On Being Blog
Well, Ramadan is officially over and I’ve spent the past few days at various parties celebrating by eating, eating, and, oh yeah, eating. What ends up happening on Eid (after the morning communal prayer at the mosque) is usually this circuit of house visits, going from family to family, eating, popping in and out, eating, seeing people, chatting, eating, then heading off to another house party. At each new house, I’m just too polite to say, “I understand you’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, but I just came from two other parties. I can’t eat anymore. Touch my belly. Touch it!”
Yesterday was thankfully free of parties, as is tonight, but apparently my cousin and his family (and I) are booked for two Saturday parties, the first at 11:00 am. It’s going to be a long day. To what could I compare all this? Thanksgiving—both the word and the holiday. Eid is basically several days of eating and socializing and, hopefully, feeling happy to be alive.
My colleague Rob McGinley Myers, who sits next to me, asked me if the experience of fasting changes the way I look at food. I admit that it doesn’t turn me into a saint in my everyday life, but it absolutely affects how I think about politics. I can choose to stop starving. A lot of people can’t.
Anyway, a hearty Eid mubarak to those who are (still?) celebrating.
In working on our two new shows about faith — the Left and the Right — in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, we were struck by the fact that the 2008 Democratic National Convention was the first modern DNC that began each day with an invocation and ended each night with a benediction. Our guest Amy Sullivan said, “As I was watching it, what I felt was less kind of a sense that I was witnessing something new and more a disbelief that this hadn’t existed before.” By contrast, Republican conventions have long included invocations and benedictions.
The final benediction of the DNC was delivered by Joel Hunter, a pro-life Evangelical and a registered Republican who serves as the senior pastor to a 12,000-member congregation in Florida. The final benediction at the Republican National Convention was delivered by Dan Yeary, a Southern Baptist pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church, where John McCain’s wife is a member.
Let us know what you think of these two prayers. Does this religious language ennoble the sometimes less than noble sentiments of these political gatherings? Or do you agree with one of our previous guests, Steve Waldman, that injecting religion into politics can actually hurt religion, by sullying it with the baggage that political figures carry?
On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.
The drama in financial markets nearly stopped the debate completely, and overshadowed a few hours of reflection we might have allowed ourselves on race. But Scott Simon did a lovely piece on Saturday morning, and Slate produced this: “Negro to Address Ole Miss Class” (The headline you won’t be reading about tonight’s presidential debate.) A white presidential candidate in civil debate against a black presidential candidate is a monumental, quiet victory of a milestone worth pondering, and celebrating, in a world in which bad news gets all the attention.
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.
Photo of klezmer composer Frank London by Volker Neumann/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
If you've never listened to the playlist that accompanies each show, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week's show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, "Days of Awe." You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
"On Rosh Hashanah"
Bassist David Chevan's 10-minute rendition of "On Rosh Hashanah" is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He's melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
"On Rosh Hashanah" is from Chevan's 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a "groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days." "On Rosh Hashanah" features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it's based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt.
"Rivers of Babylon"
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of "the vibe of services at IKAR." Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it "one of the most soulful compositions" she's ever heard. It's based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960's Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe "Rhyging" Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O'Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: "Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being."
The lead female voice on "Rivers of Babylon" is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski's The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
"I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite' espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they're praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn't a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community."
Check out the "Days of Awe" play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?