Wednesday, September 30, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur: Beth Tfiloh Part 3

My brothers and I have often observed the odd fact that the Tucker family is one of the only families in Pikesville who exist in a parallel Jewish universe. In our family, being descended from Holocaust survivors on one side, and conservative Yiddish revivalists on the other, the clock has turned back two generations. Everybody in Pikesville we've ever met is either more Jewish than secular, or more secular than Jewish. It often seems as though the Tucker residence of 1505 Woodholme Avenue is the only place in America where people can be Jewish and American in as precisely balanced a way as they were in 1954.

The families of most American Jews were here by 1922, but the Tuckers only came to America in 1947 as part of a miniscule band of Yiddish greenhorns who didn't know anything about America and were among the few survivors the most apocalyptic tragedy in the Earth's recorded history. Everything that was true for previous Jewish immigrants was compounded exponentially for them. If previous Jewish immigrants had memories of traumatic days when Pogroms killed a few friends, then they had memories of traumatic years in which Nazis and Communists liquidated their families and anyone they ever knew. Unlike the Jewish immigrants of a generation or two before, was no large community of European-born Jews from which to draw solidarity. There were only a couple hundred traumatized Yiddish-speaking families who could never understand what it meant to be American and erase the crippling anxiety that what happened there could happen here at the drop of a hat.

Previous generations of Jews had long since come upon the choice which every Jew eventually makes: Assimilation or Segregation? Be American or Be Jewish? In the Tucker family, we've tried to capture that abandoned goal that eluded everybody else: the third option - not assimilation, not segregation, but association: Be completely of the secular world, but be a Jew within it. There is no God, and He gave us the Torah and Mount Sinai. Hold Judaism and Americanism in complete equilibrium.

It's obviously a losing battle, and there are no words in the English language to describe the sheer delicacy of the dance that requires of a Holocaust family: how do you appease traumatized parents who insist on talking to you multiple times a day and knowing your every action lest they think the unthinkable has happened again? How do you negotiate an American world of privilege that knows nothing about the fortitude it takes to survive the obliteration of your entire culture? How do you explain to those who chose assimilation that when the next Hitler comes, he'll come for you too? How do you explain to those who chose segregation that when the next Stalin comes, their ostentatious pride will make our persecution all the easier?

But what other option was open? We were a family with flashes of brilliance and instability in roughly equal measure, who had no guidance for how to negotiate the transition from Jew to American with any kind of soft landing. Assimilation was a huge brain drain on Jews - today's Jews are clearly not as intelligent as they were fifty years ago. The most gifted Jews saw how much better their lives would be if they fully gave themselves over to American life, and the alleged choice between Judaism and America was no choice at all. Most of the ones left over were the mediocrities, the smart but not too smart people who could make a good living and provide for their children, but most of the extraordinary have long since left the Jewish gene pool for a greener, more shiksadik gene pool.

Had Jack Tucker been born in 1916 rather than 1946 and grown up in New York or Chicago rather than Baltimore, he could have been anything at all: a businessman of great repute and renown, a player in Broadway or Hollywood, an intellectual at the Partisan Review or Commentary, an eminent doctor or scientist with an academic post. All that would have been required of him was to become more American than Jewish.

But the tide that carried Jews to the peak of American achievement had already started to ebb in his generation and has only continued to ebb ever since; and even at its strongest undertow, the tide rarely if ever reached Baltimore. For Jews as anyone else, Baltimore was the town of the underdog. In New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, you could go about your life with flash and panache, but even in its best years, that was never Baltimore's way. Our way has always been to keep buggering on in spite of it all - quietly see to our responsibilities knowing that greatest rewards are always to be found in more prosperous places than here.

The only true option left to Dad was to pick up where American Jews of the previous generation left off. His younger brother, born in Baltimore rather than Bialystok, was smart but not quite brilliant like him. But he was also a more balanced, happier type of person, who always radiated well-being. He located the slightly more modest storehouse prizes that my father never quite did by becoming one of Baltimore's best private practice doctors and putting an emphasis on American rather than the Jew.

But the storehouse prizes which should have been Dad's were things he would never quite find. He got a PhD at the University of Chicago at a time when the professors included Saul Bellow, Hans Morgenthau, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Bruno Bettleheim, but Dad looked those gifthorses in the mouth and decided they were almost complete bullshit. He was there for the '68 Chicago riots and could have fallen in with the residue of the UChicago crowd that was still there from the era of Bernie Sanders, but all he saw was Hippie Conformity. He went to study in Romania in 1969, right at the ascension of Caucescu and right after the Prague Spring - a period when only the greatest students in America could get into Eastern Europe. While there, he never met Bill Clinton, but he associated with a number of people from the same circles Bill Clinton associated with during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford - but he thought they were all unbearable social climbers. He often dreamed of going out with a good college friend to Hollywood and trying to become a screenwriter or producer, but the dream was never to be.

When you grow up in a Holocaust family, you are in a family whose situation is so unique that you cannot possibly give yourself over to any crowd, and clique, any party. When you see the party going on, all you can see is the conformity, all the loss of critical faculty, all the surrender of will, that leads to fascism. When everything can become a potential weakness in dark times, you become the worst possible critic of your own situation.

Given the circumstances, he emerged with the best option available: Put slightly more emphasis on the Jew than the American. Teach your children Hebrew and Yiddish, marry into a neoconservative Likudnik (Herutnik?) family, provide for the family as Zaydie did - just enough money for untrammellable security, and leave it to another generation to hopefully claim the prizes that were never yours.

By all evidence, he had won the genetic lottery and birthed a still more brilliant son than he. But whom could they possibly entrust with the onerous responsibility of educating this obnoxiously precocious little shit?

My parents were extremely unimpressed with Beth Tfiloh Community School. During my years at Schechter, they often told me the story of why they picked Schechter over Beth Tfiloh, where my family had been members since the mid-60's. When they saw Beth Tfiloh, the kids seemed like ignoramii. The elementary school kids could not answer the most basic questions about Judaism, but at Schechter, the kids were speaking full sentences in Hebrew. It was quickly decided that Schechter, allegedly the school for the overachieving Jewish kids, was the place for me. Perhaps they told me this story with a bit of regret, but that regret would be quickly dispelled a few years later when i ended up at Beth Tfiloh.

Orwell was right, nobody can look back on their childhood and say that it was completely unhappy - but even so, mine should never have been as close to that as it was. I came into Schechter with the interviewer telling my parents that I might be the most gifted kid they ever came across, I graduated nine years later with the principal making a big deal to the entire crowd about how my journey through Schechter was such a struggle. Which is exactly what every fourteen year old wants to hear said about him in front of an audience of hundreds. 

Schechter was not a great school, but it took great pains to act like one. The hallways of the school were inevitably lined with the dioramas and creative projects of its students - many of which were clearly so beyond an eight-year-old's capability that they were clearly done by the parents. Schechter loved such displays, because they could sell prospective parents on the idea that to be accepted at Krieger Schechter would be like conferring a benediction of your child being a prodigy. 

Schechter would delight in assigning projects that clearly could never have been done by any student - there were many examples of this, but I'll simply pick the most notorious that every Schechter student of my era remembers all too well: the War Report, which every seventh grade student viewed as just a piece of hazing that they had to get through. Every student had to pick a twentieth century American war and answer eighteen questions about it: What were its causes? Who were its principal actors? How could it have been avoided? What was the Jewish involvement in the war? etc. etc. etc. - any one of which could have been done as a Doctoral Thesis.

I, of course, never finished the War Report. I barely remember starting it... The point of these projects was never to teach Schechter students anything - a quarter-century later I still doubt many teachers at Schechter could have taught their way out of a paper box. The point was to build the school's formidable reputation up to the larger community. Perhaps, I suppose they reasoned, one day their reputation would be good enough that they could attract the donors and faculty they needed to truly create the great school Schechter pretended to be. 

In two subjects, Schechter was truly as good as its claims - Math and Hebrew. These were the two important subjects at Schechter - Schechter had the correct priority in this way: What would distinguish them from Beth Tfiloh was the quality of its Hebrew learning, what distinguished them from every other school was the quality of its math and science achievements. No matter what background they hail from, a community that prizes achievement will always drive its children to achieve in math and science before any other subject - because these are the subjects in which achievement can be truly quantified. For Math and Hebrew, they didn't just hire the Jappy wives of doctors who needed something to fill their days, they procured people with real knowledge of the subjects - they tried to do the same in Science, but they almost inevitably fell short, and my years at Schechter had a revolving door of eccentric science teachers that made Hogwarts' problem with constantly changing Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers extremely familiar. 

As a 'precocious' five-year-old autodidact whom it became quite clear was nearly impossible to teach as the years went on, I began Schechter knowing nearly as much about Math or Hebrew as I did when I left. The truth is, I was an autodidact from the earliest age, and after nine years there, I learned very little at all. I don't quite know why I stayed, because it's not like Schechter caused me much but social misery either. Some of the kids at Schechter were not unintelligent, and I'm still somewhat friendly with some of them, but I've long since ceased to be good friends with any of them except my best friend from those years, who moved away when we were only 11. Even so, these kids were a lot like me in one crucial way: almost all of us were spoiled upper-middle-class twits who had no real feeling for how much other people had to sacrifice to give us our comforts. 

Their parents were relatively smart people in white collar jobs who found parroting the facts they read fairly easy, so their children in turn found such assignments just as easy. Schechter students were so uniform in their background that in childhood, many of them had almost indistinguishable personalities from one another. In such a uniform place, the natural urge of kids to draw blood from a kid who draws outside the nine dots becomes that much more pronounced.

I was only beaten up a very few times thank God, and to my astonishment (and shame) there were a number of kids who got picked on even worse than I. One kid, the son of Soviet immigrants, had it so bad that for a while it became a daily recess activity for every boy in my grade to dogpile on him - there weren't more than ten of us, but that was still more than a thousand pounds of weight.. I would flatter myself and say that I was nicer and smarter by waiting until the top of the dogpile, and then as a joke I'd briefly jump on and then get off after two seconds. But who was I kidding?... If memory serves, he later told me that the activity only ended by his hiding out on his own in the woods adjacent to the playgrounds.

In retrospect, another boy in my grade clearly had some form of Autism, and the kids in the grade gave him true hell. As small children, we were close friends, but as it became clear how dangerous it was to be around him, I dropped him like a hot potato. The girls were scarcely better to one another, one friend of mine broke down in tears because the other girls in the grade started calling her a slut without even knowing what the word meant. But I don't think I kid myself in saying that among the guys it was particularly worse in our grade, because the lead bully was the nephew of the Middle School principal. I have no way of knowing for sure, but in retrospect, I think it's entirely likely that that kid came from a physically abusive household. And even if the rest of them did not, I do wonder if some of the behavior which every kid and parent noticed in their families might have constituted a consistent diet of verbal abuse in one case, or perhaps abuse through neglect in the case of another. But what it ultimately meant is that the ringleader, at least in the minds of his peers, could go to town on all of us with near-absolute impunity, and we had to follow along or else risk worse things.

