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!”
“I heard the news today, oh boy…” It’s the opening line of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life” and one I’ve thought, hummed, or said, frequently since last November. The ongoing Shakespearean tragicomedy that is the Trump presidency has spawned countless news stories that have invited—at best—a wry “oh boy” response. But there were two news stories in the New York Times on October 16 that elicited twin, and highly contrasting, “oh, boy” reactions from me. The first was a piece by Dennis Overbye about astronomers’ recent announcement “that they had seen and heard a pair of dead stars collide,” an event that took place 130 million years ago. This collision of two neutron stars was of such enormous violence that it literally shook the universe. “It was a century ago that Albert Einstein predicted that space and time could shake like a bowl of jelly,” in the aftermath of such an event, but this was the first time that astronomers had been able to detect and document such an occurrence.
As often happens when I read or hear about events of such astronomical magnitude, I simultaneously feel intensely tiny and insignificant, and also gloriously pulled out of my ordinary existence and, momentarily, profoundly grand. It’s probably obvious why I would feel miniscule and irrelevant, but perhaps less clear why I’d feel so expanded. I am briefly aware in those moments of an overwhelming sense of wonder not only at the ongoing miracle that is my life, all life on our planet, and the vastness and glory of the universe, but also at the marvel that I am a member of a life form that has begun to comprehend those miracles, that vastness and glory; that I am a member of a species that has been able, in the cosmic-time blink of an eye that is the history of the human race on our planet, to begin to understand and explain events that have happened almost unimaginably long ago and far away. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Who besides the Bard could have put it better?
I talked about the neutron stars collision with a friend that day, and she said when she hears of these kinds of discoveries she can’t comprehend them: “My brain turns tail and runs back to my everyday world.”
Ah yes, the everyday world. The other news story that caught my attention that day was the one reporting on Trump’s handling, or rather manhandling, of the events following the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger. What a piece of work indeed; how small, how mean, how low. To quote Chubby Checkers from his song “Limbo Rock,” in which he sang, decades before Trump began to lower the bar precipitously on honesty and civility, “How low can you go?” Or, to quote the anonymous Scottish lyricist who penned lines that could be the credo of the Trump/Bannon cohort, “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road…”
Einstein wrote in 1922, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” Einstein, the man who may have aspired to that quiet and modest life, yet whose discoveries illuminated our best understandings of the entire universe; Einstein, the man whose very name has become synonymous with genius of the highest order, was vilified and denigrated by the Nazis for doing what they disparaged as “Jewish science.” Their venomous lies and heinous acts have been renounced and repudiated by much of humankind, while his insights and predictions—including one that was just verified after those neutron stars’ collision was observed— have been recognized and honored by most of humanity.
There’s another quote from the Bard’s Hamlet that I have occasionally found sadly apropos for—good lord, has it really already been nearly a year? “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
OK, permit me to blaspheme and dare to change a few of Shakespeare’s words. “Wherefore I know not” should actually be, “wherefore I do know, and damned well too.”
Anne Frank wrote sadly, accurately, “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.” But she also went on to write, hopefully, and as it turned out, presciently, “And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.” She knew, as so many others have understood throughout the ages, that in order to survive, we need to keep our eyes focused on our mundane, daily, earthly concerns, but that in order to truly live, we must also simultaneously try to keep our gaze on the heavens. And that, as the ancient Sufis also understood so well, “This too shall pass.”
Hollerfest is the sweetest festival we get to play every year. Hosted by the King family on their farm in Brooklyn, Michigan, the festival features a beautiful, natural setting, some of Michigan’s finest musicians, the best food of any folk festival anywhere, and a community feeling that is at once invigorating and healing. This was the 11th Hollerfest, we’ve played it every year since the second one and we look forward to ending our summer there every year. Here is one special moment from this year’s fest.
