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Swimming with Shtarkers

Rabbi Creditor hands out the class reader.

So how tough were the Israelites, really?  This question — like a stand of reeds — lay just beneath the surface of our many discussions in the first installment of the four-session class that I’m doing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.  Titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds,” this short but intense course is an attempt to investigate what happened at that crucial moment in the Book of Exodus when the fleeing Israelites, seemingly about to be slaughtered by the Egyptians, experienced a saving miracle: the sea in front of them parted, they went through to the other side, and then the sea closed over their pursuers, killing them instead.

That sea, which I remember being referred to as the Red Sea (a pleasing name in my Communist childhood), is called, in the great modern translation by Robert Alter, the Sea of Reeds.  Which, as I have recently taken up the double-reeded oboe again — after a break of many decades — I find even more gratifying.  In fact, I was so taken by the term Sea of Reeds that I decided to make it the title of my next theater piece.  And that, in turn, strongly suggested that the piece live at the intersection of two kinds of practice: Jewish and musical.  (Yes, I typically retrofit my shows to titles that I love.  So for example, when — in researching a medical condition called Sjögren’s syndrome — I once happened upon a newsletter called “The Moisture Seekers,” it was practically inevitable that I’d develop a show about sex just to go with that title.)

The reading for this session was Chapter 14 of Exodus, in which the sea-splitting happens.  Like all the other chapters, it’s filled with language and imagery that I find endlessly evocative, confusing, and elliptical.  Alter’s notes do a great deal to elucidate the text — or at least to clarify what the confusion is about — but that still (fortunately) leaves much to ponder.  And as I mentioned earlier, in class one big, recurrent issue for us was the question of how much, exactly, did Moses and the Israelites do.  Because the narrative makes it quite clear that God was acting, in essence, as the grand puppeteer — hardening Pharaoh’s heart when the Egyptian king was about to give up the chase, directing Moses’ actions so that this (very) human being (and not God) would appear to be causing the miracles, and generally moving all the characters along in such a way that the Israelites would ultimately triumph.

So were the Israelites heroes, in the sense that we usually think of the word?  If I had any knowledge at all about ancient Greek drama, I would insert an impressive passage here about Oedipus and Fate — but I don’t, so I can’t.  And yet there seems to be a similar vibe here — perhaps an ancient vibe — that has to do with the Gods (or, in this case, the one God) having already written the stories that we humans, in our self-centered way, register as our own experiences.  So ironically, in the Exodus story — which is seemingly about the transformation of a slave population into a culture with agency — the protagonists themselves are quite passive.  Actually, worse than passive — they also do a lot of kvetching!  Often they sound like elderly passengers on a cruise ship that’s turned out to be much less luxurious than in the brochure.

But there’s something else, too — a deeper thing — that I felt from that chapter, and that I think others in the class felt as well: As much as we (or, at least, I) may, well, kvetch about it, the language also transmits an enormous amount of power.  There is, in this story — in the way this story is told — a profound empathy with those who suffer terribly, who lack agency.  And there are so many people who suffer in this way, day after day — for whom the miraculous gift of a life is something more like a curse.  What draws me to Judaism — and to other forms of theology as well (and, for that matter, to democracy) — is the idea that our purpose, in our own lives, is to try to improve the lives of others; and the belief (hope?) that a community of like-minded people can work at this together.  In what I see as a violent and quite random universe, it is incredibly strange that we might choose to spend our brief time of consciousness (or, at least, much of it) in such ethical pursuits; and so it is perhaps only fitting that it would take incredibly strange language to describe that journey — and, more important, to inspire similar journeys.

And if we’re really going to go there, together, through the Sea of Reeds — intellectually, spiritually, and physically — I think we’re going to have to be quite tough indeed.


Difficult Passages

I’ve started practicing the oboe again — as part of the long development process towards my next theatrical piece, Sea of Reeds (a commission by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, in collaboration with my long-time producer, Jonny Reinis, and director, David Dower).  And so all the sensations of oboe-playing — which I haven’t done regularly since I was a teenager — are coming back.  The feel of the reed between my lips.  The too-loud clacking of the keys as I press them (working on that!).  The smell of cork grease in the morning.

And the awareness, at every moment, of my longing to create something that’s beautiful!  It is that gap — between the sounds I am making and those I wish to produce — that, more than anything else, brings me back to those teen years, when my hope was that I was going to become great: at oboe-playing, at math, at sports, at love.  But what I was really good at, in retrospect, was in not becoming anything other than this — my parents’ child.  And somehow I got it in my head that being their child meant never working hard at things.  If I was precocious: fine!  But when that precociousness was challenged — when, in the terms of math or marathon running, I “hit the wall” — I was at a loss.  To be struggling was to be uncool.

The funny thing is, as I’m writing this, I’m remembering one of the very few criticisms that my father ever addressed to me.  I was a teenager; we were standing in the narrow hallway of the bustling apartment that he and my stepmother, Sue, had set up, with my young siblings underfoot everywhere; and he must have been reacting to something I’d said, or hadn’t said, that reflected a privateness — a distance, at least, from him.  “You’re cool,” he said, appraising me. …  I know, it doesn’t sound like much of a critique!  And I don’t think he meant it in a totally negative way, either.  But it was as if, after idealizing me since my birth — and projecting the most glorious future onto me — Dad was, in that moment, seeing right through to my essential self; and he was realizing, with a sigh, that his ideal and the reality had, somewhere, diverged.

Through no fault of his, or of anyone’s, I have devoted much of my time since then to trying to close that gap — to revert to the contours of the perfect vision he (and maybe Mom as well) had of me as a little boy.  Kind of like standing partway out into the ocean and hoping that, if I just stay there, doing absolutely nothing, the currents will pull me back to shore.  When in fact that journey has already, irrevocably, begun — when, in fact, it has mostly happened.  So that the real question is, What will I do as I head to the other side?

It’s shocking that progress is not inevitable!  Neither in our individual selves nor in society.  As a child I believed it was inevitable, with all my heart; I was a fundamentalist of progress — I had no doubt.  So how to reconcile that ideology with my experience of practicing the oboe and not becoming great?  A conundrum!  This, I think now, is where faith comes in.  But I also think I need to adjust my concept of faith — or perhaps that adjustment has already begun.  Because I used to think that faith required — was pointed at — a perfect result: a utopia.  Now I don’t consider perfection a goal — or even a possibility, or even (God help me) desirable (because it suggests the death of change).  Now I consider the goal to be: better.  Just better.  A better world.  A better transition from C to C-sharp (lots of fingers have to be slapped down at once, as quietly as possible).  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the object of my faith is now a process — one that keeps open the space for improvement.

Also, the oboe being what it is, I have a short-term goal of being able to practice for more than 20 minutes at a time!  (The old embouchure ain’t what it used to be, which itself wasn’t what it should have been.)

I’ve been doing scales, sometimes with a metronome.  Also, etudes from the massive Barret Oboe Method book that has weighed down the music stand of every oboist I know.  And — with a vague idea that the music of J.S. Bach will play a featured role in Sea of Reeds — I’ve been dipping into a book I have containing many of Bach’s lovely cantatas for oboe and voice.  That book is called Difficult Passages — a title that’s bracing in its blunt honesty.  It leaves unmentioned the fact that those passages, if played well, are also beautiful. …  Actually, they’re beautiful even if not played well (as just happened when I practiced a few of them).  Because, somehow, in these compositions the ideal is always immanent.  Which I now feel I am finally beginning to understand as, facing back at where I began, I blow myself, in tiny increments, towards the other shore.