Years later, when we were all in college, I got to know that bully again - he still had a horrible temper, but even so he was clearly a reformed character by that point, and we became friends of a type. In a weird way, we got on very well, and in retrospect I think it was because we both felt that life had passed us by while blessing so many of our peers. All the peers we kept in touch with were overachievers thriving at Ivy League or equivalent schools with seemingly unlimited futures. Meanwhile, he was a stoner hippy at a State School, and I was an underachiever who had to start college a year late because I was held back at a disciplinary boarding school. 

Nevertheless, as those years went on at Schechter, I found the situation more and more unbearable, and my mental health was clearly deteriorating. My best friend had to move away, the girl I'd had a crush on since being a little boy (and from what I can recall, a mutual crush) was similarly miserable to me and transferred out before serious damage was done to her. The kids left over by the last few years were people to whom I might as well have spoken in piglatin for all the good it did me to be friends with them. Some were even nice to me - sometimes at least..., and counted me their good friends, but much good it was to do me or I them... In my last two years at Schechter, it was a Wonder of the Age that I was not hospitalized. 

The security of a life where everybody's the same is always helpful for those for whom it holds true, but for those whom it isn't, it's a bit like hell on earth. I had arrived at Kreiger Schechter at the age of five, being told virtually every day of my life by people who were not my parents that I was the most gifted child they'd ever met. By the time I left Schechter at 14, I'd learned that I was so stupid that I could not even complete the most basic assignments that perfectly normal kids, or perhaps slightly dense ones, kids could complete with aplomb.

I've talked on this blog many times about how bizarre it was to be diagnosed with a learning disability when just a few months previously you were still feted like a child prodigy. Things that happen so early in life can never be made sense of. What I do know, and what I blame, is the culture of the community in which I was raised. If you exhibited talent, you would be praised to the skies and spoiled horribly so that you could earn your Jewish community all the prizes in the storehouse. But if there was anything about you that might be considered challenging or compromising the achievements of the overachievers, you were cast aside like gum on the sole of a shoe. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh High School were Potemkin Villages, too small to know how to accommodate anybody but the kid guaranteed to bring honor to the organizations that taught them. If you were a straight-A student piled with extra-cirricular activities, Schechter and BT would do everything within their power to assure that you had it made for life. If you were anything less than that, these institutions didn't care a figleaf about you. According to too many to keep my young ego in check, I was poised to become their leading light - and by the time I left, I was their not so secret shame.

I suppose it's worth asking, why did it take my parents so long to get me out of these schools? Well... I suppose they didn't think they had any better options. They may well have been right - public school might have let me branch out in ways that Schechter and BT never did, it might have set me free and let me indulge my interests in a way that such a tight cirriculaa as Jewish Day Schools had never could. But then again, who knows how many ways I could have fallen through the cracks to a place much more ignominious than any I'm currently in. By the time there was trouble, it would have been a burdensome task, perhaps an impossible one, to get me into another private school, and every year thereafter made that goal still more impossible. By the time I was of age to look at magnate schools, I was probably too anxiety-ridden to withstand the pressure of an audition, and had I been rejected I might have utterly collapsed. By the time it was clear I needed to leave, the only options available were schools for troubled teens.

Predictable people flourish in predictable environments - my brothers both loved Schechter, and the vast majority of their closest friends are still the ones they made in their childhoods, which might have been idyllic but for having to live under the same roof as their extremely disturbed older brother. But while there is only a chance that an unpredictable person will succeed in an unpredictable environment, there is pretty much a guarantee that in a predictable environment, an unpredictable person will wilt and burn out.

And so, in those last two years at Schechter, I became nothing short of psychotically violent in ways of which the memories will continue to haunt me every day of my life. Every day, I remember my horrible sins from those years, and I tremble, my face twitches in every direction, I sometimes hyperventilate, and my chest freezes with terror at the monster I was and worry could be again. Occasionally I feel as though I might be able to vomit the horror out of my stomach, and yet I know it will never be purged. I try to calm myself by chanting over and over again “I deserve happiness, and I will be happy.” If it works at all, I generally have to chant it eighty times in a row. But a large part of me believes, or perhaps knows, that neither half of that mantra is true.

Until that age, I was utter bully fodder - trapped in a small school with angry students and angry teachers who saw fit to punish me for the fact that I couldn't sit still and do what I was told because I was too busy thinking thoughts no nine-year-old was mature enough to think. The more I was told to stay on task, the more anxiety ridden my young self became, and the still harder it became to concentrate or get anything done. The learning difficulties alone were surmountable, so were the anxieties, but the two of them together in a heinous cocktail were lethal to any forward progress in my life - and I often wonder if they still are.

But my early puberty endowed me with muscle mass of a college student when I was barely Bar Mitzvah age, and did I ever use it. I fought back with all the rage that built up in me over that long, excruciatingly long, childhood. It doesn’t matter whether or not I did unto others what was done to me. No matter how many years go by, I am still a perpetrator of acts of violence. And nothing will ever make that not so.


It is one of the unfortunate ironies of mental illness that everything about it seems like manipulation. The brain of a mentally unwell person possesses an extra dimension unknown to the mentally sound mind. The very fabric of reality has torn so that there is no self of which one can speak, only many selves locked in the same body. A mentally ill person can say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I might kill myself or hurt someone else” and mean it entirely as a warning for pity, and yet at the same time, coerce the person he tells this to to accede to his often irrational demands. Such is the ultimate tragedy of mental illness. It can lead people to horrific acts for which there is no possible forgiveness, and yet the sane part of the brain, all the more sane and self-aware for keeping watch over the illness, can’t help but be horrified by what the sickness has wrought. I don’t know how many violent people are eaten alive by memories of their crimes. All I know is that I am devoured by a remorse I can never quench.

Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 13, I picked up a series of 8 year old children by the neck. Nothing will undo the fact that when I was 14, I helped to hound the girl at summer camp who might have become my first love into something resembling a nervous breakdown, for which she had to be sent home, because I couldn’t get along with her best friend, and my interactions with this friend occasionally turned violent. Until this year, I never saw or heard from that girl again. Nothing will undo the fact that I used to get violent with the girls in my classes as often as the boys - enough times that I’m sure I can’t recall them all. Nothing will undo the fact that I once held a butcher knife up to my father, or pulled my mother’s hair, and nothing will undo the fact that I took so much of that rage out on my younger brother. The fact that he is now one of my closest friends makes it all the more horrific to recall, and recall it I do every day of my life. These, and so many others, are the scenes which my mind has endlessly relived. No matter what the circumstances that led to such actions and made me feel justified at the time, there is no forgiveness for them, even for someone so young as I was. Bad things happened to me, and I transferred those bad things and quite a bit more to others. One day, the dirty laundry from those years may be aired, and I will have no right to do anything but accept whatever blame comes my way. When I’m sixty-four, I will still be the assaulter I was when I was fourteen. Knowing what I’m capable of, how can I, how can anyone, have a normal job, a normal relationship, a normal family? How can I, knowing the monster I was, ever call myself a decent human being? How can I ever be sure that what I believe is morally right, knowing that I’ve acted as I have? The solid footing of knowing my reality has long since turned to ash, and all my dreams often turn into nightmares of the public reminders I might encounter should they ever come true.  

Is there not enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash my hands as white as snow? Is there no acceptance, no peace, no transcendence, no joy, no love, possible for a man who acted as I have? However different I think I am today from the terror I once was, the question is always present: can I ever be that monster again? And what right have I to act as though I have any more moral authority than the monster I once was?


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 2

When Beth Tfiloh began its move to Pikesville in 1962, it was the last of the 'megashuls' to begin a move out of Baltimore City. The other shuls, sensing which way the wind was blowing, began pitching a tent in the county, buying farm property on the cheap and creating second campuses just in case more Jews moved to the suburbs. From the 1920's onwards, Pikesville was the location of Baltimore's two Jewish country clubs - the Suburban Club, for Baltimore understatedly WASPish rich German Jews, and the Woodholme Club, for Baltimore's flashier and nouveau riche Russian Jews. Many rich Jews already therefore had summer homes quite near to their clubs. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Middle Class Jews followed suit. For synagogues like Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom, situated as they were in Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill, such moves made sense as the wealthiest Jews were the earliest to move out to Baltimore County to avoid urban blight and exploit the automobile's easy transport over long distances. Beth El, a Synagogue only founded after World War II, made a long-term investment in Pikesville that paid off spectacularly. Meanwhile, Beth Jacob, which served lower class Jews in Pimlico and Lower Park Heights, was only a stone's throw away from Pikesville already. But for Beth Tfiloh, situated in the supremely middle class West Baltimore area of Forrest Park, the made much less sense. Baltimore's middle class would not move neighborhoods unless the need proved dire - indeed, my mother's family didn't move out of Forrest Park until 1970. But the urban riots which began in 1965 proved that Beth Tfiloh got out in the nick of time.

Beth Tfiloh was an important congregation, certainly the largest Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore, but no one would have called it the center of Jewish life for the city. If anything, it was the 'intellectual' synagogue - a label that it could hardly have affixed itself to BT in later generations. Its Rabbi, Samuel Rosenblatt, was the son of Yossele Rosenblatt, the most legendary cantor of all-time. Chazzan Rosenblatt might have been a performer from the Ukraine, but Rabbi Rosenblatt was first and foremost a scholar who earned a PhD from Columbia at a time when Jews were barely accepted at Ivy League schools. His sermons were apparently of the old school - learned and pompous, and he spoke English with an upper-class, almost WASPish, accent. The cantor, Max Kotlowitz, had a son who was a managing editor at Harper's and PBS TV executive, and a grandson who is now one of the most frequently published and cited journalists in the United States. The real money and power of the community was clearly with Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore Hebrew, and Oheb Shalom.

Beth Tfiloh probably would have been just another reasonably large synagogue in Baltimore but for a cosmic event in 1978 that no one could fail to miss, when a force of nature blew through this city and left nothing unchanged forever thereafter.



