“I heard the news today, oh boy…” It’s the opening line of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life” and one I’ve thought, hummed, or said, frequently since last November. The ongoing Shakespearean tragicomedy that is the Trump presidency has spawned countless news stories that have invited—at best—a wry “oh boy” response. But there were two news stories in the New York Times on October 16 that elicited twin, and highly contrasting, “oh, boy” reactions from me. The first was a piece by Dennis Overbye about astronomers’ recent announcement “that they had seen and heard a pair of dead stars collide,” an event that took place 130 million years ago. This collision of two neutron stars was of such enormous violence that it literally shook the universe. “It was a century ago that Albert Einstein predicted that space and time could shake like a bowl of jelly,” in the aftermath of such an event, but this was the first time that astronomers had been able to detect and document such an occurrence.
As often happens when I read or hear about events of such astronomical magnitude, I simultaneously feel intensely tiny and insignificant, and also gloriously pulled out of my ordinary existence and, momentarily, profoundly grand. It’s probably obvious why I would feel miniscule and irrelevant, but perhaps less clear why I’d feel so expanded. I am briefly aware in those moments of an overwhelming sense of wonder not only at the ongoing miracle that is my life, all life on our planet, and the vastness and glory of the universe, but also at the marvel that I am a member of a life form that has begun to comprehend those miracles, that vastness and glory; that I am a member of a species that has been able, in the cosmic-time blink of an eye that is the history of the human race on our planet, to begin to understand and explain events that have happened almost unimaginably long ago and far away. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” Who besides the Bard could have put it better?
I talked about the neutron stars collision with a friend that day, and she said when she hears of these kinds of discoveries she can’t comprehend them: “My brain turns tail and runs back to my everyday world.”
Ah yes, the everyday world. The other news story that caught my attention that day was the one reporting on Trump’s handling, or rather manhandling, of the events following the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger. What a piece of work indeed; how small, how mean, how low. To quote Chubby Checkers from his song “Limbo Rock,” in which he sang, decades before Trump began to lower the bar precipitously on honesty and civility, “How low can you go?” Or, to quote the anonymous Scottish lyricist who penned lines that could be the credo of the Trump/Bannon cohort, “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road…”
Einstein wrote in 1922, “A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.” Einstein, the man who may have aspired to that quiet and modest life, yet whose discoveries illuminated our best understandings of the entire universe; Einstein, the man whose very name has become synonymous with genius of the highest order, was vilified and denigrated by the Nazis for doing what they disparaged as “Jewish science.” Their venomous lies and heinous acts have been renounced and repudiated by much of humankind, while his insights and predictions—including one that was just verified after those neutron stars’ collision was observed— have been recognized and honored by most of humanity.
There’s another quote from the Bard’s Hamlet that I have occasionally found sadly apropos for—good lord, has it really already been nearly a year? “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
OK, permit me to blaspheme and dare to change a few of Shakespeare’s words. “Wherefore I know not” should actually be, “wherefore I do know, and damned well too.”
Anne Frank wrote sadly, accurately, “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.” But she also went on to write, hopefully, and as it turned out, presciently, “And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.” She knew, as so many others have understood throughout the ages, that in order to survive, we need to keep our eyes focused on our mundane, daily, earthly concerns, but that in order to truly live, we must also simultaneously try to keep our gaze on the heavens. And that, as the ancient Sufis also understood so well, “This too shall pass.”
Hollerfest is the sweetest festival we get to play every year. Hosted by the King family on their farm in Brooklyn, Michigan, the festival features a beautiful, natural setting, some of Michigan’s finest musicians, the best food of any folk festival anywhere, and a community feeling that is at once invigorating and healing. This was the 11th Hollerfest, we’ve played it every year since the second one and we look forward to ending our summer there every year. Here is one special moment from this year’s fest.
