Tuesday, April 14, 2015

800 Words: Why I've Left Kol Rinah

In circumstances as dramatic and sudden as I always dreaded they might be, I resigned tonight from Kol Rinah, the Jewish chorus I've directed for nearly six years - effective immediately. I walked into the rehearsal room to find a singer immediately ready to pounce, I had a five-second heated exchange with this singer who never had any trouble letting me know that she thought me an organizational incompetent (perhaps not without justification, and she's hardly the only one...), and immediately realized that I could not do this a moment longer. I walked out, drove to my parents house, typed up a resignation, and sent it. That was that. No more seeking approval from people who will never stop withholding it. No more dealing with people who use their religiosity as a cudgel with which they hit the rest of us for supposedly being less virtuous. No more dealing with singers who see their director as a personal waiter to service their ideas at everyone else's expense. No more dealing with people who want to spend their lives singing Jewish music that is no better than Christian Rock. No more waiting for weeks on end for enough singers to show up that we can have a functional rehearsal. No more banging my head against the wall until I can make a dent. Most importantly: no more settling! No more settling for playing music I could never stand, with people who could never stand me. My life has more than enough messy stress without the added stress of dealing with the kinds of people who have seen me all my life as a hinderance to everything they want from the world. So it is time, at a moment when I can't deal with any more stress than I already have, to exit with whatever little dignity I have left.

What is Kol Rinah? Kol Rinah is the chorus I conducted for more than five years, the chorus that met in the music room I had to sit in when I was six years old, the chorus that included the father of my earliest schoolgirl crush, the best friend of my father's not particularly amicable ex-business partner, the wife of one of his oldest business associates and the wife of his newest; the Baltimore Hebrew College professor of my uncle and also a few of my uncle's classmates, the daughter of one of my grandmother's oldest friends and the parent of one of mine, and friends of the parents of all my other childhood friends, and friends of all my parents friends. How can any kid ever establish authority in such an inbred network of people? 

And still, I somehow, sometimes, managed to get this group of people to sound halfway decent. When I came to them, they were lucky if they didn't finish a piece singing a minor third beneath where they began. They were an embarrassment - shunted off to the side of their congregation, allowed a cursory appearance once a year that would always meet with subtle congregant eye-rolls and titters. We got good enough that people who hated listening to Kol Rinah for years would come up to me and tell me that for the first time, they enjoy listening. I have no idea if what they said was true, but considering how vocal they were about what Kol Rinah used to be, I can't imagine there isn't an element of truth. Nothing I did was a miracle: I simply did what any good servant of music would when in front of a chorus: I got them to sing reasonably in-tune and rhythmically together, with decent diction and vowel placement, I tried to build up their confidence when their self-confidence was low, and tried to nicely but firmly put them in their place when their self-confidence was too high. 

My stipend for this accomplishment was 100 dollars a rehearsal for no more than thirty-three rehearsals and performances, the other inevitable twenty appearances I would have to accept as gratis every year. Never was there any question of a raise or even a possibility that the wage would be tacked to inflation. Six years of arranging, six years of ego-massaging difficult singers (and they were plenty difficult) six years of finding music that might have a modicum of quality while still being as light-as-air poppy as many singers wanted, six years of patient teaching; all this for 3300 fucking dollars a year - and not even a single recording to ever have documented what we did. 

When I came to Kol Rinah, my 'past' in Pikesville meant that I had was operating with a Scarlett Letter from the very beginning. I was given a six-month probationary period during which I had to prove my fitness for the group. After six months, we all seemed to be going along splendidly, much better than the shape of things at Voices of Washington. So if there were no review, no harm done, I figured I had the job. It was, so I reasoned, just one indignity to pass through before things get better. 

But in year 2, some of the singers were horrified that I might ask them to review old pieces, so they simply arranged to have the probationary review, roughly nine months after it was supposed to happen, by which time I got a much worse performance review than I would had they operated promptly. Whatever the word of mouth was, the paperwork shows not that I was well-liked six months in, but that I was ill-thought of fifteen months in. 

We chased all sorts of big performances, only for them all to fall crashing down once we realized what it entailed. We were supposed to sing for 1,200 people at the United Synagogue Conference of Conservative Judaism - we prepared all summer for it. We were then cut off, forced to learn a cantor's entire repertoire at the last two rehearsals, and then, rather than sing onstage where we'd have had an actual audience, we were then 'appeased' by being allowed to sing our repertoire while people were waiting in the buffet line

Or the times we chased the "Limmud" projects to try to interest the wider Jewish community in us, only to inevitably find that our only audience members were our families.

 I don't think my ambition was particularly high - certainly not for Kol Rinah. Kol Rinah always dangled in the background after college, and after I was out of college, some adult friend of my parents would get it into his or her head that I was the man for them after they ate their way through yet another new director (and there were at least two acrimonious splits before me...)  I knew that I could well end up with this organization, but if I did, my life had to be in desperate, desperate circumstances if I wanted to go back into my grade school and try to direct within the uber-critical clutches of old Pikesville Jews who knew my parents when they were younger than I. 

But then I turned twenty-seven: unemployed, virtually homeless and penniless, refusing a cent from my parents and refusing to speak to my father. I was living on the couch and charity of friends who thankfully ensured during the Summer of 2009 that I would not starve. I applied for more than a hundred jobs, and never heard back from more than two - one of the two turned out to be a pyramid scheme. 

Kol Rinah was, if nothing else, the project on which the Prodigal Son returned home. Contrary to what so many singers charged of me, I never, never wanted it to be a Jewish Robert Shaw Chorale. My dreams of choral glory (how lame that even sounds...) died with Voices of Washington, THAT was my misbegotten title shot that didn't even get me past the first match's first round. What I wanted was to build a respectable chorus that could sustain itself long after I left, and perform concerts that have as much music that's great and cathartic as we had fun, engaging music, and not for a moment did I want for one to subsume the other. I wanted to build a chorus that was a reflection of Judaism itself, not just of the narrow tastes of uncurious Jews who live in a three-mile radius of one another. I don't want glory, I just want respect from people who never before gave it to me, and as it turns out, will never give. 

I know I'm an organizational mess. Everybody whose ever seen me for fifteen minutes knows I'm an mess. But some people refuse to forgive such people and see the obtuseness of people like me as an insult against them. And because they're so insulted, they automatically read bad intentions into me which I never had. And such things have happened so often, to such catastrophic result, that it makes me an emotional mess. Such Type-A people are not evil, but for the effect they've always had on my well-being, it often feels like they might as well be.

Kol Rinah is an organization for its time and place. Its like will not exist in ten years, and it will be completely forgotten less than ten years later. I don't think the singers ever particularly liked each other, but I'm sure it served some kind of purpose in their lives that kept them in touch with the power of music and/or God. But the price to even do that was so steep that I don't know how the chorus could exist for twenty-two years.

In all seriousness, Kol Rinah, my hats off to you. For twenty-two years you've weathered every storm, and will hopefully weather this one as well as you ever have. There is no reason you could not, with some effort that hasn't been put in for a long time, continue to exist for twenty-two more. I tried everything I could to make you understand why you should aim at least a little bit higher. I still believe that you deserve better than you got. And hopefully, a new director can articulate a case for that better than I have. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

800 Words: The Origins of Shoah Bet Part 2

But it was the very perilousness of Israel’s situation that made Netanyahu’s attempts to create a securer Israel so extraordinary in its danger. There were many right-wing administrations before Netanyahu, some brutally so, but the Netanyahu administration was the first in Israel’s history to so covet an honored place among nations that he would attempt to take it by force.

Benyamin Netanyahu’s relationship to the West, and particularly to America, was Shakespearean in its tragic depth. He was a modern-day Saul whose premiership followed a long series of Davids and Solomons. Like his biblical antecedent, he was the king nobody wanted - a Nixonian figure, anointed by whatever god controls destiny as a leader of convenience, isolated upon his throne and beloved by nobody. If the ‘founding generation’ of Rabin, Peres, and Sharon inspired their followers with pre-1948 visions of what Israel could become, then Netanyahu, Prime Minister for nearly as long as those three leaders combined and the first and only Prime Minster born after the State’s founding, represented with eerie exactitude what Israel seemed to be. Netanyahu exemplified everything with which the modern Israeli was stereotyped - intransigent, overachieving, bellicose, temperamental, brilliant in precisely that low cunning sort of way that history falsely associates with Judaism from time immemorial, and symbiotic with turn-of-the-century America to the point that he seemed to control it like a puppet.

And yet the ironies of how he came to exemplify the modern Israel are stupendous. Netanyahu was descended from Israel's intellectual royalty. His father, Benzion Netanyahu, was one of his era’s most eminent scholars of Jewish history and served as personal secretary to Ben-Gurion’s most eminent right-wing rival, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His uncle, Elisha Netanyahu, was a famous mathematician and dean of Israel’s once-famed science institute - the Techniyon. His aunt, Shoshana Netanyahu, was an Israeli Supreme Court Justice, and his grandfather, Nathan Mielikowski (later Netanyahu), was a writer who moved in the earliest Zionist circles and was widely known as early Zionism’s greatest orator. As an older man living in Palestine, Mielikowski broke so definitively with mainstream Zionism that he personally defended the two men accused of assassinating the eminent left-wing Zionist leader, Chaim Arlozoroff.

