Setting Out

This week’s Torah reading includes a series of stages reported like this:

va-yisu bnei-Yisrael
[The people set out from] _Place X_
va’yachanu
[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.”

B/W raw footage from Music Vault: Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” with the Band at the Last Waltz
B/W raw footage from Music Vault: Joni Mitchell’s “Fury Sings the Blues” with the Band at the Last Waltz

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.”)

…to Another

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.)

clips from “The Last Waltz” shown, complete with the clutter in my den and annoying lamp reflection

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

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Image description:

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

Flags, Horns, and Walls

This week’s Torah reading closes the Book of Numbers, leaving the People — who have journeyed for 40 years, losing many people in the process and raising new generations — poised to cross the Jordan. The narrative includes a 42-stage recitation of journeys: “These are the stages of the children of Israel…” (Numbers 33:1-49). Each of the stages is reported as follows: “…and they journeyed FROM [old place]….and they camped [new place].”

One lesson of the reading seems to be the importance of noting every stage on the way. And the repetition of “journeyed from” — forty-two times! — hammers home the idea that you have to leave one place to get to a new one. But events of recent weeks in the nation, as well as some travel of my own, suggest that recognizing where we are is no simple matter.

Flags

In South Carolina a few days ago, the Confederate flag was removed from the State House. (See, e.g., Al Jazeera.) Observers reportedly chanted “USA! USA!” as well as “nah nah nah nah…goodbye,” and the removal was heralded by many as a victory over hate and divisiveness. In addition, other instances of the same flag, in stained-glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral, for example, also face possible removal.

from Al Jazeera
from Al Jazeera

However, there are some who mourn the loss of what they consider a “heritage symbol.”

Still others argue that the US flag, Mount Rushmore, the faces on our currency, and a variety of other national symbols and observances need to go as well. (See, e.g., Black Agenda Report.)

So, if we had to name this stage in our country’s history, what would it be?
Where are we leaving?
Where are we headed?
Are we making a collective journey at all, if we don’t share a starting point?

Horns

Stained-glass window at Kenyon College's Church of the Holy Spirit
Stained-glass window at Kenyon College’s Church of the Holy Spirit

Meanwhile, I am visiting Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, this week, where this image of Moses (right) holds a prominent place in the campus Church of the Holy Spirit.

The horns are based, most scholars think, on a mistranslation of the word קָרַן — as “keren” [“grew horns”] rather than “karan” [“sent forth beams (of light)”] in Exodus 34. They appear most famously on sculptures of Moses by Michelangelo and Donatello (both centuries before the window design).

51GOZ58pcKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The horns were a “widespread medieval negative image of the Jew,” according to My Jewish Learning, and “led to the widespread notion that all Jews had devilish horns.” Moreover:

Der Sturmer cover 1932
Der Sturmer cover 1932

The Nazis seized upon the negative Jewish body image and used caricatures and other forms of propaganda to present the Jews as sub-human or as disfigured humans. The Nazi weekly Der Sturmer was famous for disseminating these images. (See right, e.g.; more here).

[Additional, more recent (2013) example.]

In a 1997 history of the church, Perry Lentz says, “in the left-most first window a Moses with a distractingly muscular forearm is bringing the ten commandments.”

A video, used in promoting the “Beyond Walls” program that brought me to Kenyon this week, pans the church windows at a distance too great to discern content, while a young spokesperson declares: “When Kenyon was founded, we were Episcopalian, but now we’re completely non-denominational.”


Continue reading Flags, Horns, and Walls

Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”

The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
Continue reading Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

Masei: Great Source

So the Prophet remains in the wilderness, buries his own generation, and trains up a new one. Year after year passes, and he never grows weary of repeating to this growing generation the laws of righteousness that must guide its life in the land of its future; never tires of recalling the glorious past in which these laws were fashioned. The past and the future are the Prophet’s whole life, each completing the other. In the present he sees nothing but a wilderness, a life far removed from his ideal; and therefore he looks before and after. He lives in the future world of his vision and seeks strength in the past out of which that vision-world is quarried.
Continue reading Masei: Great Source