At a recent concert at Ann Arbor’s Quaker Friends Meeting, Laz and I played mostly some of the very familiar songs from the Folk Revival of the Sixties (or the folk scare, as many of us have come to call it). Our audience, most of them aging baby boomers like us, with fond memories of hootenannies, protest songs, marches, Dylan, Seeger, and Peter, Paul & Mary, sang along with us enthusiastically. Barbara Brodsky, founder of the Deep Spring Center for Meditation and Spiritual Inquiry, and her son, Davy Rothbart, the creator of FOUND Magazine, were in the front row and Davy was signing and mouthing the lyrics to his Mom. Barbara has been deaf for many years, and the songs, Blowin’ in the Wind, Kumbaya, Puff the Magic Dragon, as well as protest songs like Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, We Shall Overcome, The Hammer Song and others from that time, were among the last songs she had still been able to hear. During most of the show she alternated between looking at us and at Davy, but on a few of the songs she sang along.
At one point in the course of the evening I mentioned that I’ve rarely sung some of these songs—such as We Shall Overcome—in concert; I’ve mainly sung them at political events like the anti neo Nazi rally in Ann Arbor in 1982, or at last year’s March for Our Lives. I said I was profoundly grateful to the people who created these songs, and to those who sang them at significant political and social justice events in the Sixties and since. Not wanting to draw attention to Barbara and Davy, I didn’t mention how grateful I also felt—way beyond my ability to articulate—for the everyday miracle of hearing, for being able to sing these songs, or how moved I was at seeing how much music can mean to people—that Barbara chose to come to the concert despite knowing she would not hear it.
About thirty-five years ago, Laz and I were invited to play on a radio program called Morning Pro Musica on WGBH, Boston’s NPR station. Every weekday morning, the host, Robert J. Lurtsema, played all manner of music, from folk to jazz to classical, treating them all with identical respect and affection. After hearing us play at the Fox Hollow Folk festival in upstate New York, where he often served as MC, he invited us on his show. A few days before our appearance, he informed us that we’d have a live audience, something not typical for his broadcasts. He also said that this audience would be unusual. We’d have all the kids and their teacher from the one room schoolhouse of a small community in Maine, who would make the several hour ride down to Boston to attend our live in-studio concert. The community consisted of a religious sect, one of whose tenets was that no one was allowed to listen to music. The teacher, not a member of the sect, had previously gotten permission from the sect’s leaders to allow the children to listen to Morning Pro Musica, because of its educational, varied, and wholesome content. Then, hearing about our upcoming live concert, she petitioned the sect leaders to allow her to bring the children to attend and, having secured their permission again, she also asked Lurtsema.
None of the dozen or so children had ever seen or heard live music. They had never seen musicians singing or manipulating their instruments to produce musical sounds. I couldn’t—during the concert, or after, or even today—imagine what they were thinking, feeling, while listening to our music.
After our concert at Friends Meeting the other night, I thought of that long-ago show for those kids who had been deprived of and kept deaf to music. Just as I could not then, I could not now imagine what the experience of “listening” to our music was really like for Barbara. But I was grateful she had been there; clearly the music—even silently—communicated something precious to her.
A few days after the concert I got an email from Davy. He wrote, “To me, part of the magic of the songs you sang, is that those protest songs of the 60s were so instrumental to people like my Mom during their peace work and fight for Civil Rights. My Mom, who was among the original Freedom Riders, shared the story with me of being on a bus of Freedom Riders and being forced off the road on a Southern highway. The bus slowly tipped over into a ditch, and while no one was seriously injured, everyone was shaken by the incident. When the bus landed on its side, my Mom told me, there was a stunned silence. Then someone began to sing, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on’ and everyone joined them in song until the whole bus was singing, dusting themselves off among the broken glass, cuts and bruises.
