Listen to the River

“Mama, Mama many worlds I’ve known since I first left home.” I was, as I often do, listening to the Grateful Dead in my car. And hearing those words sent me reeling through my past. I have heard these words a thousand times but for some reason, they had particular resonance this day.

"Mama, Mama many worlds I've known since I first left home." I was, as I often do, listening to the Grateful Dead in my car. Click To Tweet

And I have had one amazing long strange trip, to quote another song; and many worlds. It is hard to write about memory and about past life without lingering at the regrets. They are easier to stop on than the joys but with an effort, I remind myself to stop on those too.

I left home for college at the age of sixteen, it was 1969 and peace, love and protest were in the air. Along with weed, pills and mushrooms. I lived on a barely finished campus on Long Island but mostly with an artist and his entourage. His portrait of me at that age still hangs in my bedroom, a lovely reminder of the good.

I left college before I turned eighteen and traveled the country working, singing, hitchhiking, going to Dead and Jefferson Airplane concerts. From the age of sixteen until who knows when I had the wonderful fortune to see so many of my icons and my heroes, in concert in mostly small venues. Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Pete Seeger, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Etta James and so many more. The music has always been the thing for me. I feel most myself in music and closest to G-d in music.

I have lived and worked and sung in California, Arizona, Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico. I may have forgotten a few. And I take many memories from them all, music, food, local idiom. I have sung jazz, gospel, country, country rock, folk and now Americana (that’s what they call old hippie folk/rock these days) and traditional and original Jewish liturgical music. What a road.

I have had multiple careers. I have never been a moneymaker but I have been able to support my family. And I have had the great joy of doing both good in the world and the things I love. Of course, there were a few jobs along the way that weren’t so interesting.

I have been harassed and abused. I have been loved and amused. I have loved and I have been disappointed. I am a mother, the greatest joy of my life; and that came from doing good. I am in an entirely new and alien phase of life so there will be more to talk about.

There is so much to tell but these are my thoughts for today. Many worlds I have indeed known, and there are more to travel through.

At Ease

I grew up in “the city”, that’s Manhattan to those who don’t know. New Yorkers are very arrogant about being the only city. At any rate as much as I have lived in rural and suburban settings throughout my life, I think the rhythm of cities is in me.

Recently, I had the chance to travel to some amazing cities, each one very different than the next. Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Munich – quite a whirlwind. The purpose of the trip wasn’t really “sightseeing” in the traditional sense, but nevertheless we had the opportunity to experience the character of each and what makes each one special. Berlin is full of avant garde artists, musicians, street art; it is a city very alive in a very modern way despite the history embedded there. And still a place for jazz. Warsaw has kept alive a Jewish quarter that doesn’t really exist anymore, the city (and country) was the site of the only active resistance against the Nazis. Warsaw was 85% destroyed in World War II and has been completely rebuilt. They have made great efforts to preserve what can be preserved, 20 feet remains of the ghetto wall but the path of the wall is marked in the streets. Kracow is the complete opposite in that it was almost entirely left standing and it is a beautiful and perfectly preserved historic city. And Prague, ah Prague. Also largely untouched by the war and an amazing and beautiful city, it is very reminiscent of Paris and just as lovely. And there is music everywhere, in every church and cathedral there are chamber players and in the clubs and bars, more music.

I have had the privilege of sitting in Constitution Square in Athens, in a cafe in the ninth arrondissement in Paris and now in the central square in the old town in Prague (not to leave the others out). A seat in a cafe, a cup of coffee and watching the crowded world go by. I feel completely at peace in these settings. I don’t love being in crowds generally, but somehow the general bustle of urban places feels totally familiar and utterly fascinating.

I have had the privilege of sitting in Constitution Square in Athens, in a cafe in the ninth arrondissement in Paris and now in the central square in the old town in Prague (not to leave the others out). A seat in a cafe, a cup of coffee… Click To Tweet

Every now and then one has one of those magical days, or mornings, or afternoons. A moment in life that stands out from the ordinary good. One such for me was an afternoon-evening in Prague. It was a rare unscheduled and free time during this hectic tour. I sat, as I always do, with my coffee and then walked back across the bridge to buy a wallet (a story for another day). I had walked the Charles bridge the day before as all tourists must, but discovered that the bridge that allows cars to make the crossing is much easier and less crowded. And then I walked the old town. I was given a flyer for a chamber concert that evening and determined that it was where I would be. So proceeded to walk, and got completely lost. I didn’t mind a bit. I walked about 19,000 steps that afternoon and saw a lot of that part of town. My google maps wasn’t much help as the streets didn’t match the signs on the building but for some reason, no anxiety. I had the flyer for my concert and it had a map on it, so many lovely encounters asking for directions later, I was back to the appropriate cathedral, St. Clement’s. Vivaldi, Mozart, Pachelbel and Bach later, I tucked into a cab and headed back to my hotel.