Laz and Jennifer, Brenda, Emily and I were having supper at one of the picnic tables at the top of the hill that looks down on the main stage. Sharing the table with us were three women from Ann Arbor. One of them told me that Josh, her now forty-year old son grew up on our music. I always enjoy hearing that, and I thanked her for letting us know. Then she added, “In fact, when Josh was 5 years old he sang on your first children’s record.” Even though we didn’t have a children’s choir singing with us on that record—yes, it was a vinyl record—I knew exactly what she was talking about. We recorded “Good Mischief” in 1982, some of it live at the Ark, and one of the songs on it was Aiken Drum. In that song we make up an imaginary man in the moon, substituting various foods for different parts of his body. We ask the kids in the audience to name what foods we should use. We always end with belly button and at the show we recorded at the Ark, I called on a little boy who’d raised his hand. But he was stumped for a few seconds, so I encouraged him, “What’d you have for breakfast?” He replied, “Tofu.” Everyone laughed with delight and I said, “Only in Ann Arbor.” It’s all on the record — and now on our “Best of Gemini Vol. II” CD. Thank you, Josh.
Whenever a death anniversary comes around, it seems natural to remember the person’s death. But it is even more right to remember their life and legacy. So, one story about Helen’s death, and then the rest to celebrate her life.
Helen’s grandmother had a classic near-death experience when she was giving birth to her third daughter. She told Helen how her spirit rose up out of her body and hovered over the operating table, watching calmly as doctors and nurses frantically tried to revive her. Then she saw a tunnel with a very bright light at the end of it, and she felt drawn to it. As she moved towards it, beings of light greeted and welcomed her. She told Helen they were incredibly peaceful and loving. But after a few moments in their company, she was told her she needed to go back, it was not yet her time. She felt terribly sad, and did not want to return to her body, but the beings reassured her that they would be there again when it was her time. She was in her mid thirties, lived into her mid eighties, and never again was afraid of death. For many years she volunteered at a hospice, and because of the inner conviction she acquired through that experience, was able to be a great comfort to dying people and their relatives. Perhaps the fact that she told this story to Helen a number of times over the years, is part of why Helen showed no trace of fear in her last hours.
Now, to life! In an earlier blog I told you how Helen rescued a robin that was tangled up in a kite string in a tree — and that was just one example of how she was always taking care of creatures in nature. In a more recent blog I wrote about how my partner, Jennifer helped me put a baby robin back in its nest, and also how my son, Daniel helped free a robin trapped in the deer net in our Project Grow garden. I don’t know what particular symbolic meaning robins have, but here is another robin rescue story from this Spring.
One of my neighbors has a small garden on the little island in the middle of our Court, and as I walked by it last month, I saw some violent fluttering in it. As I got closer, the fluttering became even more panicky, and I saw a robin caught by one of its feet in the fishing line holding together a pole bean teepee. I ran to my house and asked Daniel to come help. He put on gloves and gently calmed and held the bird, while I cut the fishing line with scissors. But as I did, I saw that the line was wrapped very tightly a number of times around the robin’s leg, cutting off circulation and making that foot useless. I ran back to the house and got a seam ripper, and with Daniel still holding the robin, I gently worked the tip of the seam ripper up against the robin’s leg, and one by one cut the strands. When the last one came loose, Daniel tossed the robin into the air and it flew off. Perhaps I’ve had more exhilarating moments than watching that flight, but I can’t think of many. As I wrote in previous blogs, in the past, I would have called Helen, and she would have been the one to take care of the bird. This is just one of the many enduring gifts she gave Daniel and me, and one of the many ways we still feel her presence.
Another gift is our plot in the city Project Grow Community Gardens, which Helen initiated many years ago and worked in until just a few weeks before her death. I just heard about a new study that found a soil bacterium which causes serotonin to be released in the brain. Inhaling this bacterium while gardening or walking in dirt, can lift our mood in a way similar to antidepressant drugs. Helen knew this instinctively, and loved working in the garden and walking barefoot. Daniel and I are still tenderfeet compared to her, but we’ve kept the garden going and growing. And though there are days we feel too busy or tired to go there, we generally do because we have noticed that we always feel better for having been there. Helen’s gifts keep giving to us in so many ways.
Then there are her songs, which I continue to sing. Her flute, which I continue to play. The books she edited which I’ve kept in print and are used in a number of university classes, and spread through word of mouth to people all over the country. And especially her kindness, which I, along with people both near and far, still remember, and is a model and an inspiration to so many of us.
