It was two days before Sukkos. It was one of those mornings. I had been up late the night before (not blogging) and had not gotten too much sleep during the night at all. My morning cup of coffee wasn’t doing the trick. Then I had a thought…music. Not just any music, but two CDs by the most powerful energetic band I had loved during my formative teenage days…Husker Du.
Husker what? Please don’t bother doing a wiki search. Husker Du is Danish board game and means “Do you remember?”. It was a popular ‘memory’ game in the sixties, so I’ve been told.
Husker Du was also the name of one of the most influential Hardcore Punk bands from the early eighties, known for powerfully emotional lyrics filtered through their musical trademark, a ‘wall of sound’.
Now, over the years I have greatly cut down the amount secular music that I listen to. I have a strong taiyvah for music, specifically the genre I came of age with between 1985-1989, Punk/Alternative. I can proudly say that 99.5% of what I listen to in a given month is Jewish Music. On long car trips when the kids are asleep, we’ll listen to some classic rock tunes (along with some more current tunes), but that’s where I try to limit it.
That morning I felt that I needed an extra musical ‘kick start’ today. I stared at the two CDs most of the day. They sat on my desk between the Rabbis’ Sons, a C. Lanzbom, and several Piamenta CDs. I looked at them, heard the music in my head, visualized the lyrics in front of me, and struggled.
OK, what’s the problem? Just play the CD!. It bothered me that I felt a ‘need’ to listen to it. This has nothing to do with halacha /hashkafa / or frumkeit. I was debating if I needed to listen to it, or if I can find stimulation elsewhere. I was (am) troubled that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get my day going. I can see a theme here concerning outside stimulation and our retreat into a Sukkah, where we control our own stimulation. I actually blogged about it when this struggle crept its’ way into my head. You can read, if you haven’t already, about that here.
When I became frum, I found it rather easy over time to change certain aspects of my lifestyle. To stop going out on Friday nights or eating treif was never really too difficult. These were never big issues for me. These, of course, are halachic issues. While certain aspects of character development were challenging (and still are), concepts like emunah, chessed, davening make sense. The urge to make a witty remark at some else’s expense is, at times, still a struggle.
What was, and still is, not so easy for me, was to get into Jewish music. (Please note, I didn’t write “stop listening to non-Jewish music”.) The first few power cords on an electric guitar, the overpowering base, the fasth drums…these elements were missing in Jewish music when I was becoming frum. For the most part they are still missing. I have a theory about that, but we’ll save it for the comments section, if there are comments.
This issue is a constant hashkafic struggle for me and I’ll explain why.
What we eat or the parameters of what we can do on Shabbos are clearly defined within Halacha. It’s the ‘grey areas’ like music that are at times an issue. I real issue for me had nothing to do with the style of music, or the lyrics (I was always careful about lyrics).
For me this issue is that once I get a taste for the music, it’s a challenge for me to stop listening. I simply want more. When I do stop, then I’m constantly left wondering why can’t I find a Jewish version of punk? Where’s the musical energy? Where was the intesity of a punk rock show? There are some options to listen to (see my blogger profile), but not too many.
At the end of day I made a choice. I chose to indulge in 2 minutes and 38 seconds of auditory memories. I picked a song that was about not wasting time and making the most out of life. A very positive message, I think. And I was impressed that I didn’t ‘cave in’ and actually play both disks. The idea crossed my mind all day.
I was (am) plagued by fact that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get me going, as I entered Sukkos. The first night, while sitting in my sukkah I was truly happy. It was freezing, but also great singing and listening to other families sing in the neighborhood. The block behind us has 4 or 5 frum families and each family was singing. It was like an unplugged battle of the bands!!
During the week I went to two Simchas Beis HaSho’evos, “How could I go wrong, I thought?” Live music…a singer…a drummer…an electric guitar!! It was fun, loud, but it really didn’t give me the fix I needed. Something was missing.
Enter Simchas Torah. For me, this year was great. Mostly because I enjoy dancing with my kids and seeing my wife smile and enjoy the scene I make. Going to a few different shuls on Simchas Torah is kind of like a full day music festival with different stage locations. Each shul has their own flavor of hakafos. Every one sings slightly different songs, different niggunim, and the intensity of dancing varies from place to place. Back in high school. we use to dance, ok slam dance, in a circle…just the guys. It was a feather in one’s cap if you knocked over someone. Now, when I dance with guys (like on Simchas Torah) and I bump into someone I say, “I’m sorry. I hope you’re alright”.
Memories of concerts, cassettes, and CDs (most of them sold) are replaced with other memories: Singing V’li Yerushalyim (the D’veykus version) with friends in the Old City one Motzei Shabbos, hearing Hafachta by the Diaspera Yeshiva Band for the first time, the first time I saw Yosi Piamenta play at the Knitting Factory (before they moved Downtown), watching my kids sing and dance the last time we saw everyone’s favorite uncle…Uncle Moishy.
Gone are the combat boots (still in the closet until the first snow) and on is the black Shabbos hat. I choose to prove my independence and free-thinking though Torah, Avodah, and Gelimus Chasadim, rather than with safety pins, a can of Aqua-Net, and an in-your-face aversion to authority.
A good niggun, for me, does the trick 99.5% of the time. I often sing during day and always on my way home from shul. But, it’s that other tiny .5% of the time that gets me. For me, there’s still something that I have not found in Jewish Music. I’m just waiting for the amplifier to be plugged in. I’m trying to find an outlet.
This posting was partially inspired by fellow blogger A Simple Jew and, his now, classic posting, Trapped in the Lower Levels.