A few months ago I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. I can’t say I was surprised to read the following:
“We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket” (11).
Why was I not surprised? As a lifelong fan of The Who, I’ve often felt there was something ineffably Jewish in their themes and melodies. I’m thinking in particular of the devotional litany from Tommy:
“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet / Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.”
In the way it builds, in the way it deifies, in the way it mounts and repeats, it has always reminded me of Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam.
And here’s my confession: I like singing this part of Tommy. A lot. As in, every day. As if it’s a prayer I can’t live without. It owns me. Even though I’m a secular cat. Even though I’d hesitate to call myself spiritual.
I have often wondered why Tommy has such a grip on me. My best guess? I think it stems from my six summers at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.
BBPC was a place where you could get in serious trouble—you’d get “docked” from canteen or a team sport, and you’d get a dozen “dead arms” from your counselor—if you didn’t sing with the proper levels of respect and passion. It didn’t matter what the song was. It might be the “Birkat Hamazon”; it might be “The Circle Game”; it might be your color war team’s anthem.
This mild form of cultural hazing left a mark. To this day, I get annoyed at Passover when not everyone is pulling his weight on “Echad Mi Yodea.” And I get annoyed at music shows when the lead vocalist isn’t “bringing it” with everything he has.
And it all has to do with the belief—cultivated at BBPC—that singing is not to be done in a half-assed manner. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Passover table or a stadium concert. Sing it like you mean it, or don’t sing at all.
That last sentence is The Who in general, and Tommy in particular.
And so here I am, more than 20 years past my summer camp days. I’m an adult who almost never goes to temple. For all intents and purposes, I’m an atheist. But when I sing songs from Tommy, I feel like I’m regaining a precious piece of my childhood puzzle. It might not be a piece that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Jewish tradition; but it belongs to a lesson that I first learned in a Jewish setting. It is a lesson about passion, and a lesson about effort. And it is a lesson that has stayed with me, ever since.
One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.
We don’t belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.
I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.
There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.
A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.
The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.
These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.
By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.