“Part of what got me so emotional about the concert was that it transported me to the moments I know my mom experienced as a pro Civil Rights and anti-nuke weapons protestor in the 60s; though I knew these stories, hearing the songs—and watching her re-experience them so fully—helped to connect me to this courageous, crucial part of her life which happened, of course, before I knew her. So, I felt swelled with pride for her actions (and of the others in the room who were part of the same cause), as well as inspired to continue the fight for equality, justice and love which they began, and which now feels as urgent as ever.”
I've long understood that every person who hears Laz and me sing has a world of experiences, feelings and emotions inside them that filters all that they see and hear, and that I will never really know what the music means to them. I feel acutely grateful that Davy was willing to share a little of the worlds through which he and his Mom experienced our concert. His stories were the latest, and among the most astounding, of the many magical moments I’ve been fortunate enough to witness and experience in a life of making and listening to music. When any of us create music, any art—or in truth, interact in any meaningful way with another human being—we never really know the effect we are having. That’s not important. What is essential, is remembering and trusting that in those interactions something priceless can happen.
We had a fabulous time at our 140th Birthday concert at the Ark!! Twelve of our favorite musicians and storytellers joined us on stage throughout the evening. Most of them we’ve known and worked with for decades, and all of them brought their A-game! We had a full house of friends and family from near and far; people came from all over Michigan and as far away as Chicago. There was a great deal of wonderful music, a lot of laughter, some tears; we raised money for our favorite venue, the Ark, and created many sweet memories for all of us.
Joe Giese, who ran sound for the evening—superbly!—and whose parents used to bring him to our shows when he was a little boy, lugged in a bunch of his equipment so he could record the entire show. (As we speak, Joe is hard at work replacing, updating and improving the Ark's sound system and stage lighting. The next time you go to the Ark, you'll enjoy his efforts!) A few days after the concert I drove over to his Allen Park studio to mix the result. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon hanging out with Joe, listening to the recording, while Joe did his studio magic, tweaking and balancing the sounds of the various instruments and vocals.
Here is how we improvised Happy Birthday that night, with San playing the bones and Laz playing the pennywhistle:
Here is a medley of our original songs from that night, performed with some of our band:
First of all, thank you. I believed you when you testified, and believe you still. Nothing has changed my mind, or diminished my feelings of gratitude to you for what you did.
Thanksgiving Day will be exactly eight weeks since you appeared before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. So many events, so many news cycles, have come and gone since then that it sometimes seems as though it was a lifetime ago. I wonder if that’s the way it seems to you, or if that day continues to still resonate powerfully in your life and to affect your and your family’s daily life the way it did in the weeks before you testified. The media has for the most part, out of necessity, “moved on,” but I am appalled to hear that you’ve not been allowed to. I have felt revolted and sickened to read that you have continued to receive death threats, that you and your family still need security guards, and that you’ve been forced to move several times. I am writing to let you know that I—and I am certain countless others—have not, “moved on,” have not forgotten.
I imagine it’s possible that because of everything that has happened since your testimony, you’ve questioned your decision, and may have come to regret having spoken up. I would not blame you. But I want you to know how much I admired your decision to speak, as well as the way you carried yourself during your testimony. Trump’s cruel and malicious mocking notwithstanding, you were the personification of strength and grace, and an extraordinary example of how to act like a true citizen, patriot and human being.
Since the day of your testimony I’ve thought frequently of Galileo’s famous phrase “E pur si muove,” “And yet it moves.” He is credited with saying those words, speaking truth to power—in his case the Catholic Inquisition—affirming his observations that the earth moves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Even if his phrase is apocryphal, as well it might be, Galileo’s published works boldly affirmed the truth, despite the consequences he surely suspected he might suffer. In fact, he was subjected to house arrest for the rest of his life for his powerful and public affirmation of reality. He probably could not have imagined (as you couldn’t) the magnitude of those consequences.
Among the many aftermaths of your testimony, perhaps the one that may have been especially disheartening to you—it certainly was for me—that Trump and his followers chose to laugh at you, despite your moving statement that perhaps the most painful and distressing aspect of your harrowing experience many years ago was the laughter it provoked in your attackers.