I have heard two transcendent orators in my lifetime: Barack Obama and Mitchell Wohlberg. Of the two, Rabbi Wohlberg was easily the greater. I have watched packed houses on Yom Kippur double over with laughter, only to emit the sounds of sobbing ten minutes later. Not a single one of the 90,000 Jews in Baltimore is immune from his orbit. The entire Baltimore Jewish Community is, in one way or another, an organization that literally revolves around the power of his personality. If America were run by a Jewish conspiracy, they could have done no better than to make Mitchell Wohlberg this country's president. He is the perfect politician, both for large groups and one on one, for a time and place that needed a politician to hold the community together.

My life has been defined, as so many other Jews have, by the tension between what are, or at least were until recently, the two most powerful synagogues in contemporary Baltimore.

At roughly the same time that Rabbi Wohlberg came to Beth Tfiloh, Rabbi Zaiman came to Chizuk Amuno. Rabbi Zaiman, if anything, was the true successor to Rabbi Rosenblatt. Both Zaiman and Rosenblatt earned their ordinations from the Jewish Theological Seminary and were exemplars par excellence of what JTS encourages its students to be - intellectual, dry, extremely erudite, and aloof. Zaiman was a tall and strikingly handsome man from Chicago who bore a passing resemblance to Woodrow Wilson - not only in his looks but also in his stern demeanor. But Zaiman, for all his airs and difficulty with people, was exactly as smart as he looked.

Within a year of coming to Chizuk Amuno, Zaiman sprearheaded an initiative to create a Jewish Day School. From World War II until 1980, the only true Jewish Day School in Baltimore was Beth Tfiloh's, and so far as I know, the school at Beth Tfiloh was always known as a bit mediocre. Zaiman, rather, wanted to create a Conservative Jewish Day School for Baltimore, a Schechter school, that rivaled the best schools in Baltimore - or as he once put it, 'A Jewish Gilman.'

It was a fantastic idea - we Jews are known for our intelligence, and though we're probably just as dumb as everybody else, we seem as though we we're smarter to many because we value education so highly. Is there any more worthy goal for a Synagogue than to train the best and the brightest among your children for the unlimited futures which a good education would promise us?

In the late 20th century, if you were a truly committed Jew who lived in Baltimore but did not want to be Orthodox, there were only two serious options for which synagogue to belong. One was Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative shul that leaned Orthodox, the other was Beth Tfiloh, an Orthodox shul that leaned Conservative.

The intellectual set all went to Chizuk Amuno - every Jewish doctor, every Jewish scientist, every Jewish engineer, seemingly the entire medical staff of Hopkins Hospital, every professor at Hopkins University. They belonged not because they found Zaiman inspiring - how could they?... - but because Chizuk Amuno's Schechter school provided them an opportunity for the children to receive an excellent Jewish education in addition to a a great secular one - or at least it was that way in theory...

The business set all went to Beth Tfiloh - every entrepreneur, every realtor, every speculator, every broker, every corporate executive, every corporate lawyer. They belonged not because they thought the school would was particularly excellent, though many sent their children to it, but because Rabbi Wohlberg knew that in order to create a shul vast enough to house his gifts, he needed money. So he set about charming the richest Jews in Baltimore - when the richest Jews in Baltimore came to Beth Tfiloh, so did all the people who wanted to do business with the richest Jews in Baltimore.

Smart as Rabbi Zaiman was, Rabbi Wohlberg was smarter, and without Zaiman's need to parade it.

Rabbi Wohlberg was the son of a Rabbi and younger brother to two others who grew up in working class Brooklyn - a diminutive dynamo who radiated showmanship and made a complete hash of the idea that Rabbis could not understand modern life. In his early years in Baltimore, Wohlberg was a fat guy with a reputation off the pulpit of cursing like a sailor and smoking like a chimney. His voice sounded like a high-pitched squeaky toy with a Brooklyn accent, but he was such a good politician and showman that he knew exactly how to use his ethnically and Rabbinically stereotypical qualities to his advantage.

Zaiman probably never got a 'B' in his life, but Wohlberg was always peppering his sermons with stories of his youthful indiscretions and under-achievements. To beef up the school, he hired a still more intelligent administrator than he, an Orthodox woman educator named Zipporah Schor whose demeanor and management style bore a more than passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Had she not been frum, who knows how far she might have risen in life?

It wasn't too long before Beth Tfiloh won the battle handily and sealed Chizuk Amuno's decline, decades before the decline was visible. Solomon Schechter's early years were easy enough, with the necessary money being bankrolled by elderly wealthy gentlemen from the 'old' Chizuk Amuno: Zanvyl Krieger, Jerry Hoffberger, Jerome Cardin, and most importantly: Harry Weinberg. Even after all the wining and dining, Beth Tfiloh has never had a member nearly so rich as Harry Weinberg.

But five years after Schechter began and was in its first flush of success, Wohlberg bandied together three donors whom he showered with praise as though they were among the righteous of Israel. None of the three were so rich that their holdings were truly renowned internationally like Harry Weinberg, but between the three of them: Haron Dahan, Howard Brown, and Morty Macks - Wohlberg put the funding together to found a high school. Until then, Beth Tfiloh's school was only K through 8, and it was not clear yet that Solomon Schechter would even get that far. But the masterstroke was the brillian decision to build this high school on precisely Krieger Schechter's model. Beth Tfiloh would be a place where Jewish students would excel in the most difficult programs and give incredible naches to the shul that graduated them. It was founded with a mission to be a light unto high schools.

Twenty years before it was truly visible, Beth Tfiloh had checkmated Chizuk Amuno. There was enough room for two or three Jewish Day Schools in Baltimore for the not-truly-Orthodox. But in the rat race that is Jewish Upper Middle Class college acceptance, is only room enough for one Hebrew High School. Once one high school builds a reputation for getting kids into good colleges, it will be the sole school in demand. Solomon Schechter, soon thereafter Krieger Schechter after a $2 million donation from Zanvyl Krieger (he got it cheap in my opinion...), would never be able to get a high school off the ground in competition. There is a second, conservative, Jewish high school in Baltimore, Shoshanna Cardin High School (named after Jerome's wife), but it has never earned Beth Tfiloh's sterling (and not quite deserved) reputation, with extremely small classes and written off euphemistically as a school for 'non-traditional' students.

Every synagogue without an Orthodox membership base is in bad shape right now. But while Beth Tfiloh faces its future with coffers well-stocked from its principle donors, Chizuk Amuno has no such luck. Zaiman's been gone for more than ten years, and his synagogue is by every measurement in severe decline - in membership, in finances, in influence, in morale. The students Schechter graduated are every bit as successful as Zaiman had hoped, so successful that most of them decided to leave Baltimore to pursue better opportunities. In today's non-Orthodox world that makes such a priority of Tikkun Olam (Healing the World) and Social Justice, it is Beth El that is the rising congregation. Beth Tfiloh is not quite the monolith it once was either, but it can survive at least a while longer coasting on Wohlberg's achievements - and no doubt that's what Wohlberg means for it to do...

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 1

I know that everybody who's ever read a poem knows this one, but I think this is the proper place to begin so please humor me for quoting The Second Coming in full:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


We'll get to why this is all important in a few thousand words... But in the meantime, let me talk about my Zaydie Tucker.

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When my father took a close college friend of his out to Stevenson to visit his parents for the first time, they sang the theme to Lawrence of Arabia in the car - because Stevenson and Pikesville were as unfamiliar and exotic as the Desert itself. It was ten minutes outside Baltimore city, but in the mid-60's, hardly anyone but some a few Jews would ever think to live there.

Earlier in the century, Stevenson, the back woods of Pikesville, was a place of massive, and massively rich, farmland. Celebrities who owned houses in Stevenson included General MacArthur, Wallis Simpson the Duchess of Windsor, and the greatest of all American operatic divas: Rosa Ponselle. With such magnificent estates existing in the midst of its back woods, there can be no doubt that it was once a place built for plantations.

It is difficult to imagine what Stevenson must have looked like when my Zaydie moved his family to it in the summer of 1964, right after my uncle Harold graduated from high school at City College. Nevertheless, I would have to figure that after seventeen years toiling in the city, Stevenson must have seemed like paradise itself - redolent to them of the open fields and farms of Northeastern Poland where he and Bubbie grew up. At the time, there was barely anything in the 21208 zipcode but farmland and a newly-built Baltimore Beltway that nobody thought would ever be used...

When they first arrived, they had to live in a tiny walkup apartment with their friend from the Old Country and fellow Holocaust Survivor, Jack Rubin, and his insane wife Cheved. The four of them owned a tiny corner store downstairs. My grandparents were not easy people at the best of times, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live with Cheved. My Bubbie, like so many Yiddish Bubbies, was a truly transcendent cook hobbled only by the fact that she could only make four dishes. She always made an amazing chicken soup with noodles, or Matzoh Balls, or Kreplach, and If Jack would compliment my Bubbie's soup, Cheved would pour out the entire salt shaker into the soup when nobody was looking so that my Zaydie would yell at her for putting too much salt in the soup. The four of them lived with my Dad, Jack Tucker, and my Uncle Harold in a tiny walkup apartment in Lower Park Heights and managed a no larger corner store downstairs. Eventually, my explosively tempered Zaydie and Jack Rubin couldn't stand working with each other anymore, and Jack went into the garment (schmateh) business. By some point in the mid-to-late 50's, my wealthy great-uncle Chaim had enough faith in my Zaydie's business sense to make him a business partner, and Zaydie managed the supermarket they co-owned: the E-ZEE Market in Hampden - the same building which all upper-class Baltimore residents now venerate and worship as The Wine Source. But there was very little upper-class about that building, or Hampden, at the time.

These were heady times in Hampden - a working class white neighborhood where lots of Appalachian Whites moved only a decade earlier to procure factory jobs after World War II. As such, this already high crime area was crawling with Klansmen - Klansmen who would occasionally hold demonstrations. To be a Jewish business owner with the heaviest imaginable Yiddish accent, let alone one who was barely five feet tall, was an extremely high risk scenario. But my Zaydie, ever resourceful in terms of business, solved the problem with an enormous sign out in front of the store: COPS GET A FREE CORNED BEEF SANDWICH!

Temperamentally speaking, my Zaydie was my father to the n'th power. A highly intelligent, highly practical, messianically controlling man who believed that every problem in the world could be solved if people simply followed his instructions. I remember reading Philip Roth's American Pastoral and thinking that this quote was the perfect description of him:

“a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.” 

This could nearly as easily double as a description of his oldest son, or perhaps even of his oldest son's oldest son. But none could possibly resemble this description to anywhere near the extent of this alpha dog Jewish petty tyrant extraordinaire: Maishl Ticoczki, who spent the second half of his life living under the name Morris Tucker. I only knew him as an old man, a highly affectionate but obstreperously demanding person for whom even as a kid it was impossible to not to feel a mixture of great love and exasperated contempt. Much of my first ten years was spent babysat by my grandparents, and it was a Yiddish version of the Costanza household. I'm almost positive that a man as morally obsessed as Zaydie would never ever strike my Bubbie (I feel ashamed that I even mention a small sliver of the possibility), but I do remember hiding in the next room while huge screaming matches would take place in the midst of something clearly being struck loudly - it was probably one of them banging on the kitchen table.... Hotheadedness was the way of the Old Country, and  among European peasants, blowing your gasket was a respectable form of communication.

