In the last few weeks, leading up to the 7th anniversary of Helen’s death, I’ve come across three Japanese phrases whose symbolism resonates for me with this time. The first expression — saku-taku-no-ki — is in Jane Yolen’s book, Take Joy.
the special sound a mother hen makes tapping on an egg with her beak.
the sound a chick makes tapping from within.
the moment the tappings come together.
the instant a chick pecking on the inside and a mother pecking on the outside reach the same spot. The egg cracks open. New life emerges.
Yolen is writing about creativity — how inner and outer promptings come together to birth a story — but I feel it also referring to those vivid moments when the living and the dead continue to relate to one another.
A few days after reading this phrase, I met a neighbor on my morning walk, and saw some Japanese writing on her t-shirt. I asked her what it meant and she said, “Ichi-go ichi-e. Once in a lifetime.” I went home and looked it up on Wikipedia. “Literally ‘one time, one meeting’ — a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment — the term has also been translated as ‘for this time only.’ It reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, citing the fact that any moment in life cannot be repeated; even when the same group of people get together in the same place again, a particular gathering will never be replicated, and thus each moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The concept is most commonly associated with Japanese tea ceremonies.”
A little further digging deepened the meaning, suggesting the term ichigo is rooted in Buddhist philosophy and is understood as “from one’s birth to death.”
The third phrase — kaze no denwa — and the story behind it, is one that many of you may know from a public radio segment, but I just came across it totally by accident the day after the encounter with my neighbor. Kaze no denwa means “wind phone” and refers to an unconnected rotary phone in an isolated phone booth on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the town of Otsuchi. Originally set up by a resident named Itaru Sasaki in 2010 as a way for him to reflect on his cousin’s death and somehow maintain a connection to him, the phone booth became a pilgrimage site for people to grieve the loss of loved ones after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which devastated Otsuchi and other coastal towns in Japan.
As the 7th anniversary of Helen’s death has been approaching, these three Japanese phrases have been spiraling and linking with each other in my awareness. I can’t say I’ve figured out what they mean in relationship to my remembering Helen, but for now it’s enough for me to know that somehow love continues to find ways to keep us connected.
I know—it’s been weeks since the World Cup final and since the ugly words Twittered at four Congresswomen—and much has happened in that time that’s been newsworthy. But I still find myself thinking about these two events.
I watched the final match of the World Cup and was thrilled and very moved when the US women won. For days after, I found myself choking back tears every time I thought or talked about the match or heard of it on the news. (I am tearing up even as I’m writing.) This was all very surprising to me. Although I was born in soccer-crazy Hungary, I never played the game. For that matter, I can’t remember ever seeing a live match or watching one on TV. I am ignorant of all but the most basic rules and terms of the sport. Of course, in the weeks before the game I did hear about the little Twitter tantrum from the White House following Megan Rapinoe’s refusal to visit, and also about the much more serious issue of women soccer players being paid less than their male counterparts.
Since I don’t normally follow the sport, both of these issues gave me a sense of the human dramas that were the backdrop for the championship match, but they still didn’t explain my reactions. What was going on? Was I remembering my father, who loved the game and played it often as a young man, albeit long before I was born? Probably not; none of my memories of my father feature a soccer ball. Was I thinking of my daughter who, though ten years younger than Rapinoe, is the same age as many of the players on the US team? I suppose; but my daughter never played the game, and I haven’t ever felt frustrated aspirations or expectations of her becoming a soccer star.
It took me days to begin to understand why I felt the way I did. What I eventually came to was that the women on that team made me feel proud to be an American—and not only, or even primarily, because of their spectacular achievement. For the first time since November 2016—after all the xenophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic words, images and actions that have emanated from the White House and from other leaders and some rank-and-file Americans—here were a group of women who for a brief period had become the face of America. For a few news cycles the world didn’t only see an America where children are cruelly separated from their parents, where people who are seeking refuge are locked in cages; they didn’t hear the leader of the free world vilify and threaten immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Instead, all of us got to see America’s daughters playing a game with stunning skill and joyous abandon; got to see America’s daughters excelling, at their best; got to see the results of countless hours and years of intense effort and immense dedication. It was one of the best things we’ve shown the world in a while.