Still more ironic is that Netanyahu was perhaps more American than he was Israeli. Until he turned forty, a full half his life was spent in the United States. So privileged was Netanyahu’s upbringing that he lived the majority of his formative years not in scrappy early Israel but in then-prosperous Philadelphia, where his father was a tenured professor. After five years of army service, he spent the majority of his twenties as an architecture student and economist in Boston, and spent the majority of his thirties as a high-ranking ambassador - first in DC as Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to the United States, and then in New York as Ambassador to the United Nations. From the beginning of his career, Netanyahu was fast-tracked because of his Americanness during a period when Israel began to look to America as its sole ally of consequence. Like the far more diplomatically suited Abba Eban before him, Netanyahu spoke an English so beautifully eloquent that he easily out-orated most of his American allies in their mother tongue. In time he became, in so many ways, the right-wing leader turn-of-the-century Republicans desired for America. But only an Israeli intellectual could covet an honoured place among American conservatives at the moment when the American Conservative was the most hated person on the planet.

Whereas Yitzhak Rabin presonified a "Sabra" who seemed just as comfortable on a Kibbutz as he was with a rifle (even though he grew up in Tel Aviv and his knowledge of farming was purely by academic training), and Shimon Peres's elegant polish personified the 'Yekke' - one of the sophisticated German Jews of intellectual bent who were so important to giving Israel credibility in the world's eyes during its early years (even though he was actually from Polish peasant stock), and Ariel Sharon seemed like the ultimate 'Chayyal', the soldier who exemplified the fighting spirit that was so crucial to Israel's establishment (even though he grew more obese with every promotion), Netanyahu seemed to have nothing of Israel's pioneer spirit about him. To Israelis, he exemplified the 'Yordim,' Israelis who left Israel in the 50's and 60's and were heavily looked down upon because they left Israel at its time of greatest need. But once the Yordim and their children began to return, richer and with extremely valuable work experience, the wisdom from the outside world which they accumulated made them re-embraced. To the world, Netanyahu was Israel, but to Israel, Netanyahu was the world - the wider world they longed to see and take their place among as an equal member. 

But to Netanyahu himself, he was Israel's conscience - all that stood between Israel and the second Holocaust he unwittingly helped to facilitate. The more he saw of the wider world, the more afraid he became of it, and the more determined he became to protect Israelis who slept soundly in their beds, not knowing the horrors which could await them without his protection. At the heart of Netanyahu's worldview was his father's. His father lived to the ripe old age of 102, and in his many years, pronounced so many apocalypses that some of them had to come true. At Benzion's 100th birthday celebration, the son recalled his father uncanny prescience about antisemitic elements - having predicted the European Holocaust in 1937, the attack by Islamic fundamentalists upon the World Trade Center in the early 1990's, and towards the end of his life, the nuclear attack in Israel arranged by the Iranian government.   

In an era that saw the height of the Bush family, Osama bin-Laden, Vladimir Putin, Kim-Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, Viktor Orban, Tayyip Erdogan, and the toppling of Qaddafi and Mubarak, there was not a single world leader who inspired the vitriol heaped upon Netanyahu. The more hated he became by the wider world, the more determined he became to isolate Israel from her remaining allies. The more Israel’s Arab neighbors grew militant, the more his heart was hardened to match them militance for militance. The greater the gulf between the world’s criticism of Israel and its excusal of her neighbors’ intransigence, the more determined Netanyahu became to show his contempt with actions that seemed designed to make his people all the more hated.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

800 Words: The Origins of Shoah Bet - Part 1

Chapter XVIII

By 2015, the rational postwar liberal was not quite deceased, but he was very much a dying breed, and he could almost sympathize with the worldview of Prime Minister Netanyahu. For every moment from its founding to the unspeakable manners of its destruction, the State of Israel was an encircled, besieged state; never a refuge from Diaspora but an extraordinarily compromised part of it.

For the entirety of its existence, Israel was a state that strove mightily to be a democracy, yet with every year it seemed to fall farther short of its goal. This Jewish country which never contained more than a few million Jews was encircled upon every side by three-hundred million Sunni and and Shia Muslims, and every poll indicated that the vast majority of their neighbors, at times nearly a unanimous majority, viewed Israel as an enemy combatant whose very existence should be extinguished at the nearest possible opportunity by any and all means.

Like every country, Israel was enabled to exist because of an unspeakably terrible original sin, and its original sin was to forcibly and violently relocate more than half a million native Arabs into still tinier corners of its tiny territory. Jeffrey Goldberg, a famous journalist of the time, posited the analogy that twentieth century Europe of the was a burning building out of which the Jews had to jump lest they be destroyed, and they fell onto an innocent bystander on the street - the Palestinians. It was a horrific act born of the most extreme desperation, enabled by more prosperous Arabs all too willing to allow violence upon their impoverished brethren for their own benefit, perpetrated by Israelis mostly with regret, sustained and consented to by most Israelis with a fervent hope for its eventual end. But colonization born of desperation is still colonization. Israelis grew ever more comfortable with this arrangement with each passing generation, and as Israel grew into one of the most reliably prosperous countries for business in the entire world, she saw no reason to compromise her prosperity for a people who never passed up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity. If generations of Arab despots in every Arab country were categorically unwilling to embrace greater political freedom for their Arab citizens, why should Israel embrace greater freedoms for her own? Had any neighboring state been a functional democracy for any period, they could have absorbed a Palestinian population as hungry for opportunity as anyone in the world had ever been.

At the twenty-first century’s commencement, nearly half the world’s countries suffered from authoritarian rule, and many more had authoritarian leanings that threatened their democracies at their very foundations. But not a single one of these countries earned more than a fraction of the international approbation continually heaped upon Israel - a state that always imagined herself democratic to the marrow. Israel’s actions vacillated between extreme principle and extreme opportunism, its leaders were everything from lions of liberalism to war criminals, yet criticism and censure of her remained at the highest possible level for the entirety of her lifespan.

The original Zionist dream was built upon sand both literally and figuratively. It is a fool’s errand to create a parochial state that is absolutely committed to the primacy of one religion over others, yet also to the most liberal values of secular democracy. But the doomed attempt to fuse these two concepts was the only way in which millions of Jewish lives would ever be saved, for a time at least. The tension between Israel’s religious dictates and secular aims was the tension which enabled the unprecedented worldwide prosperity of the Jewish people. No longer were Jews a people without a land, and after two thousand years, there was finally a dear price to pay for persecuting Jews.

At the same time that Israel was a triumph for Jews, it was a triumph, perhaps the ultimate triumph, of liberal principles. In nearly every conceivable sense, Israel was the vital center of worldwide discourse - geographically positioned at the absolute cross section between Asia, Europe, and Africa; politically positioned at the exact center between secular values and religious, legally positioned at the exact place between a liberal democracy and an authoritarian dictatorship; economically positioned between capitalism and socialism, and historically having a strong claim at being both the most obviously colonized and most obviously colonialist people on Earth. Upon every issue which the world debates, modern Israel was the ultimate experiment to see if the modern world, with all its contradictions, could long endure. Israel, alleged to be an exclusionist society for every day of its existence, was in its way the most pluralistic country in the world.

Absolutists of nearly all stripes - Islamists, pan-Arabists, Christianists, Libertarians, Marxists, Socialists, Libertarian Socialists, Libertarian Communists, Anarchists - decried Israel for its many sins with a viciousness it reserved only for Zionism as though Zionism was a more totalitarian ideology than any of theirs. Most of them claimed that their motive was human rights, but in fact, their enemy was the permissive modernity that allowed a state as contradictory as Israel to exist. Such worldviews cannot allow for accommodations to pragmatism, and therefore the Jewish state always struck a terrible wrench into their absolutist worldviews. Zionism was always a practical compromise to reality, an ideology as corrupt as any other, allowed to govern a country only because the world is too imperfect to allow any other way to maintain the Jewish people’s security. And for a time, Zionism did ensure that the Jewish people remained fundamentally safe from persecution.

Because of its many contradictions, Zionism was a venture destined to fail from its inception. But so long as it was permitted to exist, the modern world, with all its permissiveness, its imperfect liberties and equalities, knew that it could survive and fight another day to better itself. Jews have long been the petri dish by which the world could gauge its health. A society that allows this consistently overachieving people to flourish is a healthy one, a society that segregates its Jews is an underachieving society, and a society that kills Jews is killing itself. When a society mistreats its Jews, it is not long before every other underclass is still more mistreated. Judaism, a portable religion grounded not in faith and authority, but upon book learning and debate, has always been the yeast by which all the societies which make space for them are allowed prosperity far greater than they would ever have had without them.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck? Seriously Unserious Judaism

So, ultimately, Why Schmuck?

Every time I start a new project, I feel a manic, massive, messianic overflow of confidence that this is what my truest self yearns to express, only for the rapture to come crashing down to earth in a hail of logistical difficulties. Eventually, it always seems to happen - defeat, shameful, ignominious.

