When we moved from Rochester, NY to Ann Arbor in July of 1973, we knew only a handful of things about the city. We knew about the University, Laz’s wife-to-be, Helen was planning to go to grad school here. We’d also heard that it was the “Dope Capital of the Midwest,” we’d heard of the huge annual Art Fairs, and we’d heard of the Ark Coffeehouse. The Ark already had a national reputation in folk circles by then. In those days Wednesday nights were open mike nights, or hoot nights as they were still called in the Seventies, at the Ark. For years, Laz and I showed up religiously nearly every week.
We went to our first Ark hoot just a few days after we moved to Ann Arbor. We didn't own a car, so we walked across town from our West Side apartment, lugging our electric guitars and a small amplifier. The Ark, then on Hill Street, was on the ground floor of a massive gray mansion near the University of Michigan campus. The house was set far back from the street and when we arrived a little before the nine o’clock start time, a few people were strumming guitars and banjos on the huge lawn and on the front porch. At the door we introduced ourselves to Linda Siglin, who along with her husband David managed the Ark, and told her we'd come to play. Musicians got in free. Everyone else paid a dollar to hear twenty to thirty performers play three songs each. (Tickets in those days were $2.50 for most regular Ark concerts.)
There was no stage. Performers stood or sat in front of the unused fireplace, in what had once been the living room of the huge house. Most of the audience, the front row barely a yard from the musicians, sat on cushions on the wooden floor. Two adjacent rooms, with wide doorways opening onto the main room, held chairs for the rest of the crowd.
Linda waved us toward the “green room,” across the hall from the living room. It was already crowded with musicians plucking guitars and banjos, a few sawing away at fiddles, and all nervously waiting to perform. Some of them nodded in greeting but most were too intent on their instruments, or their nerves, to make eye contact. We put our cases down, went back to the living room, and watched and listened from a doorway.
There were about thirty people in the audience. It seemed that most of them had come to see their friends perform because almost every singer was greeted with raucous enthusiasm by a few people and polite applause from everyone else. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually grew, and the music got better, the performances more polished.
The musicians ranged from novices like us, who'd been playing guitar for two years and had hardly ever performed before an audience, to veterans of the local bar scene eager to try out some of their quieter songs in front of an audience that listened. Ark crowds were attentive, almost reverential. Perhaps this was due in part because at the Ark coffee was the strongest, and only, drink available.
Finishing the first set that night was Peter Madcat Ruth. Linda introduced him with obvious respect, telling the audience that Madcat regularly toured with Dave Brubeck and Sons. He received a warm and affectionate welcome as he picked his way through the seated crowd, carrying a colorful metal lunch box filled with harmonicas. Setting the lunch box on a stool before the fireplace, he selected a harp and launched into his first tune without saying a word. I was riveted. I’d never seen or heard anyone like him. His long blond hair streamed as he swayed to the music. He blew intricate rhythm patterns, bent notes impossibly far, and interweaved whoops and hollers into his playing. Eyes closed much of the time he accompanied his blues playing with vigorous foot stomping. His lyrics ranged from the hilarious to the profound, his melodies from softly meditative to driving. He was completely natural and at ease on stage, a total pro, with no egotistical showboating. The audience roared its appreciation during, and after, each of his three songs. Laz and I were too shy and intimidated by his talent to approach him that night but in the next few years we became good friends and Madcat has since joined us for many shows and has played on nearly all of our recordings.
After a twenty minute coffee and popcorn break, the music continued. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually dwindled and there were few people left when Linda informed us that we’d be on next. She introduced us to the crowd warmly enough, saying that we were new in town and this was our first hoot. After the smattering of applause, there was an awkward silence while we set up our amplifier and plugged in our guitars. Then, a screeching howl of feedback when one of us, I no longer recall who, played a test note. Linda came rushing back to the stage and, with obvious irritation, suggested that maybe we had the amp turned up too high. We turned down and, meager confidence badly shaken, somehow struggled through three songs. I have no memory what the songs were, or how the crowd reacted. I remember slinking out as soon as we were done.
We never again brought our electric guitars to the Ark, but it was many months before Linda's first impression of us faded. She always put us on stage near the end of the evening. Hers was not a democratic, or first-come-first-served, or blind luck lottery system. She orchestrated the evenings so that the best performers were on stage when the crowd was largest. Several times we left without playing when we saw how late it was getting, how many musicians were still left, and how studiously Linda seemed to be avoiding us. But we came back, week after week, because it was our only chance to play in front of an audience. We learned so much from playing our three songs every week and watching the other musicians on hoot nights. We knew we’d finally arrived when one Wednesday night, months after we first started coming to the hoots, Linda invited us to finish the first set, and soon thereafter she and Dave booked us to play our first show at the Ark on March 14, 1974. We split the bill that Thursday night with the duo of Todd Kabza and John Bian, both excellent guitar players. We invited Ned Duke, the owner of Mr. Flood’s Party, to come hear us at that show, hoping he’d book us into his very popular downtown bar. More on that later.