And, of course, our son Daniel, who continues to be such a gift to me. In addition to his computer skills (I haven’t made a tech call since he was 12 years old) in these past few years Daniel has started to become very interested in and skillful with rough carpentry tools, and has used them to fix and create many things around our house. He has also volunteered his time and abilities with Project Grow, designing and erecting a 12 foot high fence (with amazing gates) to keep out deer from the entire Greenview city plot where we garden.
Unlike me, Helen was pretty resourceful with tools, and it’s great to see Daniel going further in that direction. But he’s also using some power tools now that Helen was not particularly fond of — or at least, not of the noise they made and the fumes they emitted. Last Spring Daniel found a non-working gas weed-whacker for free by the roadside, figured out how to get it back into working order, and tried it out at our house. Wearing ear plugs and safety glasses, in short order he made an impressive difference in what had been a somewhat disheveled front yard. But the best part was the huge grin on his face when he pointed to the weed-whacker and said, “Mom would have hated this!” Yes, she probably would have asked him to use it only when she wasn’t around, but she would have loved to see how handy and helpful he’d become.
So many gifts. And yet, time is relentless in eroding the vividness and immediacy of memory. Even after a huge loss, most of us go on, and in time, the grief becomes less intense, and the spontaneous rising up of grieving memories becomes less frequent.
A few weeks ago, while cleaning the mantle, I moved a picture of Helen from there onto Daniel’s desk. In the last five years, Daniel has often brought that picture into his room so he could talk to Helen about difficulties or decisions — but less so as time has passed. For some reason, this time I left the picture on his desk, and he didn’t move it either. A few days later he told me he’d been having a hard time, late at night, struggling with some issues, when he looked at the picture and was suddenly struck with a very strong feeling. He found himself saying, “I’ve forgotten you. I’m sorry.”
Well, of course, he hadn’t forgotten her. He just realized in that moment that he had not thought of her as often as he did a few years ago, and that it was somewhat harder to visualize her or remember her voice. And in those ways he is exactly the same as I am, and I suspect, most people who have lost a loved one — the details blur and fade. And yet...
He asked her about what he was struggling with, and felt that she answered him very clearly and definitively. He found himself thinking, “It would be just like you, not to have given up on me.” It seemed perfect to me — that she answered his concern that he had forgotten her, by assuring him that she had not forgotten him.
Let me tell you one more story, which, as it starts, may seem to be a non-sequitor, but please hang in there with me.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members on board. Christa McAuliffe is the name and face most people remember from the seven, the first teacher to go up into space. That night I was with a group of people at a chanting and meditation center. As we were chanting, my mind kept going back to the tragedy from earlier in the day, when suddenly Christa McAuliffe’s face appeared before me, surrounded by a night full of stars. Her eyes were shining very brightly, her look was radiant and joyful, and she said, “We’re fine. We’re totally fine!” It was a very compelling, powerful image but I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it real in some way I could not possibly understand, or was I somehow manufacturing some sort of vision to comfort myself? I didn’t know. What was undeniable was the change in my feelings — from great sadness and agitation, to a deeply serene stillness.
Death, the only thing as mysterious as life. In some ways, the older I get, the less I understand either. I don’t understand love and gratitude any better, but I feel them more. Love and thank you to you, dear Helen.
Every day that we’re alive is, of course, important and notable, but nevertheless some days are more memorable than others. For our family, April 22nd was one of those days. Emily — Brenda and my daughter, and Laz’s niece — graduated from college. Emily majored in German Language & Literature and minored in Musical Theatre at EMU, and graduated Cum Laude. She also earned University Honors and Departmental Honors in Musical Theatre. Laz, Brenda, her grandma Norma, and I used our fair share of Kleenex, and, even though all the buttons were still attached to my shirt when the Commencement ceremony was over, I know I at least strained the buttonholes.
And now Emily’s going to try to do the same thing with her college degree that I did with mine 46 years ago. She’s going to play folk music. She’ll be joining Laz and me in our concerts much more frequently than she was able to while still in school. She will be playing music with many other people, as she’s already been doing, and she will also be acting and playing music in theatre productions. In other words, she’ll be spending a lot of time on stage, where she’s always felt at ease and at home. She will also be teaching violin, fostering the next generation of musicians to follow her.