Every time I begin anew, I come up with an idea that speaks to me, and tells me ‘I was born for this.’ But this one feels the truest to myself yet. It is a mission deeper than the simply musical. And that mission is…

To tell the truth, unadorned, to people whose world and customs I have less good to report about than they no doubt would like to hear. I have no idea whether it will be successful in any regard, but in my mind, Schmuck is both a parody and a satire of Jewish music, and therefore of Jewish culture itself. Like all parodies, it comes from a place of love - you have to love and care about the source material enough to devote so much attention to it. Like all satires, it comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction and anger. No community that has so much so easily mocked, and is so ripely deserving of mockery, should ever emerge unscathed.

The Jewish community my parents have tried their lives long to preserve does not exist, and the reality runs almost completely contradictory to the ideals with which they raised my brothers and I. I’ve watched my lifelong as a community into which they’ve put so much effort has done so little to reward their efforts. They would never say that, they might not even believe it ultimately, but I will say it, and I believe it....

What are those ideals? I’ll use my father’s phrase to describe it: Seriously Unserious Judaism. Or to put another of his syllogisms in place: There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Our religion is a religion without religion: a religion of doubt, of hedging bets, of questions rather than answers, a religion that trusts science on questions of science and God on questions of God, a lifestyle that can take ecstatic enjoyment in the traditions and customs of Judaism but understands in the face of overwhelming modern evidence that religion can never be used as an answer to any of life’s problems. A religion that accepts in the face of the Shoah and the Doctor’s Plot that whether or not we ever wish to identify as Jews, the world will ultimately always remind us that we are Jewish. We are a Judaism of conscription, which accepts that complete assimilation is never an available option. It rejoices in the benefits of Judaism: the cultural achievements, the music and especially the writings, the maintenance of Yiddish and Hebrew, the rituals that bond families together, and the endless discussions of the meaning of Jewish history. Such a life has its drawbacks, I have never agreed or appreciated my parents belief in a Jewish life so cloistered in Pikesville from goyisher influence, but it is nevertheless the most fundamentally sound orientation toward life I have ever come across. Perhaps I'd feel differently if coming from a different family, but I'd like to think I'm more than aware of my family's limitations in other areas...

My parents made me understand, sometimes through terrible trials, that to chase after a life outside of religion is usually to chase after religion itself. Whether your God is Hashem, or Jesus, or Capitalism, or Social Justice, or anything else, it is worshipped with exactly the same sort of fanaticism. And ultimately, there is no evidence verifiable enough to elucidate that any of them is the correct way to live a life. So in the face of so much reason to doubt, it is best to live life according to the modest consolations which a religion you don’t much believe in allows for you. At least we know the paths we’re treading, it’s been handed down since the God who doesn’t exist knows when, and at least we’re not straining our hearts to chase after gods which our brains know are false.  

The implications for this sort of religion are too numerous to document thoroughly, but what is easy to understand is how pathetically inadequate modern Jewry has been to this modest ideal by chasing after ideals so much more ambitious than it.

The Judaism in which I grew up had three main branches: not Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, but three separate Jewish religions, one committed to religious fanaticism, one committed to social justice, and one committed to hyper-achievement. There is a smaller fourth branch committed to neoconservatism, but that branch is the current establishment - the ground level Judaism beneath which all three of the other branches grew their roots. It is so well-known, well-documented, and disproportionately influential that it there’s little reason to comment on it. It will suffices to say that it is stuck in the liberalism of fifty years ago, and never knew what to do with a world that long since moved into new eras. It sees moral relativism as a crime, and any talk of diplomacy as weakness in the face of a world that still wants nothing better than to see us all dead. It has preserved Judaism’s unimpeded growth in success and influence in America, but the future will reveal that it came at a terrible price.

In my thirty years of memory, a different person than me might call the revival of Ultra-Orthodoxy miraculous. But it is not miraculous, it is apiece with parallel revivals in fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. If Judaism had as many adherents as those religions, ultra-Orthodox Judaism would be just as dangerous. It views Israel not as a sanctuary from anti-semitism, but as the God-bequeathed land of Jews from biblical times. At Israel’s founding, it forged an uneasy partnership with Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists. It has now formed a much easier partnership with Israel’s almost perpetual right-wing governments, and with the American-Jewish establishment’s blanket support for Jewish causes, support which never questions if such causes are good for Jews. Within the communities is a veritable arms race of self-denying religious observance in which its adherents compete for who can most appease the ridiculous, and sometimes hilariously outdated laws of Hashem - delaying flights because of the men’s refusal to sit next to women, buying glasses that blur their vision so they can’t be tempted by women; finding the proper - God mandated - order to cut nails, sucking the penises of babies who were just circumcised (itself a disgusting custom that has no place in modern life), swinging live chickens around their heads; eating no food that is not blessed by Rabbis - including bottled water - in the extortion racket known as kosher food, paying upwards of $50 for matzoh and $100 for lemons deemed suitable by a Rabbi for a particular holiday; owning four sets of every dish - milk, meat, and a similar two for Passover, thinking that women who don’t take ritual baths after their periods are ‘unclean’ yet showing women’s dirty underwear to Rabbis for ‘inspection’; dressing in 18th century Eastern European winter garb all year long ,spending thousands of dollars on wigs since women must shave their heads so as not to tempt any men but their husbands; throwing bread in the water so as to cast away your sins, refusingto mix linen and wool  for garments; refusing to allow divorce unless the man consents, and blow torching parts of the house so that all bread crumbs can be eradicated before Passover. Some of this is evil, most of this is downright hilarious.

The second religion, the Religion of Social Justice, is no less ridiculous, and sometimes no less evil. Even at their most mock-worthy, they never fail bring to mind the famous quote from George Orwell: The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.”

If one substitutes Britain with Israel, one has the nature of the contemporary climate among so many self-styled fighters for the greater good. Israel’s sins are numerous, perpetuated by the neoconservative establishments both of the United States and the country itself, and need no repeating here. What bears repeating is how selective their approbation is. How is it that the majority of the world’s human rights concern is focused on this tiny country, while so many countries accumulate far worse human rights records than Israel on its worst day. The only explanations for this can be anti-semitism, and the complete naivete of antisemites’ fellow travelers.

The Religion of Social Justice purports to have a Jewish edge in the concept of Tikkun Olam. But there is nothing more Jewish about it than any other religious fanaticism. It is an alternative religion that abandons traditional religious practice in the name of making a better society here on earth. But where is this better world? Its sole success is the dismantling of a liberal alternative to conservative rule. Since the left’s divorce from liberalism in the Vietnam era, liberalism’s gains have only been short-term and incremental. Obamacare, the greatest liberal American triumph in two generations, is perpetually on the verge of dismantlement from the American Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the bulk of leftist anger has not been focused on conservatives, but on traditional liberals, whose lack of militancy is considered nothing more than conservatism with a human face.

In the name of equality, it has wrecked the progress of cultural self-improvement, and purported to show that the aspirations of middle-class people toward greater learning is nothing more than stepping on someone else’s aspirations - usually because the culture we so appreciate was created by white men. The texts of our great books are no longer to be appreciated for what’s great about them, they mere pins onto which pseudo-profound thinkers deconstruct, anatomize, conceptualize, hermeneuticize, paradigmize, feminize, queer theorize, mythopoeticize, collective unconsciousize, poststructuralize, postcolonialize, semioticize, semiologize, intersectionalize, de-eroticize, and self-referentialize. If you don’t understand what most of those terms mean, don’t worry. That’s the whole point. Like religions of the past, it forms concepts so simple that enacting them can only result in fanaticism, and then disguises these basic concepts in a thrush of torrential verbiage so that its adherents don’t understand how destructive they are. Just as in the old religion, everything about this new, materialistic religion, is ridiculous from its core to its crust. Everything is the same as of old: the meetings at which you preach to the converted, the jargon which you have to be fully initiated to understand, the ostracization of heretics and unbelievers, and the sense of moral superiority with which it infuses believers. To police its adherents, it has all the same tricks. It uses the language of political correctness: terms like ‘microaggression’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘trigger warning’, ‘patriarchy,’ are not used as protection for the victimized - however well-meaning the terminology may have been formed to be - but as a means of inflaming mob rule among adherents and intimidation among non-believers. It’s a culture that even has slang terminology like ‘mansplaining.’ It utterly perverts the liberty which it claims it espouses.  This culture will be with us well into our future, and probably only gather momentum as the internet gains power. But the only real power its ever shown is to kneecap secularism from mounting a worthwhile challenge to religious power. And while it might seem unlikely today, who knows? In a century, or a millenium, it could be the ancestor of a culture just as much history of repression as religion itself. It replaces the perfect celestial kingdom with the perfect material kingdom, and its results are no more verifiable, and no less funny.

