Sunday, July 24, 2016

Before the Stars Were Torn Down

This piece was originally posted when Robin Williams died two years ago. It feels right, right about now.

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, 
he wore a gun and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

-Bob Dylan, "Brownsville Girl"

If you are plugged-in to the interwebs--addicted, burrowed, defanged, enlightened, numbed and endlessly refreshing your browser with the thought that something big might be happening at any given moment--you know that Robin Williams killed himself this week. You also probably know that Lauren Bacall died the following day.

Robin Williams was clearly the kind of genius artist whose demons drove his creativity. It's easy to say now that we in the peanut gallery could see the sadness in his eyes or that--in whatever way we might ourselves know mania or depression--his gifts and flaws were one and the same.

Thoughts about mortality are no strangers at my door, and great artists have knocked on it early and often. Everyone obsesses about death sometimes, but some of us went farther into the Jim Morrison myth than we should have done on the cusp of middle school and never quite left. By the time Kurt Cobain offed himself in the early 1990's the meaninglessness of dying young and pretty had transcended even the most staid cliches about suffering artists; and yet, it still hurt.
The same week that Robin Williams died, a friend of mine noted, five hundred children were said to be suffocated in the hinterlands of Iraq by ISIS, which combines the worst of the Crusaders, the Nazis, and Attila the Hun. Their push to establish a fanatical, evil caliphate is something we should really be losing sleep over. 

Still, guiltily, agonizing about geopolitical madness in dark and light, last night from my cultural perch in Jerusalem, I, like so many of us, stayed up late looking for Robin Williams--for another early stand-up clip I had not yet seen, an improv sketch with Jonathan Winters, or another reasonably deft explanation for what moved me about his death. Then when I awoke and heard the news about Lauren Bacall I thought about stars and death again. That quote from Dylan came to mind: Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.

If you came of age in this Golden Age of Media--TV, film, literature, music, and sports--even if you were devout in other ways, the voices and visions of stars like Williams and Bacall were the mythic heroes who shaped you like no other. Often, the media raised and comforted and named you as much or more than the people with whom you lived. Mork was your secret friend, even weirder than your weirdest, most awkward self, sweetly exploding all of the norms that troubled you so. Bacall was the highest class of woman you either wanted or wanted to be, living in an ancient age of black and white but somehow cooler than any high definition alternative. 

And these two--just two amongst hundreds if not thousands of other stars you know bits and pieces about or practically live through vicariously--are the conveyors of ultimate myths of meaning in our world. With Williams, we lived the heartbreak of Garp (a double whammy since John Irving shaped so much of our lives, too), the loving teacher of Dead Poet's Society, the therapist you wanted to speak to in Good Will Hunting, and the furiously brilliant associative mind that smashed past gatekeepers of boredom and just kept storming the castle as if this could bring freedom for us all. 

Whatever our ship, wherever we are headed, we set our sights on the horizon and see stars--rock stars, movie stars, TV stars, sports stars, stars of cult and culture. When they fall naturally like Bacall, it's sad. We return some spark of the eternal that goes away with them even if their words and images remain. 

When stars explode and disintegrate before our eyes like Robin Williams or Kurt Cobain, it's not just sad. It also steals from us some of the light that a bright star had granted a world of darkness. What's left in a world where stars of such light are so swiftly and painfully extinguished despite all that they give? Nothing. Just us.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Noah, Phil Ochs, and Us

ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF PHIL OCHS, thoughts on booze and Bible first published here and now published down there too...

It says in the Bible that Noah was the righteous man of his generation, which commentators of old noted was corrupt and twisted. Noah would have done well to make a Marxist exit from the Generation of the Flood – “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member” – rather than providing a floating vessel to save their sorry remnant.

Again thanks to Spotify, I recently reconnected with an album I once pilfered from my father’s record collection and then carried with me for years on a red-and-black 90-minute BASF cassette tape until it melted and died in a friend’s car: Rehearsals for Retirement by Phil Ochs.