The week before she graduated, Emily gave a recital in partial fulfillment of her requirements for receiving Departmental Honors from the Musical Theatre Department at EMU. The recital featured her singing songs that traced the history of the American musical over the last 70 years, interspersed with her observations on the changing musical and vocal styles over that period. She was fabulous! Here’s a sample.
I recently saw Wild Swan Theatre’s production of Jeff Duncan and Brian E. Buckner’s musical, Rosie the Riveter. If you don’t already know, let me tell you, Wild Swan Theatre is an Ann Arbor treasure, and one of our town’s greatest gifts to theatre lovers both young and old—in Michigan and beyond. If you’re familiar with Wild Swan, you probably already agree with me. If you’re not, do yourself a favor and become acquainted.
Rosie the Riveter is, of course, about the women who, during World War II, worked in defense plants, factories and in other formerly exclusively male work situations. The musical is specifically about the women who worked in the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, MI, making the iconic B-24 Liberator bombers.
This isn’t a review of the musical, or of Wild Swan’s production, though I could easily use up most of my store of superlatives in writing those reviews. Rather it’s about the effect the musical had on me, and why I feel it’s critical that young people—hell, all people—and most especially now—see and hear plays, songs, stories, and all forms of art that share Rosie the Riveter’s message.
Wild Swan’s Rosie began with a series of pictures projected on a screen above the stage. The pictures were of women who worked in the Willow Run plant during the war. As soon as the first picture was projected I began crying—hard.
OK, I’m no John Wayne. I’ve been known to react with visible emotion to art that evokes strong feelings in me, but for a few seconds, as I looked at that picture of a stranger, a woman I did not recognize, standing by an unfinished airplane, holding a rivet gun, I had no idea why I was crying.
And then, I knew.
In 1944, my mother, along with countless other Jews, was forced at gunpoint from her apartment in her native Budapest, crammed into a filthy, overcrowded, railroad cattle car and taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. She spent her 26th birthday, December 4, 1944, in that cattle car. I’ll spare you the details of that horrific trip, and the hell that followed. Ravensbrück, by the time she got there, was no longer a killing camp, although the gruesome and inhuman “scientific experiments” to which Nazi “doctors” subjected some of their defenseless captives, were possibly still in progress there. Blessedly, my mother didn’t experience that. But she was, along with hundreds of other women, marched every day, in bitter winter weather, in woefully inadequate clothing, to a nearby airplane factory, where she was forced to build planes for the Nazi war effort. My mother told me many times, with great pride, “Nothing I touched ever flew!” All the women did what they could to sabotage the planes.
The Nazis starved them. Whenever the women could get away with it, they stole potatoes and onions from the camp kitchens, occasionally even scrounging them from farm fields along their march route, then sneaked them into the factory in the mornings, hid them in light fixtures and cooked them as best they could during the day with the heat of the light bulbs, then ate them at night.
At the end of March, 1945, with the Red Army rapidly advancing, the Nazi guards took most of the women, using them as human shields, on a death march. The night of April 15th, my mother, her older sister, and seven other women escaped and took refuge in nearby Dresden. When the war ended my mother gradually made her way back to Budapest where, two years later, she met my father.
When the pictures of the Willow Run Rosies flashed on the screen at the start of the Wild Swan play, I didn’t only see strangers I didn’t recognize. I saw my mother.
Rosie the Riveter is expertly packed with fascinating facts and figures and many moving stories based on the true-life experiences of the original Rosies, but the overriding theme of the musical is about freedom. Freedom for the women to explore their potential outside of the existing societal confines of the period, freedom for women and families living in poverty to improve their lives and freedom for the African American women and their families to escape the demeaning and dehumanizing brutality they experienced in the Jim Crow South—and an opportunity for white men and women to get past their prejudices about African Americans by interacting with them in the plants.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need musicals like Rosie the Riveter. We need plays, musicals, songs and all other art forms that value, depict and promote the precious treasure of freedom—freedom to escape dangerous, intolerable conditions; freedom to live in peace in the home of your own choosing; freedom from misogyny, both subtle and blatant, freedom from religious persecution; from prejudice, discrimination and hatred; and freedom to protect and improve our world for our children.
