The music gene in our family seems to be dominant in our middle daughter. She escapes her job in DC for a week each summer to attend what she laughingly calls “band camp” with a cohort of people who love to play great music well. She sends us dispatches (far more regularly than when we sentenced her to summer camp) about the excruciatingly interesting people she meets. One of them, it turns out, is a classical music critic for the New York Times, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. I have never met Corinna, but from my daughter’s description, in addition to having a name that destined her to be a classical music critic for the New York Times, she is an absolutely delightful person, which explains how she and my kid became friends.
The missive today contained a link to a column Corinna wrote the week of Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. In it, she explores an invitation her grandfather sent to her grandmother to join him in listening to a broadcast of the love song from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in April 1944. Käthe was in their villa in Hamburg. Hermann was in Block 59 in Buchenwald.
Read the column, please, as Corinna wonders about the “telepathic conduit” between her grandparents. And then give some thought to similar conduits in your own life. Maybe you had “your song” with a past lover. Maybe the aroma of baking bread takes you to your mother’s kitchen on Friday afternoon. Maybe a whiff of the guy wearing “Old Spice” on the subway makes you flash on the iconic bottle on your father’s dresser. Maybe it is moonlight through the pines, that old hootie-owl, Jack Frost nipping at your nose. The connections may be temporal or spatial, but they resonate in a way that transcends the immediate circumstances in which you re-encounter them. The power of memory – please God, happy memory – reminds us of what is possible in the darkest hours.
In the cycle of Torah readings, the hour is pretty dark for the Israelites. They have lost Miriam and Aaron and misery abounds. Never mind that they are perceived as the dominant power, I imagine the satisfaction index to be pretty low. Into the narrative, very much off to the side, comes Balak, the Moabite king. He offers fame and fortune to celebrity prophet Bilaam (called Balaam in most translations, for reasons I never understood) to pronounce an imprecation on the Israelites. Call them names, he says, because whomever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6). Bilaam is reluctant, but does his best to come up with something – “Low Energy,” “Crooked,” “Lyin’” – but nothing fits. Bilaam recognizes that he is looking at a people of inherent worth and worthiness. And in spite of being paid a huge amount of Balak’s own money, Bilaam finds that the only thing he can pronounce are these words: How good are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel.
The Israelites likely didn’t hear Bilaam, but the words of his poem/song soon became known to them. In fact, the words of this prophet-for-profit gained official status in both liturgy and custom; they are the words a Jew is to recite upon beginning morning prayer or entering a synagogue. School children use them in a musical round, choirs sing them in majestic settings, people (like me) speak them in a whisper. Each time, it whisks singer and listener vertically across history to a windswept mountaintop and horizontally to the doorway of every place Jews have dedicated to prayer. I am in one of Jacob’s tents as well as at the threshold of synagogues in Bucharest, Beersheba and Baton Rouge. And Buchenwald.
The optimists among us like to put a positive spin on things. I would like to think that the people of the United States would like to be inspired to their better natures when they hear the songs, see the sights and smell the apple pie that have always made America great – not because that old-time rock and roll was so much better,* but because our greatness comes from those things that bring us together, not tear us apart. Bilaam beheld the dwelling places from a distance, unaware of problems within. When I declare mah tovu, “how good,” I don’t want to go back to that wilderness; I want to capture the redemptive spirit of the whole. I am not hoping to drag people back in time; I want to reassure them about the future. I want to be reminded not to capitulate to the enemy without and not to capitulate to the enemy within. That’s what the music does for me.
With that, I have to acknowledge it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the darkness refuses to yield, even to the music of devoted lovers. Bilaam died in battle. Synagogues anointed by his words have been abandoned or destroyed. Käthe and Hermann…well, read the column.
But this week in an idyllic New England setting, the daughters of the disappointed are making music great. Again.
*in fact, that old-time rock and roll was indeed so much better