Your story of hateful laughter also reminded me of one my mother used to tell. She was a Holocaust survivor, having endured the Ravensbruck concentration camp for several months in 1944 and 1945. She related how, shortly after she and her fellow prisoners arrived at that hellhole, the Nazis cut off their hair. But the Nazis weren’t content to merely disfigure them, they seemed to find it necessary to also humiliate them. Before the shearing the Nazis heartlessly baited them, “How short would you like your hair?” When the women, confused and hesitant, shyly indicated a length, pointing to a spot on their neck or shoulders, the Nazis brutally cut off all their hair, showed them a mirror and laughed, “How do you like the modern styling we gave you?”
My mother said, “I’ll never forget the wailing when we saw ourselves in those mirrors.” It was her most poignant memory of her entire ordeal. On April 15, 1945, she escaped from the Nazis while on a forced march and eventually made it back to her homeland in Hungary. She “moved on,” several times in fact, eventually emigrating with my father, my brother, and me to America. She rebuilt her life, created my brother’s and mine, and she never forgot. I also have not forgotten her stories, and I will not forget yours.
I hope that you and your family will soon be able to begin to heal from the trauma you have, and are still experiencing. I thank you again and wish you and your family a sweet Thanksgiving, happy Holidays and a great New Year.=
The day after the bloodshed in Pittsburgh my brother and I played a family concert as part of the 100th anniversary of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in East Lansing. We’ve played for that congregation a number of times before; this date had been booked months earlier.
It never entered my mind to consider cancelling the concert. That’s not a statement about my courage, but more a reflection of an attitude of “the show must go on” that my brother and I have adhered to… well, religiously, for more than 45 years. Still, the thought of what could happen did of course cross my mind, in the same way that, in the few days following news of an airline crash, most of us, I’m guessing, board a plane with a heightened awareness of the catastrophic possibilities.
Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi, Amy Bigman, greeted us warmly, and naturally we talked of what had happened less than twenty-four hours earlier. She and her congregation had also been in the middle of their Shabbat morning services when they learned of the tragedy. She and the congregation leadership had decided to not make a public announcement at the synagogue, due to the number of small children at the services. Now she asked us not to refer to the event in our concert either, since our family concert audience that Sunday morning would also include young children. Of course, we agreed; actually, we’d already decided that on our way to the concert.
So, we played the same lively, lighthearted songs we usually do at our family concerts for Jewish audiences. But, of course they now had additional layers of meaning and shading. Our typical opening song features hello in English plus in eight foreign languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. You can easily guess what I was thinking about as I was singing.
The words of the very familiar, “Hine Ma Tov,” How good it is and how lovely for people to live as one… rang particularly apt — and hollow. Still, for the most part, it felt like a typical concert: lots of singing along, enthusiastic and rhythmic clapping, some happy giggling and laughing when we acted out a story about two donkeys who gradually learn that they’ll only get to eat if they cooperate and pull in the same direction. “The moral of our story, the moral of our tale: if you work together, you will never fail.” Right.
And then came the four songs with which we often close our Jewish concerts: the medley of “Am Yisroel Chai,” The people of Israel live, and “Lo Yisa Goy,” Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchama. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they will study war no more – Isaiah. We ended with “Shalom Chaverim,” Peace friends, a lovely slow round which we medley to the rousing, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” literally We brought you peace, which is often used as a greeting or a farewell.
A few seconds into Hevenu Shalom, people began standing up. By the end of the first repeat, the entire audience was standing, singing and clapping along. I immediately understood that this was not a typical standing ovation. While clearly they’d enjoyed our concert, our audience was not standing for us. It seemed to me that they instinctively got to their feet in response to an ancient and universal human need to stand together with community; to speak out — in this case to sing out, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the weak, the broken, the attacked; to stand up and be counted; in a very real sense to live standing upright, rather than remaining seated and silent in the face of evil.