But as a young man, Zaydie was apparently rather familiar figure in the annals of Tucker-lore - presenting a lethal and extraverted wit to the world, but whose bonhomie was a disguise for an introverted determination and fanatical seriousness of conviction. Anybody who knows me or my Dad, or Ethan, fairly well will recognize that archetype instantly. Tuckers are generally very good performers, but it's all performance art to disguise an intensity that consistently threatens to tear one another to shreds.

My grandparents lived in the most unassumingly middle class suburban rancher you can possibly envision: three small bedrooms, a reasonably large living room separated from the dining room only by a large fireplace, on the side of the two was a den, a kitchen, and a waiting room. Almost all the books in the house were my father's from his final two years at Johns Hopkins, and I'm fairly sure that my father had chosen most of the artwork too.

The only extraordinary thing about the house was the enormity of the land upon which it sat - a full two acres if memory serves me correctly. My Zaydie honestly bought it with the idea that his children would build houses adjacent to his and their families live at his beckon call on the same plot. On the one hand, such situations are not all that abnormal outside of America, and it was the ultimate middle class insurance policy - if times ever became as bad as they were in the Europe of Zaydie's youth, and if my Dad or Uncle ever became destitute, they and their children could simply come live with their patriarch, and Zaydie would build them houses with the money that he guarded and controlled as fiercely as he did his children. On the other, holy crap that's really fucked up!...

Money was Zaydie's pathological obsession. He certainly took a great thrill in making it - my father would relate to me how he would occasionally drive my Zaydie as an old man to the Signet Bank on Old Court Road just so Zaydie could go into the vault and count his silver coins. But if money truly gave Zaydie pleasure, he could have made a lot more of it than he ever did. He loathed the stock market and real estate speculation as idle gambling - he only wanted money which he knew he earned. What he truly loved was the security which money brought. Apparently, one of his most time-honored sayings to guilt my father was 'Alz Ikh hob Ikh hob far eich' - All I have I have for you.

So paranoid was he about money that he would bury cash in his lawn in case of an emergency - cash which my Dad and Uncle never found before they sold the house. Eventually, the paranoia devolved to outright insanity, and in his final years when he suffered from dementia, Zaydie would regularly badger my Dad to drive him to the banks, whereupon he would promptly accuse the tellers and managers of stealing from him. Once, when he caught my Dad motioning to the bankers to humor him, Zaydie accused my Dad of stealing too - one day I'll tell that story here.

Zaydie's one vanity was suits, and he only wore suits because he thought it was a responsibility of a respectable businessman to look the part. To the end of his life, he refused to leave his house in anything but a suit, and would even wear them to my parents' cookouts. He insisted that my father do the same, and one day when my father visited him but forgot to wear a watch, Zaydie started to cry.

When Zaydie first bought a house in Stevenson, it must have seemed like paradise itself. He had finally made it in a world that continually conspired to kill him off. All the worries of his life: World War I, the Russian Civil War, Weimar Hyperinflation, The Great Depression, the Stalinist Invasion, the Nazi Invasion, the Holocaust, the Postwar Bloodlands, refugee status in Frankfurt, being a poor immigrant in Baltimore, being at the mercy of the Klan... and after fifty years of constant worry, he'd finally made it back into the Middle Class into which he was born and then some. A long, leisurely retirement was finally in sight, but when he'd finally come through a half-century of bloody history to the other side, it was almost too late to enjoy it. In 1969 he had misdiagnosed subdural hematoma, and after a series of botched operations, he spent the final three decades of his life in varying states of aphasia. Many times thereafter, he would say that it would have been better for him to die then than to await death for so many decades longer.

If only the strong survive, then Zaydie was an Olympian. He was tested throughout his life with misfortunes that killed nearly everyone who underwent just one of the many tests he thrived upon. He was not merely a member of the Jewish Middle Class, he WAS the Jewish Middle Class. His business sense preserved him through The Great Depression, and the loyalty and resourcefulness he engendered among his employees saved him through the years of Stalin and Hitler. He arrived in America, like so many millions of others, with nothing, and he was the last generation for whom the idea of this country as the Land of Opportunity held no irony at all.

In his final years, it's amazing to think now of how his fate aligned with the unravelling of The American Dream. When the stability of the American Middle Class began to come undon in the late 60's and early 70's, Zaydie became partially incapacitated. When the country started spending well beyond its means in the 80's and 90's, Zaydie began to go senile. In 1998, the year before Glass-Steagal began to truly kill the American Middle Class, Zaydie died while sipping a cup of tea.

We were in Chicago visiting relatives when it happened. But I will never forget coming home and hearing the frantic message of my grandparents' Yiddish-speaking caretaker on the phone to my parents' answering machine: 'JECKIE! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT!'

Were Zaydie alive today and in good health, maybe we could know what he'd think of the world of Baltimore Jewry as it now is. I would imagine him seeing contemporary Pikesville and Stevenson, with all its prosperity and success and well-being..., and to be honest, I'm sure he would fly into another of his trademark rages - fulminating until he exhausted himself at his neighbors' ostentation, their luxury, their lack of seriousness, their materialism, their laziness, their moral abdication to the people they provide for. And no doubt, there's no one at whom he'd have lost it more often than me... In one of my Dad's... well... more tactful moments... he said to me "Oy Evan. If your grandfather were alive to see you now, he'd take a long look and just say: Ochen Vey! What a disappointment!"

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 2 - Beth Am

I walked this afternoon through the unimaginable wealth that is Guilford and Tuscany-Canturbury. I only say unimaginable because this is Baltimore; by the august standards of Georgetown and Bethesda and Potomac, the houses on display there were relatively modest. To be sure, there is true wealth in the Roland Park districts, but I doubt there's anyone who lives around there worth more than $100 million, which, let's face it, is by the standards of our current banana republic a relatively paltry sum among the greedy class.

Were Baltimore a functional city, the center of our wealth would be not Roland Park, but Reservoir Hill. Reservoir Hill is easily the most beautiful neighborhood in Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park in all of its verdant magnificence, with hundred year old housing stock that would be a prize beauty for any city in the world.

Once upon a time, Reservoir Hill was, of course, the wealthy Jewish area - Look ye mighty and despair! We are the German Jews who came over in the 19th century and ran the department stores that catered to the every need and whim of all you lazy Goyim: Hutzler's, Hochschild, Kohn, and Hecht's. Just the names alone tell you exactly what kind of person owned them - and German though Baltimore has always been, I guarantee that none of them were ever owned by a Lutheran from Cologne or a Catholic from Munich. My father's always joked that had the Tucker family came over in the 19th century like so many German Jews did, we'd own IBM by now.

I don't know how to explain the disproportionate success of Jews in America (or anywhere else) except through stereotypes. We've always valued industry and learning, and put those traits to good use. Perhaps gentiles don't value those traits as much, but I'm not in a position to know. What I do know is that the unique social position of Jews in the United States - neither longstanding members of the white overclass or the white working class or the colored (please forgive me, I lack a better term...) working and underclass - were free to make their own identities in America as no other group of American immigrants ever was. After twenty-five-hundred years of systemic discrimination by Europeans against Jews, the was not enough time for Americans to embed systemic discrimination against us to let their discriminations have much effect. Reservoir Hill is a monument to the explosion of Jewish opportunity that lay in (department) store for us from the moment we arrived in America. Our drive to achieve in America wasn't just for our own gain or to make our parents and grandparents proud, but a residual triumph to take hold of the opportunities that with very few exceptions were denied Jews for millennia.

The monument to the prosperity that was once Reservoir Hill is Beth Am Congregation - built in 1922 to house the very same Chizuk Amuno that built the Temple in which B'nei Yisra'el worships a half-century earlier. The German Jews of Lloyd and Lombard Streets grew too wealthy for downtown living. Directly to the West of them were Baltimore's Italians in Little Italy, and to the East were Baltimore's Poles and Ukranians in Fells Point and Canton. The German Jews needed breathing room, and moved across from Druid Hill Park, where the most threatening presence at the time was the trees obstructing the sunlight. that it would then be the Russian Jews at the mercy of the gentiles.

But fifty years later, Druid Hill Park, like West Baltimore itself, became ridden with crime, drugs, poverty, and hopelessness. It was a place where the wealthy dare not show their faces, and so the wealthy of Reservoir Hill retreated from their opulent beachhead to where all wealthy Jews eventually moved: around Stevenson Road, and it was on Stevenson Road that they built the new Chizuk Amuno - an edifice that dwarves even Beth Am's mighty stature.

When Chizuk Amuno left, Beth Am immediately moved in - a monument not only to the Jewish community that was, but to the dream of community engagement. Chizuk Amuno might isolate itself in the County, but Beth Am would would be a shul for Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park where so many Civil Rights protests happened and so many Jews walked arm-in-arm with Blacks, Beth Am was established to continue the dream of a place that engages with the wider community - Jewish and Gentile, it was always meant to be the Jewish ministry to the tired, the poor, the needy, the sick, and a direct rebuke to all those Jewish congregations who retreated into Pikesville and acted so strenuously as though Baltimore no longer existed. But going there on Kol Nidrei night, I saw nothing but affluence.

Rebuke was the particular specialty of its irascible founding Rabbi: Dr. Louis Kaplan. Irascible was literally how he was described in his Baltimore Sun obituary. Dr. Kaplan hated Orthodox Judaism for its exclusion and having nothing valuable to say about modern life, he hated Reform Judaism for its insistence on assimilation to the customs of the rest of the world, and he didn't care much for Conservative Judaism either. Before he was the Rabbi for Beth Am, he was the President of Baltimore Hebrew College for forty years. Yes, forty years; after which he became the Acting Chancellor of UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County). During all that time, he founded no less than three synagogues: Beth El - a splinter synagogue from Beth Tfiloh, Beth Jacob - now merged with Beth Tfiloh, and Beth Am - a splinter synagogue from Chizuk Amuno. What the hell did he storm away from that founding three separate synagogues was necessary?

Baltimore Hebrew College was mostly a college in the way that City College was a college - it was truly a high school where Jews of particularly high intelligence could complete their Jewish education. But it was also fully accredited as a college, so that when my parents and uncles finished high school, they'd already earned a Bachelor's Degree in Jewish Studies.