On October 10, 1974 we played our first solo show at the Ark. We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to play at least one show there every year since then. Many years we’ve headlined three or four shows and participated with other musicians in a number of others. For us, those shows have invariably been among the highlights of every year. When I think of the most influential people and venues that taught us, supported us and have helped us do what we’ve been able to do for the past fifty years, Dave and Linda Siglin, their daughter Anya, (who’s been doing the booking there for a number of years now) and the many folks who help run the Ark, they all are very near the top of the list.
Perhaps it was unsurprising and even inevitable that we would become musicians. After all, our dad made his living as a singer — as a Cantor in the synagogue — and from the time we were four years old until we left home to go off to college, we were his two-boy choir. Our mother, though profoundly tone deaf (for which our Dad teased her mercilessly), nevertheless contributed some impressive musical genes to us; her father was an excellent pianist, but more than mere facility in playing the instrument, he possessed the gift of being able to hear a melody once, at a concert or a theater, and being able to sit down at the piano and reproduce it from memory — and then improvise upon it.
Singing came to us as naturally as breathing. Our dad never gave us formal voice lessons, but we were immersed in singing the liturgy with him on a daily basis. His powerful, beautiful, well-trained voice was our atmosphere and constant model for how to sing.
Our parents started me on violin lessons and San on piano at age seven. This was not unusual in 1950s Budapest, Hungary, where we were born; learning to play an instrument was considered a natural part of a child’s education. However, if our parents expected child prodigies, they were quickly disappointed. Neither of us showed any particular promise, nor did we enjoy practicing. Nevertheless, the lessons continued well into our mid-teens when it became obvious that we did not have the heart to persist.
However, with singing it was a different story. Besides singing regularly with our dad, we were in Middle School choir (except for the year when our voices were changing, when we found it too embarrassing to let out the unpredictable squeaks and squawks that go with that age) and then in the New York State award-winning Kingston High School choir, occasionally soloing. Even more importantly, we had secretly begun to harbor dreams of being operatic tenors. We listened for countless hours to recordings of such early 20th century greats as Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli, as well as contemporary (at the time) Metropolitan Opera stars Franco Corelli, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. We learned tenor arias from our favorite Puccini operas — and with the delusional confidence of youth, we were not discouraged by the fact that we couldn’t reach any of the high notes in those arias.
None of our friends were into opera (or liturgical music for that matter) but several were pretty good guitar players who sang the folk songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and others. While we were not quite as interested in this music as in opera, we did get caught up in the folk boom of the 1960s. One of our friends gave us Peter, Paul and Mary’s double album, “Live at Carnegie Hall” and we literally wore it out, while memorizing some of the songs and parts of Paul Stookey’s monologue. Our guitar-playing friends convinced us to try learning to play — it seemed like everyone was playing guitar and singing protest songs and love songs. They came with us to the one music store in Kingston to help us pick one out — but so did our dad because he was going to pay for it. He found the guitar our friends suggested to be much too expensive and bought us one that we found nearly unplayable — the strings were so far off the board that you needed gorilla hands to make a chord without buzzing the strings.
This was second semester of our senior year in high school, and we quickly gave up on learning guitar, and didn’t even bring it with us when we went off to college.
College. University of Rochester in upstate NY. Our parents had different dreams for us than becoming opera singers. San was to become an engineer and I a doctor. I lasted one semester in premed; San managed three in engineering. I graduated with a degree in English, San with one in History, neither of us with any plans on how to make a living — but with a new dream that had formed in the last couple years of college. We would become the next Beatles!
The fact that neither of us played guitar, had never written a song, and were already starting to lose our hair, were just a few of the reasons why this idea was as silly (I’m being generous) as it sounds now. But it was true that during those college years something had changed about our relationship to music. As one of San’s roommates pointed out, “The only time I see you happy is when you’re singing.” What had been a simple, natural part of our lives while growing up, had become a passion. We had realized we were not opera singers — our voice teacher at the Eastman School of Music, where we got to take weekly lessons, was very kind in pointing out that there are many kinds of music, and our voices were not suited to opera — but what was the music that was right for us?
Second semester senior year of college, I brought back from home the guitar untouched in the previous four years and found that the neck had warped just right to make the guitar playable — at least at the first few frets. I learned three chords and started playing them over and over, humming melodies all the while. By graduation time, I knew nearly a dozen chords and had started to figure out how to play melodies. San got his own guitar and started learning, and we thought we’d soon be ready for stardom.
In the meantime, there was the small matter of paying the rent and other necessities. A week after graduating we went looking for work. We showed up early that Monday morning at Manpower to see what we could find. We were put on a construction crew and assigned a stretch of concrete to break up with a jackhammer. I remember wondering who was going to win the wrestling match —me or the deafening tool!