Last Thursday morning while I was trying to decide whether to take time off from work to watch the Senate’s Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings live, I found myself remembering a line from a book by my favorite mystery writer, Robert B. Parker. Parker’s hero, Spenser, has been called in to help investigate a woman’s gruesome murder. Someone tells him he doesn’t have to look at the body if he doesn’t want to, but he says something like, “If she could endure it, I can endure seeing it.” In other words, he felt he owed it to her to look at, and see the tragic, ugly truth of her suffering. I realized I felt the same way. I felt I owed it to Dr. Ford to watch. She had endured what happened to her when she was fifteen, and then also in the weeks since her allegation became public, and she was now willing to endure all that might happen to her at these hearings. I could endure watching.
Although I found the hearing often heartbreaking, occasionally enraging, I don’t for a second regret that I took the time to watch what was perhaps the most remarkable public display of courage I have ever witnessed. There were countless noteworthy highlights in Dr. Ford’s testimony, but for me the most stunning moment, the one that brought me jumping off the couch to stand and yell, “Yes!” came near the end, when Senator Cory Booker asked her how she felt about the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee refusing to ask for an FBI investigation of her allegation. He offered her the perfect opportunity to blast the senators; he lobbed her a beach ball she could slam out of the park. He teed it up for her.
And she refused to swing away. It was a leading question, but she wasn’t about to be led. She resisted the temptation to point fingers, to vent her frustration, to accuse.
Who could have blamed her, after the way she’d been treated by the Republican members of the Committee for the past few weeks? Instead, calmly and without hesitation she replied, "I wish that I could be more helpful and that others could be more helpful and that we could collaborate in a way that would get at more information." It was a truly stunning statement, delivered with an honesty and a clarity we don’t often hear from people in Washington. There was no guile, no calculation in her tone or in her delivery. Her words simply reinforced what she said earlier in her opening statement; she was only here to tell the truth.
Since the hearing, I’ve read and heard that some people, while admiring her courage, and believing her testimony, thought Dr. Ford’s manner to be too ingratiating, felt that she worked overly hard at trying to please. People have pointed out how our culture does not encourage, or even permit, women to express anger and outrage in these situations.
They’re right, and I fully agree that women should not be made to feel that they must speak and behave within a more muted range of expression than men are allowed. I am not praising Dr. Ford for having been, at times, excessively agreeable. When Senator Grassley asked her if she wanted to take a break, she did not need to reply, “Does that work for you?” On the other hand, given the overwhelming hostility she has faced since coming forward, and given the intensity of the public scrutiny she was facing for the first time in her life, is it surprising that she would fall back on being overly obliging? And then go on to explain, “I’m used to being collegial.” However, there was no meek accommodation at any important moment during her testimony. Whenever she needed to be strong, clear, “100% sure”, she was. Her flexible, gentle bearing did not prevent her from being a warrior. We have had more than enough public examples of people, mostly men, being loud, rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate, relying on the bullying power of their self-righteous rage and entitled indignation, to gaslight and get their way. (I submit as Exhibit A, B and C, Kavanaugh, Graham, and of course, Trump’s peevish, petulant outbursts.)
I’ve felt some compassion for Judge Kavanaugh, and especially for his family, in the past few weeks. No, I was not, am not, in any way excusing his alleged actions. Attempted rape, even under the influence of alcohol, is not high school hijinks; it’s not something to later be merely “not proud of.” And yes, it should automatically disqualify him from sitting on the Supreme Court, even if it did happen in high school, 36 years ago, and even if he’s been a model citizen since then. If Dr. Ford’s allegation is true—and I find it almost impossible to believe otherwise—he surely must be held to account. Nevertheless, I could not ignore his and his family’s pain. Dr. Ford’s refusal to speak harshly to the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee powerfully showed that it’s possible to state a necessary truth, without demonizing those who disagree, or even choose to ignore it. And for me, it somehow validated the way I’d been feeling about Judge Kavanaugh and his family. That feeling was severely tested a few hours later when he almost completely squandered all goodwill with his demeanor and behavior.