Dr. Kaplan was a particularly legendary name in my family, not only because he presided over a College that issued them degrees when they were sixteen, but also because he married my parents, as he no doubt did so many other young Jewish couples of the Baby Boomer Generation who grew up with Dr. Kaplan as their guiding light. His Shabbos table was open to all his students every week, which numbered practically the whole of Jewish Baltimore from my parents and uncles to Ira Glass. My parents remember him as an authoritative lecturer with a booming voice who would pronounce judgement on any and all issues with extreme moral imperiousness - never giving the benefit of the doubt to those thinkers and students who disagreed with him, and telling his students exactly why all those who disagreed with him were wrong and stupid.

Just as Rabbi Wohlberg was the preeminent Jewish voice of my youth, Dr. Kaplan was the voice of my parents' youth, and perhaps my mother's parents as well. But how different Dr. Kaplan's vision for Jewish Baltimore was from Rabbi Wohlberg's. Rabbi Wohlberg, Baltimore's pre-eminent Rabbi for the last thirty-something years, is a moderate consensus builder who since 1978 presides over a synagogue that every year performs another act in a delicate dance on the ledge between orthodoxy and non-observance in an age when non-observant Judaism is disappearing. Whereas Rabbi Wohlberg spent nearly forty years working to never be pinned down on taking a stand on any given issue except the State of Israel, Dr. Kaplan, the liberal authoritarian, never met a stand he didn't take. He created Baltimore's Jewish landscape, he founded synagogue after synagogue, and presided over nearly half of Baltimore Hebrew College's duration. One personified the explosive dynamism it takes to create a community. The other personifies the careful politicking it takes to preserve such a community. Rabbis like Wohlberg exist not to create new things but to keep old things in place. Preservation is always necessary, but as this institutions ossify, they become relics that make a mockery of what used to be.

By the time I took classes at Baltimore Hebrew University around 2007, it was an organization in tragic death throes. There were barely five people in any class, and the few students who went there as undergraduates were clearly there because they were chronic underachievers who would not graduate from any more serious environment. It was a sad place, and two years after I left the building was gutted and bulldozed, and the institution itself melted into a Jewish Studies wing of Towson University.

This was what Dr. Kaplan's dream amounted to - Baltimore's Jews achieved such privilege that they had to move to the County to find a place to properly house their affluence, and so their even more privileged children had to leave this dying metro area to find jobs in accordance with their exalted station in life. By its end, Baltimore Hebrew, once a Hebrew School for the creme-de-la-creme among Jewish students, was a babysitting school for Jewish slackers like me trying to get a back door master's degree from Johns Hopkins. It is now just a small cog within a factory university that churns out more than 5,000 graduates a year.

Dr. Kaplan came to Baltimore to take over BHC in 1930, before he was thirty himself. He lived long enough to see Baltimore into the next millenium. He was a fixture of my youth, active and relatively fit until his very last years. My parents would introduce him to me at least once a year, and he would never remember who I was. When my Dad asked him to come to my Bar-Mitzvah, Dr. Kaplan, already in his nineties and with age having made him no less gruff, asked where I was being Bar-Mitzvahed, when Dad told him, he harumphed "I don't go to Beth Tfiloh!"

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I had not been inside Beth Am for a good twenty years when I went last night. Everything I'd ever heard about the impressiveness of their synagogue was absolutely true. Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno might seem like Cathedrals due to their size, but their wall-to-wall carpeting precludes any such pretension. Beth Am, on the other hand, is truly breathtaking - a cross between a Cathedral and a Concert Hall with a live acoustic that reverbs for days and self-amplifies. In the twenties, it was a statement of Jewish prosperity: 'We've made it!' In the twenty-tens, it is a statement of Jewish defiance: 'We're still here!'

I knew what I was in for the moment I parked. I had to park four blocks away from the synagogue, with the rear of my car jutting slightly into the street. Directly in front of me was a car with a bumper sticker that spelled out "Obama" in Hebrew letters. The neighborhood was deathly quiet, and in a neighborhood so poor and black, I expected far more presence on the street. The hush surrounding me on my walk to the synagogue was as quiet as silence itself - I was either completely safe, or about to get mugged.

I quickly realized why nobody was on the streets that night. The police were out in force - at least ten surrounding the congregation, all of whom were extremely solicitous and friendly to me, though I wonder to whom they might have been less friendly in the hours leading up...

Like nearly everything west of Howard Street, Reservoir Hill long since declined into poverty. So long has the ark of decline been that it's swung around a bit, and beautiful townhouses in pristine condition stand next to boarded up shanties. The March of Gentrification in Baltimore is always more of a crawl, and when prosperity crawls from one end of Reservoir Hill to the other, Baltimore knows that its future is finally secure. It would spread next to West Baltimore, and when West Baltimore improves, the Messiah has truly come.

But how did things ever get so bad that gentrification is necessary? Every good time is paid for by somebody, and even now that wealth is gradually moving back in, 7 in 8 residents in Reservoir Hill are black. The prosperity of the neighborhood will be paid for in the forced relocation of people who will be thrown out of homes they've probably lived in since the early 70's. Fifty years ago, we left this city. Do we really have the right to claim it back?

When I arrived at the front, there was a ticket-taker. Non-Jews are always non-plussed by the idea that people have to buy tickets to go to the High Holidays, but the truth remains that few synagogues operate at sufficient capacity these days that they could ever turn down a potential member. The idea of selling tickets goes back to the days when the High Holidays was something of a performance, with an operatic-style cantor and trained chorus for whom you were mostly supposed to sit in awed appreciation of their beauty. It is a custom that clearly operates with a shelf life.

I asked the ticket taker if I could just walk in - prepared to pay at least a small nominal fee if I had to, subtly at least since Jews aren't supposed to handle money on Shabbat or Yom Tov (the Torah mandated Holidays). She replied "I don't know why you'd want to, they're almost done." To a lifelong Beth Tfiloh attendee who feels lucky when Kol Nidrei services end at 10, this was a bit of a shock. I know that other synagogues get out earlier, but it was only a bit after 8 o'clock at this point.

When I entered, I realized that the crowd was at least larger than it was at B'nei Yisra'el. Beth Am could easily hold a thousand people in its pews, and capacity seemed to be at roughly 40%. The crowd was obviously affluent, but I was truly amazed at how few people I recognized. My mother tells me that Beth Am gets a steady stream of members from people who get pissed off at Chizuk Amuno - Beth Am seems a hell of a distance to drive, but a person who quit a job at Chizuk Amuno in a huff has to be able to spot more former Chizuk members than this.

Like all non-Orthodox shuls, the membership is as old as the day is long, and as unenthusiastic as you'd expect from an older crowd. I felt strongly out of place when I allowed my semi-operatic voice to sing out at one-third capacity, as though somebody was going to turn around and shush me. All the moreso because all I got to hear was the last few prayers - if the congregation is not going to sing along to the Aleinu ("On Us", the Rosh Hashana prayer about standing before God in Heaven that became so beloved that it's now part of the everyday liturgy), God knows what it's like earlier in the service when they chanted special prayers which Jews don't sing every day.

I can't say I loved the atmosphere at Beth Am, but I was immediately much more comfortable than I was at B'nei Yisra'el. The reason was obvious, Rabbi Burg, who was everything this other Rabbi was not - funny, personable, an actual human being. He was good enough that when he advertised that they were beginning a Sunday minyan, I briefly considered going - particularly when the last words of his salespitch rang out to laughter around the synagogue: "You might even meet your Bashert."

This was a very sore spot for me. Bashert is Hebrew for 'Pre-destined', and in biblical 'slang' it means the spouse that was predestined for you. There was a short period when I thought that I perhaps had found my Bashert earlier this year. It was, definitely, oh so definitely, not to be. Hopefully we can remain friends, but it's going to be hard going for a while...

Not that that bothers me as much as it should. I seem to fall, usually silently, into unrequited 'like' with a different friend of mine every month. Some unrequisitions are worse than others, but unrequited love is always a bore, and over the years, I've had it bad.

I don't know what it's like to be among the unrequited middle age would-be-Don Juans, and I shudder to think that the time is soon coming that I'll find out. But I would imagine such irredeemable states are due in large part to the hormones of youth. I eagerly await the moment these engines cool. It can't be too far away can it?

No one still in the flush of youth can truly imagine what generations before them sacrificed for their benefit, because no youth yet knows the magnitude of what those sacrifices entail. All they see is the wears and tyranny of their elders, and not having any experience of what it means to be in the driver's seat of life, we youths always imagine we can do better. Perhaps we can, perhaps we can't, but until we overthrow the old generation and sit atop their thrones, we will never understand their view.

I'm now closer to my thirty-fourth birthday than my thirty-third. My much younger brother (and still the older of two) is now married, and my prospects to join him in the next phase of life don't look so great at the moment. Whether or not I've meant to, I've prematurely aged, and will probably not have the consolations of middle age that others have until I am so far into middle age that I'll be a relatively elderly newlywed and father - if I achieve either at all.

But this retarded adulthood does let you perceive some details among the passing of time that elude others. You see what youth desires, and as you are in the same life-circumstances as the young even when you're middle aged, you see just how worthless its desires are.

What are the young - or in the case of Baltimore the thirtysomethings who pretend to remain young - truly fighting for? Superficially, they proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that American Militarism has ruined our inner cities and reputation abroad, that America is a country of conservative puritans palpitating with contempt for blacks, women, and gays. The louder they get, the more of us they implicate. It is no longer the conservatives who are the primary villains, but the liberals themselves who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.'

Try as I might, I can't ascribe anything at all but cynical motivations to them. Our grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest conditions the world has ever seen, and as they pass from this world, the world revolts against everything they stood for for a second time. Yes, unimaginable poverty is everywhere, but for the first time in human history, there would be a fair fight to eradicate poverty if ever the forces to the left-of-center united with one another instead of silencing heretics who say 'Maybe we can't do it all at once...' Such people once perverted the Civil Rights Movement into the '68 protests, the urban riots, and stomped out Civil Rights' gains in their infancy, meanwhile saying nothing about the real protests being silenced across the Iron Curtain in Prague and issuing no warning about what inevitably lay in store from Mao's Great Leap Forward. Their spiritual children have now perverted the gains of Obama into Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders candidacy, calls for slavery reparations when the government is already $20 trillion in debt, and calls for internet censorship against politically incorrect statements when we just spent fifty years overturning just such censorship with regard to religiously incorrect statements.