But the Jews sane enough not to fall into either crap pile must face two religious tests. One is not to fall into old school Jewish nationalism, the neoconservatism represented so well by the Netanyahu administration in Israel, and men like Abe Foxman, Norman Podhoretz, Martin Peretz, and Malcolm Hoenlein in America. They don’t much believe in Judaism or Halakha, but when it comes to issues of Judaism’s place in the world, what they believe is simply Meir Kahanism with a more gentile varnish. It’s an irresponsible Jewish jingoismin that crows with provocation to the wider world during the first period of true Jewish security since King David. It borrows from the clearly unstable Jewish future for the sake of inflating present prosperity. It would have us believe that bellicose behavior - the bombing of Iran, the eradication of anti-semitism in the media, the unconditional support of Likud-era Israel, the use of the Shoah to justify any and all actions, ignoring the rights of a soon to be Palestinian majority on Israeli land - is the only way to ensure Jewish survival, when their views clearly put Israel, and Judaism, at calamitous future risk.   

But in some ways, even more alarming is the apathy of the most successful Jews - the apathy of my illustrious generation, who graduated Schechter and Beth Tfiloh and Pikesville High, in the separatist Jewish environ of Pikesville, only to desert their community at the first sign of more prosperity elsewhere. Rather than focus at all inward on the community that created them, the smartest, best organized, most capable Jews of my age group give nothing back, get out at the first opportunity, and leave the inmates to run the asylum. It would seem that it doesn't bother them at all that the community which birthed them is running so far off the rails. They got what they needed from the rest of us, and then they left the rest of us to rot. But what's worst about what they're doing is that nothing in their upbringing ever instructed them that such a mentality is morally wrong. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh were Potemkin Villages where normal kids were presented as though they were geniuses: designed to inflate their children's successes with projects that could never be done without parents help, and making sure that every single child had a bright shiny award for their college or high school application.

You’ll simply have to trust me on this, but I’m sure I’m hardly the first to think this. The result of this mentality is that my generation of American Jews is the first for whom literally anything is possible, and the most successful among my peers have used that success to be virtually valueless. Three thousand years of repression have taught them to chase their dreams perhaps as no one ever has before, but they are nothing more than their dreams and achievements, and long experience with them causes me to wonder how many of them have any idea why they covet what they covet. Too many of my Pikesville peers are utterly boring people - achievement machines who understand nothing about the world and care to understand even less. They move to Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even if they’re involved with a Jewish community, the communities are more boring for their presence. They can do calculus, write a coherent essay, play an instrument beautifully (but not expressively), and no doubt they’ll cause medical miracles and will one day argue before the Supreme Court, but if they didn’t do that, would they be anything at all?

We all have ambitions, we can’t avoid them. But long, painful, experience taught me that if at all possible, don’t be defined by your ambition. Whether the ambition is to be closer to God, or to effect an equal world on Earth, or to make Jews a light unto nations, or to rise to the top of society, ambitions can easily spoil into sacred beliefs. They are the most convenient pathway to future suffering, self-delusion, and humorlessness.

For these reasons and many more, modern Judaism’s become a ridiculous phenomenon. All the things which make this heritage great and proud have to be sifted through miles and miles of deluded, humorless bullshit.

In the face of hilarious self-delusion from people you care about, the only response that keeps you sane is to mock it, mercilessly. If you didn’t care, you’d just walk away and try to avoid it. Take it seriously enough to address it, but don’t take it seriously enough to give tacit approval.
I hope that every good childhood memory of the holidays, every deeply moving moment visiting Jewish sites and talking to older Jews about good and bad days gone by, every moment spent intellectually engaging with a tradition that did so much to challenge me in the best of all possible ways, will be reflected back to the audience. I also hope that every childhood memory of bullying, of boredom, of pettiness and bickering, of tyrannical overseeing, is reflected back as well. It will hopefully be my balance sheet after thirty-three years of being a Jew from Baltimore.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck - Part 3

Last week, I was sitting with my Bubbie and Sarah, my new girlfriend, and at Sarah's insistence, we looked at an old photo album. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the fact that we're all a generation older than we once were. I'm thirty-two, and for the first time, I felt truly close in age to my parents' generation. It's probably been five years since I'd looked at these albums, and suddenly, the people in those albums who used to look to me as they always looked now looked a generation older. Bubbie looked Mom's age, and Mom looked like a contemporary of mine. The older generation from when I was a kid now has seventy-five year old children. My uncle Nochem looked like he could be a younger friend of mine. My always ancient looking Tante (Great-Great-Aunt) Edna, who lived until I was two, but I only knew from pictures, died when she was roughly ten years younger than Bubbie currently is. And in a picture taken in roughly the year I was born, my 88-year-old cousin Harry Lerman looked barely middle aged - looking almost exactly like a healthier version of his younger son.

Late last night, my girlfriend and I were cuddling in my apartment when my dad called to tell me that Harry Lerman died. Hearing the news was surprisingly devastating to me. Perhaps there were warning signs to closer relatives, but to me it was quite sudden and without warning. Harry always seemed to me like a very healthy older man, and in my mind, he always looked to the end almost exactly the same as he did when he was ten years younger than my father is now. Which is why it was such a shock to see him in that picture, looking at least a full generation younger.

We've lost a number of older relatives recently. Three years ago, we lost the first of the Paramus relatives: Harry's brother-in-law, Joe Fried. I remember seeing him at my grandmother's ninetieth birthday party in 2010, and thinking as he slept on the couch in my parents' den that he looked not long for this earth. As far as I know, it was the last time anyone in my immediate family ever saw him. I wish I had gotten to know Joe better, like me he had an interest bordering on the obsessive in family lore, and I wish I could have plumbed his brain for the 150 years of memory he must have had - some of which no doubt is lost forever.

Last year, we lost Aaron Gordon, my Bubbie's almost exact contemporary (six weeks younger than her) and my favorite elderly relative, whom I only grew close to around the time he turned ninety.  He seemed to delight in hearing stories of my latest musical adventures and plumbing through at least a bit of my musical knowledge's minutia, and I delighted in hearing stories about the old New York and the Brooklyn in which he lived in until the late 90's. I apparently reminded him of his long-dead twin brother, who was also obsessed by music. David Gordon was a regular and seemingly fanatical audience member at the old Metropolitan Opera, a program director at a radio station that programmed every musical genre in conjunction with one another, and a singer who sang in the chorus of none other than Edgar Varese. Unfortunately, David was run over in a New York street sometime around 1960 - even Aaron's children barely knew him. For my whole life, I savored hearing details about this family of whom I always seemed to be an aberration, a bohemian black sheep lost among a sea of Jewish Yuppies. And yet, here was a long dead somewhat distant relative who seemed almost exactly like me. A few weeks before he died, Aaron awoke one morning in his Arizona home to find his second, much younger, wife dead in their kitchen. Shortly thereafter he had a heart attack, and we knew it was not long. A few months later, he was dead from cancer at the age of 93.

It's weird to say that the loss of an 88-year-old cousin whom you see once a year feels devastating, but in a sense, this one feels that way, simply because Harry seemed like he might live forever. The last time I saw him, he looked in much better health than his younger brother, who is 11 years younger than him. Harry always reminded me so much of Dad, who's now nearing seventy and older than his father-in-law was when he died. Both Harry and Dad always had the same inexhaustibly manic energy, which blithely railroaded through everybody's sensitivities and at times could seem like arrogance. But in both cases, it made them all the more charming (to anyone who isn't their son...), and all the more entertaining company so long as you weren't the one at the receiving end of their roasts. In the last years, Bubbie and Harry had a falling out because of the not quite sycophantic, and extremely entertaining, speech Harry made at Bubbie's ninetieth birthday. Bubbie, like her grandson, has always been a bit oversensitive, but it's a horrible reminder that Bubbie could also go at any moment, and there's no way I'll ever be prepared for the enormity of the loss of one of my best friends.

The family as I've always known it is living on borrowed time. The next generation is beginning to take shape, and one harvest gives way to the next. This side of the family, which somehow stayed in close touch for nearly a hundred years after its arrival in America, with enough time in between for all manner of feuds and reconciliations, is never going to be the same again.  The feuds which used to seem so important now seem ridiculous, eventually many of them seem hilarious, and then will simply be lore about people nobody ever met, and in a while, all these stories will evaporate in the way of all flesh. All these relatives whom I remember as being a little older than me will now appear old to the kids just as their parents appeared to me, and their parents to my parents.

Friday, February 27, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck - Part 2

Maybe it's stupid to believe in art and ideas above all other things - the Germans and Russians and French believed in all that and we see exactly where it got them... But what else ever is there? What else ever was there for me?

I only had two real ambitions in my life - the first was to serve music, perhaps the way a priest serves God. In the godless age, music - invisible, seemingly without form and void - is the closest thing we can ever experience to the transcendental. It is the most beautiful, miraculous phenomenon in our existence. To make great music, to evangelize for it, to bring it to people, to make converts for it, was the thing that always makes me happiest. When I left last week's wonderful performance at Liam Flynn's, I was on air. I thought I was fulfilling, or so it seems, my first, best destiny.

The second, perhaps contradictory, ambition, was to create music that transcended simple entertainment and took on all the properties of great art. But this is not only my contradiction, it's everybody's who loves music. The truth is that there is no one more selfish, and less service oriented, than a true artist. Art may give something priceless to the people who experience it, but in order to create it, the artist takes, and takes, and takes, until the people unfortunate enough to serve him have nothing left to give, at which point most artists move on to new 'servants', whom they exhaust just as badly. Just as a charismatic clergyman might be a serial abuser in private when he isn't exhorting us to burn heretics in public, a great artist or musician will act like a swine as often as not to the people who love him when he isn't exciting the public to an irresponsible state of endorphin overdose. Listen to Wagner, or look at the paintings of Caravaggio, and try telling me that these artists are not trying to excite their audiences to an ecstatic state in which they can be worshipped like any Pope or Dictator.

