For decades, Debbie Friedman created new genres of popular and liturgical Jewish music. She joined the faculty of the HUC School of Sacred Music in 2007. She passed away, much too young, earlier this month.
Every culture, every community, every person needs music, great music that enters us, engulfs us, helps define and anchor us.
Harry Witchel, author of the forthcoming book, You Are What You Hear, tells us that music defines our “social territory.” We are what we choose to hear, and we hang out with those who like the same music we do. Music is part of the ways we talk, part of the ways we communicate, part of the ways we know each other.
Colleges these days often include in the application process a question about what the applicant has stored on their Ipod.
Birds and whales use sounds, perhaps it could be called music, to mark the boundaries of their social territories - both to warn strangers away and to welcome friends in.
I remember reading about malls that wanted to limit the loitering of teens and so began playing music their grandparents would enjoy. It worked. The music fended off the “offending youth” like predator calls keep pigeons away.
Our environment is not just the land and water and buildings and streets. It is the light, the pulsing energy, and the noise that surrounds us, the noise that we choose to make, the noise that we choose to pull close around us. And while music has always been a part of human culture, it is even more so today with our ability to take our music with us wherever we go, and, with our ears plugged up, allowing us to block out the sounds and even consciousness of the physical world in which we tread.
Both the Jewish community and the environmental movement can use more music that inspires us, unites us, tags us as comrades, brothers and sisters, one big family.
May Debbie Friedman’s legacy encourage the blossoming of disciples who will bring more song, and common songs, to us all.
Things just got a little better, and a lot more confusing.
The United States Department of Agriculture is launching, come February 21, its new “USDA Certified Biobased Product” labeling program.
While this sounds good, and may eventually be, critics are already at best wary and at worst dismissive.
Consumer Ally recently posted a cautionary explanation of how the label might be a lot less than it appears, thus leading consumers to think they are getting more, and doing better, than they are. They report that to be eligible for USDA certification, only 25% of the product needs to be made from biobased (renewable) resources.
USDA’s BioPreferred program was created by the 2002 Farm Bill to increase the purchase and use of biobased products within the Federal government and the commercial market.
The biobased certification program is the second stage of the BioPreferred program. (Think EnergyStar for the food industry.) While it is critical to support our farming sector, one would have hoped that this green initiative would be equally motivated by a desire to encourage our farming industry to adopt more sustainable farming practices; to protect the quality of our soil and water; to grow healthier foods; to rebuild the natural fertility of our soil; to protect and preserve the woodlands and forests that are increasingly targeted for development into more farmlands.
As concerned consumers, we need to know what we are buying. And we need a scorecard to help us know. But we also need to know who is putting together the scorecard, and what their criteria and motivations are.
Please check out Consumer Ally’s critique, and the links they provide.
Check out other green awareness organizations such as Green America, as well as efforts by concerns such as Walmart to create a way to measure the Life Cycle impact of a product - from creation to disposal/recycling. And the all-encompassing, socially and environmentally responsible, emerging certification of Magen Tzedek.
In another decade or so, this will all be standardized and ironed-out. But for the moment, the educated consumer still has lots of work to do.
This is my workspace. It is in the kitchen, fast against the five-burner, turbo-charged gas stove (on my left). I can fire up the burner to heat water for tea without even getting up.
Out the window this morning I can see almost 2 dozen chimneys chugging away, puffing out smoke, struggling against this frigid winter’s day. (It is 12 degrees now, much warmer than the -3 when I awoke.)
A small flock of pigeons have taken up housekeeping on a chimney just to the west of us. When it is particularly cold, they tend to perch atop the chimney’s bricks, plunging into the shimmering heat of the building’s exhaust, an avian version of a shvitz, I suppose. One nesting pair seems to have won prime perching rights there. The others hang out on the peak of the steeply sloped roof, catching the remnants of the heat escaping from the attic.