So, it was disheartening, though hardly surprising, when a week after the US Women’s World Cup victory, it was back to the same old, same old—and then some. Hate-filled words were again directed at asylum seekers, and a particularly cruel new policy was announced, making it nearly impossible to apply for asylum in the US. And soon it wasn’t only Megan Rapinoe who was being attacked via Twitter, but four Congresswomen, nicknamed “the Squad;” Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Like Ilhan Omar, I too am an immigrant, and a citizen. My family came to the US in late 1959 when I was ten years old. We had left our native Hungary soon after the 1956 Revolution. My parents were both Holocaust concentration camp survivors; the Revolution and its aftermath reminded them too much of their experiences during the second World War. They didn’t feel safe staying in their homeland. They tried to come here, but US immigration quotas did not permit that. (The Immigration Act of 1924, inspired in large part by the racist eugenics movement, specifically targeted Jews and Hungarians, among many other national and ethnic groups, and severely restricted the number of people from each of those groups who could emigrate here.) We moved to Israel for a few years before we were finally allowed to come to the United States.
No one, in the sixty years that I’ve lived in this country, has ever told me to “go back where you came from.” Until now.
My brother and I are musicians. Although that’s been our work for our entire adult lives, it was only a little over twenty years ago that we began playing concerts with orchestras for children and families. I wrote a song especially for those shows. I designed ”The Orchestra is Here to Play” to introduce the instruments and musicians of an orchestra in a playful, child-friendly way. At the high point of the song, I wrote of the conductor, “he’s the one who knows the score.” My daughter was three years old when we began playing these shows, and, over the course of the next few years she saw us play many of them. In 2000, we performed with the Phoenix Ensemble, a terrific orchestra whose conductor was a very talented young woman named Annunziata Tomaro. It was the first time we’d worked with a female conductor. Naturally, I changed the line in the song to, “she’s the one who knows the score.” A few days after the concert, I caught my daughter, then six years old, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my office—the one I use to track my posture while I practice. She was conducting an imaginary orchestra and singing “And then there’s the conductor, she’s the one who knows the score.” It was the first time I’d ever heard her sing that song. I was thrilled to hear her put a lot of oomph into “she’s.” Clearly, she was inspired by seeing someone who looked like her.
In the song, “Children Will Listen” Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Careful the things you say/Children will listen. Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you for which way to turn/To learn what to be.” Later in the song he adds, “Tamper with what is true/and children will turn/If just to be free.”
The women on the US team, and the women of “the Squad,” have and will inspire young girls—and, I’m hoping, young boys too—and will serve as models “for which way to turn, to learn what to be.” Sadly though, these women—and many more women and men like them—are not the only ones who “children will look to.” But if those others “Tamper with what is true, children will turn, if just to be free.” And if we are fortunate, when our children see and hear those other people, our “children may not obey.”
I was very glad to read that Scott Warren is free—for now anyway. (Warren, a volunteer with the Arizona organization No More Deaths, faced up to twenty years in federal prison for allegedly providing humanitarian aid to two people attempting to cross into the US from Mexico.) Earlier this month his trial resulted in a hung jury, but authorities may still decide to retry him.
I admire Warren for several reasons. He behaved with genuine humanity in a situation where many others have been “simply following orders,” and some have even gone way below and beyond the call of duty, doing their jobs with malicious and unnecessary cruelty. (Some members of the Border Patrol were videoed pouring water out of jugs that volunteers with organizations like No More Deaths had placed in the Arizona desert to try to prevent people from dying of thirst.)