In case you haven't figured it out, I have not proven particularly skilled in fulfilling either ambition. As with most people, my aspirations are probably askew from where my true abilities lie. If any of us achieve exactly what we always sought, we'd probably be too boring to make our aspirations worthwhile. Most of us have a general idea of our talents, but we don't know their specific parameters.

It was clear that I had real musical talent from the earliest age - by the time I was four, I had perfect pitch and could harmonize melodies on the piano. But somehow, my development as a 'musical prodigy' was clearly stymied by something, and by the time I was eight, it was being asked by just about everyone why I hadn't become a prodigy my obnoxiously precocious gifts seemed to promise - in music or a dozen other fields.

This isn't the place to go into my various learning, organizational, and developmental disabilities, or my long and dark struggles with depression and anxiety - those are scrawled all around this blog for anyone who cares to look for more than two minutes. And I'll probably touch on them later in this post - briefly. What is important here is to say that I was not cut out for a career in the music I loved best. Not then, not now, probably not ever. I have neither the temperamental patience for practicing instruments, nor the gift for composing truly original music, nor the tolerance for bullshit which a career in music history demands.

But when I was sixteen, I discovered a completely unexpected gift - the gift of improvisation. A gift which most truly classical musicians would be at a loss to understand. Classical music, at least classical music as it's today practiced, is almost completely a technical exercise. Impeccable intonation and quality of sound, but with interpretations that are indistinguishably anodyne, generic phrasing and, a dispassionate, boring lack of expression that feels manufactured to seem completely antiseptic. If this is what classical music is, no wonder nobody everybody feels intimidated into staying away. People can't bond with performers because they can't tell the differences between them, and that's because there aren't any meaningful differences between performers.

When instrumentalists spend their entire youths perfecting technique, no wonder they never develop the creativity it takes to use their technique in the service of creating something. Theoretically, I suppose people can still be truly creative if they have little meaningful life experience or a generic personality, but I'd imagine it's thousands of times harder.

In order to give your creativity meaning, you have to have lived a real life - you have to know what it means both to suffer and to experience joy, you have to know loss and gain; you have to have something meaningful to express, you have to examine your life; your surroundings, your beliefs, your roots, your future. You have to have read and listened widely, and you have to have lived enough life to understand what you're reading. By no means do you have to be an intellectual (and it usually helps if you're not), but you have to at least have an awareness of what ideas exist. By no means do you have to have gone out into the world to have a wide variety of experience (though it usually helps if you have), but if you haven't experienced everything in life that there is to experience, you at least require an awareness of what you haven't.

But how many 'artists,' even talented ones, can truly claim to have done all that? The nature of artistic gift is elusive, and even among the people who have done all that, you can still create a mediocre product if you don't have talent. But if you do have talent, it has to be properly molded. There are so many artists I know, both by their work and personally, who clearly know everything about their field and nothing about what they want to express. Perhaps they're too young, or too boring, or too personally well-adjusted, or too intellectually limited, but there is something in their personality that is as yet missing, and it is, sadly, reflected in their work. Technique is just empty notes or words or paint unless the person who orders them positively burns with the desire to express something with his technique.

What did I burn to express?

I didn't know for the longest time. When I was a composition student, I didn't do nearly enough composing, but the composing I did was, charitably speaking, derivative. Unlike most composition students these days, I knew the classical canon extremely well. I don't think it's particularly arrogant of me to say that this knowledge has served me rather well as a composer - most composers don't even really know what great compositions sound like. I do, and this awareness of how big and great music can be at least got me to 'level 2' of 'how to compose,' but no further...

This blessing is also a curse. I have very few ideas as a composer that are truly original. Most of my ideas as a composer require other music as a template just to 'get started.' The best thing I wrote as an undergraduate was a one-movement string quartet in which I basically turned Bach's Passacaglia for Organ into a twelve-tone work. For the most part, it wasn't a bad piece of music at all, but Bach did all the heavy lifting, not me. Even today, the slow trickle of music I write is based almost entirely on references to other music. I don't think I kid myself by declaring that the music I write is better than most professional composers, but that's no compliment, because it's an astonishingly low bar to clear.

Love of classical music never got me anywhere much good as a kid, adolescent, or young man. It just made trouble for me. It was a relief and respite from the claustrophobia of the religious Jewish community where I grew up, and will always be part of, but it isolated me from others, sometimes quite painfully, and was very rarely ever an engine of self-discovery. Insofar as the music of Mozart and Beethoven is universal, it belongs to me as it does to you. But after thirty years of listening to it, I don't feel as though it truly belongs to me any more than I ever did. As a music lover, the type bent over a sacred text, I feel completely connected to it, but it will probably always represent an oasis away from the sounds of my life.

Parallel to this music I love is the music of the tradition you all love, and I only came to love through patience and understanding of others I should never even have to have learned - the music of the Beatles and Michael Jackson, of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, of Miles Davis and James Brown, of Madonna and Kurt Cobain. Music that as an insufferable little shit of a kid, seemed frivolous and forbidden, almost shameful. As a kid, there was something in me that was horrified by other kinds of music than classical music, as though I could have been polluted by it, made no different from everybody else, and lose all those traits that made the world seem to love me for being smarter than every other little kid.

At a later age, I learned to love this music too, but I can't deny that there's still a very little bit of my gut reaction that's still there. I feel shame at being ashamed to like music you love so, but please understand that it's no longer the simplicity that bothers me, or even the seemingly omnipresent animal-instinct of American music. Those qualities which classical snobs revile are now qualities I adore. Sadly, the reason I still struggle with the 'pop canon' is the exact reason I still struggle with the classical canon. It just doesn't feel like my music.

My music doesn't exist. I'm a purebread Jew whose childhood, like all the children of Pikesville, Maryland, was almost totally segregated from the larger world in a modern shtetl - a place more purely Jewish than anywhere in Israel.

On Saturday afternoons, right in the middle of Shabbos, was my once-a-week ritual sojourn outside of the ghetto to Towson, where I was take violin lessons with my extremely shiksa violin teacher, and play in chamber ensembles coached by her black husband. I was the youngest kid in the group, sometimes by far, and perhaps as a consequence I didn't really fit in with them either. But those other string ensemble students were the sole peers I knew in my childhood who were not also Jewish.

From the youngest age, I seemed to be infused with the idea that this Jewish identity was absolutely inescapable - long past the point that it is simply self-fulfilling as it is for most Jews. I can't deny that it became a bit of a nightmare. I felt as though I wasn't even allowed to be as goyish as other Jewish kids in Pikesville.

I was a self-hating Jew long before I knew such a term existed. As a small child, my family spoke only Yiddish to me. The only family members who'd reliably speak English to me were my grandparents from Poland, and I'm pretty sure that the Yiddish-inflection is still as noticeable in my everyday speech as my flatly American accent is in my extremely broken Yiddish. A bit after my American grandfather died, I no longer wanted to speak Yiddish to anyone, and even at the age of four, I knew that my family would view it as a betrayal. But the shame of family disappointment was small compared to the fear I remember feeling that my family might start speaking a different language to me around other kids, whom, to my shock, didn't speak this language everybody in my family seemed to view as a moral obligation for me to learn.

And then came the long and cold winter of my youth - I like to think that I started my life being ninety years old and age backwards. But if the rest of my life is anything like ages 8 to 19, I can't imagine much desire to prolong it.

It's not that there weren't wonderful moments in those years - no one can look back on his schooldays and say with truth that they were altogether unhappy. But from 1990 to 2001, it seemed to this spoiled precocious little shit of a child as though misfortune piled upon misfortune. This prodigy fell to earth so early after takeoff that he never even flew. Instead, he was trapped in the kind of inferno that Judaism assures us does not exist. By the time he got to the comparatively amazing years of college - defeated by school after school, prematurely middle-aged, bereft of willpower, and certifiably crazy from hallucinations and voices to boot - if things didn't get better, he easily might have killed himself.

But they did get marginally better, for a time. Better enough that he thought he had a chance to recapture his lost years, and his anger from those years was overwhelming and utterly unable to be slaked. Some people barely remember their childhoods, others run around in them for their entire lives because they can't find the door to leave it.

I didn't want revenge, I simply wanted to be over with all the things that caused my suffering. I wanted to decamp to the other side of the globe and never return. I wanted to live in a place where I was the only Jew and could complain to a sympathetic audience about how unbearably claustrophobic living among Jews is, and since they never knew a Jew, they wouldn't be allowed to argue with me about it...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck? Pt. 1


My name is Evan Tucker. I'm a Jewish-American from Pikesville, MD. My father's Jewish, my mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish, and we're all unabashed Zionists. My mother's family was once packed to the rafters with communists and socialists, but like so many left-wing extremists, they and their children eventually turned into right wing extremists. they're now almost all militantly conservative. Mom is a neo-conservative on foreign policy, revisionist in her Zionism, with militantly libertarian leanings on economic and fiscal issues, yet nearly as militantly liberal convictions on social issues. My father is the child of Holocaust survivors. He is a liberal hawk by conviction in foreign policy, economically and socially liberal, but also holds within him a deeply pessimistic, Kissingeresque realism, which makes him suspicious of all ideals that hold human nature at any station above animal - up to and including democracy itself. He is also, like my mother only more so, a profoundly conservative person when it comes to culture, who views with deep suspicion any form of dress and hair and music which means to express individuality contrary to the mainstream. Some days, I think the only proper way to describe his system of beliefs is to call him a bleeding-heart fascist.

The political spectrum their oldest son falls on is not altogether different from theirs. More liberal to be sure, but not so much so that they would find his beliefs unrecognizable (I hope not...). Economically, I'm probably much closer to socialism than even my father. I'm not a socialist by any standard which an EU citizen or a Hampden hipster would recognize, but when you attend Beth Tfiloh synagogue for your entire life, you see up close the way in which too much money rots those who have it. The Baby Boomers have lived entire lives never knowing a time when easy money wasn't available to them, and their fiscal beliefs reflect the idea that the easy money will always be there. My generation must live with the thought that easy money with which we grew up may well dry up very soon, and that there is a relatively small clique of millionaires who have an absurdly-well documented conspiracy to keep all that easy money for themselves - astonishingly not realizing in the process that money can only be made easily when it's easily spread between people. When our jobs can no longer provide for us, or our families, or our synagogues and churches (or Mosques), who can?

My social beliefs are rank-and-file liberal. Like nearly every member of my generation, the idea that the right to gay marriage, or marijuana, or abortion, or even to change gender, could ever be questioned is something that leaves me scratching my head with disbelief, and occasionally simmering with outrage. But like so many avatars of social progress, in at least one way, the worst thing to happen to any movement of social revolution is that it got what it (or we) wanted. The spoils of victory are now fought over as though they have no more value than a degenerate carcass. I'm a social liberal, but I no longer think I'm a social progressive, and I categorically reject political correctness of any kind. I refuse to believe that the harm in humor is so great that we have to be more circumspect about what we choose to say, I refuse to believe that the harm in thinking heterodoxical thoughts aloud is so great that we should be dishonest about the places in which our gut parts company with the liberal party line (and every one of us has a few...), and I refuse to believe that every disagreement with the party line is indicative of a much darker impulse in one's opponent. The only true indication of something much darker within a person be if a person automatically reads something much darker into people who disagree with him simply for the crime of disagreeing. There is something about modern progressivism that leaves its adherents with the idea that liberalism, with its mild shoulder shrugs in the face of mild intolerance, is a sham, because it never allows for a total victory against evil. And because it allows a greater weight of moral approbation turned on people who have mild disagreements with the most militant points of view than with people who have complete disagreements, I believe that there is something deeply authoritarian about it. It can only be the harbinger of ever new forms of social conservatism that discover completely new bigotries with which to inflict suffering on the unfortunate.

My beliefs on foreign policy are no doubt much too Munich-informed for the generation who formulated Godwin's Law - the idea that all arguments on the internet will eventually bring up Hitler, and you've already brought him up, you've lost. But every delicate foreign policy situation falls on a spectrum between World War I and World War II. Charge into battle without reflection, and you can provoke a completely unnecessary conflict whose ramifications can continue for a century. Ignore provocation, and your decision might cost millions and millions of lives while postponing a necessary battle that will eventually happen on vastly inferior terms. I used to be quite a bit further to the right on foreign affairs than I am now, but more than anything else, I'm a skeptic and pessimist. The Arab Spring, and all the optimism it engendered, now seems to be a disaster on the level of the Russian Revolution, one that has already presaged the Syrian democide and the rise of ISIS, and God knows what other ramifications will rear their ugly heads. No doubt, America's involvement in Iraq is in large part responsible for it too, but the worst, most dangerous thing in the world, is to maintain ideals with which you refuse to part in the face of a reality that will kill everything around you if you refuse to compromise them. Whether your ideal world is informed by the spread of radical Islam, or the spread of Christianity, or the spread of capitalism, or the spread of socialism, or the spread of democracy itself, your lack of apathy and refusal to compromise your principles is the greatest threat the world will ever know. Once you've elected believe that one thing can save the world, you can't help but reason that any amount of suffering and death is worth the ideal world which will come about with enough change. And yet the world never changes, and the only thing we have to show for such fanaticism is more death. The world will never compromise on its ideals, and will always therefore be flooded by unnecessary blood.

But all of this is just a prelude to the most important belief of all. Culture. Culture is not simply a nice byproduct of society. Culture is all. It is the animating force from which emanates all of our beliefs and passions. It is the way that we process the world: as individuals, as a community, and as individuals within communities. It is the sum total of our art, our thought, our discoveries, our relations, our loves, our hates, our values, and our persons.

And on this most important of issues, I am, in my idiosyncratic way, a militant arch-conservative who finds the way so many others process the world to be an apocalyptic disgrace. People's lack of curiosity about the world, about books, about history, about science, about politics, about the arts, about each other, about all those things which should make life more worth living, is something that makes life less worth living. Most people in this world go through their lives neither with the desire to leave their mark upon anyone else, nor with the desire to understand how they could. They might enjoy their brief time upon this earth, but they will never understand that the enjoyment would be much greater if they learned a little more about it.

And it's one thing for the 'unwashed masses' to not have any curiosity. They never could if people with better access to education never pointed out to them how life could be greater. But while perhaps the majority of the world will always await its intellectual dawn, the educated among us, the intelligensia, seem to see no great value in what they've learned, perhaps because they've learned so little.

Instead of learning more about the world, they use their developed intellects to justify their ignorance. Whole fields of critical theory to which literally millions of 'informed' people base their views, are devoted to nothing more than the notions that knowledge, liberty, thought, even the very emotions we feel, are nothing more than artificial constructs imposed upon us by the superstructures of history, and every construct of our lives is meaningless. The few people privileged enough to possess the world's agenda by controlling the world's means of production. According to this enormous subset of intelligensia, every privilege and pleasure the world prizes is a sham because it cannot be shared by everyone. And therefore, rather than do the hard work of gradually spreading those privileges around the world over centuries - lest we risk too much at once and lose everything - they would sooner destroy everything which culture and civilization works for so that we can start again from a zero-point, as though there is any guarantee that the second dawn will be any more promising than the first. Materialist though it may be, these the new world religions, and they're every bit as dangerous to the expansion of thought as the old ones.

Like the old religions, it puts huge and creepy focus on the rights and/or restrictions of the bedroom over the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rather than focus on the rights to partake of the better angels of our nature - the rights to healthcare, employment, education, freedom of speech and press and worship, we focus ass-backwards on the more animalistic sides to ourselves.

Rather than focus on 'permanent things' like art that put us in contact with the eternal, fundamental questions, most people settle for entertainment, and often pretend that there is a profundity within entertainment that anyone with the slightest degree of common sense would instantly understand it lacks. It's not to say that toweringly profound things can't come out of TV and movies, or popular music, or paperback novels, but at least 95% of the time it doesn't, yet popular genres seem to eat up 95% of the world's intellectual discourse. Meanwhile, the remaining 5% is mostly parsed out among masturbatory art that communicates nothing past small cliques of fellow true believes to whatever aesthetic movement its creator belongs. The best art is art and entertainment all at the same time, gratifying us both in body and spirit - because those two parts of us are probably inseparable. On the one hand, ideas can never be more important than the people whom ideas serve. On the other, all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.

If we all have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, 'lower' things like a healthy attitude towards sexuality and entertainment will follow. The more value we place on education, the more education and educated thoughts will spread by osmosis to people unfortunate enough to not have any. The longer our lives, the more productive our lives, the more they will effect the change we wish to see in the world around us. The more free we are, the more free we are to make our world as we wish.

(Holy sh*t. This seems really f-cking pompous without the next part...)

Monday, February 9, 2015

800 Words: New York Philharmonic New Music Director Sweepstakes

The Gilbert Era is an absolute tragedy. It should have been nothing less than a decades-long campaign to liberate American Orchestras from the ever shrinking confines of our ghetto back into the vanguard of American intellectual discourse. The fact that it had so many triumphs in its short time, yet ends so whimperingly, and with so little fanfare, is a scandal.

Coming out from this recession, the New York Philharmonic, like every orchestra, needs to replenish its finances, it needs to remodel its hall (and always did…), and needs a director to pick up exactly where Gilbert left off.

The Front Runners:

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Finnish, 54)

The Good: The most forward thinking superstar maestro of today. He champions new composer after new composer, and is a fabulously gifted composer in his own right. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now one of the best orchestras in the world - in its standard of performance, in its progressive programing, and in community action, it’s arguably better than any on the East Coast, and that’s his doing.

The Bad: He was never nearly as convincing in standard rep as in new music. Hyper-expressivity as a conductor was never his thing. He had more important concerns as a conductor, and rightly so.

The Ugly: He never should have left LA. Getting a new superstar like Dudamel to replace him was the consolation prize for a blow that never should have occurred. When he left, he claimed he wanted time to compose, and then he immediately took a job as Chief Conductor of the Philharmonia in London. Coming to New York, he would simply be asked to do everything he did there, and risk all the good will he once built up. Why is this even considered a possibility? He should be composing!

Marin Alsop (American, 58)

The Good: She is a visionary musician - even if it’s visionary after the manner of a film producer rather than a conductor, Alsop puts on large-scale projects that are truly extraordinary. In her time in Baltimore, she has done live performances of Bernstein’s Mass that transformed the Meyerhoff into something electric never seen before, a West Side Story that utilized the newest techniques in movie synching  she mounted live performances of The Magic Flute and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with actors and singers that intermingled among the orchestra, she’s brought in a whole host of new composers not only for their music, but to conduct the orchestra too. An historic appointment of a woman conductor is precisely the sort of thing which will bring people in from outside the classical ghetto, and one who can create such events in New York is precisely what is needed above all else.

The Bad: Living in Baltimore, I must admit that she is,... how can I say this nicely… cripplingly dull in nearly any composer before Mahler. Baltimore’s standard of playing under her is a bit wobbly on its best days, and even the musicians who like her admit that she has variable strengths and weaknesses.

The Ugly: A woman director of the New York Philharmonic (or any other orchestra) is so long overdue it shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. And yet it must be. Sadly, Alsop has more acumen as a career builder than as a musician - which is perhaps inevitable for the first star woman conductor. I currently can’t find the quote, but I remember the executive director, Matthew VanBeisen, saying that she is the ideal modern music director when he was first appointed to the NYPO. Trust your judgement Mr. VanBeisen. Alsop is far from a great traditional conductor, but there are more important questions at stake than a few great nights of Beethoven. She is exactly the kind of progressive thinker that every major American orchestra needs right now.

Don’t Rule Them Out:

Manfred Honeck (Austrian, 56)

The Good: The Pittsburgh Symphony music director is a treasure. A Golden Age throwback to when expression was the most important concern. A truly inspiring conductor whose performances of standard repertoire shine like a beacon to music lovers who think that they’ll never hear Beethoven played like they mean it again. He gets results not by browbeating but with his warm, avuncular humanity, and is seemingly beloved by musicians everywhere he appears.

The Bad: To this music lover’s astonishment, Honeck’s performances are not quite universally beloved of critics. His hyper-expressivity is not commensurate to music lovers who prefer their musical diet served tepid.

The Ugly: There are at least small indications that behind the wonderful surface beats the heart of a fundamentalist Catholic fanatic. God knows what embarrassing quotes might one day surface.

Jaap Van Zweden (Dutch, 54)

The Good: In seven years, the former Concertgebouw concertmaster made the Dallas Symphony into one of the world’s greatest. He gives virtuoso performances of explosive character and volatility. An orchestra builder in the tradition of Dorati and Solti whose performances in Dallas hearken back to the days when America had the greatest orchestras in the world.

The Bad: Dallas drama recently went public. Some musicians are clearly horrified by the tense work atmosphere it took to get them there.

The Ugly: Judging by his response to it when he was asked, Van Zweden doesn’t seem much to care whether people like him. He’s a throwback to the days of Reiner and Szell when the music director’s word was law. His musicmaking is extraordinarily powerful, it’s also, like those great orchestral drillmasters of yesteryear, a mite cold.

David Robertson (American, 56)

The Good: The now longtime director of the St. Louis Symphony is the darling of the New York Times and the continual bridesmaid to every ‘big’ American orchestra. No conductor puts together better programs, no contemporary conductor engages communities more meaningfully, no conductor looks better on paper.

The Bad: As great as he is in music that nobody knows, in any standard repertoire. he’s... kinda boring, wooden, stiff...

The Ugly: ...placid, undynamic, unmemorable, generic….

Not in your wildest dreams...:

Sir Simon Rattle: (English, 60)

The Good: Like Karajan before him, and Toscanini still further back, Rattle is the giant who shapes his era. He is, more than anyone else, responsible for expanding the orchestral repertoire to something multiple times as large as it once was, and all the while rethinking performances of traditional rep into something other than the same generic thing we get from conductors A-Z, and still making time for an enormous number of community projects that make an orchestra into something necessary for the 21st century. He is, simply, the greatest conductor in the world, and the model for what all others should aspire. Music is a more worthwhile pursuit for the way he serves it.

The Bad: At this point, I seem to be the only person in the world not working for a British broadsheet who thinks he deserves every plaudit that ever came his way. Rattle’s greatness stems in large part from the fact that he is not to all tastes. His spontaneousness, his indifference to sloppy playing, his drive to upend every basic concept, his unwillingness to ever make his performances business as usual makes him a much more polarizing figure than he ever should have been.

The Ugly: Rattle and Berlin were a mismatch from the very beginning that he made the very best of. His time there is a highly distinguished failure, he came in knowing that he was being asked to modernize a hidebound traditional orchestra. But the orchestra didn’t want to be modernized. Berlin Philharmonic still wants to stay with the days of the three B’s: Beethoven, Brahms, Big Money. If Rattle just got done with sixteen years of authority undermined in Berlin, there is no way he’s going to decamp to the most notorious conductor-killing of all orchestras. Rattle put it very simply when asked why he never conducts the New York Philharmonic: “I like me balls.”

Riccardo Chailly: (Italian, 61)

The Good: If Rattle’s the greatest and the most lauded of his generation, then Chailly is the most talented. Orchestral musicians seem to fall over themselves describing his brilliance. He moves from strength to strength, seeming to master every corner of the repertoire to which he puts his focus. After ten years at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, he is an undisputed master. He is listed as the next director of the La Scala Opera in Milan, and he may yet follow Sir Simon as the director of the Berlin Philharmonic - classical music’s pope.

The Bad: Chailly has one clear, at times lethal, flaw as a musician. He is utterly unspontaneous, and clearly works out every detail of his interpretation well in advance. He endlessly rethinks pieces, but never allows for accidents to develop the way still more compelling musicians like Rattle or Barenboim might, and thus bends musicians to his will rather than incorporate what they have to offer. From one vantage point, he is a genius of the podium who injected some long-overdue vitality into both the Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus. From another, he destroyed everything that was individual and special about either orchestra and turned them both into something generic.  

The Ugly: After a decade or so, Chailly always leaves, and there are stories of backstage clashes. If Chailly is going to leave Leipzig, where he seems to be venerated as a living god, how the hell would he deal with the world’s most difficult orchestra?

Mariss Jansons: (Latvian/Russian, 71)

The Good: After the death of Claudio Abbado, Jansons will probably be the consensus choice for “Greatest Living Conductor.” Like Abbado, Jansons has an uncanny ability to draw enormous passion from orchestras combined with flawless playing, and all the while never seeming to inject his own personality. Whatever he conducts, he can make you feel as though you are listening to the piece’s ultimate performance.

The Bad: Like Abbado in his final fifteen years, Jansons’s health is clearly failing. He is probably about to become the world’s ‘conductor laureate,’  a guest conductor feted like none other everywhere he goes. He may yet be offered the Berlin Philharmonic, but he would probably have to turn it down.

The Ugly: There was a time when Jansons was turning down offers left and right for more eminent orchestras than his Oslo Philharmonic or Pittsburgh Symphony, but taking the reins of the Concertgebouw and the Bavarian Radio Symphony makes it seem as though he was simply holding out for the highest bidder. His performances seemed a lot more exciting to me when he simply took second-tier orchestras and made them sound better than first-tier ones.  

Daniel Barenboim: (Argentinian/Israeli, 72)

The Good: If Jansons is the world’s new ‘Conductor Laureate,’ then Barenboim is ‘Musician Laureate.’ Not that it matters much at a symphony orchestra, but at this point he is perhaps the greatest Wagner conductor the world has ever seen. He is the world’s greatest proponent of a certain kind of Beethoven performance, and in the post-Communist era, has led the Berlin Staatsoper to a point that they’re almost unquestionably better - more German sounding, more inspiring in performance - than the Berlin Philharmonic is on its best days (yet he still craves the crosstown job…). The East-Western Divan Orchestra, while clearly doing absolutely nothing for peace, is nevertheless a staggering achievement. Only a true leader could get Israeli and Arab musicians to play together for so long (believe me…).

The Bad: He was never much of a technician as a conductor, and his proclivities for slow tempos and thick textures are nowhere near as deep as he thinks they are. He is so gifted that it’s amazing how well he makes them work in spite of himself. Like Bernstein before him, Barenboim is such a giant that he gets away with mistakes that would sink anything less than a genius.

The Ugly: The overwhelming love this Israeli has for Wagner is, how shall we say,...  a little creepy. And from a certain angle, so is his penchant for lecturing Israelis on their moral failings from his ultraprivileged perch in Berlin. Even in his 70’s, Barenboim clearly craves the Berlin Philharmonic job, and may yet get it, even if he’ll be 76 when it comes open. And even if it’s a quarter-century ago, after the rough time the New York Phil gave his BFF Zubin Mehta, there’s no way this notoriously testy behind the scenes musician would risk his benevolent grandfather image to come to New York.

Ivan Fischer: (Hungarian, 64)

The Good: The one living conductor I have never heard a single orchestral musician have a bad word for. The one living conductor who created a great traditional orchestra from scratch. For more than thirty years, he’s directed the Budapest Festival Orchestra. And his performances with them are, almost beyond doubt, the most consistently revelatory work which any traditional orchestra does today.

The Bad: For all his talk about innovation, tradition is something Fischer clearly venerates almost beyond reason. There is very little new music which he promotes. Furthermore, his orchestra has a rather notorious practice of making players re-audition every two years to keep their jobs. One can only imagine what he’d make of an orchestra whose positions are so secure that they managed to hound out Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, and John Barbirolli.

The Ugly: What Fischer had to do to create the Budapest Festival Orchestra is unknown. It accepts comparatively little government funding, and probably requires private subsidy from god knows what corporations. When the fascist Jobbik party came into the government coalition, his older brother Adam (a fine conductor in his own right) resigned as director of the Hungarian National Opera in protest. But the younger Fischer is still in Budapest, and while he’s publicly talked about the horrors of the current government, he’s clearly playing a delicate game to keep his orchestra afloat in dangerous waters.

Riccardo Muti: (Italian, 73)

The Good: Mutollini finally seems like he’s mellowed. The Italian who seems to have left every great organization whose charge he ever took in a huff now looks content and comfortable at the Chicago Symphony. He can look back on a career with an extraordinary number of exciting, passionate performances with nearly all of the world’s greatest orchestras.

The Bad: Muti always has days when his razor sharp performance style dulled. But now that he’s a nicer guy, the dullness seems to have set in permanently. A nice Riccardo Muti blunts everything which made him compelling.

The Ugly: The way he led the New York Philharmonic on only to sign with Chicago was unconscionable, and fully in keeping with the level of character and principle he’s shown throughout his career. Muti is, in so many ways, the personification of everything that is wrong with today’s musical world: a conductor made into a star just as he turns 30, living a jet-set lifestyle for his entire adult life, behaving like an ogre to the musicians who work under him. It’s a shame. The New York Philharmonic and Muti deserved each other.  

Actually, It Could Happen...:

Valery Gergiev - (Ossetian/Russian, 62)

The Good: Before there was Gergiev, there was Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Furtwangler. Gergiev is a once in a generation genius of the podium capable of giving audiences a visceral, out of body experience as no living conductor is. In the horrifically difficult environment that was Russia in the 90’s, Gergiev launched the modern Mariinsky Opera as one of the world’s greatest. In an era when orchestras and singers sound interchangeable, Gergiev has worked a miracle and preserved the old Russian traditions - the sound, the freedom of interpretation, the constant viscral thrills. He is an ambassador throughout the world for everything that is magical and wonderful about Russia and it’s traditions.

The Bad: The effort to take risks so huge that give his performances such life often don’t pay off. Like Bernstein and Furtwangler, his performances are embarressingly bad nearly as often as they’re amazing.

The Ugly: No conductor has revealed an uglier side in recent years than Gergiev. His full-throated defense of Vladimir Putin in the face of all criticism is disgraceful. Had he taken even a remotely more principled stand, or even stayed silent, he might have been offered the job already. But if this all blows over in a few years, who knows?

Daniel Harding (English, 39)

The Good: One of of the world’s most talented. A young prodigy conductor mentored by both Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, who referred to him as ‘my little genius.’ A supertechnician who can make any orchestra sound like the best in the world in a repertoire big enough to flummox most conductors with slightly less ability. While the Swedish Radio Symphony and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are not appointments to sneeze at, neither is A-list. And this conductor clearly has ambition and ability to spare. He’s ready for the big time, wherever the big time calls to him.  

The Bad: He can give performances wonderful in every way, his interpretations also can be both bizarre and emotionally arid. He is not to all tastes, and certainly not to mine.

The Ugly: He was, by his own admission, rather volatile in former times. He claims that era is over. Perhaps he’s right. We’ll see...

Gustavo Dudamel (Venezuelan, 33)

The Good: Rattle’s heir, the new conducting supergiant. Dudamel will ruffle lots of feathers along the way, he already has. But his gift is singular. Like Gergiev, he will never give the performances of Mahler and Brahms which the cosmopolitan centers want, but like Gergiev, he has a greatness that is absolutely unique. The Simon Bolivar Symphony of Caracas is an orchestra that sounds like no orchestra ever has, and hopefully they will stay together and develop for another fifty years. If Rattle expanded the repertoire, Dudamel has already changed the atmosphere of the concert hall into something less forbidding than it’s ever been.

The Bad: If recordings are anything to go by, then Dudamel’s maiden voyages with ‘traditional’ orchestras - the Gothenburg Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have not been entirely distinguished. He’s done wonderful community work in LA, but the performances are, dare I say, boring? Something you could never describe his Venezualen work as. It would seem that Dudamel still doesn’t quite know what to do with an orchestra of veteran musicians.

The Ugly: He was offered the New York Philharmonic last time, and mercifully was snapped up by LA before they could get him. Considering the drubbings he gets everywhere, he would have been a disaster. He still may be headed for disaster before his ship rights itself. Neither Berlin nor New York are immune to his star power, and either could very well offer him the job. Any job that potentially takes him away from Venezuela is a mistake, and ruins precisely what makes Dudamel at his best so compelling.

A Little Less Likely:

Semyon Bychkov: (Russian/American, 62)

The Good: After a middling middle age, Bychkov has re-emerged at the beginning of his golden years as one of our true masters. After a series of volatile appointments, he’s sworn not to take another music director position. But he needs a permanent post and an orchestra to develop if he cares about reclaiming his mantle as one of the immortals - and surely his gifts are worthy of it. The New York Philharmonic, at which he seems to be quite beloved judging by the number of times he’s asked back, could be too small compared to what he could get - anything: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera, Covent Garden, the Met, is currently possible for Bychkov to crown his career as the once-in-a-generation maestro people once predicted he would be.

The Bad: Bychkov has never had a music directorship at which he didn’t ruffle feathers. The vipers at the New York Philharmonic would be a terrible risk for him.

The Ugly: Seriously, dude’s the ugliest great conductor since Fritz Reiner.

James Conlon (American, 65)

The Good: The LA Opera director is the forgotten Great American Conductor who recently returned home as the prodigal son after decades in Europe. The native New Yorker never quite got his chance, and his gifts seem run rings around a bunch of eminent American conductors a decade his junior. America is owed a chance to see what this maestro is made of.

The Bad: Well, is he as great as all that? Maybe he only seems better because he’s unearthed so much interesting old music, and the European orchestras he’s had are in better shape than the American ones the others work with. When you hear him in music you already know well, there often isn’t much that’s distinctive about his conducting.

The Ugly: Why did he take so long to come back to America?

Vladimir Jurowski: (Russian/German, 42)

The Good: One of the most talented conductors since Carlos Kleiber. Possessing the world’s greatest conducting technique, intelligence in google quantity, a passion for performing unfamiliar music, and an unfailing musicality in traditional repertoire. He will be one of the very greatest before too long.

The Bad: To just about everybody’s surprise, he’s heading back to Russia and taking over the Svetlanov Symphony of Moscow, formerly the USSR State Symphony made famous by its eponymous conductor. He is a little too unspontaneous, a lot too imperious.

The Ugly: Jurowski is clearly one of the bad tempered ones. He will have a truly major appointment before long, whether in New York at the Philharmonic or the Met, or in London at Covent Garden, or perhaps even the Berlin Philharmonic. But conductors like him know to avoid the New York Phil like the plague.

Stephane Deneve (French, 43)

The Good: The newest eternal bridemaid to American orchestras. Deneve probably should have been the new director of the Boston Symphony (he even looks like a young James Levine…), but he was passed over for Andris Nelsons - the Latvian whizkid who will probably go back to Europe in less than ten years. Deneve is not spectacular, but he seems to very, very good in just about everything he conducts. He’s coming to New York next week, so who knows? Will love strike?

The Bad: He’s good, but will he ever be great? Except for some really fantastic Ravel and Roussel (and let’s face it, who cares about Roussel?...), there’s something unmistakably antiseptic about his performances I’ve heard so far. He gets great playing, but he seems to have trouble getting inside music that isn’t in a narrow French specialization.

The Ugly: He’s the principal guest in Philadelphia. Clearly Philly is hedging its bets in case YNS gets called by Berlin or the Met.

Who Will Get It: Like Muti did before him Salonen will turn it down for better things, so it will go to Alsop.

Who Should Get It: Alsop, with a ban on her conducting anything before Mahler.

In A Perfect World: Leonard Bernstein, having quit smoking in his early 30’s, died in 2013 at the age of 95 after 55 years with the New York Philharmonic. For 30 years, every new recording of theirs broke the top 40 pop charts. His every performance is broadcast over the internet to more than 100 million viewers, as were all the lectures of his final years which he filmed and posted to youtube. From 1969 until the end of his life, he wrote a new musical or opera every two years, and became the most important opera composer since Verdi and Wagner. Hollywood is currently filming a remake of his wonderful but immature musical: West Side Story that costs $150 million. As his handpicked successor, he chooses a little known culture blogger from Baltimore with whom he developed an email friendship in recent years.