Here in Baltimore, rioters are excused because white and affluent residents allegedly have no right to criticize those in poverty, never mind that thousands of black lives were ruined and thousands of jobs which poor black people would have gained will never now move to the city. The goal of such people is not to improve the city - because nothing gradual is fast enough for the instant gratification they seek. Whether or not they realize it, the goal they seek is to blow the city up and rebuild it from scratch, because surely a faint nub of a slummed out crater like 1945 Warsaw or Tokyo is better than a city teetering on the edge of gentrification. Once again, liberal gains are perverted into a Marxist framework, and what people do is judged by who they are, rather than who people are being judged by what they do.

The irony is that these people who call for the end of capitalism and militarism are completely addicted to its benefits. It was not socialism that made the clothes with which they wear their political statements and the technology they passionately use to denounce capitalism, it was not anarchism that created the corporate music they listen to and the special-effects laden movies they watch. It was not the Soviet Union that allowed them the freedom to protest, almost always without assault or retribution against them. It is Capitalism which does all that for them and more, but they hate Capitalism because Capitalism demands nothing of them and gives them a secure bed and desk around which they can think for themselves (badly). It is a religion they seek: a religion without God. Their God is not Christ or Allah or Yahweh, their God is Sex.

Sex is inevitably the end goal of such movements - Marxism crossed with a pagan-like devotion to earthy pursuits and physical sensation. Their social cliques are virtual hookup webs, creating nothing less than a circle of sexual trust. Half a millenium ago, various types of Protestants created the first financial credit networks because a fellow believer was someone who feared sin. Contemporary anarchists and Marxists created the first sexual credit networks, because a fellow believer fears sins of a completely different type. In these networks, one temporary spouse is often exchanged for another on near-whim, all of whom whose personality, beliefs, clothing, hair, voice, and body type, might as well be interchangeable - so much for diversity. And for those whom serial monogamy does not meet the particular need, there is always non-monogamy; and even non-monogamy doesn't mean what it used to - the one-night stand is now passe because we are now in the Age of the Open Relationship - in which people delude themselves into thinking that they can tame the infinite beast that is sexual desire into a domesticated pet that can always work through jealousy and always properly interpret consent and refusal.

Personally, I love sex as much as the next person, but I'm looking at the vast sexual desert that likely lies before me and am, I think, understandably bitter. Sex is at the dead center of our society - the only thing which left and right can agree is absolutely sacred. We debate issues of sex as though they are the only thing in life which matters - abortion, homosexuality, the nature of pornography, revealing clothing, the themes of song lyrics, the implications of movie images - ad nauseum to the end of space and time. I sometimes go for five years at a time without sexual activity, trying my best when I can to store up satiation like a camel does water in its... oy... 'hump.' In a technical sense, perhaps sex really is the only thing that matters in life, but if it truly is, then how bleak our lives must be.

Well before 9 o'clock, the service ends. Oh my god, I can still catch the last hour of Beth Tfiloh's service... and maybe I will go to that Beth Am Sunday minyan...

Friday, September 25, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 1 - B'nei Yisra'el

Shul 1: B'nei Israel

There was no question that even if I didn't go to Beth Tfiloh, I would still go to Mom and Dad's place for dinner. It was, as usual for the early dinner before Yom Kippur, a filling affair. My Mom always makes a second side dish, one dish more than any mother who loved their children a normal amount would make. Dad had a number of choice lines, the best of which was "As you all know, I have a great personal affinity for Jesus (!!!), we both went into our Father's business, and both of us didn't quite measure up."

After the fracas of the past few weeks, dinner the night before was inevitably anticlimactic. Jordan and Naomi have now been married for roughly three weeks, and it would amazingly seem that they're still in love.

I of course figured I had plenty of time to make my way downtown to the place I thought I would go for Yom Kippur: B'nei Israel. One of the two old synagogues on Lloyd St. Two beautiful, relatively small, synagogues that date from the 19th century, designed to look like miniature, but more austere, versions the great synagogues of Europe - with their mixed moorish, baroque, and empire style ornamentation.

This synagogue is the later, and more ornate, of the two - dating from roughly 1870. The Ark which houses the Torahs at the front is bedecked with lights like a proto-Vegas billboard. It was originally called Chizuk Amuno - meaning 'Strengthen the Faith' - a splinter synagogue from Nidkhei Yisra'el, because certain members felt Nidkhei Yisra'el was becoming far too lax in its observance. So of course, in a move that was probably motivated one-quarter having to be close to its members, one-quarter being zoned out of anywhere but a majority Jewish area, and one-half spite, Chizuk Amuno built their synagogue directly next door to Nidkhei Yisra'el. The ulimate irony is that both synagogues became lax in their observance, and eventually moved within a mile of each other in Pikesville at the nexus of Park Heights Avenue and Stevenson Road, a locus which contains five megashuls that over the years have probably housed 50,000 Jews who want to stay Jews without actually being Jewish: Beth Tfiloh, Beth El, Oheb Shalom, Chizuk Amuno, and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (formerly Nidkhei Yisra'el, but no doubt Baltimore Hebrew is a better name for Jews who can't stand being Jewish).

Of course, by the time I arrived across town to Lloyd Street and Corned Beef Row (as they call the old 19th century Jewish neighborhood due to the collection of delis still gracing the street with its deliciously salted smell), I was 15 minutes late; and of course by the time I got there, they hadn't even begun the Kol Nidrei service.

Like all Jews at all Kol Nidrei services, I immediately had the overwhelming urge to go to the bathroom from the huge dinner I ate beforehand. Most Jews resist this urge with every fibre of their being (and we usually can because Jews don't eat enough fibre...), so while most Jews spray the Kol Nidrei service with the inevitable smell of fart - in this case, no doubt provided mostly by the offerings at Corned Beef Row - I decided I would do the charitable thing and not contribute to the gaseous melee. I left to go to the bathroom, and to my shock, when I returned roughly ten minutes later, they had just about finished the Kol Nidrei and I had missed the chanting of the one prayer any Jew cares about on Yom Kippur.


(Lewis Black on the Kol Nidrei)

Kol Nidrei is a prayer that is supposed to be said three times, and generally very slowly. It is not a prayer, it is a legal tender with God, written in the Middle Ages when Jews were often forced to convert by the sword. Yis-ra-el means "He who wrestles with God", and to open the holiest days of the year with the words of the Kol Nidrei: "Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, our oaths are no longer oaths," is a startling statement of defiance - a middle finger to God at the moment when we're supposed to be beseeching him most. Judaism, ever the most practical and legalistic of religions, begins services with an 'out' clause, our vows to both Judaism and other religions, mean nothing. The melody is, like so many melodies in Judaism, a song of a very particular tragedy - speaking not as so many spooky Christian melodies do to the dread of hellfire, but to the fact that this is the world that counts, and this world sucks.


(Kol Nidrei)

Yom Kippur does not feel complete unless you're there for the Kol Nidrei. And yet, it's a Tucker family tradition that we're late for it and only hear the last of its three repetitions. I was not later than the service, and yet, by the time I got back from the bathroom - the Kol Nidrei was three quarters of the way through the last iteration: apparently 'Our shits are no longer shits.'

After the Kol Nidrei, the cantor is supposed to lead us in the  'Shehecheyanu' (the prayer of thanks for living to see this day). At Beth Tfiloh, Chazzan (Cantor) Albrecht uses a beautiful melody that the entire congregation has learned to intone with him, but at this shul the Cantor used a tune nobody knew, a few people cursorily mumbled along, and then we proceeded to the sermon, which was, of course, about Death.

Insofar as he's given me any thought in the last few years, relations between Rabbi Wohlberg and I have not been particularly cozy as I have written him in recent years (documented at least once here) to tell him that I find his rightward turn distasteful. But let's be honest here, Rabbi Wohlberg, for all his many flaws, is as good a pulpit rabbi as rabbis get - and would never waste a sermon talking about shit that is guaranteed to keep all of us out of the pews for years at a time. Talk about anything else in your sermons - talk about politics, talk about family, talk about sports, talk about sex, just don't fucking talk about religion!

Unfortunately, most Rabbis don't get the memo Wohlberg practically wrote himself, and this particular Rabbi might has well have been a Calvinist for all his morbid harping on death and how there is nothing between us and Gahenna but the air. And then, of course, he ended it with two or three awkwardly token sentences about how 'we have to embrace life' and clinching his unearned peroration with a plea to us to chant the 'Shehecheyanu' together like we've never chanted it before. As he began it, the Cantor had what seemed like a fit of ego, and angrily cut off the Rabbi as though to say 'I lead the fucking prayers here!', and in gales of fortissimo shouted out that same awkward tune of the Shehecheyanu, while the Rabbi, clearly feeling very awkward at the situation, shuffled back to his seat.

Clearly, if I stayed at B'nei Israel, it would be a very long fast.

Leaving B'nei Yisra'el was a sad experience. Leaving any urban shul in Baltimore is. These shuls, built to be the center of life in once vibrant Jewish neighborhoods, are designed for whatever the maximum capacity of the community once was. The maximum capacity of B'nei Yisrael was clearly once at least a hundred-fifty more people than were in their pews, and that was just the men's section. Like all Orthodox Synagogues of particularly unsound dogma, women are relegated to the upstairs, a tradition that seems more like segregation in the Deep South with every year.

When you leave an urban shul, particularly at night, you see what the neighborhood has truly become. Directly across the street was a bunch of black kids making noise with sticks on which they beat the ground. I'm not gonna lie, I was a little scared, perhaps without justification, but I was also a little sad. The little glimpse I got of what Corned Beef Row is at night was as sad as any other part of nighttime Baltimore. Urban flight was part of every white community, but no white community rose faster than the Jewish community, and no privileged community still has more shared memory of working-class life in the city than Jews do. The moment we Jews acquired privilege was the moment we allowed ourselves to become just another gated white community. I don't know if it was our exit that allowed America's cities became breeding grounds for poverty and downward mobility, but our exit is more contemporary with that development than any other.

Most Pikesvillians (Pikesvillains?) don't realize it, but we need these cities as much they need us. I decided to not to go to Beth Tfiloh this year for many reasons, but behind them all is the incontrovertible and obvious truth that the gated community of Pikesville is a place without a soul; a Stepfordian echo-chamber full of people who never really lived their lives, where everyone's prejudices are reinforced by hearing all your fears confirmed by your neighbor, who has as little experience of the world outside of Pikesville as you do.

I have very similar complaints about the White hipster community of North Smalltimore in which I live, a bubble of gaudy privilege and self-delusion as amazingly stupid as a sack of hammers (or as Pikesville!). It's as though the wealthy grandchildren of Pikesville's original settlers moved back to North Baltimore so they could establish values in direct mirror opposition to the values of their grandparents - "whatever they believed, let's believe the opposite!" One side congratulates itself on its homogeneity, its shared memories and traditions, its commitment to the ancestral religion and homeland, the other congratulates itself on its diversity, its unfamiliarity with one another's customs, its progressivism and tolerance. People in Smalltimore are perhaps freer and more dynamic than in Pikesville, but if anything, they're dumber.