But the actions of Warren, and others like him, also resonated because they reminded me of stories my parents told of people who, risking their own lives, helped save some of their relatives during the Holocaust. There was the woman who, years before, had worked as a cleaning woman for my mother’s family, and hid my mother’s sister in her own apartment in Budapest during the Nazi occupation, thereby saving her from being deported to Ravensbrück—the way my mother was. And there were the two Hungarian policemen, brothers, who had fallen in love with two of my father’s sisters and hid and protected them, and even went to the deportation train stations to try to find and rescue some of their relatives.
Whenever governments or despots have created unjust laws, there have been courageous people who have resisted, thwarted them, and acted with compassion toward the human beings targeted by those laws—often at terrible cost to themselves. This June we’ve observed the anniversaries of several of these kinds of events—Tiananmen Square, D-Day, American women winning the right to vote, and Stonewall—and we’ve also heard about the recent protests in Hong Kong, Sudan and Honduras. All these, and the remarkable struggles and victories of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others—and even Scott Warren’s comparatively small, though heartwarming acts of compassion—exemplify a bittersweet truth; the price of liberty is often even more than just eternal vigilance.
On the evening of July 21, 1969, my father and I were walking home from synagogue after evening prayers. The previous day our family had watched TV together as astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Now I pointed up at the faint crescent moon in the still light sky and said to my father, “Isn’t it amazing to think that there was a man walking around up there?”
My father didn’t even look up. Staring intently ahead, he said with conviction, “There were no people up there.”
I was flabbergasted.
“What do you mean there were no people up there,” I exclaimed with some heat. “We just saw it on TV!”
Taking little note of my outburst, my father went on in a condescending tone.
“They faked those scenes in some desert.”
(To be fair, my father was by no means alone in believing the various conspiracy theories that began circulating even before Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Various polls have found that up to 20% of Americans believed that the moon missions were faked.)
Before I could begin to argue against the preposterousness of this theory, he added, “They can’t be on the moon. It says in the Psalms, “’The heavens are for God, but the earth he gave to mankind.”’
Well, that was that. There was no arguing with my father on matters of God, dogma and religion. I was then 20 years old, he was 58. He was a cantor and had studied the texts of Judaism all his life. He could always pull rank. We walked the rest of the way home in an angry silence.
Fifty years ago, there were many other things about which my father and I could not talk. In particular, we never talked about his life before I was born. It was my mother who told me, when I was about sixteen, that she was my father’s second wife. That his first wife and three young children, as well as his parents, three sisters, his only brother, and countless other relatives and friends were all murdered in Auschwitz. That he’d been in a work lager in Poland for much of the war and had almost starved to death. It was silently understood in our family that no one mentioned these things in front of my father.
It took me many years to begin to understand the effect of that tragedy, those enormous losses, and especially of that silence, on my father’s life and on mine. Eventually, gradually, my father and I did begin talking — even about his slaughtered family. And I started to see how, and why, he might have taken such an absolutist stance about the moon landing, and about all other matters pertaining to religion. I began to consider the possibility that, having lost almost everything, including nearly his own life, my father might have felt it essential to cling so literally to his faith, almost the only thing that remained of the life he led before the Holocaust. That perhaps it was this faith that allowed him to start over and reconstruct his life, and even might have helped him give me a solid foundation for starting mine.
In 1999, just before the 30th anniversary of the moon landing, I again asked my father about it. Wanting to protect his dignity, I did not remind him of what he had said 30 years before.
“Did you know,” he asked, “that they changed the Kiddush Levana after the moon landing?” (The Kiddush Levana is a prayer thanking God for the gift of the moon.) I said, no, I had not heard that. He continued. “In that prayer, we say to the moon, ‘Just as I leap toward you but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully.’ Well, they had to change that once people actually ‘touched’ the moon.”
I found it fascinating that my nearly 90-year-old father had come to tacitly accept the reality of the moon landing and had even found a way to bring it into concordance with his faith.
After talking with him, I asked several rabbis about the prayer and they all said that it has not been changed. One of them, though, did remember much discussion at the time of the moon landing about whether an alteration was necessary.
(Now that I am older, and have my own “senior moments,” I can readily see how my father might have confused hearing about discussions of a possible change, with an actual change.)