Kids Are Kids the Whole World Round was the first elementary school musical that my brother and I wrote. Published in 1997 by the Hal Leonard Corporation, the half-hour musical featured eight of our songs connected by short monologues we wrote to introduce each song. Over the years we’ve heard from many music teachers around the country who have used it to present programs with their third or fourth graders, but we never saw an actual performance. Until now. On February 16th, coincidentally—but very appropriately—on the national “A Day Without Immigrants,” we heard the fourth graders at Rogers School in Berkley, Michigan, perform the musical in the afternoon for their teachers and schoolmates. That night they presented it again for their parents and families.
First things first—the kids at Rogers were great! Their music teacher, Maryann Maiuri, had prepared them very well and they sang in tune, in rhythm, and, most importantly, with feeling. They delivered the monologues from memory, with enthusiasm and dramatic flair. Laz and I were delighted and moved—a couple of times to tears—by their beautiful presentation.
We wrote those songs and monologues more than twenty years ago, a couple of the songs nearly thirty years ago. Several of them are still in our sets at many of our concerts. But we hadn’t seen or heard the monologues since the musical came out. As we listened to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, Laz and I were both struck by how much of it, songs and monologues both, seemed eerily timely and relevant—and much more so today than when we wrote them, or at any time since then.
The first song of Kids Are Kids is “Hello,” which features greetings in eight languages, and which has been our opening number at almost all of our children’s and family concerts since 1988. The monologue that follows goes like this:
“We just greeted you, and each other, in all those languages because, although we live here in the United States, we are connected to people the whole world ‘round. After all, every one of us, including Native Americans, has ancestors who came here from other parts of the world. Maybe it was our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents… Maybe they came from Europe, Africa, South America, India or China… They spoke different languages…they looked and dressed differently from one another…they cooked different foods. Yet they all worked together to create one great country! We can continue to do the same today, because, just like them, deep inside, we are all much more alike than we are different. Inside, we are really all the same.”
You get the idea. Here are some lyrics from “All the World”: “All the world is a rainbow/What color are you? Are you red black or white, are you yellow or brown, are you some other shade or hue?” “Everybody Once Was a Kid” pays homage to some of my heroes: Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Aretha, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the Beatles, Michael Fox, Baryshnikov, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Elvis. “If We Care” was the only song that featured soloists, and they were magnificent. I’m hoping there was an adequate supply of Kleenex around for their families when they sang, “If we care, and we share, then we’ll all have enough. If we don’t, or we won’t, it’ll be tough, it’ll be rough. But if we love one another, deep in the heart, that’s the start.” Laz and I sure used some. The musical ends with “The Sun’s Gonna Shine” featuring lyrics that proclaim an optimism that I have been struggling to feel since November 8. “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones.”
I have never sat down and said to myself, “Today I will write a song about immigration, or about the value of diversity, or about the necessity of tolerance.” Like most writers, I work from my life experiences, sometimes without even recognizing till much later what the impetus or inspiration was for what I’ve written. But listening to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, I realized what was one main impulse that sparked those songs and monologues, and, for that matter much of the rest of our music—our original songs and the traditional ones we’ve included in our sets over the years.
Although we were not born in this country, having come here as children with our parents, I’ve not thought of myself as an immigrant in many, many years. I have long felt thoroughly American, and never think of myself as being Hungarian, though I was for my early childhood; or Israeli, though I was that for a few years before we came to America. But for months now, I have been frequently, forcefully, and very unpleasantly reminded that I am an immigrant and, but for the accident of the timing and location of my birth, might have faced the same rejection that many of today’s refugees and immigrants face in moving, or trying to come to America.
My family and I came here legally but, like most immigrants and refugees the world over—for eons before us, and up to the present day—we left our homeland to escape violence and persecution, and to seek a chance at a better life.
Our family did that twice. First, my parents uprooted themselves and my brother and me from the only country all of us had ever known; my father was 47 years old, my mother 39. We left behind most of our relatives, most of our possessions, our language, my parents’ work, our whole way of life—and moved to Israel and started over. And then, less than three years later, we did it all again to move to the US.