Remember Ochs not as a pretender for the dubious Dylan folk crown or a master of the slightly grating topical songs of 1960’s coffeehouses. Remember him instead as an artist of great lyrical depth, melodic reach, and personal anguish. He killed himself after years of suffering in a Noahide struggle with booze and human frailty, eight years after the release of Rehearsals for Retirement in 1968. (We recall that Noah turned hard to wine once the deeds of the ark were done; whether out of despair for the world’s lot or the simple need to cut loose after all of that rage in a cage on the wild sea, we do not know.) Retirement is a stark foreshadowing of the way that Ochs’s own sensitivity and addiction would eventually drown him in the Flood.
As I understand it, Ochs enmeshed himself in the 1968 Democratic convention in the months before recording Rehearsals for Retirement. This chaotic event included offering a pig as a nominee for the highest office in the land. For Ochs, witnessing a crest of the violence and confusion in his political age left him bereft of hope for the future.
Midrash allows many liberties for allowing ancient dicta and narratives to make sense within a commentator’s reality, or to give sense to it. I imagine Phil Ochs’s words from the gorgeous, haunting title song of Rehearsals for Retirement in the mouth of Noah, both when Noah faces the task of saving some piece of flawed humanity, and after saving humanity, when he drowns in a frailty of his own:
Where are the armies who killed a country/And turned a strong man into a baby
Now comes the rabble/
They are welcome
I wait in anger and amusement/In my rehearsals for retirement
What’s the resolution to all this sorrow? I can’t tell you, although research continues. We are currently consulting with our musical neighbors the Yayhoos, whose “Between the Bottle and the Bible” we encountered first on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour:
Every day
Working on survival
It’s hard to choose
Between the bottle and the Bible
These are also words both Phil Ochs and Noah could have spoken.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

My Salvation? Jude, Elijah and Bob Dylan Revisited

Recently I had the great pleasure of giving a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Asheville on Bob Dylan  – about Bob Dylan and Man and God and Law to be precise. This reminded me that it's about time to put together work and thinking on Dylan and religion in a book. So over the next few months, that's what I intend to do.

And this work sends me back to some of the writing I have delighted in sharing about Dylan and matters of the spirit over the years. Check out this piece on I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' wonderful reworking of a very Greil Marcusian vision of Dylan (that we dig) and his own delicious view of the music, the man, art, love, quests and all other kinds of good stuff. Elijah and Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" show up too.

Find the piece in original form here, or in full below.

When poet-provocateur Allen Ginsburg pulls up in a golf cart on the side of the highway and asks, “What now?,” Jude – one of six versions of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There – looks at the sky, his face colored by the desperation and irony that have animated every mask he has worn in a long and unpredictable career. “My salvation?” he half mumbles, both a question and an answer. After they shake hands goodbye, Ginsberg veers off the road toward a cemetery, saying: “Well, we’ll see what we can do.”

Like most of Haynes’ film, the first meeting between Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg is constructed of a fluid association of anecdotes, lyrics, and wishful thinking, but like any good poetry, it gets closer to the truth than what may or may not have actually happened.

Dylan’s calling towards salvation – what Ginsberg in the golf cart deems both “mission” and “coercion” – is literal, religious, mystical, or otherwise playfully disembodied and transcendent from day-to-day life; and this calling is what flips Dylan’s story forward through a deck of cards of identities including rail riding troubadour (ten year old Marcus Carl Franklin), rebel folkie (Christian Bale), romantic poet (Ben Whishaw), Jude the revolutionary rocker (a masterful Cate Blanchett), megastar family man (Heath Ledger), fundamentalist preacher (Christian Bale, again), and frontier loner (Richard Gere).

“I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose,” Dylan wails in 1974’s “Shelter from the Storm.” And so it goes for artists with creative vision, arrogance, and stamina as deep as his. From Dante to Shakespeare to William Blake, salvation has always been the ultimate destination: the “what now,” the just around the corner, the just within reach, and the never quite real enough to keep.

It has taken Dylan a lot of disguises to stay safe on this trail, and cinematographer Edward Lachman, nominated for an Oscar for his last collaboration with Haynes in 2002’s Far From Heaven, captures long, patient frames and shotgun flashes of Dylan face-to-face with truly lethal doses of salvation, moments when the messiness of life forces the high flyer back to the ground.