Another day we were on a crew pouring cement for a sidewalk around the side of a house. This time I found myself wrestling with a wheelbarrow full of wet cement that was supposed to make its way around to the back of the house. Curving past the front door, the wheelbarrow decided it had had enough of its heavy, unbalanced load, and dumped its contents into the flower garden in the front yard.
Eventually, we each got steady work. San parked cars in a city surface lot. (He can still slam a car into a space hardly bigger than the car in one high speed maneuver.) His flooring-it-in-reverse, tire-squealing exploits became lunch-time entertainment for office workers in the surrounding buildings. Meanwhile, I worked a factory job assembling small transformers. When the boss wasn’t looking, I created mini sculptures from the solder dripping down the sides of the pot.
But all the while, every night and every weekend, and at other every spare moment, we were playing guitar, learning songs, and even starting to write our own. At first, we were still thinking Beatles / rock ‘n roll (I had even switched over to playing a Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster!) but little by little we started feeling our way to the music that felt right for us. As the months turned into that first year after college, we found ourselves starting to recognize this mysterious energy called “making music” that had entered our lives. We saw that it had actually started to shape how we identified ourselves, and how it was beginning to flower and grow.
It’s not just tonight. Every
night a new year begins
tomorrow. If we don’t have
the right to ask, right
now, for the highest
that we want, who does?
What if we were to set free
our deepest purpose, our cause
for being, our most heartfelt goal,
like a constant current coursing
through our lives? What if we
were to stand with a tray
in our hands ready to catch sight
of a gleam? What if with each
thought, word, and deed we allowed
the power of our intention, for all
tomorrows, to dip into all that once
was, and is now? What if, again
and again, we poured ourselves this
fresh moment in which to find gold?
Sometimes things can prove meaningful and significant to our lives, even though, on the surface, we may have no obvious connection to them, no reason to feel in personal relationship with them.
On June 20th, this year’s official celebration date of Juneteenth, the Federal Holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, I was listening to a report on NPR’s Here and Now, when a familiar place name caught my attention. The report was about a recent discovery of court documents filed in 1828 by Sojourner Truth, the legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist. The documents detailed her legal battle — which she won — to free her enslaved son.
The report told how a researcher, looking for something totally unrelated, had happened upon those documents filed 194 years ago in the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston, New York. As soon as I heard the words “Ulster County Courthouse” I perked up, and a second later I heard the name of the city in which I had spent most of my teenage years. My parents, twin brother and I moved to Kingston in the spring of 1960, a few months after we arrived as immigrants in America. Three years earlier, we had left our native Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Revolution. My parents, both Holocaust survivors, wanted to give my brother and me lives without fear and oppression. To them, the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution looked frighteningly similar to what they had endured during the Holocaust. Their intention was to move our family to the United States, but immigration quotas prevented that, so we lived in Israel for three years until we could move to America.
The reason a bell rang for me when I heard “Ulster County Courthouse” is because that was the place where, six years after we moved to this country, our family became naturalized American citizens.
A few minutes into the radio report, the interviewer introduced Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, historian, and author of a biography of Sojourner Truth, and asked her what it felt like to enter the Courthouse. Dr. Painter responded how dramatic and moving it was for her to walk up the same steps Sojourner Truth had walked, and to view those documents and the incredible initiative and bravery they represented.
I was almost 17 years old when I walked up those same steps with my family, and after the naturalization ceremony, walked back down them holding our citizenship papers. Even then, as a teenager, I knew it was an important moment, but it took me many years to more fully realize what a life-changing gift and opportunity I had been given that day — and my appreciation and gratitude for what was legally formalized in that Courthouse has only grown over the years.
Of course, for an African-American person, and especially for a woman, walking up those steps and seeing the X with which Sojourner Truth signed that document, would have far more personal significance and a feeling of ancestral connection than it would for me. Nevertheless, when I heard this story and realized I had walked up those same steps with my family for a legal ceremony that gave us freedoms and a promise that we would never have had in our native Hungary, something in me connected to Sojourner Truth and to all that she stood for. I felt inspired by her indomitable courage, and a heightened gratitude to her and to everyone who has contributed to and is continuing to work for “liberty and justice for all.”
Like all of us who are old enough to remember it, I know exactly where I was when I first heard about the attacks of 9/11. I was with my mother in her hospital room in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida that morning. She’d had a cancerous kidney removed the day before. I saw the news as I passed a TV screen on my way to get her some coffee. Thinking back now I’m shocked by the swift passage of time, and simultaneously by how long ago and far away those days seem now.
A couple of months after the events of 9/11 I wrote lyrics for a song about one small, hopeful, uplifting aspect of that tragedy. Every fact in the lyric is true. The melody that I first came up with did not please me and, besides, I could never manage to get through the song without getting choked up, so I didn’t ever try singing it in public. Recently I found another melody for the lyrics. I think it’s better. My friend and fabulous musician, Brian Brill, added this wonderful arrangement, and Brenda and Emily made it into a video:
She would have been 70 today. I met her almost exactly 50 years ago, in December of 1970.
