Your strength

Chanting separately and together, we offer and receive some of the human connection Rabbi Polen suggests is part of the way prayer is answered.


14 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. apologies to anyone who finds multiple-post days too much.

NOTE
Wikipedia has a nice summary of Shlomo Carlebach’s life and work, including controversy about his approach to outreach as well as accusations of sexual impropriety. A quotation from the rabbi’s daughter, Neshama Carlebach, says: “I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was.” (“My Sisters I Hear You,” in Times of Israel January 2018).

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SHIYR Psalm 30

A few posts back, I shared a thought from Making Prayer Real on the idea of music as “prayer in itself, without the words attached” (Wordless Verses“) along with a largely instrumental piece based on a tune for few verses from Psalm 30. More on that specific tune to come. Meanwhile, here is a contrasting approach, seeking to render every word and the sound of the psalm.

The SHIYR Poets (pronounced “Sheer” not “Shire”)” have been working together for several years to “render the Psalms as sung English poetry.” They are Brian Doerksen, Calum Rees, Brian Thiessen and Teresa Trask.

This is how The SHIYR Poets describe their enterprise:

Using all the translations available (including Robert Alter’s more poetic translation) and seeking counsel from Hebrew scholars, the SHIYR Poets are paraphrasing the Psalms and setting them to modern folk-rock tunes.

Choosing not to censor the difficult verses of lament and anger, the SHIYR Poets render each psalm in its entirety, singing in solidarity with all who suffer. The result is raw yet meditative music, at times unconventional in its form, yet deeply comforting because every generation has prayed and pondered the words of these Psalms.

Taken as a whole, the Psalms are perhaps the most emotionally healthy comprehensive expression of spirituality ever written. These are songs of desire and desperation…songs that demand justice for the oppressed…songs that honour the innocent praise of children…songs about everyday things like sleep.

Their version of Psalm 30 adds a chorus and includes interesting poetic versions of some verses. One favorite:

When you looked away; I fell apart
Broken into pieces; I crumbled into pieces
When you turned away, I fell apart

— Just listen, above, or click through to YouTube to see The SHIYR Poets’ translation

13 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far).

Wordless Verses

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“Music touches us in a place that’s beyond the rational mind,” writes Rabbi Naomi Levy, “and it reaches into the heart.” She continues:

It is the language of the soul. We’ve all had the experience of knowing how a piece of music is a prayer in itself, without the words attached. We can pray through the music itself.
— in Making Prayer Real by Rabbi Mike Comins, p.72 (details)

 
This quote comes in a chapter on “Engaging the Body.” Comins counts music and chant as methods for approaching mochin d’gadlut [expanded consciousness] — “the open, mature, listening, caring state of awareness that is considered in itself an experience of divine presence,” opposed to mochin d’katnut [small consciousness] of self-occupation and self-interest (ibid p.250).

In the same chapter, Rabbi Diane Elliot says:

When I take the time to work with a word or a phrase — chanting it in my own time, rolling it around in my mouth, and letting it move through my whole body — then when I say the phrase quickly, all of that backstory is there for me. It can move me into a stream of consciousness.
— ibid, p.74

In the spirit of both ideas — the power of music alone, and the power of backstory — I share this musical piece, which is wordless until 2:51. For those who recognize the tune, the instrumental section will likely have a “backstory” of some kind; for others, especially those who do not know Hebrew, perhaps the listening (prayer) experience will be quite different.

If anyone would like to share their impressions of the music, as music alone and/or as a meditation on Psalm 30, please either include in the comments or write separately to songeveryday at gmail.

More to come on this particular tune, as well as more on music and Psalm 30.

10 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…apologies for multiple-post days as my blog catches up with my notes.


Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It by Rabbi Mike Comins (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010). More about the book and Rabbi Comins’ teaching at Making Prayer Real website.

Rosetta, Miami Temple, and the Winter Jews

As a child singing in front of a choir, Rosetta Nubin was forbidden by her mother to bend over and pick up coins tossed at her by white visitors to the church. She discovered by accident, however, that a large brimmed hat could collect coins without her bending or her mother’s knowledge. This particular recollection, shared in the play, Marie and Rosetta, by George Brant, may be fictional. But the history behind it is quite real:

“The Jews from Miami Beach would come to our church every Sunday night to hear [Rosetta] sing. It would be packed with winter Jews [vacationers from up north]…. They came in droves to our church. Buses and limousines. They didn’t mind parking in the ghetto for that. They weren’t afraid.
When the saints would shout they would throw money down at them. It was, let’s go see these niggers. It was amusement to them.”
— Zeola Cohen Jones, member of Miami Temple and cousin of its founder,
quoted in Shout, Sister, Shout! (more below)

In the 1930s, Reverend Amaziah Cohen, founder of Miami Temple Church of God (now A.M. Cohen Temple), had begun broadcasting services featuring singing and guitar playing of Rosetta Tharpe.