I never told my father what the rabbis said. The Kiddush Levana has not changed—it was enough for me to know that he and I had.
This July 20th will be the 50th anniversary of that first moon landing. My father has been gone for twelve years now, but I still regularly reflect on what he endured, how he persevered, and on his legacy in my life.
The Story of the St. Louis: 80 Years Ago and Today
by Sandor Slomovits
May 31, 2019
A friend of mine recently sailed from Key West to Havana and back, taking third place in the Conch Republic Cup. (The race, with the intention of promoting “Cultural Exchange Through Sport” has been going, on and off since 1996.) Over breakfast after he returned, my friend told me about his trip and we looked at pictures and videos on his laptop. We talked of the occasionally rough weather, complete with thunderstorms and “boiling seas” that they’d briefly encountered one morning while sailing the 90 mile stretch of sea between Cuba and the US. Inevitably, the subject of refugees and rafts came up. My friend’s 26-foot Hunter was the smallest boat in the race, and some of his fellow sailors marveled that he and his crew of four made the trip in a boat so small. We recalled reading about the flimsy rafts—much smaller, much less seaworthy than my friend’s boat—in which Cubans fleeing conditions under Castro—used to make the same journey. As we talked, a more than fifty-year old memory suddenly surfaced in my mind.
While still in high school, I’d come home one day and mentioned to my parents that we’d been learning about President Franklin Roosevelt in our American history class. My mother frowned darkly and said, with some heat, “He didn’t let in that ship.” I had no idea what she was talking about, or why she was so angry. Turns out she was talking about the St. Louis.
The St. Louis was a German ocean liner that, on May 13, 1939 left from Hamburg, bound for Havana, with 937 passengers on board, largely Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Most had applied for US visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the US. But by the time the St. Louis arrived in Havana’s harbor Cuban authorities had had a change of heart and would not allow the passengers to disembark. Forced to sail on, the ship passed within sight of Miami; some passengers cabled President Roosevelt, pleading for refuge. He never responded. The ship eventually sailed back to Europe where the refugees were taken in by England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Over 250 of them died in German occupied lands during the Holocaust.
The saga of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of international media attention at the time, and my mother had followed the news in her native Budapest, where she herself was already beginning to feel effects of the anti-Semitic hatreds of pre-war Hungary, and would soon experience the full horrors of the Holocaust in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. More than twenty-five years later, when I brought up President Roosevelt’s name, she still remembered.
Neither my high school American history textbook, nor my teacher had mentioned the St. Louis. Likewise, I’m fairly certain that my curriculum probably also whitewashed or left out entirely many other shameful acts in our country’s history, including some of FDR’s other failings. Besides neglecting the story of the St. Louis, that history book almost certainly failed to mention Japanese internment camps, the racial exclusion policies that were aspects of the New Deal, and the relatively minor, but telling fact that FDR never invited Jesse Owens, the undisputed star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the White House; all facts I learned only years later, and only because I majored in history in college.
I know every president has occasionally needed to—and has—made distasteful, ethically questionable, even painful and immoral political compromises for the sake of a perceived “greater good.” My sense is that, despite his serious failures, FDR, who led our nation through arguably one of the most difficult periods of our history, did far more good than harm.
I also know that our country’s current immigration policies need thoughtful review and updating. The St. Louis carried 937 passengers, a not insignificant number of human beings, but nevertheless far fewer than the number affected, and undoubtedly traumatized, by family separation and the other recent and current immigration control policies of Trump and his administration.
It’s utterly inconceivable to me that any future history book will praise Trump as we now mostly acclaim FDR. But even if it turns out that there’s no justice, and historians hence will view Trump the way we now regard FDR, there will be countless mothers—like my mother, who never forgot what FDR did—who will remember Trump, and will not allow their children to forget.
When you live with someone for nearly 42 years, you may think with some justification that you know them pretty well. And when they die, and seven years go by, you may think with some justification that you can’t get to know them any better — after all, they’re gone and you can’t interact with them anymore; they can’t tell you more about themselves; you’ve looked through much of what she left behind; and friends and relatives have told the stories they have.