The other day, reflecting on Helen’s upcoming birthday, I told our son, “You wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t been born 70 years ago.” I kept reflecting to myself how he also wouldn’t be the wonderful person he is if she hadn’t lavished boundless love and care on every aspect of his being for nearly 20 years. And, of course, I thought again what I’ve thought countless times before — how the boundless love and care she lavished on me was nothing less than my life’s support for 42 years, and has continued in subtle form these past 8.
And there are many, many others whose lives she touched in small or profound ways, who still treasure her expressions of kindness and her gifts of encouragement and wisdom.
On behalf of all of us, thank you again, dear Helen. And Happy Birthday!
On this day, eight years ago, my dear wife Helen left this world of the living.
The number 8, turned on its side, is the mathematical symbol for infinity.
A symbol — something that stands for something else — because infinity, eternity — in time or space — are concepts the mind can’t really conceive of. Like we can’t conceive of “gone forever” and yet have to accept it.
The number 8, like two circles stacked on one another — perhaps the world before we’re born and the world after we die — eternity, infinity — and that tiny point where they meet, where we live in this world.
There is also something of the 8 in a mobius strip, but my knowledge of science is too limited to do more than just point at that symbol.
Somewhere on the internet I found this (and lost it, and can’t find it again, so I can’t give you the source.) “In 108, the individual numbers 1, 0, and 8 represent one thing, nothing, and everything (infinity). Therefore, 108 represents the ultimate reality of the universe as being (seemingly paradoxically) simultaneously One, emptiness, and infinite.”
Once, when I was telling Helen about feeling I was just going around in circles in some aspects of my life, she told me about another way to look at what was happening. “What if you’re not going around in the same circle, but moving upwards in a spiral? What if each time you see this in yourself, you’re perceiving and understanding it from a higher perspective?” She helped me so many times with her wisdom and ever-positive outlook.
In music, the eighth note, the octave, is the note where the scale culminates, and simultaneously begins again.
And, of course, it’s purely coincidental that the eight letter of the alphabet is H — for Helen.
I can’t tell you why I find these symbols, these coincidences and synchronicities significant and moving but I do.
The mortgage got paid off last month. (Good timing, considering that I am essentially unemployed because of the pandemic.) You were the one who found the house, set it up as our household, enhanced it in so many ways, gave birth to our son in it, and left it for him and me as a place of creativity and shelter. When we bought the house 30 years ago, and I was 42 years old, I wondered if I’d be alive now to see it paid off. And here I am — and you are not.
The Earth is mostly a closed system — most of all the water that was here eons ago is still here. So is most of the air, and so is all the earth itself, except for the things we’ve sent into space. All the molecules of all the beings that have ever lived on earth are still here.
Some atoms of the air you breathed may still be in the house, some of your skin cells might still be in one or more of the rooms.
The trees you loved and tended in the yard are still here.
The herbs and perennials you planted and cared for have come back every spring.
People still remember you, especially your kindness.
The books you edited continue to sell, and people write back with thank yous.
And of course, you are with me through the intangibles, the feelings, the memories, the dreams…
I go for a walk on a street
I haven’t walked
in a long time
and I find myself
thinking of you.
Did you walk it
Or is it just
wherever I go?
And you are with our son, Daniel. He has his struggles like we all do, but he’s also an amazing person with incredible skills and impeccable integrity. He’s also been a tremendous help to me, especially with technological needs, in retooling my concert presentations from live to virtual shows and recordings.
One thing Daniel and I did today to mark the anniversary is to look at photo albums — and we came across two pictures we hadn’t seen in a while. You were so beautiful, whether joyful or pensive.
Today, on the anniversary of your death, Daniel and I also did something that was quintessentially in your style. The sage in your herb garden has been especially productive the last few years and Daniel has gotten into drying it and using it for cooking, but also to make smudge sticks — to give away because we really don’t use them — he just didn’t want to get rid of the excess sage.
But there was still much too much dried sage, so today we decided to make a little fire pit in the back yard and burn all the dried sage we had not found any other use for — it was just getting dusty being moved back and forth between the counter and the table.
We got everything ready, and as we started to burn the sage (which doesn’t catch fire easily, perhaps that’s why it smolders and smokes so slowly in a smudge stick) it started to rain! You loved being in nature and never seemed to mind (even reveled in!) things like getting wet or muddy. You also edited a book called “Friendship with the Elements” (about earth, air, fire, water) — and here we were, Daniel and I, having made a fire on a sandy patch of earth, a fire which was kept alive by the air, as it consumed this ritual offering of a product of the earth, while making a fragrant smoke — and then here came the rain! We stayed by the fire as it slowly died down from the combination of having consumed the sage and being rained on — and as we stood there getting wet in the rain, we laughed, saying this is exactly how you would have concluded this little ceremony, enjoying all the elements having come together — and laughing!
