popular culture

"Into the Woods," Freedom, & Happily Ever After

December 30, 2014

There’s a fine, thoughtful movie about the meaning of freedom in theaters now, and it’s not “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” It’s “Into the Woods,” the new cinematic version of the Sondheim musical.

“Into the Woods” intertwines several classic fairy tales:  Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood all merge together in Act 1, along with a Baker & His Wife and a witch who manipulates the plot in order to undo a curse that was placed on her. There are vengeful giants, a big bad wolf, and two Prince Charmings who are as shallow as you always imagined they would be. All of the characters discover that fate has sent them “into the woods” – a psychosexual place of innocence-shedding (although not as sexualized as I remember the play being when I saw it on Broadway years ago).  

There is a lot going on in those dark woods. The show’s themes include: moral development, community vs. the individual, parenting, leaving home, spoiled teens, infidelity (Prince: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”), friendship, sacrifice, and fate.  But there are two Torah themes in the story that particularly resonate with me.

The first is the show’s wonderful two-act structure (especially poignant on stage, where there is an intermission between parts). Act 1 braids together the well-known fairy tales, and it climaxes exactly the way that every fairy tale does:  They all live happily ever after.

The beauty of “Into the Woods” is:  There’s an Act 2.

In other words, what happens after “happily ever after”? Cinderella discovers she isn’t cut out for the life of a princess. The baker discovers that the baby he yearned for isn’t so easy to care for. Several characters die before their time. In other words, there is no “happily ever after”—because there remains work to do and lives to live and there are still giants (who are threatening everyone’s survival) to slay.

“Happily ever after” is for fairy tales. Life isn’t a fairy tale—and neither is the Torah.  The entire saga of the Torah – from the expulsion from Eden, the descent to Egypt, and the sojourns in the desert – can be seen as a quest towards reaching (returning to) the Promised Land. Four and a half of its five books take place along that road. At the culmination of Deuteronomy, the Israelites stand on the edge of the Land, and Moses goes up to Mt. Nebo and surveys all of it. And in shul on Simchat Torah, we read the final words of the Torah – never again did there arise a prophet like Moses – and then… “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”  The cycle of reading starts over again, and we never quite get to the Promised Land. Why not?  Because there is still work to do. The best we can do is move a little closer towards that goal, and set up the next generation to be that much closer to the Promised Land of the future.

“Into the Woods” is also about freedom.  When Act 2 opens, the characters are free agents, having fulfilled their dreams and desires. Then fate intervenes. A wrathful giant wants to demolish the kingdom, the survivors have to decide: give up Jack (of beanstalk fame) or stand united. There is a temptation to offer him as a sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. There is a lot of self-doubt, the presumption being that only princes are qualified to do battle with the forces of evil.  (This recalls a great liberal falsehood: That because we’re not perfect, we’re not qualified to make moral arguments against evil.)

Jewish tradition makes a similar argument about freedom.  Pirkei Avot 6:2 quotes the Torah, The tablets were the handiwork of G-d, with G-d’s writing engraved on the tablets. Then it creatively says:  Don’t read “engraved [charut] on the tablets” but rather “freedom [chayrut] was on the tablets.” It may be counterintuitive to say that subscribing to a life of religious prescriptions and service to G-d and others is a life of freedom, but that’s precisely our tradition’s claim.

What is freedom? It doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want. That’s not freedom; that’s anarchy, irresponsibility, frivolousness. In Jewish spiritual thought, freedom means encountering your own unique destiny and seizing the responsibility that has been uniquely given to you. Not running away, but sharing the responsibility that fate and history placed before you.

The protagonists in “Into the Woods” discover that nuanced understanding of what it means to be free. They come to learn that by working together, they can halt giants in their tracks and even eke out a hopeful future—even if it’s not exactly going to be “happily ever after.”

G-d Bless the Rolling Stones

June 17, 2014

After the Rolling Stones packed up from their performance in Tel Aviv last week, I found myself wondering:  Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?  Is it possible not to?

That’s a classic conundrum, and most of the time we have to agree that we’d have to make such a separation. We can’t expect moral perfection from the artists, musicians, and writers who touch us, and why should we? If we did, we’d have a very short list of pretty much zero entertainment that we could enjoy guilt-free. Further, who would want to do an entire biographical vetting of every new performer we discover, just to make sure she or he was “clean”? 

But that said, I have to tell you:  I can’t listen to my old Pink Floyd albums anymore.

Pink Floyd was one of the first rock bands that ever really touched me. I was 13 when I got The Wall, and although I haven’t played it in 20 years (it could be the most depressing music ever made) it led me on to their earlier records which had a lot more staying-power on my sound system: Meddle, Animals, “Cymbaline,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

But for the past few years, Pink Floyd’s bassist and primary songwriter Roger Waters has emerged as the most crass and vehement support of the BDS (“boycott, divestment, & sanctions”) movement to marginalize the State of Israel. He’s missed no opportunity to name Israel as the primary villain in the Middle East and the sole source of the conflict with the Palestinians. When confronted by well-meaning people who have criticized the coarseness of his arguments, he hasn’t mitigated them a bit.