But here is the point: The first night we were in the apartment, I set to cleaning. Not that the owner hadn’t done a credible job. Okay, there were some places that needed help. But even if there weren’t, I would have cleaned anyway. I cleaned to transform the sense of place; to mark it as mine, to strip it of past associations, recreate it so that it was no longer hers but ours. The ritual act of cleaning can do that. With the right attitude (and social structure), to clean is to claim (this doesn’t work as well if you are the hired help).
Whatever dirt I found that first night, I could disown. It was clearly not of my making, not my fault, not my responsibility. If anyone came in that night, or the next day, or perhaps even the next day, and saw those crumbs, that shmutz, that grease, they would know I was innocent, a victim of random grime. That it is not emblematic of how I live or keep house.
But then, today, as I bent down to wipe some newly spilled sugar granules off the floor, I noticed dirt encrusted in a place I had missed that first day. And suddenly, the question arose, whose dirt is it now?
If someone comes to visit and sees that dirt, five days into my residency, can I still disclaim it, still not be embarrassed by its presence? To whom will my visitors (silently, of course) assign ownership and responsibility? Will they still defer guilt to the maker of the grime, or, given how long it has been under my jurisdiction, will they extend that guilt to me?
Which leads to the larger question: at what point in time, after how many days or weeks or months or years can we no longer disown the presence in the world of mess, disorder, pollution, injustice, selfishness, inequity and the structures and values that lead to them? At what point do the injustices that we did not create become ours because we do not work to right them, or the mistakes of the past become ours because we do not work to fix them?
At what point in our personal lives must we take ownership of who we are, regardless of what was done to us in the past, and strive to be better? At what point do we stand up and say that how we got here does not fully limit where we can yet go?
At what point in our political lives do we lay claim to society’s wrongs that we have inherited and say the burden to clean them up is now ours, for if we don’t, the guilt for allowing them to continue will be ours too.
At what point, then, does the past’s behavior, the past’s wrongs, become mine?
That question is too urgent. I am off to clean up that shmutz.
It is snowing once again. And while that takes a bite out of the public works budget, upsets the schedules of schools and parents, and depresses some local commerce (though increasing select others), I confess that from my vantage point - a fourth floor walk-up in a vibrant urban community with low-rise buildings so that my gaze glances over the rooftops of my neighborhood - I am loving this. It is reminiscent of the dream-world of the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, only cleaner.
Avram and I are trying out urban living, and with an easy walk to public transportation, a supermarket, fabulous hardware store (yeah!), bakeries, coffee shops and dozens of stores that fit almost every fancy, what’s not to like? We are no doubt exerting a footprint much lighter here than in Baltimore.
But as I look out the windows, I realize I know almost nothing about the people here, their lives or livelihoods, their dreams and desires, if they like noise or quiet, their patterns of coming, their destinations upon going. At least not yet.
They are to me as silent and foreign as the trees in my woods back home. I probably know less than half the trees in my woods by name (though we were introduced through our friend Charlie and I am trying to keep up!) which mirrors the study that tells us that most of us know less than half of our close human neighbors by name.
It is little wonder, then, that we often treat each other the way we treat the natural world around us, as resources and tools to get what we want.
One first corrective in helping us see the ‘other’ as neighbor, not as object but as subject, as a being that makes rightful claims upon us just by their very being (Emmanuel Levinas teaches us), is to get to know their names.
Charlie is helping me do that with trees as best he can. He is encouraging me to own and use a hand-lens, especially now in the winter months when buds adorn the tips of so many trees.
His argument is almost irresistible: “Think of your hand-lens as underwear: don’t leave home without it; keep it hidden most of the time under your clothes; and be embarrassed if someone discovers you without it.”
Now, if learning about our human neighbors could have as compelling an advocate, urging and device!
We often look far and wide to create a program, an event, an activity, a seder, a something that enlivens our experience of Tu B’shvat.
But, in truth, the answer is no further than the tips of our fingers: Plant a Tree!
