My father blindsided me last night, in the middle of the New Music Gathering at Peabody where I have a chance to meet more musicians into modern music than I've ever seen in my life - there are probably 300 composers at Peabody right now, most my age or younger. But my father is turning seventy, and not only did he want me for dinner, he also wanted me at Beth Tfiloh, my ...favorite... place, for Kabbalas Shabbes.
Once I came, I realized I was glad I went, because the culture shock was, as always, utterly overwhelming. To go from hours upon hours of recitals among hipsters making atonal blips and beeps to a group of Orthodox Jews who were singing and dancing, some with truly incredible Kavoneh (fervor), was the biggest culture shock of them all.
The difference between Pikesville and Smalltimore was summed up this afternoon. Both places are like families in which you either buy in totally, or you don't. In Smalltimore, there is lots of curiosity, lots of experimentation, lots of social consciousness. But there's no metaphysics, no real sense that anything matters except the here and the now. In Pikesville, there's always lots of warmth, lots of hospitality, (relatively) lots of tolerance for unbelievers and differing opinions, and a sense that was completely lacking at Peabody today that there were things which mattered past immediate concerns. Short of sex, religion is the greatest theater ever conceived. My rational self will never believe in religion, but the sense of awe, of communication with the primal mystery it hits, is something much, much deeper. I don't have much in the way of faith, but there is something in my gut (kishkes) that tells me that we all need a way to feel in touch with these eternal, spiritual questions, even if it's through doubt rather than belief. It's a theater deeper than any Shakespeare, and I have the sense that many people don't have any connection with it at all.
There's a great literary critic and novelist, J. B. Priestly, who writes that it's this divided self, the tormented sense of self-conflict, the urgency that not feeling like you belong anywhere brings, that gives an artist a burning desire to communicate something that sears itself into the memory. Without that urgency, it's entertainment. Both places don't know how desperately they need to be more like each other. At Peabody, I watched as hundreds of people listened in respectful attention while hours of music were played that nobody had any real reason to remember after the performance. It wasn't bad, some of it was very good, some of it was ingenious, but where was the urgency? Where was the sense that music and art is nothing less than a matter of life and death? In Pikesville, I listened and participated as seventy-five people sang melodies hundreds of years old at the top of their lungs. After which they will retire to their homes for a fantastic meal and forget completely about the immeasurable suffering that goes on five miles away from them.
It is this sense of divided suffering that Yossele Rosenblatt brought to both music and religion. Yossele Rosenblatt was the most famous of all cantors who was in demand to sing around the world, he was offered more money than any cantor has ever been offered. He got offers to sing both on Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera. But he turned them all down and would only sing Jewish music and never give concerts on Shabbos. The temptation must have been overwhelming for a man who grew up amongst Russian pogroms. And yet he redoubled his commitment to religion, and even if his music announces his faith to the world, its deep sadness screams his doubts and fears from the mountaintops.
His setting of Shir Hamaalos became so famous that it nearly became the Israeli National Anthem. It speaks to a primordial longing we all have. Here is the text:
"When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, we were like people in a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with exultation: then said they among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us; so we rejoiced! Bring back our captives, O Lord, as the streams in the south. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes on his way weeping, bearing the store of seed, he shall come back with joy, bearing his sheaves."
Whether or not one believes in the State of Israel's legitimacy, the longing to return to Zion and Jerusalem has been one of the fundamental themes of Western poetry for thousands of years. It is the longing to return home, the longing to belong, the longing for purpose, the longing for love, the longing that if an artist does not tap into, he will not reach into the guts of the audience.
Few pieces have ever hit me deeper in my guts than Shir Hamaalos. In the summer of 2009, when I was virtually homeless and penniless and briefly even cut myself off from my family in Pikesville, with hardly any connection to home or the religion, I was fortunate enough to stay on the couch of friends, and far more than once I would shut myself in a friends bedroom, listen to this recording of this prayer, and weep.