Laz and Jennifer, Brenda, Emily and I were having supper at one of the picnic tables at the top of the hill that looks down on the main stage. Sharing the table with us were three women from Ann Arbor. One of them told me that Josh, her now forty-year old son grew up on our music. I always enjoy hearing that, and I thanked her for letting us know. Then she added, “In fact, when Josh was 5 years old he sang on your first children’s record.” Even though we didn’t have a children’s choir singing with us on that record—yes, it was a vinyl record—I knew exactly what she was talking about. We recorded “Good Mischief” in 1982, some of it live at the Ark, and one of the songs on it was Aiken Drum. In that song we make up an imaginary man in the moon, substituting various foods for different parts of his body. We ask the kids in the audience to name what foods we should use. We always end with belly button and at the show we recorded at the Ark, I called on a little boy who’d raised his hand. But he was stumped for a few seconds, so I encouraged him, “What’d you have for breakfast?” He replied, “Tofu.” Everyone laughed with delight and I said, “Only in Ann Arbor.” It’s all on the record — and now on our “Best of Gemini Vol. II” CD. Thank you, Josh.
Whenever a death anniversary comes around, it seems natural to remember the person’s death. But it is even more right to remember their life and legacy. So, one story about Helen’s death, and then the rest to celebrate her life.
Helen’s grandmother had a classic near-death experience when she was giving birth to her third daughter. She told Helen how her spirit rose up out of her body and hovered over the operating table, watching calmly as doctors and nurses frantically tried to revive her. Then she saw a tunnel with a very bright light at the end of it, and she felt drawn to it. As she moved towards it, beings of light greeted and welcomed her. She told Helen they were incredibly peaceful and loving. But after a few moments in their company, she was told her she needed to go back, it was not yet her time. She felt terribly sad, and did not want to return to her body, but the beings reassured her that they would be there again when it was her time. She was in her mid thirties, lived into her mid eighties, and never again was afraid of death. For many years she volunteered at a hospice, and because of the inner conviction she acquired through that experience, was able to be a great comfort to dying people and their relatives. Perhaps the fact that she told this story to Helen a number of times over the years, is part of why Helen showed no trace of fear in her last hours.
Now, to life! In an earlier blog I told you how Helen rescued a robin that was tangled up in a kite string in a tree — and that was just one example of how she was always taking care of creatures in nature. In a more recent blog I wrote about how my partner, Jennifer helped me put a baby robin back in its nest, and also how my son, Daniel helped free a robin trapped in the deer net in our Project Grow garden. I don’t know what particular symbolic meaning robins have, but here is another robin rescue story from this Spring.
One of my neighbors has a small garden on the little island in the middle of our Court, and as I walked by it last month, I saw some violent fluttering in it. As I got closer, the fluttering became even more panicky, and I saw a robin caught by one of its feet in the fishing line holding together a pole bean teepee. I ran to my house and asked Daniel to come help. He put on gloves and gently calmed and held the bird, while I cut the fishing line with scissors. But as I did, I saw that the line was wrapped very tightly a number of times around the robin’s leg, cutting off circulation and making that foot useless. I ran back to the house and got a seam ripper, and with Daniel still holding the robin, I gently worked the tip of the seam ripper up against the robin’s leg, and one by one cut the strands. When the last one came loose, Daniel tossed the robin into the air and it flew off. Perhaps I’ve had more exhilarating moments than watching that flight, but I can’t think of many. As I wrote in previous blogs, in the past, I would have called Helen, and she would have been the one to take care of the bird. This is just one of the many enduring gifts she gave Daniel and me, and one of the many ways we still feel her presence.
Another gift is our plot in the city Project Grow Community Gardens, which Helen initiated many years ago and worked in until just a few weeks before her death. I just heard about a new study that found a soil bacterium which causes serotonin to be released in the brain. Inhaling this bacterium while gardening or walking in dirt, can lift our mood in a way similar to antidepressant drugs. Helen knew this instinctively, and loved working in the garden and walking barefoot. Daniel and I are still tenderfeet compared to her, but we’ve kept the garden going and growing. And though there are days we feel too busy or tired to go there, we generally do because we have noticed that we always feel better for having been there. Helen’s gifts keep giving to us in so many ways.