The long awaited, eagerly anticipated film of Hamilton will drop tomorrow. My family and I will watch it—and then will likely watch it many, many more times. We saw the musical on Broadway in May of 2016, and it made a huge impression on all of us. The power of that experience has not faded, in some ways it has actually intensified, because our recollections of the show also bring back memories of where we were as a people and as a nation, and who our president was four years ago. Today it’s hard for me to recognize the country in which we are living as being the same one we lived in four years ago.
Four years ago, we also managed to see the 2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof — in the same week we saw Hamilton. Fiddler made an enormous impression on me as well, partly because it enlivened my memories of seeing it on Broadway as a teenager fifty years ago, but also because the themes of the two shows echoed, reinforced and amplified each other.
I wrote a piece about my experience with the two musicals a few months after we saw them in 2016, and I ended it with a line from Hamilton; “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I felt that way about my life then, and even about the state of the world. No, I was not unaware of the enormous threat of climate change, I was not oblivious to the racism that suffuses nearly every aspect of our nation, (although I’ve lately been forced to see that it’s even more pervasive than I knew), and I was not unmindful of the myriad enormous challenges our country and world faced. Still, I felt we were headed in the right direction—albeit way too slowly—on many of those issues.
When I read that same line today, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” it sounds like a cruel, sarcastic joke. Trump’s entire tenure, especially his and his cohort’s insults and assaults on the poor, on people of color, on the LGBTQ community, on immigrants and refugees, on the environment, on much of what is good and decent in our country, as well as his spectacularly feeble and feeble-minded response to the pandemic, render that quote a gut punch line. And I’d be lying if I claimed never to feel hopeless, thoroughly disheartened, as well as enraged, by much of what surrounds us now. Not infrequently these days I find myself thinking of the “blessing” from Fiddler. “May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”
But, despite all of that, and more, and with full awareness that I might sound like a naïve Pollyanna, I am mostly still inclined to agree with the line from Hamilton. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” There are many reasons I feel that way. Here are just a few.
Yes, the virus is terrifying, but we are so much better equipped to respond to this pandemic than human beings were to the one in 1918, when a third of the world’s human population was infected and 50 million people died, including about 675,000 Americans. Today’s numbers are horrific, but pale next to those. (I know, I know…so far.)
A hundred years ago we had almost none of the amazing technological devices we have today that allow us to connect with each other, to work, to solve enormous problems, and still have the possibility of sheltering from the virus. (I know, I know… not available to far too many of us.)
In 2016 I, like many of us, had been lulled into thinking that we had, and were continuing to make, progress toward racial equality. The murders of George Floyd and of countless other unarmed people of color, and the protests that have followed, have shown how wrong we were, and also how fast and how much things can change—and how far we still have to go.
Yes, Broadway is dark today, but Hamilton, Fiddler, and other great works of art have not died; they are, and will be available, at a cost that is manageable for many; they still live and continue to inspire, to uplift, to tell our stories.
I hope you all get to see and enjoy Hamilton.
Here is the piece I wrote in 2016.
Since 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway, it has been nearly impossible to grow up Jewish—or anything else—in America—or anywhere else—and not know the story outline and at least some of the songs from the iconic musical. And, unless you just emigrated here from Mars, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the current Broadway-and-beyond sensation, Hamilton. Earlier this year, in May, I was lucky enough to see both musicals on Broadway in the same week.
First of all, credit where credit is due. The only reason I got to see the shows is because my daughter Emily is a fan of musicals. (Do you recall that “fan” is short for “fanatic”? Enough said.) She discovered Hamilton soon after it opened on Broadway last year and started listening—non-stop—to the original cast recording. Last September she showed my wife a ten-minute clip she’d found online. When the clip ended, Brenda looked at her and said, “We have to go, right?” They didn’t have to work hard to convince me. “Why don’t we get tickets for Emily’s 22nd birthday, and all go together to see it next May?” The next day they went online and bought three tickets to Hamilton. (I’ll tell you later what we paid for them.)
Then in February Emily went to NYC with her theater class at EMU to see a number of shows on Broadway, including the new revival of Fiddler. Before she left, I regaled her with stories about how Fiddler was my first Broadway musical. It was in 1966, about two years after it opened. Herschel Bernardi was Tevye, having taken over the role a few months earlier from Zero Mostel who originated it. I told her how my aunt, who lived in Queens, managed to get my brother and me two standing room only tickets, how I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was standing for nearly three hours, totally mesmerized by what I was seeing. How, to this day I have a brilliantly vivid picture in my mind of Bernardi roaring, “There is no other hand!”
Emily saw the new Fiddler. Loved it. Raved about it. Insisted we had to see it. So, Brenda got two tickets to a Sunday matinee, while Emily got a ticket to She Loves Me, another Sheldon Harnick musical that was also revived on Broadway this year. The Fiddler revival is magnificent. I relished the restoration of my fifty-year-old memories, and I fell in love with a whole new set of marvelous ones. When Brenda and I finally left the theater, among the last ones to leave, both of us still wiping our eyes, she turned to me and said, “I thought about you, and how this might bring up some hard memories and feelings for you.” She wasn’t talking about the last time I saw Fiddler in 1966. She was referring to events long before that. In early 1957, when I was eight, my family left our native Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It was less than a decade after my parents married, and only twelve years after they both survived Nazi concentration camps. So yes, Fiddler’s family leaving their homeland touched off many memories and feelings for me.