But, of course, knowing someone does not mean knowing every detail of their life, especially of the part of it that happened before the two of you met.
Let me begin to weave together two seemingly unconnected strands. In September of 2011, a little less than a year before Helen died, she was invited to a reunion of women from all over the country who, in their youth had attended Quinibeck, a summer camp for girls on Lake Fairlee in Ely, Vermont. It was considered one of the very best camps in the country. The camp had opened in 1911 and this was its 100th Birthday Celebration, to recognize the impact it had on the lives of thousands of young girls. Helen was one of them; she attended the camp for four summers in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.
Here is the other strand. A few years ago, someone I had met in Pennsylvania many years before, on one of my concert tours, moved to Ann Arbor and we became re-acquainted. She had not known Helen, but a few months ago, while looking through childhood memorabilia, she came across Helen’s name in a booklet about the 100th Birthday Celebration of Quinibeck. Helen had been one of the former campers who had been found through the internet when the celebration was conceived. Though she was not able to go to the reunion, Helen did contribute a letter about the impact the Qinibeck camp experience had had on her life. Here is part of what she wrote, which was quoted in the booklet.
“I remember the big ferns and the quiet coolness of the woods, and I remember diving off the high platform into the beautiful cool lake. The feeling of having been nourished deeply by being at Quinibeck for those four years is still with me.”
She had signed the letter with her maiden name included — Helen Forslund Slomovits. My friend saw that name and figured quite correctly that there couldn’t be too many Helen Slomovitses who were not related to me! And though she didn’t remember Helen from the camp, she asked her older sister, who did remember Helen. And, in fact remembered Helen’s mother Betty, who had been a counselor at the camp, as well as the cellist in the resident piano-violin-cello trio that played classical music for the campers on a regular basis throughout the summer. In fact, that was the only way Helen’s mother — recently divorced and trying to make ends meet on an elementary school teacher’s salary — could afford to have Helen go to Quinibeck.
Over the years, Helen had told me some stories about this camp, and how much she still treasured her time there. But I didn’t really have a sense of how formative that time was for her. As I looked at the Quinibeck booklet, filled with pictures (I wondered about some small faces in group shots — could that have been Helen?) and vivid descriptions of the daily activities, I started to see how much of what she became had its beginning and development there.
I remembered how, in telling me about the camp, she had attributed her deep love of nature to the beauty of the surroundings and the varied outdoor experiences that were a daily part of camp life. At Quinibeck is where she became a strong hiker and swimmer, a good sailor, as well as expert at handling a canoe. This is where she was given professional instruction in horseback riding, tennis and archery — and where she gained the confidence that comes from working at and learning difficult skills. This was also where the foundation was laid for her love of music — both listening and playing — as well as her gifts and life-long interest in a wide range of arts and crafts.
There was one story that came to symbolize the preciousness of that time for her. I still remember the glow in her eyes when she related it. Dramatics was one of the camp activities, and each summer the campers put on plays, including creating the costumes, props and sets, and even contributing to the writing of the scripts. One summer one of the plays was Peter Pan, and Helen was chosen for the lead role. The counselors rigged up and operated a harness - pulley contraption above the stage, and several times during the production, Helen, as Peter Pan got to fly across the stage. That sensation of flying became a metaphor for Helen about how she wanted to live her life.
Perhaps most significantly, Quinibeck was where her spirituality became linked with her reverence for nature — an interweaving that stayed with her all her life, and the way she gave fullest expression to this yearning to fly, in everything she did.
When our son Daniel was a few years old, Helen told him the Peter Pan story. Though Daniel liked the flying image Helen vividly created, there was another camp story she told that became most requested at bedtime.