Then there are her songs, which I continue to sing. Her flute, which I continue to play. The books she edited which I’ve kept in print and are used in a number of university classes, and spread through word of mouth to people all over the country. And especially her kindness, which I, along with people both near and far, still remember, and is a model and an inspiration to so many of us.
And, of course, our son Daniel, who continues to be such a gift to me. In addition to his computer skills (I haven’t made a tech call since he was 12 years old) in these past few years Daniel has started to become very interested in and skillful with rough carpentry tools, and has used them to fix and create many things around our house. He has also volunteered his time and abilities with Project Grow, designing and erecting a 12 foot high fence (with amazing gates) to keep out deer from the entire Greenview city plot where we garden.
Unlike me, Helen was pretty resourceful with tools, and it’s great to see Daniel going further in that direction. But he’s also using some power tools now that Helen was not particularly fond of — or at least, not of the noise they made and the fumes they emitted. Last Spring Daniel found a non-working gas weed-whacker for free by the roadside, figured out how to get it back into working order, and tried it out at our house. Wearing ear plugs and safety glasses, in short order he made an impressive difference in what had been a somewhat disheveled front yard. But the best part was the huge grin on his face when he pointed to the weed-whacker and said, “Mom would have hated this!” Yes, she probably would have asked him to use it only when she wasn’t around, but she would have loved to see how handy and helpful he’d become.
So many gifts. And yet, time is relentless in eroding the vividness and immediacy of memory. Even after a huge loss, most of us go on, and in time, the grief becomes less intense, and the spontaneous rising up of grieving memories becomes less frequent.
A few weeks ago, while cleaning the mantle, I moved a picture of Helen from there onto Daniel’s desk. In the last five years, Daniel has often brought that picture into his room so he could talk to Helen about difficulties or decisions — but less so as time has passed. For some reason, this time I left the picture on his desk, and he didn’t move it either. A few days later he told me he’d been having a hard time, late at night, struggling with some issues, when he looked at the picture and was suddenly struck with a very strong feeling. He found himself saying, “I’ve forgotten you. I’m sorry.”
Well, of course, he hadn’t forgotten her. He just realized in that moment that he had not thought of her as often as he did a few years ago, and that it was somewhat harder to visualize her or remember her voice. And in those ways he is exactly the same as I am, and I suspect, most people who have lost a loved one — the details blur and fade. And yet...
He asked her about what he was struggling with, and felt that she answered him very clearly and definitively. He found himself thinking, “It would be just like you, not to have given up on me.” It seemed perfect to me — that she answered his concern that he had forgotten her, by assuring him that she had not forgotten him.
Let me tell you one more story, which, as it starts, may seem to be a non-sequitor, but please hang in there with me.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members on board. Christa McAuliffe is the name and face most people remember from the seven, the first teacher to go up into space. That night I was with a group of people at a chanting and meditation center. As we were chanting, my mind kept going back to the tragedy from earlier in the day, when suddenly Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared before me, surrounded by a night full of stars. Her eyes were shining very brightly, her look was radiant and joyful, and she said, “We’re fine. We’re totally fine!” It was a very compelling, powerful image but I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it real in some way I could not possibly understand, or was I somehow manufacturing some sort of vision to comfort myself? I didn’t know. What was undeniable was the change in my feelings — from great sadness and agitation, to a deeply serene stillness.
Death, the only thing as mysterious as life. In some ways, the older I get, the less I understand either. I don’t understand love and gratitude any better, but I feel them more. Love and thank you to you, dear Helen.