My brother and I were just kids—eight years old the first time, almost eleven the second. It wasn’t that hard for us. The new languages came pretty easily and, with the flexibility and resiliency of the very young, we readily made new friends, and learned new customs. It was much more difficult for my parents, but they did it knowing that because we were Jewish we’d face—at best—prejudice and limited educational and work opportunities and—at worst—lethal persecution in Hungary. We left Israel because in the late fifties the only work and way of life available to my parents simply presented too many difficult changes for them to make at their age.
I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve given more to this country than I’ve received. Just the opposite, in fact. But, like most of us, immigrants and others, I’ve tried to live a good life here, tried to live a life that has felt honorable and worthwhile to me, my family, my community, my country, and ultimately the planet. And, like many of us—and unlike the current administration—I don’t now feel that there’s no more room in this country for others facing the hardships—and far worse—that my parents faced when they decided to leave their homeland. I’m also not so arrogant as to think that our one little musical, sung by a couple dozen kids at Rogers School (and by a few hundred other children at elementary schools that are doing this musical around the country) will have any effect against Trump’s illegal executive order. But I can say with some certainty and even a little pride that—unlike Trump’s order, which has and will—this little musical can’t hurt.
Almost exactly 74 years ago, in 1943, a group of non-Jewish German women in Berlin staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I first read about this inspiring, and nearly forgotten bit of Holocaust era history in 1993 when, on its fiftieth anniversary, this amazing act of bravery was finally recognized and celebrated. (A large, multi-part stone sculpture by the German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, now stands near the site of the Rose Street protests.)
The story moved me deeply at the time, and it recently resurfaced in my memory when my wife and daughter decided to go to Washington for the Women’s March.
No—despite what Trump tweeted recently—we’re not living in Nazi Germany. (Although he has threatened to deport millions.) Nevertheless, there are now some clear threats to our democracy, and to the world, posed by this president and his administration. So I was, and am, proud beyond words of Brenda and Emily, who joined women, men, and children all over the US and the world to protest the words and actions of Trump and his cohort.
I fell in love with Brenda for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was her character – her honesty, loyalty, and sense of fair play. She would certainly have been one of the Rose Street Women. And Emily has also already clearly exhibited that she has inherited the same courageous genes.
I also remember my mother, who had an opportunity to hide out from the Nazis in a friend’s Budapest apartment during the war. However, she chose to stay by her sister's side and wound up in a cattle car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she would help save her sister’s life several times. She too would have been on Rose Street.
It will take many, many of us, standing up, marching, and acting to counter Trump’s revolting and contemptible statements, his regressive executive orders, and the similarly regressive laws that some of his supporters will try to enact. But I am grateful and – based on my experiences with the women in my life – not surprised that women are leading and showing us the way.
I’ve played nearly thirty concerts since November 8th, for audiences that have ranged in age from babes in arms to nonagenarians. The results of the election, and the avalanche that has followed, of what I consider to be highly discouraging news—to put it very mildly—has occupied much of my thinking throughout that time. At each concert I’ve asked myself what, if anything, I should say from the stage about the statements and actions of the president elect and his cohort. At concerts for young children, the answer has been obvious—nothing. But with very few exceptions I’ve also chosen to say nothing at the rest of my concerts. Occasionally I slip. The other day, someone called out from the audience at a senior center, “Can I ask you a question?” My reply, “Of course. It’s a free country—so far, anyway.”