Three of these instances stand out: the cocky young singer just arrived in New York, seated sorrowfully before Woody Guthrie dying in hospital bed in 1961; Ledger’s silent despair, sorting family photos after a messy mid-70s divorce; and above all, the tight mask of the ultra hip, self-invented rocker dissolving at the betrayal of a snooty British journalist nemesis who reveals that Jude the legend is in fact a Jewish kid from Brookline, MA named Aaron Jacob Edelstein – the film's version of Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota.

A Tale of Two Wandering Judes
Dylan’s Jude is not the only star by this name rising on cinema screens this season, as the myths of the sixties – and an endless supply of commercials – continue to evolve through the voices of the song books of the masters of the age.

The lead wanderer of Julie Taymor’s story of 60's life and the Beatles, Across the Universe, is named Jude as well; part of the conceit of Across the Universe is to give its characters names out of Beatles songs (Jude's housemates include Prudence, Sadie, and Lucy, and Bono puts in a show-stopping cameo as the hallucinogenic Dr. Robert) so ultimately the entire narrative of the Sixties is told by Beatles songs and enacted by the characters themselves. And just as Dylan/Jude’s marriage unravels with images of the Vietnam War searing television screens in the background in I’m Not There, so too are Taymor’s Jude and his buddies unraveled by bombs in the rice fields of Asia and the streets of New York. It turns out that when it comes to the seemingly eternal music of the golden age of rock and roll royalty (Dylan and the Beatles no doubt sharing the throne above any other pretender to it) beautiful music makes more cultural than historical sense. Yet despite music's naive claims to transcend history, the world is too messy and life too absurd not to leave a scar.

These are the tales of two very different wandering Judes. Despite the thump, holler, and grit of rhythm and blues amidst a catalogue of perfect melodies, the Beatles were really always all about love. It's not hard for Taymor to imagine a happy ending in the musical clues she pieces together, creating a simple love story to soften realities’ growl – even when, as here, that growl includes post-traumatic stress disorder, deportation, and alienation. Jude comes home again regardless of history’s claims upon him, escaping the war, capturing the dream, and eventually getting the girl – because “All You Need Is Love.” But for Dylan/Jude as well as all of the other personae in I’m Not There, the lessons of nearly fifty years of recorded music and thousands of live shows cannot help but end precisely where it all began: facing down mortality and corruption while capturing fleeting beauty in choppy frames of recognition and loss.
Taymor’s film falls flat even as the soundtrack soars because “All You Need Is Love” is simply impossible to believe after what the Sixties as a cultural moment have became – thick with nostalgia and self-congratulation – while Dylan’s story, at least in this version on film, remains raw and troubling despite the pleasure it brings. Both films end on a note of redemptive music – though Gere's Dylan/Billy loses his home and even his dog, he rediscovers the power of old forms of music and hits the road, much like Dylan in the most recent decade and a half of his career. And both end on a note of indeterminacy too. But there is a nostalgic fondness in Taymor's film; it loves to look back. Dylan, like the title of Pennebaker's famous film, always says "Don't look back."

“But I know I Ain't No Prophet”
All these people that we used to know                                   They're an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives.
Don't know how it all got started,
I don't know what they're doin' with their lives.
But me, I'm still on the road
Headin' for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.
Stories of Elijah’s countless masks, rages, and demands are embedded throughout Jewish folkways. Elijah, like the early Dylan, wants to speak truth to power – and like that Dylan, he succeeds too well; the people fall for trickery, choose God for the wrong reasons, and eventually Elijah runs away. In exile, Elijah finds the eternal not in the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice, perhaps, we might even say, one which sings. Then, with the command of God at his back, he covers his face, proclaims his zeal for justice, and, despite the many enemies before him, takes to the road, an outlaw ever since. 
Elijah is most famous for the moment he does not arrive at all, his wine glass untouched but for the banging on the Passover table as a child wakes with a start to open the door. The prophet makes no sound, raises no hand, and opens no gates to salvation on the holiday when the Exodus from bondage in Egypt is replayed by all who come to celebrate it. “I’m Not There,” he might say as people seek him with eyes tightly shut, not wanting to know what a lethal dose of salvation might really mean.
The image of the Wandering Jude of Dylan’s oeuvre, unsatisfied with the world as it is and still staying on the road to salvation in spite of it, shares much with another long traveled image of paths of glory, the tireless prophet Elijah.