I know, it is snowing outside. Literally, as I type this in my new office, it is snowing outside.
And even if it is not snowing everywhere, for many of us the ground is still likely to be frozen and resistant to our advances.
And for those of us who live in a warm climate, it may seem like an odd time to plant.
But I still say: go and plant. Get your hands dirty; use your whole body; be the midwife to a sapling. Just do it indoors.
I planted my apple trees indoors several years ago. They flourished. And they flourished still when I transplanted them outdoors. (Until the deer came and ate them. It was then I discovered that netting could be a girl’s best friend.)
So go ahead. Buy or dig up soil and bring it inside. Use that compost you have been creating. Grab a planter deep enough for the roots of a small tree. Bend and strain and push some dirt around. Pour water on the soil; place it in the sun.
The biggest problem may be finding a tree to buy right now. But if there are none around at local nurseries, go on-line. Buy a tree on Tu B’shvat and plant it when it arrives.
Baltimore City has set a goal of doubling its tree canopy in 30 years. That comes to about one million more trees over 30 years. That’s almost 100 trees a day, every day, for the next 30 years. Indeed, almost every major municipality in the United States needs more trees. Government cannot do it alone. It is up to all of us.
My naturalist friends may differ with me about this, but on this New Year of the Trees, the best thing we can do is not just talk about trees, or celebrate the symbolism of trees, or study texts about trees - although these are also laudable things to do.
But even more - the best thing we can do is plant trees. Better yet, fruit trees.
And in five years, may you harvest your bounty, dry or preserve it, and serve it with gusto at your Tu B’shvat seder. Then, go and plant the new year’s crop of trees.
To learn more about Tu B’shvat, check out Jewcology.
I have been distracted of late, switching gears, trying to enter the mindset, the territory, of my book on Home.
While some might call what I am doing “research”, it feels more like shpatziring, wandering around old ideas, rummaging around in old notes, window-shopping in books and quotes that line the avenues of my intellectual journey.
Amidst all this I had the delightful distraction of babysitting my 12-week-old granddaughter for two days. We played and sang and danced and ate but mostly, we walked.
Oddly, I was just then in the midst of reading Thoreau’s short monograph called, “Walking.” This is the source of Thoreau’s famous comment, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Now, Thoreau, in typical fashion, doesn’t just talk about the experience walking; he doesn’t even settle for describing the exultation of walking. Rather, he raises the act of walking to fevered, ecstatic, conversionary crusade:
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again – if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man – then you are ready for a walk…
Let’s assume, for a moment, that these lines are just a bit overwritten, for effect. In which case, we can argue that for Thoreau, walking seems to be not so much a casting off on a journey-of-no-return but rather a pilgrimage, a discovery. It is an experience of walking away from ourselves so that we might ultimately be blessed with rediscovering ourselves. Such walking is revelation as much as locomotion; becoming lost as much as arriving.
Such walks do not happen quickly. They take time, no less than an hour or two, giving our minds a chance to empty and reset. The first half hour we often are accompanied by what we thought we left behind; we are occupied with mulling, reviewing, planning, plotting, stewing, muttering, wondering.
But if we are lucky, and we walk long enough, we can eventually jostle and loosen the matters of the world that cling to us like burrs to our socks, so they weaken their hold and fall off. It is only then, when our legs move of their own rhythm, and our brains spurn our familiar ramblings, that other, nascent, generative thoughts burst forth. The best of ideas often spring upon us, quite suddenly, like an animal bounding out of the woods. It was likely hiding there all along but we wouldn’t have bumped into it if we hadn’t gone for that walk.
Thoreau speaks of seeking this conjured oblivion, which takes time to materialize:
Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit…. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village…
Walking cannot be rushed; we must give the world time to let go.
But, as long as we are blessed with feet that work and with a schedule that allows us several hours a week to disappear (without head phones), we too can escape into the wilds or the woods, or simply the ‘hood to empty out and fill up again.