Every day that we’re alive is, of course, important and notable, but nevertheless some days are more memorable than others. For our family, April 22nd was one of those days. Emily — Brenda and my daughter, and Laz’s niece — graduated from college. Emily majored in German Language & Literature and minored in Musical Theatre at EMU, and graduated Cum Laude. She also earned University Honors and Departmental Honors in Musical Theatre. Laz, Brenda, her grandma Norma, and I used our fair share of Kleenex, and, even though all the buttons were still attached to my shirt when the Commencement ceremony was over, I know I at least strained the buttonholes.
And now Emily’s going to try to do the same thing with her college degree that I did with mine 46 years ago. She’s going to play folk music. She’ll be joining Laz and me in our concerts much more frequently than she was able to while still in school. She will be playing music with many other people, as she’s already been doing, and she will also be acting and playing music in theatre productions. In other words, she’ll be spending a lot of time on stage, where she’s always felt at ease and at home. She will also be teaching violin, fostering the next generation of musicians to follow her.
The week before she graduated, Emily gave a recital in partial fulfillment of her requirements for receiving Departmental Honors from the Musical Theatre Department at EMU. The recital featured her singing songs that traced the history of the American musical over the last 70 years, interspersed with her observations on the changing musical and vocal styles over that period. She was fabulous! Here’s a sample.
I recently saw Wild Swan Theatre’s production of Jeff Duncan and Brian E. Buckner’s musical, Rosie the Riveter. If you don’t already know, let me tell you, Wild Swan Theatre is an Ann Arbor treasure, and one of our town’s greatest gifts to theatre lovers both young and old—in Michigan and beyond. If you’re familiar with Wild Swan, you probably already agree with me. If you’re not, do yourself a favor and become acquainted.
Rosie the Riveter is, of course, about the women who, during World War II, worked in defense plants, factories and in other formerly exclusively male work situations. The musical is specifically about the women who worked in the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, MI, making the iconic B-24 Liberator bombers.
This isn’t a review of the musical, or of Wild Swan’s production, though I could easily use up most of my store of superlatives in writing those reviews. Rather it’s about the effect the musical had on me, and why I feel it’s critical that young people—hell, all people—and most especially now—see and hear plays, songs, stories, and all forms of art that share Rosie the Riveter’s message.
Wild Swan’s Rosie began with a series of pictures projected on a screen above the stage. The pictures were of women who worked in the Willow Run plant during the war. As soon as the first picture was projected I began crying—hard.
OK, I’m no John Wayne. I’ve been known to react with visible emotion to art that evokes strong feelings in me, but for a few seconds, as I looked at that picture of a stranger, a woman I did not recognize, standing by an unfinished airplane, holding a rivet gun, I had no idea why I was crying.
And then, I knew.
In 1944, my mother, along with countless other Jews, was forced at gunpoint from her apartment in her native Budapest, crammed into a filthy, overcrowded, railroad cattle car and taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. She spent her 26th birthday, December 4, 1944, in that cattle car. I’ll spare you the details of that horrific trip, and the hell that followed. Ravensbrück, by the time she got there, was no longer a killing camp, although the gruesome and inhuman “scientific experiments” to which Nazi “doctors” subjected some of their defenseless captives, were possibly still in progress there. Blessedly, my mother didn’t experience that. But she was, along with hundreds of other women, marched every day, in bitter winter weather, in woefully inadequate clothing, to a nearby airplane factory, where she was forced to build planes for the Nazi war effort. My mother told me many times, with great pride, “Nothing I touched ever flew!” All the women did what they could to sabotage the planes.
The Nazis starved them. Whenever the women could get away with it, they stole potatoes and onions from the camp kitchens, occasionally even scrounging them from farm fields along their march route, then sneaked them into the factory in the mornings, hid them in light fixtures and cooked them as best they could during the day with the heat of the light bulbs, then ate them at night.
At the end of March, 1945, with the Red Army rapidly advancing, the Nazi guards took most of the women, using them as human shields, on a death march. The night of April 15th, my mother, her older sister, and seven other women escaped and took refuge in nearby Dresden. When the war ended my mother gradually made her way back to Budapest where, two years later, she met my father.