Neither community brooks much dissent with its ethos. Instead, both sides retreat to a cycle of repression in which there are certain things that cannot be said without being made to feel like a second-class citizen of the community - I should know, I've felt it from both sides, more from Pikesville certainly, but Smalltimore is catching up...

Neither side has any idea what life is really like for the embattled people they claim to speak for. Pikesville is filled with ersatz Jews who have more opinions on the State of Israel than they have words of Hebrew, Smalltimore is filled with ersatz progressives who have more opinions on the plight of poor blacks than they ever have change to spare in their pockets. Both employ militant politics as a substitute for actual knowledge of what they speak (or shout). It's far easier to trust gut solidarity instincts than it is to memorize statistics, far easier to say that you have knowledge of what these people go through because you hear a speaker or two that Beth Tfiloh or Red Emma's selected for you than it is to live their experience for a few years yourself. Is there anywhere in the world that tests your tolerance for the establishment like Pikesville? Is there anywhere in the world that tests your tolerance for the counterculture like Smalltimore?

I was there last year at Penn Station, watching these two groups of people go up against each other in demonstrations over the inevitable clash during the War in Gaza - is Israel a good place or an evil one? As Israel becomes a more and more polarizing issue, these clashes will only get larger and larger. So many people on the Left have already tried to connect a direct line between 'Black Lives Matter' and resistance to the Israeli Occupation that eventually, it will have to stick. If you're a member of the Hard Left, it's probably true; if you believe that West Baltimore is an irredeemable Police State worthy of comparison to Hitler and Stalin, then you'd probably believe the same about the West Bank and Gaza if you knew anything about what's goes on there. And yet, who are we supposed to believe as to what's necessary? Rabbi Wohlberg always said that the two jobs that should always get the benefit of the doubt are teachers and policemen. Both jobs are low-paying, dim-future occupations that are only assumed either to provide for the betterment of their communities, or for the privilege of abusing the powerless. When people who put their lives on the line tell you what is needed to police a place, who are we to argue? If you believe that the plurality of police or teachers have taken their jobs so that they can abuse their subjects, the issue's already dead - there's no way for one individual to solve such an enormous problem, and if you really care, you shouldn't be protesting the conduct because it's already too far gone, you should be doing what you can to get these people out from under the abuse and no longer poster childs for your causes. But... it's not that serious is it?...

The truth is never all with one side of any argument, even if one side is sometimes more right than the other (though not in this case...), and if the two sides ever came together, they would arrive at a greater, more valuable truth. Baltimore needs Pikesville's wealth, its practical sense, its unity of purpose. Pikesville needs Baltimore's experience, its diversity, its sense of where moral priorities should truly lay. The sports cars and McMansions of Pikesville are not as evil as Baltimore's murders, but they're perhaps even more senseless because they're derived from money that could easily be spent on alleviating so much suffering. By and large, Pikesville is a place of overprivileged lives without purpose or fulfillment. It is as spiritually impoverished as Baltimore is materially so.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

800 Words: Frank Shipway (Parts I II and III)

I. 



In this time of trouble, I've gotten more from listening obsessively to the Alpine Symphony than virtually any other activity in my life. The Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss is everything in music we've lost - the good and the bad, which stand next to each other unashamedly in a brilliant, Breughelesque aural canvass that reminds us of just how timid our music's become in the century since the work's premiere.

This is, almost beyond doubt, the greatest recording I've ever heard of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. A no name conductor with a C-list orchestra - so often these are the miracle performances that put the corporatism of capital cities in the shade. To be sure, the playing's a bit shaky at times, and the storm section is a little underpowered, but who cares? Has there ever been a performance so awake to the many possibilities of this piece, the stupefyingly graphic onomatopoetic detail, the harmonic rhythm and textural clarity, the incomparable dignity of Strauss's last and deepest (I'm completely serious) orchestral statement?

Amid many mediocre ones, there certainly are other very fine recordings: The composer himself made a wonderful one in 1941 - amid the dim sound, you hear a naturalness of pacing that makes this allegedly bloated work seem as classically proportioned as anything by Mozart or Mendelssohn, surely a feat only possible in the hands of a musician of equal talent to those masters. Franz Welser-Most, the most self-effacing interpretive personality among today's conductors, seems to do his best to copy Strauss tempo for tempo, and downplays the vulgarity to the point that we seem to be hearing something as natural as Schubert - a very fine, if downright bizarre performance in the way that it's so normal-sounding.  Rudolf Kempe, a German musician to the marrow but with a completely un-Teutonic elegance - marshals the Staatskapelle Dresden to an almost Beethovenian dignity from what sounds so blowsy and vulgar in other hands. Andre Previn, ever the showman, gets captures the piece's encyclopedia of orchestral sound effects in stupefyingly vivid detail - from the Vienna Philharmonic no less, an orchestra which prizes its dignity like a Hawk does her eggs. An ailing Lorin Maazel, only in his final few years a musician worthy of his massive fees, stretched the usually less than 50 minute work to 67 minutes with the Philharmonia orchestra, and gives a performance of glowing luminosity. Christian Thielemann gives a live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic that, for whatever reason, sounds as expressive as his recording was lethally boring (though for all I know, it might be the same performance...). In my first listen, I thought Francois-Xavier Roth tries to load the first half with virtuosity and the second half with metaphysical depth, but didn't realize that you can't divorce the two in this symphony (and for some reason I forgot that his name wasn't 'Franz'-Xavier Roth), but upon relistening, I realize that it doesn't matter, and perhaps you can separate the two with far less trouble than I previously thought. And a similarly little known conductor to Frank Shipway (at least in the West), Kazimiriez Kord, gives a performance of truly exceptional virtuosity - I listen and think to myself that perhaps this is how Carlos Kleiber would have conducted it. But until now, no performance could take the place in my heart of Fabio Luisi's performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Proms, which was the first performance to make me take the work seriously as more than just a showpiece of a composer running out of ideas. Even after hearing Shipway, there are details of this Dresden performance of which I have never heard their like in any other. Luisi's occasional subtle effects to increase the piece's inherent bravado only makes the piece sound still greater.

But except for Thielemann, none of these conductors have anything in common with Shipway's approach, for the simple reason that none of the others are combing the score for every nuance of its astonishing diversity of expression. It is not in the nature of most musicians to do so. How many conductors would have been flexible enough to take their time to let every detail speak to its proper weight, and still blaze forth in a hail of virtuosity when the music demands the exact opposite approach? There is a rain of good conductors - BohmBlomstedt, Janowski, Jansons, Bychkov, Harding - who come undone in this piece by the fact that there is nothing particularly memorable about their performances. Doubtless we'll get another generic one soon from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. Carl Schuricht does his best to imitate Richard Strauss's performance, but he can't quite do it and the result sounds as though he skates the surface. A legend like Bernard Haitink gets bogged down by the sheer metaphysical weight of the score and completely misses the joie de vivre, whereas another legend like Georg Solti completely misses the depths that lies beyond the score's miraculous surface, while the most legendary Straussian of all - Herbert von Karajan - does what he so often does, giving the score everything it needs but oxygen and a beating heart beneath the astounding skill. I'm probably too hard on Karajan. There's a part of me that wants to declare his electrifying recording without parallel as everyone else does; but there is something truly disturbing about musicmaking so electrifying yet so cold. This is a performance for the work's Nietzschean source material - truly magnetic and superhuman virtuosity, almost always capturing precisely the right color for the right moment. And yet, if Shipway is organic, then Karajan is eugenic. He achieves this amazing sonic document without any sense of human expression, as though reminding us that nature exists without the human perception of it, yet might be recreated to the last detail by a spectacularly engineered human machine. Truly, it's an extraordinary and deep performance in its way, but the way in which it's extraordinary makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Could any other conductor have captured both the surface exuberance and the unfathomable depth that lay behind? Surely Furtwangler or Bruno Walter would have, ditto Leonard Bernstein and Celibidache in his prime, or Carlos Kleiber and Victor De Sabata. Perhaps Kubelik or Barbirolli or Monteux or Beecham or would have, or Georges Pretre to name a less obvious name, and perhaps even Simon Rattle or Manfred Honeck still could if they ever took the piece on. Charles Munch and Leopold Stokowski would have probably erred on the side of flash, Eugen Jochum and Klaus Tennstedt on the side of depth. I have yet to hear Andris Nelsons in this piece, but I have very high hopes, as do I have Christian Thielemann's remake in Dresden. I once valued Daniel Barenboim's recording, and one would think his mixture of philosopher and showman ideal for this piece, but in relistening to it, his recording with the Chicago Symphony is a strangely diffuse performance. The chemistry of Barenboim the metaphysical striver with the Chicago Symphony, acme of orchestral virtuosity, was always awry. A musician as great as Barenboim could never truly fail, and like Rattle in Berlin after them, they made the best of a bad marriage, but Barenboim should never have gone to Chicago.

Could any contemporary of Shipway's do it? The England of his generation produced some truly extraordinary batons, but none of them was particularly extraordinary in quite Shipway's way. Charles Mackerras, perhaps the greatest of their generation in any country, would create a performance in the Kempe mode - not capturing every detail, but getting all the essentials correct for a great performance. Colin Davis would have captured the grandeur, but been utterly embarrassed by the comic kitsch. John Eliot Gardiner wouldn't touch this elephantine piece with a ten foot pole, and Norrington would have been fascinatingly perverse. Vernon Handley would have never been interested in it. Perhaps Andrew Davis would have made something of it, depending on the side of the bed he woke up on on the day of the performance. Edward Downes would have been dreadfully soporific, and Neville Marriner would have been far too timid in the face of such aggressive music. Perhaps Wyn Morris would have made a fair go of it, but we have scant evidence of the conductor Wyn Morris was. Much Beethoven and Mahler, impressive too, and nothing else.


(Elgar doesn't get better than this)

But compared to Shipway, we have a veritable encyclopedia of the artist Wyn Morris was. And if the recorded evidence is anything to go by, Frank Shipway's talent may have dwarfed even Wyn Morris, but we'll never know. Frank Shipway, just as he was finally to get his due as a great conductor with a record contract to set down a complete Strauss cycle, died in a car accident at the age 79. All that's left is scant evidence of a gift that might have equaled the very greatest the world's ever seen.

II. 