It was a difficult weekend for the Jewish community. Even as stores were crowded and job creation increased, as we prepare for Tu B’shvat (the new year of the trees) and a new congressional session, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and songwriter Debbie Friedman died.
At a time when we need them most, one powerful voice of reason and understanding has been silenced for the moment. And one gentle voice of comfort and compassion has been stilled forever.
I do not know Rep. Giffords - though it is not hard to imagine her just as she is portrayed: open, kind, disarming, helpful. Perhaps, paradoxically, while her voice cannot now be heard directly, it can be echoed and multiplied throughout the halls of Congress as her colleagues realize that it is in such tones of honor and respect that the business of this country must be conducted.
Meanwhile, I wait for those on the right to begin to speak about the role of rhetoric in the public debate.
We will only know how much the gunman was influenced by talk radio and the vitriol and lack of respect for government and our public servants as time goes on. But it is past time for us to roll back the language and the symbols of hatred (no more cross-hairs on congressional districts, no more guns at rallies) and to stop the winking and nodding at the implications that the word “revolution” conjures up without realizing that it is but step from symbol to action.
Would that Glenn Beck and Rush and the others who traffic in language of hate ‘fess up to the danger and change their tune.
I did, however, know Debbie Friedman. I had the privilege of working with her when I helped found the National Center for Jewish Healing. And I had the privilege - like so many thousands - of being transported by her rousing, soothing, embracing concerts.
You could hear in Debbie’s voice the joy, the passion and the compassion of her spirit every time she sang. And you could feel her arms around you as she chanted her signature prayer for healing, standing - it seemed - at the very edge of the stage, slowly, imperceptibly turning so that her gaze, and her wishes, could could fall upon every single person in the room.
Her melodies are found in hundreds of congregations across the country. They are hummed and strummed by folks who might not even know she wrote them. Her music has enlivened modern Judaism in ways we have not yet begun to know.
And in this one weekend of tragedy, we see the weaving together of these two lives, for we are being asked to sing Debbie Friedman’s prayer of healing, Mi Sheberakh for Representative Giffords.
Something of a news flash: There is gold in our trash. (Someone bolder than I might have written “them thar trash” but I’ll stick with “our”.)
One hundred years from now, our descendants may scratch their heads and wonder how we could have been so benighted, how we could have been so waste-full and not known the value of it all.
After all, we saw what waste could do in Back to the Future. Throwing away trash, the by-product of things used, is like throwing away molasses, the by-product of sugar refined. It is dark and rich and full of energy; something to be used and sold and enjoyed.
Who knows but the landfills that dot the outskirts of our cities might be the greatest legacy we could be leaving our children.
Which is important, because of the latest news coming out this first week of a new decade.
The world population is set to hit 7 billion sometime later this year.
The price of oil is beginning to skyrocket once again, threatening economic recovery and the ability of the less-advantaged to meet their daily needs.
With all these environmental and economic pressures, we can no longer afford the concept of waste. Nature doesn’t have it. We are part of nature. Therefore we shouldn’t have it either.
Recycling our cans, papers and food is just the beginning. Appropriately and intentionally reusing, returning, recycling everything should be the norm. Things should be designed from the very start to be returned, reused, recycled.
Qantas, the airline of Australia, gets it. They have just announced that they will be creating bio-fuel for their jets from trash. And they are not alone.
Europe and China are pulling ahead of America in the green R&D sector. Sadly, America will become an economic laggard unless we vigorously promote research and implementation of cutting edge environmental and energy technologies. We need that to protect not only the earth but our standard of living, our standing in the world and our national security.
Now is not the time to be timid.
The 112th Congress opens today.
The 428th session of the Maryland General Assembly starts January 12th.
Weigh in. Make your voices heard.
Locally, check in with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Nationally, take your pick of organizations. If you need a place to start, check out the Natural Resources Defense Council.
We need you.