But just as Dylan says, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” in Jewish tradition Elijah can be found everywhere, in disguise, at the gates of a city in the morning and in the houses of royalty by night; he blesses the poor, unsettles the rich, and continually shuffles the deck of fate with his many faces – like the imagined Dylan of I’m Not There– to keep people honest and humble and locked in real time.

Imagine the titles of the three great films on the life and work of Bob Dylan as they might appear in the famous scene of Dylan flashing and dropping cue cards (Allen Ginsberg davening, tongue and cheek, wrapped in a prayer shawl in the background): “Don’t Look Back” – “No Direction Home” – “I’m Not There.” So too goes Haynes’ deep, passionate take on the many lives of Dylan’s seeking: flashes of intimate, gorgeous meaning that stay; and always waiting for just a little bit more.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

That's Why I Love Mankind: Randy Newman and the Flood

It is said that "there is no early or late in the Torah" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 6b). In other words, the sacred template of the Hebrew Bible can be reordered so that a phrase from the time of Adam and Eve explains an idea in Jeremiah or vice versa. It also means, if we extend this to the concept of commentary on sacred writ as a kind of textual time travel, that the house of study brings figures of every type and era under the same roof. As long as they have something authentic and meaningful to say about Jewish tradition, the conversation is open and the participants are contemporaneous.
Image result for randy newmanThat's how singer-songwriter Randy Newman - contemporary cultural commentator and religious cynic extraordinaire - joins us this week to help us think about Noah and the Flood, a signature tale not only of this week's Torah portion, but of all of sacred story.
The weather has gotten nasty. Forty days and forty nights of a downpour have washed out the very life for which the balance of sun, moon, rain, and sky are meant to provide. Sound familiar? It's South Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah, South Dakota, Texas, and Arizona in September. And, as told by Randy Newman, it's Louisiana, 1927.
What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right
The river have busted through cleared down to plaque mines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
Playing the game of "no early or late" in commentary on sacred text makes it easy to apply the voice of Newman's narrator (from one of the most devastating natural disasters of the North American 20th century) to the world's most famous flood story. And as myths and archetypes go, it's hard to imagine that Randy Newman wouldn't have been thinking of Noah, who built an ark in order to corral his family and pairs of the animals while the rest of the world got lost in the rising waters.
"They're trying to wash us away," Newman sings. Who are they? Is it President Coolidge who appears in the next verse saying, "Isn't it a shame" to one of his advisers before returning to the north? Is it a divine force, that same angry, impatient, or - maybe even worse - apathetic creator who decides that the human project just doesn't matter anymore?
Newman's tune carries a tone of despair and helplessness tinged with anger that is fully opposite the feel of the biblical tale. In the Book of Genesis, a divine voice is unequivocal that God wants to destroy the entirety of mankind because it has failed to live up to the basic standards of justice God expects from God's creatures. Noah simply bows his head, listens, and starts building without a hint of challenge to the decree.
Religious critique - providing layers of color and questioning to a variety of traditions - is one of Newman's most wonderful songwriting traits. In "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," he sings:
Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind
Turning a religious tenet, tale, or unconscious touchstone on its head - as with the revolutionary concept that chronology does not limit our understanding of "before and after" in the Torah - is a core practice of commentary on sacred text. Comparing the lonely voice of the drowned-out farmer from 1927, or the burned-out divine voice of "God's Song" to the story of Noah, opens up a new window - like a window in Noah's ark as he gazes into the gray waters of the flood - and makes me think not of divine punishment, but of the responsibility we humans have for washing ourselves away.
Winter and summer are swapping places more and more; drought, torrential rain, changes in the weather that fit no pattern other than what science tells us is the result of climate change driven by humanity. To borrow a phrase from Newman, who paraphrases a divine watcher watching us as Earth slowly turns away from us, and we look to blame anyone or anything but ourselves: Doesn't it make you love mankind? Here, textual time travel forces contemporary introspection.
The story of Noah concludes with a verse that might suggest a way to think about the Divine, love, and mankind with more subtlety than the undeniable violence of God turning the world upon God's creation. Noah has a direct line to the Divine and is called the "righteous man of his generation". After everything, in a reversal of the extreme decree of destruction against humanity that prompts the Flood, when the waters begin to lower and Noah and his family finally come back to the land, God blesses them to restart the human project, never to be drowned out again.
Image result for randy newman that's why i love mankind"Then God said to Noah," it is written, "'Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth'" (Genesis 9:17). It's as if a love song after the storm appears in the sky, a statement of a kind of unconditional love between two entities -divine and human - that have taken each other to the brink. Even Randy Newman admits at the end of "God's Song" that there is a dependency between the two players in this all-stakes drama, one that is very difficult to shake. "You really need me," he sings. "That's why I love mankind."
In sacred stories so thick with meaning, the mix of voices spanning time and space challenge our settling into any single meaning. Narratives and counter-narratives are built into Jewish tradition, which invites interpretation and reinterpretation in a constant dance - with both the destroying flood and the protecting ark, as well as love and despair, flowing together through the world of imagination where Randy Newman and Noah meet.
This post originally appeared here in the Huffington Post