Even in postwar England, the finest musical culture in the Free World of its time, there was no place for Shipway on the national stage. Think of how amazing a place postwar London must have been for music. At its center was Benjamin Britten, along with Shostakovich, the last lion of the classical canon who roared before popular music subsumed us all. As only a giant can, he expressed not only his own experience, but the experience of entire nation's, and spoke to the entire world about the gay experience, the experience of the outsider, the experience of innocence lost and corrupted. At his side was Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom in what might have been his dotage wrote masterpiece after masterpiece. Just behind them, a chorus of talents who sometimes touched on mastery - Tippett, Walton, Finzi, Constance Lambert, and Malcolm Arnold, along with a number of composers of generic accomplishment like George Lloyd, Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells, Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley, Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn and many others whose names haven't even lasted fifty years but could count on performances in their own time. Even composers of personal, countercultural vision who embraced the latest European techniques like Humphrey Searle, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Robert Simpson could get performed. Even if amateur eccentrics like Havrgal Brien, Lord Berners, Cyril Scott, and Kaikhosru Sorabji, could not count on performances for their often quite demanding music, the fact that their work was known testifies to the fact that there was a centralized musical culture to which all paid attention. Talented composers of an extremely different bent from their older colleagues - like Harrison Birtwhistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Geohr, Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Gavin Bryars, all found places within the firmament to be performed, and even if there was much grumbling along the way, with comparatively little resistance from the establishment.

London had five professional orchestras which in any week could give performances of extraordinary quality, and being the center of worldwide classical recording, there must have been more than a dozen ad-hoc freelance orchestral enesmbles operating at any given time. Even the names of orchestral musicians like Hugh Bean, Reginald Kell, Jack Brymer, Leon Goossens, and Aubrey Brain, still ring quite a bell to obsessive music lovers. Every mid-size British city had its own orchestra, and the quality programming of the BBC ensured that British musical audiences were the best educated and most passionate of their time. There were extraordinary native conductors like Beecham and Barbirolli, and extraordinary immigrants continually roaming around London like Klemperer, Krips, and a bit later, Sir Georg Solti. and extraordinary immigrants roaming around the provinces like Jascha Horenstein and Rudolf Schwarz and Constantin Silvestri. This doesn't even begin to cover the gamut of extraordinary singers and soloists, both native and immigrant, who lived in London during the postwar years.

The quality of this musicmaking was not particularly extraordinary in the annals of music history. What was extraordinary was that it happened so late in the game - popular music was still merely a highly successful niche pursuit in England while it long since conquered America. England was a musical village in which no matter how unique your personal musical vision, you were practically guaranteed to find a reasonably sized musical audience, somewhere in your country, that was sympathetic. No musician was an island. Its like existed neither in America nor in France nor in Italy nor in Germany, and seems to exist nowhere today.

And still, there was no room on the A-List, or even the B-List, perhaps not even the C-List, for Frank Shipway.

III.

Every music snob has their weakness for a period when music was never better. Some testify to their broadmindedness by keeping it a secret, others partisanly shout their preference from the rooftop. As much as my heart will always belong above all others to the classical: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and by extension Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and to a lesser extent Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. But my infatuation is for the late Romantics - Janacek, Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Nielsen. The Belle Epoque and Fin de Siecle does relatively little for this blogger in painting, and the literature is sometimes hit or miss, but the music, my god the music...

I think I've finally hit on what I love. This was the moment in history when music, already probably raised to its pinnacle by Mozart and Beethoven, was the most crucial of all arts to the world's well-being. Never could more people have appreciated music on so complex a level - appreciated not only as a passive art on recording as it mostly is today, but as an art which you actively study with profound humility: a piano in every home with multiple people to play it, chamber and choral ensembles everywhere made up of family and friends, and reading music was considered part of basic literacy. So engorged was the world on this most powerful of drugs that the best composers were expected to write works of massive length and breath, incorporating the most culturally relevant topics from philosophy, history, and politics, and still expect to make it accessible (albeit still quite challenging) to a universal audience. If music can render emotional experience into sound, why can't it render whole philosophical concepts as well? Without music, philosophy is merely words on a page which we must interpret to understand, but music would make philosophy into a living experience. All it takes to create is musical geniuses of unlimited perception and cosmic ambition. And yet was it ever truly done again by a composer who came of age after World War I?

In its way, music has never been so complex an enterprise ever again. Sure, we can now write music full of polyrhythms and dissonance unlimited, and who but a small niche cares? Around the corner from Puccini and Strauss was the disease of recorded music, the drug that made music, that most powerful and dangerous of all arts, omnipresent in our lives at the click of a button. Never again was music an awe-inspiring force but a simple fact of life. Music became accessible enough that it couldn't help but be trivialized, in so-called art music as well as in popular music. In a single generation, it turned the most musically accomplished and adult populace in world history into spoiled musical children - with music that grew ever less complex and ever more infantile.

Milan Kundera inveighs against it again and again, and puts it much better than I ever could:

“As early as 1930 Schoenberg wrote: "Radio is an enemy, a ruthless enemy marching irresistibly forward, and any resistance is hopeless"; it "force-feeds us music . . . regardless of whether we want to hear it, or whether we can grasp it," with the result that music becomes just noise, a noise among other noises. Radio was the tiny stream it all began with. Then came other technical means for reproducing, proliferating, amplifying sound, and the stream became an enormous river. If in the past people would listen to music out of love for music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, "regardless whether we want to hear it," it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don't know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can't tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form): sewage-water music in which music is dying.”

- Milan Kundera, Ignorance


"The music (commonly and vaguely) called "rock " has been inundating the sonic environment of daily life for twenty years; it seized possession of the world at the very moment when the twentieth century was disgustedly vomiting up its history; a question haunts me: was   this coincidence mere chance? Or is there some hidden meaning to the conjunction of the century's final trials and the ecstasy of rock? Is the century hoping to forget itself in this ecstatic howling? To forget its Utopias foundering in horror? To forget its art? An art whose subtlety, whose needless complexity, irritates the populace, offends against democracy?   The word "rock" is vague; therefore, I would rather describe the music I mean: human voices prevail over instruments, high-pitched voices over low ones; there is no contrast to the dynamics, which keep to a perpetual fortissimo that turns the singing into howling; as in jazz, the rhythm accentuates the second beat of the measure, but in a more stereotyped and noisier manner; the harmony and the melody are simplistic and thus they bring out the tone color, the only inventive element of this music; while the popular songs of the first half of the century had melodies that made poor folk cry (and delighted Mahler's and Stravinsky's musical irony), this so-called rock music is exempt from the sin of sentimentality; it is not sentimental, it is ecstatic, it is the prolongation of a single moment of ecstasy; and since ecstasy is a moment wrenched out of time-a brief moment without memory, a moment surrounded by forgetting-the melodic motif has no room to develop, it only repeats, without evolving or concluding (rock is the only "light" music in which melody is not predominant; people don't hum rock melodies).   A curious thing: thanks to the technology of sound reproduction, this ecstatic music resounds incessantly and everywhere, and thus outside ecstatic situations. The acoustic image of ecstasy has become the everyday decor of our lassitude. It is inviting us to no orgy, to no mystical experience, so what does this trivialized ecstasy mean to tell us? That we should accept it. That we should get used to it. That we should respect its privileged position. That we should observe the ethic it decrees.
   The ethic of ecstasy is the opposite of the trial's ethic; under its protection everybody does whatever he wants: now anyone can suck his thumb as he likes, from infancy to graduation, and it is a freedom no one will be willing to give up; look around you on the Metro; seated or standing, every single person has a finger in some orifice of his face-in the ear, in the mouth, in the nose; no one feels he's being observed, and everyone dreams of writing a book to tell about his unique and inimitable self, which is picking its nose; no one listens to anyone else, everyone writes, and each of them writes the way rock is danced to: alone, for himself, focused on himself yet making the same motions as all the others. In this situation of uniform egocentricity, the sense of guilt does not play the role it once did; the tribunals still operate, but they are fascinated exclusively by the past; they see only the core of the century; they see only the generations that are old or dead. Kafka's characters were made to feel guilty by the authority of the father; it is because his father disgraces him that the hero of "The Judgment" drowns himself in a river; that time is past: in the world of rock, the father has been charged with such a load of guilt that, for a long time now, he allows everything. Those with no guilt feelings are dancing.
   Recently, two adolescents murdered a priest: on television I heard another priest talking, his voice trembling with understanding: "We must pray for the priest who was a victim of his mission: he was especially concerned with young people. But we must also pray for the two unfortunate adolescents; they too were victims: of their drives."
   While freedom of thought-freedom of words, of attitudes, of jokes, of reflection, of dangerous ideas, of intellectual provocations-shrinks, under surveillance as it is by the vigilance of the tribunal of general con-formism, the freedom of drives grows ever greater. They are preaching severity against sins of thought; they are preaching forgiveness for crimes committed in emotional ecstasy."




 Milan Kundera - Testaments Betrayed

(the next one is not entirely true but mostly...)


"At jazz concerts people applaud. To applaud means: I have listened to you carefully and now I am declaring my appreciation. The music called "rock" changes the situation. An important fact: at rock concerts people do not applaud. It would be almost sacrilege to applaud and thus to bring to notice the critical distance between the person playing and the person listening; we come here not to judge and evaluate but to surrender to the music, to scream along with the musicians, to merge with them; we come here to seek identification, not pleasure; effusion, not delight. We go into ecstasy here: the beat is strong and steady, the melodic motifs are short and endlessly repeated, there are no dynamic contrasts, everything is fortissimo, the song tends toward the highest range and resembles screaming. Here we re no longer in those little nightspots where the music wraps the couple in intimacy; we're in huge halls, in stadiums, pressed one against the next, and, if were dancing at a club there are no couples; each person is doing his moves by himself and together with the whole crowd at the same time. The music turns the individuals into a single collective body: talking here about individualism and hedonism is just one of the self-mystifications of our time, which (like any other time, by the way) wants to see itself as different from what it is."

Milan Kundera - Testaments Betrayed

Perhaps there's an argument, not much of one but an argument nevertheless, to be made that what truly drove Old Europe insane was music. When photography made visual art accessible to all, perhaps the result was the Belle Epoque. But when recording made music accessible to all, perhaps the result was World War. The German speaking lands, ever the center of musical discourse in its Golden Age, was accompanied by the martial strains of Wagner and Strauss - misinterpreted though they might have been. America and England and France were accompanied by the strains of a new, simpler music that gave the audience what it wanted - Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, even Carmen and Noel Coward, great though they are, make few if any metaphysical demands. With the passing of the old Germany, the age of transcendent metaphysics was over, and in place of this quasi-mystical quest for a greater self came a conception of us as nothing more than a bundle of neuro-physiological wires that needed no greater transcendence than pleasant feelings as often as possible.