Three days later we saw Hamilton. (Because we bought our tickets so early, before most of the world discovered Hamilton, we got them for $89 each. These days the show is sold out at least six months in advance and some people are paying four and even five figure prices for tickets.) Our seats were in the very, very last row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. You cannot sit any farther from the stage in that theatre. It mattered not one bit. Oh sure, we couldn’t clearly see the actors’ facial expressions, but in retrospect that may have been a good thing. The show, even from where we were sitting, was so powerful, so moving, so stunningly beautiful, so overwhelming, that I’m not sure how we would have handled the additional impact of seeing the actors’ faces emoting the show’s many striking and tragic moments. Hamilton completely lived up to its unprecedented hype. I have never attended an artistic event that was as affecting, heartrending, soul stirring… I’ll run out of superlatives before I’m done trying to convey its effect on us. Months later, we still talk about it frequently. It’s the yardstick by which I will measure all artistic moments from here on out.
But I am not writing here to review Hamilton or Fiddler, or to crow about our good fortune in getting tickets at reasonable prices. Instead, I’d like to share with you, dear reader, some of my reflections about these two musicals.
If you follow Broadway minutia the way Emily does, you’ve probably read about the somewhat controversial frame that director, Bartlett Sher put around the current revival of Fiddler. But just in case you haven’t heard about it… Sher has Danny Burstein, who portrays Tevye (magnificently) start and end the show wearing a modern red parka, a clear reference to the millions of Syrian and other refugees fleeing the Middle East, Africa and other war zones, dangerous places, or debilitating poverty and lack of opportunity. Burstein’s weary stance on the stage at the beginning and end of the musical was a moving gesture that brought the fifty-year old musical powerfully and painfully into the present. Fiddler has never been only a Jewish story, but rather a universal, everyman, everywoman, every human story. And Hamilton is not really only about our founding fathers and mothers—though it does go a long way to help replace some of the sentimental, inaccurate, and untruthful Hallmark histories that we were taught in school. Fiddler on the Roof’s lyrics, melodies and characters—and the actors who portray them—could not look and sound more different than those of Hamilton. But on deeper levels, the two musicals are more alike than different.
While Fiddler portrays a moment in one of the more horrific chapters of European Jewry’s history, the era of the pogroms, it also foreshadows one of the more glorious chapters in Jewish history, the massive migration of European Jews to America, to the great benefit of both those Jews and our nation; and of Broadway, in particular. (It’s not inaccurate to say that Broadway as we know it would not be possible without the contributions of Jews.) Hamilton, meanwhile, is set in the pivotal moments surrounding the birth of our nation, but also takes place at that critical period when the institution of slavery was codified in our constitution and laws, legitimizing enormous human misery, and creating a system of gross injustice with which we are still struggling today. Alexander Hamilton did in fact argue strongly against slavery, and the musical’s lyrics touch on the issue a number of times. “We’ll never be free until we end slavery!” And, given its cast—primarily people of color—and its hip-hop language and music, it is impossible to see Hamilton and not be forcefully reminded of the subject.
Fiddler on the Roof is about the end, and near destruction, of a culture and its second chance at survival in America. Hamilton is about the creation of that America which—despite its history of brutal racism, numerous prejudices, xenophobia, and yes, even genocidal policies and actions—is also arguably our world’s primary embodiment of second chances for countless people, as it was for Alexander Hamilton.
This is why Fiddler and Hamilton struck particularly personal chords for me. Alexander Hamilton was able to emigrate from his impoverished birthplace in the Caribbean Islands, where the circumstances of his birth would have doomed him to a miserable and very limited life, while Tevye and his family were able to escape the murderous prejudices of their homeland. My family was incredibly fortunate to be able to come to America and make new lives that would never have been possible for us in Hungary.
The last lines of Hamilton are, “Who lives, who dies, / Who tells your story?” I will always be grateful to the creators of Fiddler and Hamilton, and all the people who have made it their life’s work to bring these shows to all of us, for telling these stories. As one of my favorite lines from Hamilton says, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!”
Ever since the coronavirus crisis began I have been thinking a great deal about all the people who have continued working to keep basic services going for those of us fortunate enough to be able to shelter in place: truckers who transport food to grocery stores, postal carriers who deliver mail, people who keep the sewage and water plants running, who pick up the garbage and the recycling, who drive the buses, maintain the electrical grid and the internet... the list is very long. And of course, the health care workers who have been risking their lives to help people sickened by the coronavirus.
I recently came across a story I wrote in 2003 that had some resonance for today and might serve as a fitting tribute to these people. It also commemorates the 75th anniversary of a significant event in world history. Dear reader, the current relevance of this story, which in large part is about that event 75 years ago, may not be immediately apparent. Please bear with me.