It would be good, maybe even crucial, if we all got “used to being collegial.” It would not mean ducking our responsibility to speak truth to power. Dr. Ford repeatedly demonstrated that it’s possible to do both. But it might help heal some of the painful divisions in our country if more of us, more often, found it in our hearts to try to be “more helpful and… could collaborate.”
It was six years ago yesterday that you left this Earth. So it feels a bit strange for me to be writing a letter to you, since, of course, I don’t know where to send it. I have so many questions that are no more answered today than they were six years ago, but really, they all add up to this one: Where are you? In one of his poems Richard Wilbur asks, “Is she now there, wherever there may be?”
Different religions and spiritual paths give various answers about the afterlife. In these last six years I’ve only arrived at one answer I’m sure of — you are within me as memory, as gratitude, as love. And you are in our son Daniel, and in all the people whose lives you touched with your kindness, your encouragement, your gifts.
I am starting to accept that I may never know the answers to some of my related questions, like: Is it just my wishful thinking, or are you still listening when I talk to you? And is it just my imagination that you are still guiding, protecting and blessing Daniel and me from wherever you are? But I’ve gradually decided over these past six years that I don’t need a reply from anywhere else but from inside me.
The author Sandra Cisneros writes, “In Mexico they say when someone you love dies, a part of you dies with them. But they forget to mention that a part of them is born in you — not immediately, I’ve learned, but eventually, and gradually.”
When I started to try to play your flute a few months after you died, the first note I learned was a B; it’s the easiest note to play on the classical silver flute. For months after, though I learned how to play other notes, whenever I picked up your flute I always started with that one. After a while it struck me that this B note was telling me to be, to continue to be, even when, especially when, I sometimes wondered if I could.
Over these past six years, as I’ve continued to play your flute, that B note has kept being my favorite, and it keeps expanding its meaning within me.
In the European notation system the B note is called “ti.” (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) In Spanish — a language you started learning when you were nearly 50, but which you learned so quickly and well that you could translate in real time the talks of the Ecuadorian shaman with whom you were studying — ti is the familiar form for the word “you.”
In Hungarian, my native tongue, ti is the word for the plural “you.”
So, perhaps that B note has a message for all of us: to be me, to be you, to be all of us.
Ultimately, that’s what your death — and your continuing life within me — has taught me, and is continuing to teach me; that while I’m on this earth, to be myself, to be more and more fully myself, to more and more fully understand what it means to be true to myself.
It was early May of 1968. I had just completed my freshman year at the University of Rochester, my summer job had not yet started, and I’d come home to stay with my parents in Kingston, New York. One afternoon I heard that, as part of his campaign for the presidency, Robert Kennedy’s motorcade would be coming through our city. As I stood on Main Street along with hundreds of others, watching his car move slowly towards us, something stirred in me. Not really knowing why, I found myself wriggling my way to the front, and when he came close, I stuck out my hand. He looked me square in the eyes and shook my hand firmly. The whole exchange took just a split second, but there was no sense of hurry in it at all. Everything and everyone around us disappeared, I felt him giving me his full and absolute attention, and there was only a sense of oneness and connection. I didn’t then, and still don’t now, have a better word for it than love.
Of course, I’d experienced various forms of love — from my parents, my brother, a few special teachers, a couple of short-lived puppy loves — but this was something completely different. It was certainly not something I expected could come from someone who had not known I existed until that very moment, and who, I knew, was meeting and greeting hundreds of strangers every day.
Years later I heard about Carl Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard.” That will do as a clinical description of what I felt from Robert Kennedy, but I’ll stick with “love” as still the best word for what I experienced. In any case, after a few seconds, when his car had moved on, and everything around me had returned to normal, I felt an energy go through me as if I had touched the proverbial live wire. I turned and quickly made my way through the crowd, sprinted a block down a side street, three blocks along a parallel street, and back up on another side street to come out on Main Street ahead of his car. Once again I squirmed my way through the crowd to the edge of the curb and put out my hand — and the exact same thing happened! This time I maintained enough objectivity to notice that his face looked a bit tired, but his eyes met mine fully, and his grip was just as firm and unrushed. I went home and told my parents that I wasn’t going to wash my right hand.