Let’s be clear: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is a disaster; the world needs moral leadership to broker a just two-state solution that will ensure Palestinian dignity and Israel’s right to live in terror-free safety and security. There are people of good faith working every day to build those bridges and bring that about.  And the BDS supporters are not among them.The BDS campaign is a vile attempt to stigmatize the world’s only Jewish state, to make it a pariah in the world community, and, I believe, to delegitimize it to the point of its erasure from the community of nations. It is anti-Semitism – because no other nation in the world, including ones with genuinely horrific human rights records, is targeted for such bile. It completely ignores the fear and suffering of the Israelis, the astonishing racism that is taught from official Palestinian literature in their schools, and the unapologetic and unabated terrorism from the likes of Hamas, who have recently been legitimized in a unity government with the PLO. 

And that is the movement that Roger Waters and his ignoble ilk align themselves with. Thus they encourage other rock artists to boycott Israel as part of their campaign of pressure until Israel… does what, exactly? 

So as much as I may appreciate “Echoes” as a really terrific piece of progressive rock, I find that it makes me sick these days. Ditto the music of Elvis Costello, who never meant much to me.

On the other hand, the cultural boycott that Waters promotes is pretty leaky; there are far more performers who are saying yes to performing in Israel. Neil Young (hooray!), Paul McCartney, Radiohead, The Pixies, Lady Gaga, and others have recently appeared or will be performing in Israel – which isn’t so easy, when you consider how much money and energy it takes to shlep a modern day rock crew to Tel Aviv for a single show. (After all, where else in “the neighborhood” are these artists going to play?)

But this year’s gold star has to go to the Stones. The Stones acknowledged from the moment they announced they were going to be playing in Tel Aviv on June 4, that the BDS crowd was pressuring them to cancel. They refused. (Didn’t those haters read Keith’s autobiography?  No one tells him to do anything!) They arrived in Israel a few days early and took plenty of photo-ops: Ron Wood and Charlie Watts at the Western Wall; Mick Jagger, more in character, in the high-end Tel Aviv nightlife.                               

There was even in-house controversy: The concert was scheduled to start before the Jewish festival of Shavuot was officially over, which would have prevented observant fans from attending. Yet the Stones graciously delayed the start of the concert. 

And onstage, the real fun began. Mick’s patter between songs was full of Hebrew, from his opening “Chag Shavuot Samayach!” (“Happy Shavuot!”), to teasing Ronnie about whether the guitarist had purchased his ugly shoes in the shuk. I’m not a sucker; I presume a smart p.r. staffer was feeding Mick his lines. Who cares? The effort means so much to a community that has been called a pariah by lesser stars!

So G-d Bless the Rolling Stones. And Paul McCartney. And Johnny Rotten. And Madonna. And Metallica. And Dylan (saw him in ’93 on a soccer field in Beersheva!). And so many others who have defied racist boycotts, and brought a real message of peace: one that says we’re not going to demonize anybody, and that music can build bridges, not burn them.

A Hesped for Lou Reed

I have at least three books on my bookshelf about "Jews in Rock." None of those books are great, but each seems to have an agenda to prove: that you can be cool, young, and Jewish, and that some Jews have been at the epicenter of everything fundamentally cool in the second half of the 20th Century. From my perspective, there's something a little desperate about that; after all, what's more uncool than trying to show how cool you are?

Lou Reed, who died last week, never had to establish his credentials in that department; he was often the coolest guy in the room. He started his writing career as the disciple of the legendary Delmore Schwartz ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," one of the greatest short stories in American literature) at Syracuse University, and went on to form the Velvet Underground under the tutelage of Andy Warhol. Suffice to say that the VU influenced just about every underground and punk rock band of the past forty years, even while they never particularly sold all that many records (and what could be cooler than that?).

In the 70s and 80s, Lou Reed was one of those cultural figures who seem important even though they are never overwhelmingly popular. Like many of my favorites, he had an ornery streak and thrived on confrontation with his fans; like Dylan, when you thought you could pigeonhole him as one thing, he bucked and came back as something different. With the album Transformer—the closest thing he ever had to a hit—he brought gay consciousness into the mainstream when it was still a cultural stigma. I mean, in 1972 "Walk on the Wild Side," was a top 40 hit, with the lyric "shaved her legs and then he was a she." How in the world did that happen? When I was a teenager, those sorts of gestures meant something: they implied that the world out there was a whole lot funkier than a stifling public high school in the suburbs would indicate. (And I wasn't even gay. For some, those gestures were positively liberating.)

But this is a Jewish blog, and author Steven Lee Beeber called Lou "the zeyde of punk." So is Lou Reed a Jewish rock star or a rock star who happened to be Jewish?

