Yesterday, I learned that Pete Seeger had died.
I didn’t hear about it first on the news. No, I heard about the passing of the legendary icon and folk singer through social media. A friend tagged me in some photos on Facebook.
The photos were from my college days, when several students at Brandeis had the privilege of learning from and singing with this iconic figure. Mr. Seeger.
I knew that it had been my sophomore or junior year of college, but I couldn’t remember the exact date, so I went digging. I found an old newsletter from Brandeis University’s International Center for Justice, Ethics, and Public Life. That’s where I confirmed the date and context of his concert and residency at my university:
“Building Community through Songs of Social Justice: Pete Seeger and Jane Sapp performed in concert to a sold-out crowd at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre on Monday, January 29th, 2001. Student groups performed during the concert: Women of Faith, Songleaders of the Brandeis Reform Chavurah, and Spur of the Moment.”
The memories did not quite come flooding back, but rather began trickling in slowly as I looked at the pictures. It was more than a decade ago. I remembered rehearsing with Mr. Seeger, and with Jane Sapp, an activist and gospel artist. Mr. Seeger was quiet, during the rehearsal; he was frail, even then, and I remember folks being worried that his voice would go out. But he listened to our questions, nodded along, whisper-sang some of the words as we practiced.
There was only one rehearsal when we were all together, as I recall – just one night to run through the basics and the numbers everyone would sing together, and soon thereafter we would be sharing a stage with Mr. Seeger. The man who wrote “If I Had a Hammer.”
If I Had a Hammer, y’all. That’s one of those forever-songs; one of those songs that seem like they just always must have existed.
You don’t get to meet the people who write those songs, let alone sing with them.
I remember being nervous backstage, less so for myself (I was singing with a group; had I a solo, I would have been a puddle on the floor) and more so for Mr. Seeger. He was so slight, so frail at the rehearsal. I was afraid the stage lights and the crowd might knock him over.
But here’s the part of my memory that remains clear: The pure magic of Mr. Seeger in front of an audience.
Faced with the crowd, his eyes lit up. His back straightened. He grinned. He gripped his banjo, and his fingers flew across those strings faster than any normal human octogenarian’s fingers should be ably to move.
“You know the words,” he said. And people did.
And people sang with him. Not just those of us who got to be onstage, but everyone in that room. Everyone. Everyone was singing with Mr. Seeger, and laughing at his stories of traveling with Woody Guthrie and other legends. He’d tell a story, and you’d half expect Paul Bunyan to feature in it. Then he’d start singing again, and so would we. And while he’s no longer here, people will still be singing his words, all over this land.
I looked again at the date of the concert: January 29, 2001.
Exactly thirteen years ago today, I was singing with Mr. Seeger. Today, I’m remembering him. May his memory be a blessing.
This post originally appeared on Beth Kander’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with permission. Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The only Jewish person I knew of growing up was Jesus, and to be honest I had never thought much about this aspect of his identity until college when a professor described Jesus as a rabbi during a lecture.
I had developed an affinity for Jewish culture as a teenager, much the same way a teenager develops a curious interest in anything their parents haven’t told them much about. When I told my mother of my newfound interest, she bought me a small menorah, sent me a Rosh Hashanah e-card at the appropriate time of year, and told me that it was at least moderately likely that my grandmother’s German ancestors had been Jewish, but left that part of their culture behind when moving to the wild, lawless trapper’s country of South Louisiana.
(It seems that my ancestry is diverse enough to accommodate any passing cultural fancy I’ve had growing up. When I went abroad for a semester in Northern Ireland, my grandfather informed me that his grandfather had been Irish. I found it odd that this had never been mentioned before I brought up the subject.)
The point of these perhaps too-indulgent anecdotes is that any knowledge I’ve had of Jewish culture prior to interning here at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life has been superficial at best. The menorah my mother gave me is tucked away, forgotten in a drawer somewhere (and it uses candles that look suspiciously similar to those found on birthday cakes). I was nineteen years old before I really met and had a conversation with a Jewish person, at least to my knowledge.
At last week’s staff meeting, my first at the ISJL, we had a program on inclusion in honor of MLK Day. It was discussed that the ISJL is in the unique position of being the first Jewish organization that many people in the area will come in contact with. It certainly has been that for me. I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone for how welcoming they’ve been and am so appreciative of everyone’s willingness to explain any term or aspect of Jewish culture that I don’t understand.
My uncle has always said of New Orleans, a place he lived for 11 years, that you “never stop peeling back the onion.” My past week at the institute has taught me the same of the South in general. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and have yet to be involved, or even be in conversation with, the Jewish community here. A community that thrives, perhaps shamefully forgotten by those not a part of it, right in our midst.
I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to peel back and better understand this particular layer of my home.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The intrepid BBC crew traveled with Rabbi Marshal Klaven, visited with community members in Jackson, Vicksburg, Greenwood, and Greenville – where they also attended the Delta Jewish Open.
It’s a great story, absolutely worth a listen and a read – particularly since listening means hearing the music, full quotes, and sounds of the South portrayed in beautiful audio, and reading the story means a stroll through some great images. The keen observations and reflections the reporter conveys move the piece along thoughtfully and swiftly. It’s a great piece, and for a radio piece, quite long.
But such pieces are never quite long enough to tell the full story. That’s why we’re grateful for this blog, for social media, for traveling staff and speaking opportunities and the chance for longer storytelling. The chance to share observations like this one, from ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg of Greenwood, Mississippi (who was interviewed for the story, and shared these thoughts after hearing it air and seeing the “End of a Deep South Way of Life” headline):
“The BBC story was a great tribute to those before us and for whom we ‘stand on their shoulders’ to move forward. With great respect to the amazing story, I offer my thoughts: My personal commitment to Judaism has been strengthened by our small community size. For my husband Mike and me, sustaining Jewish life here is not only a responsibility, but also a sacred privilege. Perhaps we are the ‘new’ model for Judaism. In bigger cities, when a congregation grows too large to be personal anymore, families splinter off and start chavurah groups or new congregations.
“We already are a chavurah. Our Jewish community is as personal, as warm, and as rewarding as they come. In Greenwood, we continue to gather and we continue to live full and committed Jewish lives. Yes, right here in the Mississippi Delta. Our synagogue is operational, our cemetery is well maintained, our membership is very engaged, our programming reflects our love of Judaism, our learning is ongoing and each of us feels extremely proud of our shul and our Judaism. We are connected to our community in many diverse ways, as has been the fact for over 100 years. Don’t say Kaddish for us yet. We have a lot of Jewish life left to live!”
And let us say, Amen. Those are our favorite parts of the Southern Jewish story: the stories of small communities still vibrant, of new and growing Jewish communities still small but growing in strength and numbers, of connections between communities, of pride in place. So much of that truly was captured beautifully in the BBC story, and we are grateful that through their telling of it, more people will hear about the Southern Jewish experience. Even as some doors close, others will open, and there’s always a next chapter to be shared.