Less than a month later Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Today, June 5, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of his death. I’ll let historians debate what good or harm he did, or what he might have accomplished had he lived. But I will continue to remember him for those precious moments, which I can bring back vividly even after all these years.
This is the sixth Mother’s Day since Helen passed away. Our son, Daniel, keeps becoming a more and more amazing young man. And though, of course, it’s very sad that Helen is not here physically to see his blossoming, the countless gifts she gave him as he was growing up — the tangible gifts, and even more the intangible ones — makes her presence in and influence on his life undiminished.
Two of the more poignant and heartfelt songs the Beatles composed — “Julia” by John Lennon, and “Let it Be” by Paul McCartney — were written to or inspired by their mothers, both of whom died young, when their sons were in their early teens. Daniel may never write a song to Helen, or create anything concrete in her memory, but his very being is a constant tribute to her love for him.
I recently remembered something that happened between Daniel and me around the time of the first Mother’s Day without Helen. Let me give you the context. When Daniel was little, I tried to teach him to be on time. I tried various ways, none of which worked, and I’d often end up feeling frustrated and mad. Helen was no more effective than I in getting Daniel to be punctual, but she did not get into fights about it with him.
It wasn’t until Daniel had turned twenty, a year after Helen died, that I saw what she had taught him, and how.
It happened again — Daniel was late, and I was angry. But then, instead of two male egos escalating an argument, he became very calm and said, “Can I play you something?” And then he played for me a voice mail Helen had left on his cell phone one night when they’d agreed she’d pick him up somewhere at 9:30.
Her voice — from beyond the scattered ashes, beyond time which grasps and scatters everything, with Daniel and me still closing the scar of first sorrow — her voice was unchanged, intimate, utterly ordinary. “Daniel, it’s 9:31. I’m here. But if you’re working on something, it’s fine.”
He’d saved the message, not knowing how much he’d need it later. After she died he replayed it again and again to comfort and remind himself — someone had accepted him as wholeheartedly, as unconditionally, as does our most benevolent image of God. And would again, and does still, and will again and again, forever.
Thank you, Helen.
By the way, Daniel has become much better about this issue. Perhaps, Helen knew he just needed more time. Perhaps she understood, as perhaps only God and mothers do, that you don’t expect and force a chrysanthemum to bloom in May.
Laz, Emily, our friend Eric Fithian and I sang at the March for Our Lives rally in Ann Arbor on March 24th. When we began playing at 11AM, it was 34 degrees. I had on six layers, my ski cap and, for the first time in my career as a musician, wore gloves while playing guitar. (Emily also wore gloves, while Laz and Eric, the tough guys of our quartet, bare knuckled it.) Oh, and though I brought it, I didn’t play my beloved Martin guitar. It was only 28 degrees an hour before we started, and Eric said, “You can’t bring that beauty out in these freezing temps!” and insisted I play his Fender Stratocaster. So, I played electric guitar for the first time in almost fifty years.
We played The Hammer Song, We Shall Not Be Moved, Come and Go With Me, Down by the Riverside, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, This Land is Your Land, This Little Light, Forever Young and We Shall Overcome. Together with the crowd of 4,000, we all sang, clapped, and swayed along, and at times cried. I introduced Forever Young by saying, “This is for the kids who started it all.” I got choked up halfway through that sentence and could barely finish the first verse. Emily was so moved she was unable to get through much of the second verse. People Laz and my age of course knew these songs and their history in the Sixties and Seventies when they were the anthems of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War rallies. But I saw little children and young people of all ages also singing with us. The music resonated just as powerfully as it did fifty years ago.