At Quinibeck, the girls stayed in small cabins, and at night these filled with mosquitoes. One summer, the girls in Helen’s cabin devised a plan whereby one of them would be bait and lie unmoving in the dark, (the other girls presumably continuing to swat the ones that landed on them) and then, when the “bait girl” heard a mosquito nearby, she’d give a signal, and another girl, who had been standing by the light switch, turned it on, a frenzy of mosquito swatting would ensue, and they’d all go back to sleep. The only problem was that by the time they’d rid the cabin of one batch of mosquitoes in this manner, one of the girls needed to go to the bathroom, letting in a fresh new batch of mosquitoes, and the whole process needed to be repeated!
This story, complete with wild, mosquito-swatting motions through Helen’s long hair, was hugely exciting for Daniel — and served as a very poor lullabye!
Looking through that Quinibeck booklet I felt I got to know Helen on a level I’d never known before. So many things that I loved and valued in her began and were nurtured at that camp. In a way, seeing the pictures and reading the detailed descriptions of camp life at Quinibeck was like being at an archeological site and discovering a lost civilization — and thereby reclaiming at least part of its beauty and wisdom.
In each of the seven year since Helen died, I’ve done a concert in her memory and donated the proceeds to two organizations that were meaningful to her. I’ll be doing such a concert again this month on Saturday, May 11th. One of the causes the concert will benefit is Alpha House, an emergency shelter in Ann Arbor for children and their families experiencing homelessness. I still remember the time Helen had me pull over so she could talk to a young mother standing with her daughter by a highway exit ramp. She gave them some money and referred them to Alpha House which they hadn’t known about. Helen was heart-broken at seeing a mother and child in such dire straits; it brought back her own anxiety as a child, when her newly-divorced mother, though not in danger of being homeless, was nevertheless, in difficult circumstances.
The concert will also benefit a scholarship fund Daniel and I established in Helen’s name at the Friends Lake Community, a nature preserve in Chelsea. Helen loved this beautiful, serene place, and it was here that she introduced Daniel to the joys, both physical and spiritual, of being in nature. The scholarship fund is intended to pay the membership dues for underprivileged families with young children, so they can enjoy swimming, hiking, canoeing, as well as learning how to take care of our natural environment.
After reading about Quinibeck, I realized on a deeper level why those causes were so important to Helen. Her own experience as a child, of being cared for and taught in a lovely setting in nature was one of the main foundations on which she was able to build the rest of her life. I now more fully understand how she wanted to make that opportunity available to all children.
In the last seven years I’ve looked through so many photographs, journals and other writings Helen left behind, and talked with relatives and friends. On some level I’d stopped expecting to learn something very new. Thank you to my friend for noticing Helen’s name, and thank you Helen for contributing to that Quinibeck booklet, and thereby coming back to me in this unexpected, lovely way, seven years later.
I was alone in my house the other night. Before she went off to work in the late afternoon, my wife left me a sink full of dishes and the bread she’d made that needed to rise a bit more before it was ready to go in the oven. My wife’s bread is the best I’ve ever had. A sink full of dishes is a very small price to pay for it.
I turned on the radio and listened to the news while I loaded the dishwasher. The story that came on was about the killings in the mosques in Christchurch two days earlier; how the killer had videoed and live streamed his murderous acts on Facebook, and how the video was copied well over a million times. I confess that when I’d first heard about the killings two days before, I didn’t have a strong reaction. These kinds of things have become—incredibly—almost routine. But this now got to me. Videoed? Live streamed? Shared? Really??? This seemed almost more unfathomable than the acts themselves. I got choked up, my eyes filled, I turned off the radio and put on some music that I knew would help. Ever since November 2016, Joshua Bell’s recording, “The Romance of the Violin” has been my balm whenever a maelstrom of emotions threatens to overwhelm me. The ineffable beauty of Bell’s tone, the profound humanity of all of the pieces of music on this recording always seem to allow me both to feel, and to heal. I stood in the kitchen, listened, and breathed. After a while, I went back to the sink, finished the dishes, put the bread in the oven, and went out for a walk.