When the pictures of the Willow Run Rosies flashed on the screen at the start of the Wild Swan play, I didn’t only see strangers I didn’t recognize. I saw my mother.
Rosie the Riveter is expertly packed with fascinating facts and figures and many moving stories based on the true-life experiences of the original Rosies, but the overriding theme of the musical is about freedom. Freedom for the women to explore their potential outside of the existing societal confines of the period, freedom for women and families living in poverty to improve their lives and freedom for the African American women and their families to escape the demeaning and dehumanizing brutality they experienced in the Jim Crow South—and an opportunity for white men and women to get past their prejudices about African Americans by interacting with them in the plants.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need musicals like Rosie the Riveter. We need plays, musicals, songs and all other art forms that value, depict and promote the precious treasure of freedom—freedom to escape dangerous, intolerable conditions; freedom to live in peace in the home of your own choosing; freedom from misogyny, both subtle and blatant, freedom from religious persecution; from prejudice, discrimination and hatred; and freedom to protect and improve our world for our children.
Kids Are Kids the Whole World Round was the first elementary school musical that my brother and I wrote. Published in 1997 by the Hal Leonard Corporation, the half-hour musical featured eight of our songs connected by short monologues we wrote to introduce each song. Over the years we’ve heard from many music teachers around the country who have used it to present programs with their third or fourth graders, but we never saw an actual performance. Until now. On February 16th, coincidentally—but very appropriately—on the national “A Day Without Immigrants,” we heard the fourth graders at Rogers School in Berkley, Michigan, perform the musical in the afternoon for their teachers and schoolmates. That night they presented it again for their parents and families.
First things first—the kids at Rogers were great! Their music teacher, Maryann Maiuri, had prepared them very well and they sang in tune, in rhythm, and, most importantly, with feeling. They delivered the monologues from memory, with enthusiasm and dramatic flair. Laz and I were delighted and moved—a couple of times to tears—by their beautiful presentation.
We wrote those songs and monologues more than twenty years ago, a couple of the songs nearly thirty years ago. Several of them are still in our sets at many of our concerts. But we hadn’t seen or heard the monologues since the musical came out. As we listened to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, Laz and I were both struck by how much of it, songs and monologues both, seemed eerily timely and relevant—and much more so today than when we wrote them, or at any time since then.
The first song of Kids Are Kids is “Hello,” which features greetings in eight languages, and which has been our opening number at almost all of our children’s and family concerts since 1988. The monologue that follows goes like this:
“We just greeted you, and each other, in all those languages because, although we live here in the United States, we are connected to people the whole world ‘round. After all, every one of us, including Native Americans, has ancestors who came here from other parts of the world. Maybe it was our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents… Maybe they came from Europe, Africa, South America, India or China… They spoke different languages…they looked and dressed differently from one another…they cooked different foods. Yet they all worked together to create one great country! We can continue to do the same today, because, just like them, deep inside, we are all much more alike than we are different. Inside, we are really all the same.”
You get the idea. Here are some lyrics from “All the World”: “All the world is a rainbow/What color are you? Are you red black or white, are you yellow or brown, are you some other shade or hue?” “Everybody Once Was a Kid” pays homage to some of my heroes: Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Aretha, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the Beatles, Michael Fox, Baryshnikov, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Elvis. “If We Care” was the only song that featured soloists, and they were magnificent. I’m hoping there was an adequate supply of Kleenex around for their families when they sang, “If we care, and we share, then we’ll all have enough. If we don’t, or we won’t, it’ll be tough, it’ll be rough. But if we love one another, deep in the heart, that’s the start.” Laz and I sure used some. The musical ends with “The Sun’s Gonna Shine” featuring lyrics that proclaim an optimism that I have been struggling to feel since November 8. “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones.”