On April 10, 2003 Bill Basch, the 13th recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg medal, gave his acceptance speech in Rackham Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wallenberg Medal is an annual award given by the U of M to Holocaust survivors who resisted the Nazis, as well as to others who have fought for justice in a variety of situations since that time. Bill Basch was sixteen, alone in Budapest in 1944, and served as a courier for Wallenberg, delivering messages and distributing Schutz-Passe to Jews in hiding. He was eventually discovered and wound up in Buchenwald, and later in Dachau.
The Wallenberg medal is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, who was an architecture student at the U of M, class of 1935, before returning to his native Sweden to become a successful architect and businessman. He went on to become a diplomat and was Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary during WWII. He is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest from the Nazis and the Hungarian Nyilas, by issuing them fraudulent Swedish passports and sheltering them in buildings he designated as Swedish property.
(A side note: My mother was born in Budapest and was living there in 1944. She told me she had been aware of Wallenberg and his activities but was unable to make contact with him. In December 1944, she was deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.)
One of the most compelling statements Basch made in his acceptance speech, was this. “In order to survive we must accept the responsibility of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Each one of us must do our share of improving our society one day at a time. We all have the ability to defeat evil in our own way.”
When Basch finished speaking, he invited questions from the audience. The first man to rise was Donald Brown, U-M professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology. Earlier in his talk, Basch had spoken of being liberated from the Dachau concentration camp on April 29th, 1945 by the American Army. Brown didn’t have a question. Instead, he said that he had been one of the troops in the unit that liberated the camp in 1945.
Brown arrived in Dachau as a medical aide with the 65th Armored Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 20th Armored Division. He’d volunteered two years earlier, when he was just a freshman at Harvard. “I was motivated to go in for ideological reasons. I was extremely anti-Nazi. Even as a little boy, I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil War.” Brown had 20-800 vision, which would have disqualified him for service, but the eye exam at his induction was conducted by his family’s ophthalmologist. He said to Brown, “Donny, do you want to be in the Army?” Brown said yes, and the doctor continued, “Do you see that E over there? What is it?”
On April 29th, 1945 Brown was in a half-track bound for Munich, when orders came over the radio that his unit was to detach itself and “see what was going on at this village, Dachau.” They’d heard that it was a concentration camp. “But, at our level, all we knew was that these were unpleasant places, where political prisoners, Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were,” he pauses, fingers quotation marks in the air, and adds, “Concentrated. We had no idea what it was really like.”
“As we approached the village, we began to encounter men in striped suits who had escaped. The German guards were fleeing, because they knew we were coming. These were inmates who were still able to walk. They flagged us down. We took as many as we could into our half-track and they began to tell us what we were going to see. This was all within a kilometer or two of the village. So, we’re there before we could take it all in. And suddenly, we were there. And there it was.” He stops. Even sixty years later he seems to have no words to describe what he saw. He simply opens his copy of the 20th Armored Division’s “yearbook” to the pages with the horror-filled photos. “We didn’t stay long. Overnight. Didn’t sleep. Tried to help. We did what we could. Couldn’t do much. I had my two little medical bags, but they weren’t for that sort of thing. I could take care of a bleeding wound, set an arm, give a shot of morphine, but those weren’t the problems there. We radioed back saying what’s needed here is a company of engineers, a field hospital, that sort of thing. And then we got orders to catch up with our unit to take Munich.”
“When you see something like that, it’s so big, you can’t encompass it, really. I never spoke much about it.”
Other events demanded his attention. A few months later, as his Division traveled by train through France, on their way to be shipped home, “They took the very cars we’d liberated at Dachau and loaded us into them.” One night, there was a terrible crash. “We’d run head on into another locomotive. Everybody but me in my unit was killed.” He points to a picture of railroad cars crushed like accordions, and says, “That car was the one I was in.”
“I landed in NY the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.” He was married less than two weeks later, the day the war ended in Japan.
Fifty years went by. Brown went on to have a distinguished and varied career at Berkeley, Bryn Mawr and, since 1964, at the UofM. With his wife, June, he raised a family. His wartime experiences were forgotten. “You’re just too busy getting on with your life. My children never really knew. They had all my Army junk that they played with when they were little kids, playing soldiers.”
And then it was the 50th anniversary of D-Day. “They had all this stuff on television and they would interview these old men who were my colleagues. And these guys would start to cry. And I would sit there, watching TV, and I would start to cry. My wife said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And I stopped right away. Well, what was it? There were no specific memories, no traumatic memories. It was just some kind of emotion welled up. It just brought back somehow the awareness of that whole episode of one’s life. I know an awful lot of guys said the same thing. From that time, people began to realize that, look, we are getting old. In only a few years, none of us will be around. So, people began to talk. Their children were all grown up and were beginning to ask questions.”