I’ve kept silent for a variety of reasons, but I’ve come to recognize that one of the most powerful ones is rooted in my childhood in Hungary. I have faint and incomplete, but nevertheless very real memories of the atmosphere of fear that permeated our lives in my native Budapest in the early 1950s. Our apartment building was just blocks from the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police. (The acronym stands for Államvédelmi Hatóság, literally Nation Protection Authority, a very high-minded title for a band of brutal butchers and torturers who were universally feared and hated in Hungary. During the 1956 Revolution, that building was one of the first to become the target of the insurgents, and some AVO officers were lynched. Before it became the AVO’s headquarters, that building was the head office of the World War II era fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nyilas) Party, and is now a museum appropriately named The House of Terror.) Even as a very young child I could not help but notice how my parents and relatives would always lower their voices to a whisper when they spoke about the authorities or the government. When my aunts wanted to scare my brother and me into good behavior, they would invoke the most terrifying bogeyman they could think of, and threaten to tell the AVO of our actions. They loved us dearly and we knew we didn’t need to take them seriously, but their threats were rooted in reality. Everyone knew that informants, occasionally even including family and friends, were everywhere, and that people could be jailed, or worse, for even the most minor forms of free speech or perceived dissent. Many years after we left Hungary my father told me that he narrowly escaped possible criminal prosecution in the early 1950s after he sang a Hebrew prayer to the melody of the Israeli national anthem on a radio program.
In short, I learned from a very early age that, when it comes to the government, the best policy is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. But of course we are now in America 2016, not 1950s Hungary. We do have freedoms here that were unimaginable in that place at that time. So, here’s what I have done since the election. I am a musician, not a political activist, so in every concert I include songs that have a history, an honorable pedigree if you will, of speaking up. We, Laz, Emily and I, have been singing The Hammer Song (with its resonances to the McCarthy era), Edelweiss (which in the Sound of Music was intended to remind Austrians of the beauty of their country, and to warn them of the horrors that awaited), Dona Dona (which reminds us that, “only those with wings like swallows will not ever be enslaved”), Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (with its resonances to Chile’s brutal dictatorship in her time) and This Land Is Your Land. (If you want some fascinating reading, check out the Wikipedia article about Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which inspired Woody Guthrie’s retort.) I know that We Shall Overcome will make it into our sets too.
I hope that people on both sides of the political divide get the message of these songs, but I am under no illusion that our singing these songs will change any minds. Our country has become so polarized that I fear it has become very difficult to have respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. And I feel that for me to state my views and positions from the stage would not be helpful. If I’m the only one with a microphone, it would not be a conversation but a speech, not a dialog, but a self-indulgent monologue. We have too many of those as it is. Nevertheless, despite the outcome and aftermath of the election, this is America 2016, (going on 17), not 1950s Hungary. I am grateful beyond words for the freedom and the right to sing out.
We have a small holiday gift for you. In 1981 we were invited to sing a few holiday songs with the sadly now defunct, but fondly remembered, Ars Musica, the local classical chamber orchestra that focused on Baroque music, played on period instruments. We had a wonderful time recording a short holiday season demo with them that got a fair amount of radio play on classical stations around the country that year. Here are a couple of songs—one for Hannukah, one for Christmas—from that recording. We hope you enjoy.
When my brother and I first began attending school in Budapest, in our native Hungary, our father applied for, and received, special permission from the government for two things; as religious Jews, my brother and I would be allowed to wear our yarmulkes, (skullcaps) in school; also, we’d be allowed to not attend school on Saturdays, (in Hungary then, schools were in session six days a week) so we could observe the Sabbath with our family. Our parents arranged that on Sunday afternoons we’d visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we’d missed in school the previous day. In the first year-and-a-half that we attended school in Budapest, I recall no problems with any of our teachers or classmates about either issue.
In the fall of 1956, we were in second grade. The Hungarian Revolution flared that November. Schools were closed for a time, and when they reopened, things were different. New people were in charge of the government and they were going to make some changes. One day a minor official visited our classroom and, making no attempt to lower his voice, or to hide his disgust, asked our teacher, “Who are the two little monkeys with the beanies back there?” One of our classmates, the girl who was our most frequent Sunday afternoon tutor, with courage well beyond her eight years, piped up, “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus of second graders began to echo her. The rest of the conversation between the man and our teacher was conducted in the hallway, outside the classroom. No one ordered us to remove our yarmulkes.
Our family emigrated from Hungary a few weeks later.
Since the election, there has been an ugly uptick of harassment, and even violence directed at people whose appearance or clothing—for example, Muslim women wearing hijabs—marks them as belonging to one or another of the groups that were disparaged by the president-elect and/or by vocal members of his followers.
From here on out we may all have opportunities to speak up and defend each other.