My magic afternoon included fresh berries from the open air market, cappucino in an old square, homemade chocolate ice cream, flirtation with handsome older men, lots of walking and very good chamber music in a cathedral adorned effusively with angels. The very best of a lovely city and completely at ease. I love the country but I have an urban soul.

BEING THERE

My shoes are grey with the ashes of the dead

it rains as we leave Auschwitz-Birkenau

A reflection of how I feel.

The hems of my trousers are splattered

with the mud of the bones, a sacrilege to wash.

The old folks always said don’t buy a Mercedes

now I feel why.

Every step is to walk not only over a grave, but

to walk the last meters that numberless thousands walked;

to view the last view they saw before they became ashes.

These roads are filled with the spirits of the unnumbered,

unnamed, uncounted, unknown.

Oh! Those Germans were meticulous record keepers

except in their haste to rid the world they neglected to count

and record…

more than we will ever know, rushed to the gas chamber

At the moment of arriving if they still lived.

The pollen falls like ashes as we stand

in the crematorium at Dachau

breaking my heart in ways for which I have no words.

Standing in these places of unimaginable horror

I can only touch the walls with the palm of my hand

and whisper”we remember” “we will not forget”.

I feel your spirits.

We can only remember, honor, teach;

somehow know what cannot be known.

My brain is full of history,

my eyes cannot hold any more horror.

With reverence and tears I spoke the Kaddish

in these holiest of places

and remembered…all the genocide, not just of these

but of our human history…ongoing still.

What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom

Magnificent Beasts

Elephants are amazing. But you knew that. I travelled to Thailand blissfully unaware of what, exactly, I was in for. After a night in Bangkok we loaded up and flew to the wonderful city of Chiangmai. And after a night in Chiangmai we loaded into four by fours and headed into the hills.

Using their trained keyword "bun bun" to have them raise their trunks – those elephants love bananas. Click To Tweet

We lined up outside the fence around the enclosure and the elephants came to us, obviously anticipating what they knew came next. Huge bunches of small local bananas were placed on the ground and we were shown how to give them to the elephants. And we proceeded to do just that, using their trained key word “bun bun” to have them raise their trunks. Those elephants love bananas.

We arrived at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary #9 and loaded our stuff into a bunkhouse that would be our home for the next four days. Those were some hard bunks, just a mat and a throw. But that is of no matter. We were given a little orientation and went to meet the elephants.

For the next days we would come to know the elephant’s habits, their families, their names. We would bathe with them, in water and in mud, we would help to do vet checks on them and learn about their health, we would walk with them in the jungle as they walked free. We were told about the history of the elephants in Thailand, their uses and abuses, and of all the efforts the project was making to rescue them, to make their lives healthy, happy and safe.

For the next days we would come to know the elephants' habits, their families, their names. Click To Tweet

We also learned about the lives of the mahout, the “handlers” that literally live and work with the elephants on a daily basis, and the efforts being made to improve their wages and living conditions. We worked to build dams in a small river, creating larger pools for the elephants to cool in during the hot dry season when the water was low.

I loved being close to them but I also found them very intimidating. ! When we were in the jungle with them, the guides told us it was their time, not ours and to just let them do what they wanted, to walk or not and where to walk. It was wonderful that there was so much respect for the needs of the animals and that the people came second, put their needs second. There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals and doing something to help. It is hard to articulate why this felt so good and so important, but it did; something to learn from.

There was a sense of glorious purpose, living and working with people so committed to these beautiful, intelligent animals… Click To Tweet

Some in our group were totally fearless and walked amid them as casually as can be imagined. As much as I loved being with them, watching them, learning about them, I’m sorry to say that wasn’t me.