I live on a small street, only eight houses. It’s the kind of neighborhood where we regularly borrow eggs, milk, lawn chairs, chainsaws, and kayaks from each other; where if someone goes on vacation, somebody will mow their lawn, sometimes without even being asked; we’ve cared for each other’s pets, driven each other’s kids to school, and brought meals when someone came home after a hospital stay, and also after a funeral.
Walking past my neighbors’ homes, I began to notice, to my surprise, that I was feeling grateful; grateful that I didn’t lose any people I knew in those mosques; grateful I wasn’t the father, brother or friend of any of them or—God forbid—of the killer’s; grateful for the police, doctors, nurses and others who responded; grateful for music, grateful I was no longer as enraged or as desolate as I’d been before; finally, grateful for my great good fortune to be living among these neighbors, and hoping that the people in Christchurch also had neighbors like mine who will help them through this.
I walked toward a small city park. A man I know from the nearby neighborhood was walking his dog on the other side of the street. We waved to each other, then crossed to meet in the middle of the street. “I’ve been listening to Blind Faith,” he said. “I haven’t heard them for a long time.” I told him about needing to hear Joshua Bell after listening to the news. I didn’t say what news I’d heard, but he replied with a sigh, “I get it.” I walked home, took the bread out of the oven and cut a still steaming slice. It was delicious, even better than usual. I sent my wife a picture of the loaf and thanked her. Then I found Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” on YouTube. It’s a sad song, but fortunately, tonight, not my fate.
What are the odds? On a night when my faith in humanity, and in our future, is at low tide, I can walk among my neighbors and be reminded of reasons to have faith, and even meet someone who reminds me, of all things, of blind faith.
I didn’t know Jim Dapogny well. I wish I had. I think I met him sometime in the late 1970s, probably at some UofM event that featured musicians and entertainers from a number of different styles and disciplines. I was at the beginning of my career, he was already solidly established in his. I’m sure I felt intimidated and shy; his talent as a player and arranger was prodigious and obvious, and his reputation as a scholar outsized. Over the years, our paths crossed every once in a while. He was always cordial, I was always timid.
About ten years ago the Ann Arbor Observer asked me to write a brief review of the first recording made by his Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm King’s jazz band. I went to hear the band several Sunday afternoons at the old Firefly Club, talked with Jim, and listened to the test pressing. After the article came out he called to thank me, said some kind words about the piece and asked about my writing and my music. His words have stayed with me, partly because he seemed so sincerely interested, but mostly because of how precise, intelligent and insightful his comments were.
Three years ago, my trio with Emily and Jacob played in the River Raisin Ragtime Revue’s Extravaganza at the Michigan Theatre. Jim also played in the program and, after the show we all went over to the Zal Gaz Grotto for the afterglow. I managed to overcome my diffidence and sat down next to Jim at his table. He asked about my daughter, how old she was, what’s been her training, and then said, “She’s got an extremely mature singing style for someone her age.” Fathers remember when someone compliments their daughter. Especially when that someone is a world class authority on the subject.
The last time I saw Jim was in October. Laz and I were packing up our instruments after a concert, having just played in the lobby of the UofM Hospital, as part of their Gifts of Art series, when I thought I saw Jim rolling by in a wheelchair. I caught up to him and called out, “Jim Dapogny?“ He turned and said wryly, “What’s left of him.” I hadn’t known he was sick. We chatted for a minute, I wished him well and we said goodbye.
A couple of weeks after Jim died on March 6th there was a four-hour memorial event for him at the Zal Gaz Grotto, where he had played so many times before. By the time I got there, about an hour after it started, there were a dozen people chatting in the parking lot, and the hallway by the front door was full too. It made me smile to see how many people had come to honor Jim. Inside it was so packed that they were only letting people in as others left. So, we stood in the entryway, listened to the music wafting out, made jokes about the fire marshal, and shared stories of the times we heard Jim play.
Jim’s music touched countless people, but from my few interactions with him, I am certain his kindness did too. I imagine he must have been an outstanding teacher; he seemed to be naturally perceptive, curious and supportive. Jim’s death is our loss, but what’s left of him is a great gift, and will always be our gain.
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: