Friday, February 25, 2011

The “Motleyest Chaos”

The night before I left for Washington, I made a 13-minute presentation at BINA (Hebrew for “Wisdom”). It’s like a mini-Jewish TED Talk. My lecture was called “Wagner Was Right”: Eclecticism and the ‘Jewish Aesthetic.’ Here was my thesis: Wagner said Jews are incapable of creating great music because, having no homeland, they pull sounds from all ages and traditions into the "motleyest chaos." I asked: Could such an anti-Semite be even partially correct? And if he was, how is it that Jewish composers from Leonard Bernstein to Phillip Glass have dominated America’s "classical" new music scene since it began? Then I traced a century of "serious music" starting with Schönberg and ending with Carla Kihlstedt to see if there's any consistency to the Jewish Aesthetic.

The talk went well and you can view it right here (BTW, I talked quickly because I had a time limit):



But when I began formulating the talk, I only planned to do a simple timeline with musical excerpts starting with Aaron Copland and ending with Carla. But as I lined up all the composers I wanted to expose my audience to, I realized I had no unifying theme and I couldn’t find a great deal similar amongst all their music. After struggling with this dilemma for two weeks I remembered Wagner’s 1868 anti-Semite screed "Das Judenthum in der Musik." And when I went back to look at it, I realized that despite the bigoted foundations for his theory, he identified a common theme in the process, not product, of Jewish composers. They take musical influences from everywhere and any time and integrate them into their voice.

And while Wagner considers this abhorrent, I see the integrated eclecticism of Jewish American Composers as not only distinctive, but one of their greatest contributions to the arts of the 20th Century. Copland pulls from France and Germanic traditions. Bernstein grabs from Radio Havana as well as Miles Davis AND the traditional Jewish liturgy. Gershwin from Jazz. Philip Glass from India and and rock and roll. Steve Reich from northern Africa (while also creating the basis for early hip hop). Carla Kihlsted as much from Mozart as the Pixies.

Now certainly others embraced this eclectic aesthetic, but I would argue American Jews started this trend as they searched for their voice in this new country. Because of this, in other realms, like politics, it appears we have such great differences between us at times it’s hard to identify what bonds us together. Part of what used to bond us together was the constant desire for justice and truth often explored through lively debate. There was more agreement on the process (the discussion) rather than the product (eveyong holding the same opinion). This was the basis of learning in Yeshivas. Two people would sit down and argue over a section from the Torah or Talmud. This is chavruta. And the results might be best exemplified by the joke, if you go into a debate with 2 Jews you’ll always hear 3 opinions.

So tomorrow over 2000 Jews from around the country are coming together. The common cause is J Street and the desire to put pressure on our own government to facilitate a 2 state solution and bring a lasting, secure peace to Israel and Palestine - now, not later. We are doing this because we care about Israel. Because we love Israel and want to not only protect its borders, but we want to protect its future. And the process we are using is to bring speakers together of every viewpoint - especially those who express views who are not welcomed at our rival AIPAC’s conference. Because we invite these people to speak, and we encourage this open debate, there are many, many American and Israeli Jews who think our very coming together is a threat to Israel - greater than any recent act by the Palestinian or Arab leadership. This is how they talk about it. They think at best we are naïve or have been fed falsities parading as facts, and at worst we are meddling, self-hating, anti-Semitic, Arab and Muslim loving, liberal cretins under the thumb of George Soros and bent on destroying Israel. They fear that we speak out in earnest public debate as to the best way to solve this issue. In fact, an orthodox rabbi at the LA Federation panel on a “Civil Discourse on Israel” two weeks ago said Jews must speak with one voice “or congressmen might get confused.” And doing so would harm Israel immeasurably.

And in case you think I'm exaggerating about the reaction to J Street, here's a great HuffPo article, "Why the Jewish Right Is Terrified by J Street's Conference"

The people who fear J Street don’t want us to gather and speak our minds because we all have different opinions. But just as with music, I feel that in politics as well, even if we draw our influence from a wide and eclectic range of sources and speak out such that our voice is heard as the “motleyest chaos”, this is still a good thing.

Those who fear J Street talk about the existential threat Israel is under as a way to deflect any suggestion that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination. They talk about how all of Israel’s neighbors still want to see the country wiped from the face of the earth. They say there is no one to negotiate with and that you can never make peace with the Palestinians.

I say they are wrong. And we must find the way. Because 44 years of occupation is 44 years too long.

They find fear everywhere and hope nowhere. And while I agree it’s hard to be optimistic about the peace in middle east sometimes, with the change that is sweeping the Middle East and Northern Africa – throughout all the Arab states of the world, I think there is an extraordinary opportunity for Israel as well to transform their relationship with their neighbors – the Palestinians and all the Arab world.

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