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig IV

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The third is entitled: What's Going On?

What’s Going On?

Marvin Gaye
Where is music when the world is spinning too fast, when the sky is crying, when we have lost our way?
Tests of communal will arose this week – all too fast and strong, and almost too big to fathom. Our eyes filled with the sight of friends in Baltimore embroiled in anger and unrest while those in Nepal tumbled as the ground shook and shivered beneath their feet.
Protest music is an expression of communal need to seek clarity and purpose. A protest song stepstoward our tests and goes out to greet them, a testament to how we step up to a challenge.
One of our colleagues shared with Sounding Board soul-warrior Marvin Gaye’s plea, now more than 40 years strong, as a reflection on what she believes JCC communities need to be asking of themselves, especially now:
Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
What’s going on
Another colleague turned to Bob Marley, a fierce and noble man. Maybe you believe in a master plan and maybe you do not – but what do you hold onto when you cannot believe what you see in a world is turned upside down?:
There’s a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
If you listen carefully now you will hear
This could be the first trumpet
Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer
Many more will have to die
Don’t ask me why
Things are not the way they used to be
I won’t tell no lie
One and all got to face reality now
Though I try to find the answer
To all the questions they ask
Though I know it’s impossible
To go living through the past
Don’t tell no lie
There’s a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
Can’t keep them down
If you listen carefully now you will hear
Such a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
We are not pro test. Would that we could just enjoy the quiet on a sunny day. But when tests come, as they always do, what choices remain but to face them? So we step towards these challenges together, never alone.
As you will see below, in Baltimore our colleagues seek to be of use to neighbors and friends, staying safe and joining hands and praying for peaceful and sustainable resolutions. In Nepal, friends stack hands to offer respite however and wherever they can.
And then there’s this from yet another colleague sending a song to Sounding Board – a message from those same boys who said all we need is love: Come together, right now.
How you and your JCC can help:
Our friends and colleagues at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and the Associated are working with area churches, community centers and civic organizations to collect funds for immediate service to the neighborhoods affected most deeply by the unrest. If you are able to donate your time, contact the Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), which is coordinating community involvement in the cleanup effort in partnership with the No Boundaries Coalition.
We have compiled a list of some of the ways that you can help Nepal by supporting organizations in our family of Jewish and Israeli organizations.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig III

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The third is entitled: Out of Narrow Straits, But Now What?

Out of Narrow Straits, But Now What?

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008
Each year the traditions of Passover ask us to talk ourselves out of a terrible bind. Mitzraim — Hebrew for Egypt — literally means “narrow straits.” The only way to get through this tight squeeze is telling the story of how we escaped long ago. And the more we embellish this story, the Haggadah says, the happier our happy ending is likely to be.
But now what? For the Israelites, understanding “what’s next?” after escaping bondage took an entire generation — 40 years wandering in the desert and their descendants are still asking where the story leads.
In March during the launch of Sounding Board at the JCCs of North America Professional Conference, a group of JCC leaders spent an afternoon thinking about how Leonard Cohen’s rethinking of ancient stories like Exodus can shape today’s communal purpose.
In 2012’s “Show Me the Place,” Cohen sings:
Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place, where the word became a man
Show me the place, where the suffering began
Participating in a communal calling with ancient roots demands at least an inkling of belief that our steps are not just dragging tired feet across hot sand, nor that our stories are merely words to repeat, but a journey seeking something greater than ourselves.
This year, at the age of 80 — that’s two biblical generations — Leonard Cohen offered us “Born in Chains”:
I was born in chains
But I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden
But the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer
Keep this secret
Blessed is the Name
The Name be praised
Like Cohen, is there a story we return to time and time again to describe what matters to us most? When we reflect upon our communities, are we willing to embellish our story, reinterpret it, or even start it over when we find ourselves in narrow straits? We need to consider the ways that our JCCs can open those straits, and become an essential part of the community’s reimagining of this story.
“Show me the place,” Cohen sings
Help me roll away the stone
Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone
The chances are that if you are looking for something new in your community, there is someone nearby with a similar urge to navigate that narrow pathway with you and to help you move away that stone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig II

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The second is entitled: What is JCC Soul?.

What is JCC Soul?

Listen to that. We’re starting to hear some music out there.
Before I try my hand at performing a little interpretive magic on the songs you have chosen to describe what the JCC Movement needs and wants to be, let’s ask a question: Why build a playlist to get to know what’s driving communities across North America? Why choose the pathways of music to tell our tale?
I asked Bruce Springsteen this question once. It was just Bruce and me, just me and him; so I asked Bruce the question. Sort of. I said, “My friend Bruce, what’s a great band all about?” He just looked at me and smiled.
“What’s music all about?” I asked him (This was in 2005 at the induction ceremony for U2 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum). And he said:
A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out…
I liked that answer very much, but I wanted to know more. So I went to Bono, and I said, “Bono, what’s music all about? I mean, what’s it really about?” Bono just stared out at all of the rock stars and hangers-on and journalists and fans at the Rock Hall as the great Bob Marley was about to be honored:
New hymns to a dancing god, redemption songs — a sexy revolution, where Jah is Jehovah on the street level — not over his people, but with his people…dressed to hustle God: ‘Let my people go,’ an ancient plea — prayers catching fire…
Now don’t get the wrong idea. These are not answers about religion even if there is a lot of Godtalk in them. But they are answers about soul. So in the spirit of the musical son who sort of knows how to ask a question, I turned to George Clinton. “What is soul?” I asked. “Soul is you, baby,” he said. And I thought, “Yes, that’s what we’re talking about. Music is going to lead us to the soul of the JCC Movement. Those songs are going to tell us all about us.”
Hold on tight. Here we go.
And add your song here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sounding Board: I Have a New Gig I

There are things and then there are things. One of those things happens to be a new job. It's not that new -- about five months. As CEO and President of JCC Association -- the umbrella organization of the 350 sites that comprise the Jewish Community Center Movement -- every two weeks I have been posting a short piece on a song that inspires thinking about where this band of communities and opportunities might go. Find the originals at Sounding Board or, over the next few weeks, right here. The first is entitled: Let the Listening Tour Begin.

You Get What You Give. Get Up Offa That Thing. You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play.
Melodies tripped and jangled through the New York City office of JCC Association during my first two weeks on the job as CEO and President.
You Better, You Better, You Bet.
After meeting individually with more than fifty members of our team in the first stage of an intensive assessment of our work with all of our stakeholders, I asked everyone for the song that she or he wanted to share with the family of three hundred and fifty JCCs and Ys, camps, and agencies we serve.
Friends. Power of Soul. I’ve Just Seen a Face.
Considering the millions of annual visits to our sites, the countless moments of meaning and connection and the endless possibilities JCCs offer each day — it’s no wonder our team wants to get up and sing about what we do.
What’s Going On? What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding? Changes.
But we also recognize that as we enter a transition in leadership — with tremendous gratitude for what’s been built before us as well as a buzz of curiosity and determination to discover what’s next — there are many questions about what we as a movement should strive to be.
People. Natural Mystic. I Will Survive.
Music is one of the world’s great connectors — a comfort, a prophecy, a secret smile. It’s a looking glass to see ourselves and a window into the world. It’s the echo of what we think we know and a whisper of dreams we have all but forgotten.
Glory. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Dream On. Yehiyeh Tov. New Day Rising.
Our team is listening closely: What rhythms will move our communities five, ten, or twenty years from now? What voices will blend in unexpected harmony? When you tune your ears to the sounds of the Jewish community of the future, what songs do you hear?
Listen to the #jccsoundingboard playlist here.