I have never sat down and said to myself, “Today I will write a song about immigration, or about the value of diversity, or about the necessity of tolerance.” Like most writers, I work from my life experiences, sometimes without even recognizing till much later what the impetus or inspiration was for what I’ve written. But listening to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, I realized what was one main impulse that sparked those songs and monologues, and, for that matter much of the rest of our music—our original songs and the traditional ones we’ve included in our sets over the years.
Although we were not born in this country, having come here as children with our parents, I’ve not thought of myself as an immigrant in many, many years. I have long felt thoroughly American, and never think of myself as being Hungarian, though I was for my early childhood; or Israeli, though I was that for a few years before we came to America. But for months now, I have been frequently, forcefully, and very unpleasantly reminded that I am an immigrant and, but for the accident of the timing and location of my birth, might have faced the same rejection that many of today’s refugees and immigrants face in moving, or trying to come to America.
My family and I came here legally but, like most immigrants and refugees the world over—for eons before us, and up to the present day—we left our homeland to escape violence and persecution, and to seek a chance at a better life.
Our family did that twice. First, my parents uprooted themselves and my brother and me from the only country all of us had ever known; my father was 47 years old, my mother 39. We left behind most of our relatives, most of our possessions, our language, my parents’ work, our whole way of life—and moved to Israel and started over. And then, less than three years later, we did it all again to move to the US.
My brother and I were just kids—eight years old the first time, almost eleven the second. It wasn’t that hard for us. The new languages came pretty easily and, with the flexibility and resiliency of the very young, we readily made new friends, and learned new customs. It was much more difficult for my parents, but they did it knowing that because we were Jewish we’d face—at best—prejudice and limited educational and work opportunities and—at worst—lethal persecution in Hungary. We left Israel because in the late fifties the only work and way of life available to my parents simply presented too many difficult changes for them to make at their age.
I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve given more to this country than I’ve received. Just the opposite, in fact. But, like most of us, immigrants and others, I’ve tried to live a good life here, tried to live a life that has felt honorable and worthwhile to me, my family, my community, my country, and ultimately the planet. And, like many of us—and unlike the current administration—I don’t now feel that there’s no more room in this country for others facing the hardships—and far worse—that my parents faced when they decided to leave their homeland. I’m also not so arrogant as to think that our one little musical, sung by a couple dozen kids at Rogers School (and by a few hundred other children at elementary schools that are doing this musical around the country) will have any effect against Trump’s illegal executive order. But I can say with some certainty and even a little pride that—unlike Trump’s order, which has and will—this little musical can’t hurt.
Almost exactly 74 years ago, in 1943, a group of non-Jewish German women in Berlin staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I first read about this inspiring, and nearly forgotten bit of Holocaust era history in 1993 when, on its fiftieth anniversary, this amazing act of bravery was finally recognized and celebrated. (A large, multi-part stone sculpture by the German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, now stands near the site of the Rose Street protests.)
The story moved me deeply at the time, and it recently resurfaced in my memory when my wife and daughter decided to go to Washington for the Women’s March.
No—despite what Trump tweeted recently—we’re not living in Nazi Germany. (Although he has threatened to deport millions.) Nevertheless, there are now some clear threats to our democracy, and to the world, posed by this president and his administration. So I was, and am, proud beyond words of Brenda and Emily, who joined women, men, and children all over the US and the world to protest the words and actions of Trump and his cohort.
I fell in love with Brenda for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was her character – her honesty, loyalty, and sense of fair play. She would certainly have been one of the Rose Street Women. And Emily has also already clearly exhibited that she has inherited the same courageous genes.
I also remember my mother, who had an opportunity to hide out from the Nazis in a friend’s Budapest apartment during the war. However, she chose to stay by her sister's side and wound up in a cattle car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she would help save her sister’s life several times. She too would have been on Rose Street.
It will take many, many of us, standing up, marching, and acting to counter Trump’s revolting and contemptible statements, his regressive executive orders, and the similarly regressive laws that some of his supporters will try to enact. But I am grateful and – based on my experiences with the women in my life – not surprised that women are leading and showing us the way.