The people at night would come from all areas; sometimes we had more whites than blacks,” recalls Isaac Cohen. The visitors, including many Jews, sat in a horseshoe balcony, while church members gathered on the main floor, up front. Eventually, Elder Cohen says, the church established a policy for mandatory offering, “because we didn’t have room for everyone.”

Moreover, Wald writes, when the church started charging admission to take advantage of all of the outsiders who came on Sundays, “the poor people couldn’t attend.” On the other hand, Zeola Jones goes on to explain, some people would come just for the Sunday night broadcasts and jump for the money. The fact that these same visitors were also funding church renovations and a college fund, the reminiscence continues, did nothing in her view to “compensate for the ugliness.”


More on Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, including musical clips. “Marie and Rosetta” runs at Mosaic Theater Company of DC through September 30.
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Back at Beer Lahai Roi

The character of Rosetta, in “Marie and Rosetta” as performed at Mosaic Theater, does not mention Jews when she tells of white people and their coins.** For people like Zeola Jones, however, these scenes are part of their picture of Jews. This and so many scenes like it — with charitable behavior never quite making up for the egregious disrespect shown in other ways — are a part of the history that Jewish and Black communities today share, whether we acknowledge this or not.

There are wider and deeper issues highlighted by this story and some other aspects of “Marie and Rosetta,” too: how outsiders — Jews and non-Jews — visit black communities to view entertainment and cultural expressions, for example. How pain specific to Jewish and Black communities is expressed in art, if/how it can be shared, and what we can learn from singing and performing together and apart. If we are to use the model of Isaac and Ishmael, living side-by-side at Beer Lahoi Roi, as a model of Black and Jewish communities “renewing cousinship,” we have a lot to explore on this score.


Shout, Sister, Shout! and Book Event

For more on this, read Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

Gayle F. Wald is a professor at George Washington University and the author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV. She was a consultant for the film “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” Wald lives in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylewald.

If in the DC area, stop by event at Solid State Books, cosponsored by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Free and public (event link):

Solid State Books
600 H Street NE
7 – 8 p.m. Sunday September 16.

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NOTE:
**I have not see the play in print, and it is possible I missed this reference in performance; if someone knows different, please advise.
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“Lean on Me” Day

Please swallow your pride
if I have things you need to borrow
for no one can fill
those of your needs
that you won’t let show
— Bill Withers, “Lean on Me,” 1972
(AZ Lyrics)

Many of us have loved the song, “Lean on Me,” for a long, long time. And, as it happens, July 8 is the anniversary of the single hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. So, here are some thoughts about the song, which has been on my mind a lot recently, particularly the line above about letting needs show.

Things You Need to Borrow

How often is a failure to communicate needs at the heart of a serious problem, between friends, in a couple, or in a larger group? And yet, how regularly do people hope for someone(s) who will know their needs without them having to ask?

Withers has said many times — to the Soul Train crowd in 1974, to NPR in 2007, and often in between — that the song is meant to be about friendship. And one of its great strengths is the powerful sense of mutuality: Lean on me now, because I’ll need to lean on you later. But how does that work, in real life, especially when needs go unexpressed?

There are a lot of Jewish teachings around friendship and community. For example, just a few lines from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Ancestors]:

  • Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious. (1:6)
  • If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when? (1:14)
  • …Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place…. (2:4)
  • The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own… (2:10)
  • Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him; do not question him at the time of his vow; and do not seek to see him at the time of his humiliation. (4:18)

These teachings suggest that we should know a great deal about others: “the place” of our fellows as well as our friends’ anger, grief, vows, humiliations, and honor. We are asked here to anticipate, or act to obviate, lots of emotional needs, while other parts of the tradition speak more to meeting our fellows’ physical needs. In this way, Pirkei Avot seems to be asking us to make sure that there’s plenty for everyone “to borrow,” without vulnerable people necessarily having to put needs on display.

Still, the “Lean on Me” advice to swallow pride and speak up remains important, if for no other reason than to keep our friends from failing in their duties.

A Shift of Understanding

The mutuality and inter-connectedness of the whole “Lean on Me” concept is brought home by a slight change to one line, in Playing for Change’s 2015 “Song Around the World” version. Withers sang, “I just might have a problem that you’ll understand” (I’ll lean on you). But Playing for Change has it, instead: “You just might have a problem that you don’t understand” (You can lean on me). And their video, with its mixing of performances from so many people, generations, and locales around the world seems to emphasize that people in any one situation might have problems that could benefit from a wider perspective.

Playing for Change’s “Songs Around the World” give physical embodiment to the idea that we all lean on each other…to make music and for so many other things. [Descriptions follow embedded video below].

The original —

The above is video from NBC’s “The Midnight Special” (March 1974).
Description: Most of the video shows Withers at the piano in front of a studio audience, some close ups of him, some panning of audience; near the close of the video is a still of the album cover from the 1972 “Still Bill,” which included this song.

And Playing for Change —

The above video is one in a series of “Songs Around the World” staged by the non-profit Playing for Change.
Description:
The opening guitar chords are performed by Renard Poche of New Orleans, followed by Robert Lutti in Livorno Italy. Niki La Rosa, of Rome Italy, begins the lyrics. Grandpa Elliott, a New Orleans street musician, is heard singing the chorus, while we see: drumming on a beach in Chennai, India; a group of students in Kigali, Rawanda; and young dancers in Kirina, Mali. Elliott then appears briefly.

The “things you have to borrow” verse is sung by Clarence Bekker, Suriname native performing in Amsterdam. Bekker’s voice continues while we see Poche again and then Keiko Komaki of Kagoshima Japan is seen playing keyboard. Musicians and vocal artists in Chicago, Melbourne, Los Angeles and other locations join the mix. Titi Tsira, from Guguletha, South Africa, sings the “right up the road” verse. [More details as time permits, but hope this gives an idea of the visuals.]

Call and Response

Thanks to Bill Withers and so many others for helping us all believe there is someone to help carry a difficult load or just plain carry on while reminding us all that we need to be that someone as well:

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

If there is a load
You have to bear
That you can’t carry,
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load
If you just call me.
— Bill Withers, 1972 (from AZ Lyrics

Babylon: Babel’s (Distant) Background

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 3.1

The Hebrew “Bavel” is translated into English as “Babel” in Genesis and as “Babylon” when it appears elsewhere in the Tanakh. Bavel as Babel shows up in a total of two verses in the entire Torah text: Gen 10:10, Nimrod’s legacy — “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar,” and Gen 11:9, the close of what is usually called “The Tower of Babel” story. Bavel, now Babylon, is not mentioned again until 2 Kings 17:30, during the exile of the northern kingdoms.

After that, the Concordance (Even-Shoshan 1998) lists 281 additional appearances Bavel in the prophets and two in Psalm 137. Down the road, we’ll explore Babylon references in the later Tanakh. For now, let’s return to the Genesis.

Babel and Babylon

Jewish commentary on Gen 11:1-9 often treats the Bavel of Genesis as a place apart from history and geography. The focus is on the Babel tale’s placement in the Torah: after the Flood — when Noah’s descendants were told to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1) — and before Terah, Abraham, Sarah, and Lot leave Ur (Gen 11:31). Babylon is far in the background, often unremarked.

For example, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of Yeshivat Maharat, recently shared a lovely, powerful dvar torah for the Torah portion Noach (Gen 6:9-11:32):

And God models how to exist in a world of diversity. In verse 7, when God goes down to mete out their punishment, God says: “Come let US go down.”

Rashi, addressing the question of who God is talking to, suggests that God “took counsel with the Angels, with his judicial court.” Surely God knows how to mete out judgment and punishment, as he has already done unilaterally in the Torah without discussing it with the Angels? Perhaps, God turns to them to asses their thoughts on the sin of the people, to hear their opinion, to debate the pros and cons of scattering the people all over the world. By addressing the Angels, God models how to collaborate with others. Diverse ideas, when debated in a respectful manner, can lead to growth, greater productivity, and ultimately harmony.

…The challenge with diversity is to reject the tendency toward segregating, and running away from conflict. For out of conflict, when we are willing to confront one another with healthy debate, tolerance is born…
— Hurwitz, ָ”Harmony, not Conformity

Hurwitz’s dvar torah is about Babel, not Babylon. She mentions no historical city or empire. Plenty of homelies, in- and outside the Orthodox world, identify Babel with Babylon and incorporate views of the latter; idol-worship, smugness of place, and failure to follow God’s commandments are common themes linking Babel and Babylon. However large a role Babylon plays in any given dvar torah, the overarching point is to help us better understand the Torah, ourselves, and our obligations as Jews — not to tease out insights on life in ancient Babylon.

Still, Jewish bible study has long examined the relationship of the historical, geographical Babylon to the Babel of Genesis 11. For thousands of years, that discussion has returned again and again to concepts of unity and difference, centralizing and dispersing. And for thousand of years, intentionally or not, those discussions have incorporated political ideas about these themes.

Because Babylon, in its many guises, is never far away from Jewish consciousness. Remember: We’ve already found Babylon in the primordial stuff of Creation and in the formation of the first earthling….

It’s Complicated

Erin Runions analyses Babylon as a complex, often contradictory, theme in U.S. culture and politics. From a non-Jewish academic perspective, she writes about the Tower:

The Tower of Babel appears in political and religious discourse when people want to think about what holds the United States together in the face of its racial and cultural diversity. Because the Babelian creation of diverse languages is typically read as both God’s will and at the same time a punishment, the story lends itself well to representing a range of attitudes about difference. A confusing ambivalence about unity and about too much diversity emerges. Via the Babel story, Babylon is sometimes used to promote tolerance toward sexual and ethnic difference, insofar as U.S. Americans see themselves as benevolent toward difference. At other times it is used to stigmatize and attack difference as embodying a problematic unity without moral distinctions.
The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (NY: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 22-23

Runions calls Babylon “a surprisingly multivalent symbol” in U.S. culture and politics and then dedicates 300 pages to unpacking its complexities. Much of The Babylon Complex is outside the scope of this blog’s project. But Runions’s work illuminates how the surrounding culture understands and uses the concept of Babylon — and those insights are crucial, however tangential.

We’ll explore The Babylon Complex further another day. For the moment, let’s return to Rabba Hurwitz’s image of God modeling “how to collaborate with others” and add a postscript.

Different Folks

This past week, Playing for Change re-shared this video — one of my favorites among an enormous menu of great, community-building music. Sly Stewart’s great lines —

You love me
you hate me
You know me and then
Still can’t figure out the bag I’m in

seem so appropriate to this stage of #ExploringBabylon and Hurwitz’s charge to us.

Plus: Who doesn’t need hundreds of children singing and dancing to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”?!

More here for those interested, about TurnAround Arts and Playing for Change.

MiShebeirach for Circles of Pain

bullet_hole

photo: Treona Kelty

Introduction: Every bullet leaves pain in circles rippling outward, like the diameter of the bomb the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once described. Amichai’s bomb extends from 30 centimeters to the immediate range of dead and wounded, out to a solitary mourner “far across the sea,” finally encompassing “the entire world in the circle.” (Chana Bloch’s translation.)

Monday’s shooting on Benning Road killed Ayana McAllister, 18, home from college on spring break, and injured her roommate, Aqueelah Brown, 19, who was visiting. It traumatized Ayana’s sister, N’Daja, 19, who was also present. Friends and acquaintances suffer in ripples outward from two family circles that will never be the same, from school communities forever changed, and from Fort Chaplin Apartments, where such shootings are too commonplace. And somewhere in that web of sorrow and confusion are neighboring toddlers who experience, without knowing in any conscious way, the calculations their caregivers make every time they leave the house.

Note: In Jewish tradition, “Mi Shebeirach” [“May the one who blessed…”] prayers use a formula that calls on memory and relationship, a personal-divine history of sorts, to make a request of God. Traditions vary today and have varied throughout history regarding timing and content of such prayers, but requests for healing are a common use in most traditions. There are many articles on the topic. Here’s one interesting piece from Sh’ma written not long after the death of Debbie Friedman (February 23, 1951 – January 9, 2011). Friedman, singer/song-writer and faculty member of the Hebrew Union College, created a musical “Mi Shebeirach” that was extremely popular in the late 20th Century and had a strong influence on how the prayer is perceived and used.

See also related prayers and meditations

Mi Shebeirach for Circles of Pain

May the one who blessed our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,
and our extended family,
Lot and his kin, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau, Bilhah and Zilpah
– a clan that knew its share of trauma and grief –
bless and heal those recovering from violence, loss, and terror.
May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion
for all those experiencing ripples of violence.
May God swiftly send all who need it a renewal of body and spirit.
May our community health be restored
and our collective strength revived.
And let us say, Amen.