When I think back to my earliest Jewish experiences, it’s hard not to think about music. Passover was the euphoria of “Dayenu”, Yom Kippur the devastating elegance of “Avinu Malkeinu”. I remember birthdays and bar mitzvahs and weddings–lots and lots of weddings– dancing the hora, Havenu Shalom, L’chaim, Tumbalalaika; a medley of languages, identities, and collective longings swirling before my eyes.
These first Jewish memories– what stick in my mind as my earliest recollections of spiritual and religious fullness–were also my first memories of song. From the beginning, music has been my gateway to the divine.
Welcome to the American-Jewish Songbook, a new feature in Ha’Am Newsmagazine. Each week we’ll pick a relevant theme and explore it through the prism of popular music. The songs explored are not explicitly Jewish; on the contrary, they are deeply rooted in the American experience and consciousness. Some of the songs we’ll cover were written or performed by Jewish artists, others explore Jewish themes, while some simply tell a story of the Jewish meeting with pop culture in this country.
This is not a laudatory column devoted to the achievements of famous Jews in the music industry. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the evolving story of Judaism in America through song. It is a story that demands to be heard.
Keeping with the theme of Valentine’s Day, in this week’s edition, we take a look at some of our favorite love songs.
The Velvet Underground
“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
Last October marked the fifth anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. Every time the anniversary comes around, I am reminded of the prodigious mark “I’ll Be Your Mirror” has left on so many lives. Social media abounds with old footage of first wedding dances and amateur romantic montages paying tribute to the song– a small indication of the sheer amount of people who have anchored in the music their most fragile and intimate memories. I’m left to wonder how many first loves this song has carried.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” allegedly came to be when Nico– Reed’s then-lover and eventual vocalist behind the song– turned to Reed and told him, “Oh Lou, I’ll be your mirror.” Embedded is a simple yet delicate message: another person’s love is a surface by which beauty can be reflected– a reflection powerful enough to diffuse all fear and self-doubt. Love, Reed seems to assure us, will heal.
Andy Warhol, the manager and visionary behind The Velvet Underground once said something to the effect of, “Art is anything you can get away with.” Lou Reed, a Brooklyn born Jew who would become one of the most influential and transformative figures in music history, had a slightly different vision: Art is anything you need it to be, and so too is a person.
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
“Dance Me to the End of Love” is a Holocaust song, but it is also a love song. And to Cohen, the distinction was ripe for blurring. In interviews, Cohen would recall that the song came to him upon learning that in the death camps, string quartets were made to perform classical music as fellow prisoners were killed and burnt.
Thus, in some ways, “Dance Me to the End of Love” is about the urgency of music to an act of horror. It is about the methodical impersonality of extermination belied by the humanity evoked by song. The violins seem to say that love is the armor against–or perhaps the interlude before–devastation. Cohen would note in an interview,
“ ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”
It’s a song driven by the interplay of sexuality and spirituality, of creation and consummation– not dissimilar to the stories of King David. With “Dance Me”, Leonard Cohen created nothing short of a love psalm.
Yo La Tengo
“Our Way to Fall”
Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley met at a Feelies concert, dated, got married, formed Yo La Tengo on a whim, and quickly became the darlings of the music critic universe. They’ve been named the greatest indie band of all time, mythologized as indie rock heroes by the big publications, and yes, even credited for keeping rock and roll alive. But Yo La Tengo is also perhaps the quintessential Jewish band of our generation: embodying the “not religious, but culturally Jewish” posture more acutely and publically than any other notable artists in the American music landscape.
Leonard Cohen sang love songs to Zion at the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, Woody Guthrie hired Meir Kahane as his son Arlo’s Bar Mitzvah tutor, Neil Diamond happily embraced the “Jewish Elvis” label while performing Kol Nidre, and Bob Dylan went on a perplexing journey from cultural Judaism to messianism to evangelism to ultra-Orthodoxy before he returned to the place he began. Kaplan and Hubley however, have championed their emphatic secularism, claiming to be “not remotely religious, almost anti-religious” even. Still, for the past two decades, the band has put on an 8-day long Chanukah concert featuring Jewish stand-up comedians, Hasidic costumes, and gigantic electric menorahs. If that dichotomy doesn’t scream quintessential American Jew, I don’t know what does.
More significantly, Yo La Tengo has managed to write some of the most beautiful love songs of our generation. “Our Way To Fall” is one of them, and the song is dreamy and quaint and endlessly charming. It’s a song about those seemingly trivial and forgettable details that emerge magnified and sanctified as the years of our lives collapse into one another.
“Shabop Shalom” is a love song doo-wop style, about a young Jamaican boy who falls in love with the daughter of a rabbi– and even that took me several Google searches to unravel. There are chicken-dancing sages, seals of Solomon, brises at high-noon, soft statues in stilettos, Yiddish Mentos, Amharic vows, sweet Tel Avivian lambs, the Book of Job, and a whole cauldron of other whimsically religious patter. Devendra Banhart is neither Jewish nor Jamaican, but he’ll take you on a romantic meander through a sonic dreamscape located somewhere at the juncture of Zion and Kingston. Bizzare definitely, but also kind of sick.
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