By 2nd year Education Fellow Rachel Blume.
It’s the height of the fall season. Football is in full swing, Barack Obama was just re-elected as President of the United States, people are starting to make preparations for Thanksgiving, and, as an ISJL Education Fellow, my schedule is filled to the max with fall community visits!
This means early morning airport trips, late night drives, and not much time spent in the comfort of my own home. As a creature of habit, the hectic travel of fall can be stressful to me. In addition to that, it’s the longest stretch of the year between visits home to my family. (Being from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I have it easier than most of my co-fellows on this count). One of the wonderful things about this job, though, is that certain congregations provide that same sense of comfort and community that I get with friends and family, which more than compensates for the time on the road. In particular, Shreveport, Louisiana has become my home away from home.
Just a couple of weekends ago, I was packing my bags to make the short (at least by ISJL standards) 3 and ½ hour drive over to Shreveport. Even though I knew I had a full weekend of leading services and programs, each mile that I drove it felt less and less like a business trip and more like a trip to visit my “other family.” I don’t even need my GPS to find Helaine and Bill Braunig’s home because I now know it so well; sometimes I even get the chance to hang out with their adorable grandson Billy (see above). I don’t have to worry about getting a tour of anything, because I already know where everything is. When I go to Shreveport, the usual anxieties of a work trip melt away. I feel at home.
I am a music snob. People know this about me, and I deserve the title. I have said hurtful things in the past, and if you were on the receiving end of any of my snobbery, I apologize (unless I was right).
My snobbery extends to Jewish music, as well. My master’s thesis, after all, is entirely about the history and meanings of contemporary klezmer, a musical genre descended from the instrumental music of Eastern European Jews.
So, in preparation for my wedding last weekend, one question loomed larger than any other: what to do about “Hava Nagila?”
I won’t recap the entirety of the song’s history, ubiquity and supposed fall from favor, but it is fair to say that I fall into the camp of concerned listeners who hear it as a schlocky piece of music that has come to stand in for a much richer repertoire of celebratory Jewish tunes. But people expect it. After a few fraught exchanges with our wedding DJ and extended consultation with fellow music snobs, I came to the following conclusion: the DJ could begin with the version of “Hava Nagila” he’d originally proposed—the beginning of a pretty canned medley of Hebrew songs—so long as he faded into my preferred tracks. The opening “Hava Nagila” got people dancing in a circle and cued our friends to lift me and my bride up in our chairs, but by the time I was safe on the ground again, I was able to dance to Jewish music I actually enjoy.
So here are the tunes I picked:
This is a live video of Maxwell Street Klezmer Band> performing “Chusn Kalleh Mazl Tov.” I picked a studio recording of the track from their 2002 album Old Roots New World.
And a personal favorite, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars doing “Lieberman Funky Freylekhs,” from the 2002 album, Brotherhood of Brass. Just hit the play button below.
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.