It wasn’t until several days after the rally that I suddenly remembered when it was that Laz and I had last sung those songs at a similar event. On March 20, 1982, almost exactly 46 years before the March for Our Lives, a neo-Nazi group came to Ann Arbor to hold a rally, and that day we sang at one of the counter rallies on the Federal Building Plaza.
I recall feeling immensely grateful for these songs on that day, and did again at the March for Our Lives rally a few days ago. These songs, intertwined as they are with the history of so many people’s struggles for freedom and justice, are truly our national treasure. We are all incredibly fortunate to have them, and to be able to sing them together.
On December 14, 2012, at about eleven in the morning, my brother and I were packing up our guitars and other instruments in the multi-purpose room of an elementary school in Trenton, Michigan. A little while earlier we’d played a concert for the entire school, kindergartners through fifth graders and their teachers; everyone had now returned to their classrooms. We were alone, except for the custodian who was getting the room ready for lunch. The principal walked in and said, “We’re on lockdown.” That’s how we heard about Sandy Hook. The news, mind-numbingly horrific under any circumstance, was especially unsettling as we stood in a room which a short time before had been filled with two hundred children and their teachers.
There had been horrific shootings in schools—and in so many other places—before Sandy Hook and, like perhaps many of us, I’d managed to numb myself to them all. But, Sandy Hook hit close to home. Since the mid 1970s my brother and I have played thousands of concerts in elementary schools. At all our shows, the youngest children sit closest to the stage; that morning we’d been standing less than ten feet from the first graders and their teachers—kids and teachers just like the twenty first graders and six teachers who were shot in Newtown.
Sandy Hook, and the many heart-breaking shootings before and since, have all adhered to a nearly identical, disheartening template; shock and despair, followed by “thoughts and prayers” platitudes, feeble attempts and utter failures to legislate meaningful gun laws, and finally the vanishing of the tragedies from the news, and our consciousness, like the buried bodies of the victims.
At first, the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School seemed to track that same familiar, sickening pattern. But then came the young people, the survivors. They were not about to follow that blueprint.
One of the most loathsome lines I heard after Parkland, as after nearly every other mass shooting, was, “Now is not the time...” to talk about, or to legislate gun control.
In my mind, I always retorted with, “If not now, when?” The ancient phrase comes from a Jewish scripture, the Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethical guidelines that are read and studied weekly in many synagogues. I remember reading them (usually unwillingly, I admit) along with my father and brother, in a small group of men from our congregation on many Sabbath afternoons when I was a teenager. After Parkland, several of those Pirkei Avot teachings came to mind.
The “If not now…” phrase, one of the most well-known from the Pirkei Avot, is actually the third of three sentences. The entire passage reads, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see how they apply to the Parkland young people. I present Exhibit A. Former Senator Rick Santorum, he of the failed Santorum Amendment of 2001 that tried to promote the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in public schools, recently also seemed to agree with the age-old teaching. Sort of. Responding to the activism of the Parkland young people he said, “How about kids instead of looking to someone else to solve their problem…” (Yes, I am taking the quote out of context. It’s even more idiotic in context.)
On the other hand, Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, and one of the founders of the Never Again movement, forged a stark and poetic re-stating of those ancient words when she ended her stunning, silence-filled speech at the Washington March for Our Lives with an even more succinct and powerful version of the proverb. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
Gonzalez and the other Parkland young people have—to our country’s credit—received enormous support for their activism, but also—to our people’s shame—much ugly and obscene condemnation for daring to speak out.
The censures have ranged from the truly moronic—that they were crisis actors—to the simply stereotypical, that they are not mature enough to properly understand these complex issues. There’s a marvelous passage in the Pirkei Avot that speaks to this last condemnation. “Do not look at the flask but at its contents. You can find a new flask with old wine, and an old flask which does not hold even new wine.” These young people have offered moving reflections, and demanded thoughtful changes to gun laws that might save lives. On the other hand, the resounding silence, as well as many of the pronouncements and propositions of the “old flasks” don’t hold water, or much else that’s worthwhile. (Santorum again, “… Do something about maybe taking CPR classes!!??”)