Certainly there is a Jewish trope in his biographical arc: growing up in the middle class suburbs of Long Island; heading off to Syracuse where he discovered new intellectual horizons; making a home in the avant garde scene of downtown New York and shedding the suburbs as much as he could; continuing to run away from his roots by embracing every outrageous image he could throughout the seventies. Then cleaning up, getting sober, and starting to revisit some Jewish themes in his writing. In "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim," from 1989's album New York, he called out Waldheim, Arafat, and Farrakhan for their anti-Semitism and maintained the rest of media were hypocrites when it came to anti-Jewish bigotry: "If I ran for president," he wrote in verse to Jesse Jackson, "and once was a member of the Klan/ wouldn't you call me on it / the way I call you on Farrakhan?"

He appeared in Israel on a handful of occasions, which also is a valuable gesture. In a world where pop figures occasionally buckle to racist boycott and divestment groups, Lou had no problem playing in Israel, which makes him in my book a figure of much greater integrity and honor than the likes of Elvis Costello or Roger Waters.

He certainly didn't show the biblical or Jewish literacy of, say, Dylan. But there is an outrageous scene in Beeber's book of Lou Reed reciting the Four Questions at a hipster "Downtown Seder" and in a heartfelt, not ironic, way.

For me, his most moving album was the follow-up to New York called Magic and Loss. It's a full-length meditation on the death of two friends (legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and Warhol Factory diva Rotten Rita). It follows the mourner through the stages of denial, melancholy, rage against the cosmos, and ultimately, a completely unsentimental sort of transcendence. In my 5th year of rabbinical school, I presented in class the climax song "Magic and Loss," as a valuable text for grappling with death and mourning. Here's part of that song; it is one exquisite hesped.

They say no one person can do it all But you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
and you can't be Joyce
So what is left instead

You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment this wonderful fire
Started up again ....

When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there's a door up ahead not a wall  

As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
Try to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
You cannot remain the same
And if the building's burning move towards that door
But don't put the flames out

There's a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out

'Bye Lou, and thanks for those words. Hope you're slugging it out with Lester Bangs in the olam ha-ba even as we speak.


Death of a Beastie Boy

I was saddened to hear about the death, just before Shabbat, of MCA (Adam Yauch) from the Beastie Boys, because I've always liked their music (there's a band who matured and deepened dramatically over the years) and because MCA always seemed like a righteous guy. 

But his death also prompts a few thoughts about identity. I remember a few years ago there was a news item in the Jerusalem Report about the Beastie Boys' visit to Israel, and how bemused and startled they were when they realized that they had become role models to a generation of Jewish youth. 

They were the real deal, but it makes me think about how in every generation young Jews especially Jewish boys look to other cultures for roots and for escape. We look especially, it seems, towards African-American culture. 

The Beastie Boys were Jewish pioneers in an African-American milieu (hip-hop). That itself is part of a grand history of partnerships between blacks and Jews in American music in blues, R & B, jazz, and funk before the preeminence of rap. And the Beastie Boys stood out because they weren't poseurs; their music was the real deal: complex, exploratory, creative, humorous, righteous, and fun. 

Which is not to say that there should be ghettos of "Jewish music" or that the Beastie Boys didn't have a clear sense of exactly what they were doing. They always seemed to be aware that their work was absolutely authentic and mildly ridiculous at the same time, which is an appealing combination. But all those 80s and 90s Jewish kids in their baggy pants and urban patois didn't generally seem to have the same sense of self-awareness as MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock. I got a sense that urban culture for those kids was an escape from the middle- and upper-middle class conformist identities that they had inherited, including a rather tepid form of Judaism. The Beastie Boys became role models because they were recognizably not from the street, but from those similar sorts of Jewish homes; they were cool and undeniably Jewish at the same time. 

If you're like me, you blanch when you have to fill out a biographical form and under "race/ethnic background" your choices are: white/black/Latino/Asian/Aleutian Islander... and you don't know what to check off. Knowing the history of anti-Jewish prejudice, as well as the desire to be something different like all those hip-hop kids, makes it really hard to check off "white." When I'm feeling particularly ornery, I sometimes write in "Jewish" when asked to list my "race." Since when did Jews become "white folks", with all those connotations of bourgeois conformity? (I borrowed the phrase from a study of Jews in America by Karen Brodkin called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.

I happen to think that authentic Judaism is radical, provocative, intellectually rigorous, and potentially dangerous; a far cry from everything that is connoted by the lame term "white." But those of us in Jewish education are still fighting a battle against the mid-century conformist mindset that the Coen Brothers skewered so knowingly in A Serious Man. 

As far as I know, the Beastie Boys never tapped into those Jewish sources to inform their art. Still, there was something very recognizable in their attitude and their music to young Jewish boys, and their desire for something a little... cooler than what they've been handed. The next step, for ourselves and the next generation, is to rediscover that coolness that remains inherent in Judaism.