Of course, the Parkland young people have also made naïve, green and callow statements. Yes, they’ve used profanity at times. But to dismiss their grief filled testimonials, their thoughtful prescriptions for sensible legislation, their passionate calls for change, because of their tone is, at best, two-faced and disingenuous. The Parkland young people don’t need me to defend them, but I can’t resist responding to their attackers—not with a quote from the Pirkei Avot, nor perhaps in a very Christian spirit—by borrowing another Emma Gonzalez quote, “We call B.S.!”
The Parkland young people have even taken on the very mature, difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally even painful task of self-reflection. They’ve understood and acknowledged that their unique status—being primarily white and well off—and their resulting privilege, has given them a platform and visibility that likely would not have been afforded to young people of color in other communities. They have confronted themselves and us not only with the necessity of creating changes that will prevent further tragedies like the ones they experienced, but have also insisted that we all recognize and face related issues, including gun violence against women and police shootings of unarmed black men. At the Washington MFOL rally, Jaclyn Corin, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, said during her speech, "We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun." Then in a moment weighed with great symbolic significance, Corin brought Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, to the stage, visually, and viscerally connecting the gun control cause to King’s great dream of an end to racism, and to his message of non-violence.
I will confess to having my own initial reservations about the Parkland young people naming their movement Never Again. When you are, like I am, the son of two people who survived Nazi concentration camps, the phrase Never Again only refers to the Holocaust. Period. So, my first reaction to the use of that phrase by the Parkland young people was a somewhat testy, internal question. “Where do they get off coopting that phrase?” Others followed close behind. “Is this willful or merely ignorant appropriation? And does that matter?”
I thought about it. I looked up the origins of the phrase. Apparently, it’s a bit uncertain, but this much is pretty sure. It did not originate with the Holocaust. It wasn’t widely associated with the Holocaust till about 1968, when Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League, an American extremist group, began justifying its violent tactics with the Never Again slogan. Kahane used the phrase as a call to arms, as a battle cry, and applying only to Jews. For him it was not, as it has been for me and for most others, a reminder that we must all be on guard to ensure that a tragedy like the Holocaust never happens again—to any people, Jewish or not. For most of us the phrase has served as a warning, tragically not always heeded, to never allow racial, ethnic, or religious hatreds to again lead to a Holocaust-like horror.
The longer I thought about it, the more I began to feel that Never Again did not belong exclusively to Jews and the Holocaust. I also started to see commonalities between the Holocaust and gun violence in this country. The numbers of victims are wildly different, and anti-gun-control advocates do not intend to target a single group the way the Nazis did. (Perhaps a debatable point...) But just as, over many years, the attitudes and laws—and lack of laws—that created the atmosphere that led, it seemed inexorably, to the Holocaust in Europe, the attitudes and laws—and, again, lack of laws—have entrenched a culture that has normalized the incredible carnage in our country and has culminated in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland.
It hardly needs to be said that the Parkland young people do not need my permission to adopt Never Again, but I freely and wholeheartedly give them my blessing.
My favorite passage from the Pirkei Avot is: “The day is short, the task is great. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” The “Never Again!” mission of the Parkland young people will, sadly, take time to achieve. (It’s still only weeks since Parkland, and there’s already been another deadly school shooting, another unarmed black man has been shot by police, and there have been many other gun related deaths.) But Parkland has changed me. I no longer feel the numb ennui, the docile cynicism, the accommodating attitude that allowed me to tolerate the intolerable. Instead, I feel that President Obama was also speaking for me when he wrote to the young people of Parkland, and the others who have joined them. “We have been waiting for you. And we’ve got your backs.”
At the Washington March for Our Lives rally, young Yolanda Renee King unforgettably, delightfully, and with preternatural charm, led the massive crowd in chanting, “Spread the word! Have you heard? All across the nation, we are going to be a great generation!”