Today, a plaque hangs on a wall in Dachau, remembering and honoring the men of the 20th Armored Division, for their role in liberating the camp. And Brown began talking regularly about his wartime experiences. Beginning in 1999, and continuing for a number of years, he taught a course at the UofM entitled, “Why Grandpa Went to War.”
Donald Brown’s statement on the night of Bill Basch’s Wallenberg lecture in Rackham Auditorium—that he’d been one of the troops who’d liberated Dachau—was electrifying. In an evening filled with emotional, at times wrenching moments, as Basch recounted his wartime experiences in Budapest, Buchenwald, and finally in Dachau, Brown’s statement, and Basch’s response, were perhaps the most moving.
In what was the most emotional, animated voice he used all night, Basch replied to Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you coming through the fences with your machine guns. It was giving us life again. Thank you for being there.”
We have of late been living in our own variant of concentration camps. No, of course I am not equating the coronavirus crisis with the Holocaust. As I’ve written previously, the Holocaust is unique and not equivalent to any other event in human history, before or since. (Though there surely were comparable episodes decades before the Holocaust—the Armenian Genocide, for example—and numerous echoes after; Stalin and Mao’s murderous regimes, and Rwanda and Kosovo among others come to mind immediately.) The present- day calamity has not been precipitated by a murderous madman and his all too willing henchmen, though examples of serious mismanagement by a number of world leaders spring easily to mind. Nor has the virus deliberately targeted a single ethnic or racial group, though again, the pandemic has highlighted long existing and shocking racial and ethnic disparities in our economy and health care system.
Nevertheless, there are some valid comparisons between the two situations. Our lives have been utterly disrupted, we are isolated from each other, terrifying danger is omnipresent, we have no way of knowing when the threat will abate, and some of our leaders, both here and throughout the world, are pathetic incompetents, malevolently self- aggrandizing, or both.
But, when this pandemic is finally behind us, we too, like Holocaust concentration camp inmates, will have the opportunity to thank those who have saved us; the responsible journalists, truck drivers, grocery store clerks, and countless others—above all, the medical professionals—who continued to serve and preserve us. We will say to them, as Bill Basch said to Professor Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you, heard or read about you, when we knew you were risking everything on our behalf. It was giving us life again and again. Thank you for being there.”
Lately, it’s been impossible not to think of death occasionally. The other day, I remembered another time in my life when an event forced me to acknowledge my mortality.
Laz and I were in the middle of a four-day residency at Purdy Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin on January 25, 2006 when our mom called to tell us that our dad had died. Everyone in that school community was extremely kind and generous, a number of people going quite a bit out of their way to help us get down to Florida for our dad’s funeral.
When we eventually returned home to Ann Arbor, we found we’d received a large package, stuffed with letters and drawings from the kids and staff at Purdy. (They had also sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our mom.) The letters were comforting; sweet, heartwarming, touching, full of profound empathy and understanding, and—at times—hilarious.
In times of great sadness, sometimes tears of laughter heal as much as tears of pain.
Many of the children wrote expressions of sorrow and offered condolences.
I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope you feel better. I don’t have anything else to say except I’m sad.
I would be really sad if my dad died.
Some were very observant and thoughtful.
When you were talking to us, I noticed you talked about your dad a lot.
My teacher told us your dad was ninety-six. I hope he lived a nice long life, even though he was sick.
I’m sure your father thought you were awesome singers. I think you are.
Remember, even if your father is not there, you still have each other.
Some were heartbreaking, and...
My dad died too. I feel sad for you.
I know how it feels because my grandpa died. It hurts very bad.
Too bad your dad died, and he was your dad and not someone else’s.
I’m sorry your dad died. I had a baby bunny and he died too.
They offered encouragement.
A good suggestion for you is to look on the bright side. I hope you aren’t too sad, because if you’re sad, we’ll be sad too.
It might seem like the end of the world, but luckily, it’s not. My grandpa passed away just last year and I’m still standing. Don’t lose hope.
A number were very practical and looked ahead to our returning and finishing the residency—and even past that.
When you come back, I’ll be ready to sing. We’re practicing.
It just crushes my heart to hear about what happened to your father. I don’t know how you will be able to come back to our school some day and just sing your heart out.
I hope you don’t stop singing.
I hope this doesn’t mess with your music career.
A few were a little off topic—but sweetly.
Both of you guys are kind and clean.
What was your dad’s favorite band?
Some offered wise and wonderful advice:
You should play a song at your dad’s funeral.
Stay strong for your kids and your mom.
To make your mom happy, you could sing to her and give her a hug and a kiss.
A few showed children’s lack of comprehension of the reality of death; or perhaps showed a higher understanding than our adult one.
I hope your dad feels better.
And there were some that warmed our hearts—and exercised our belly-laugh muscles.
I am sorry your dad died. He must have been a nice guy to have around.
It’s nice you went home for your dad’s funeral. I’m sure he would have done the same for you.
There were deer in my back yard this morning. There often are, but today they sparked a memory.
Some years ago, I was driving home to Ann Arbor from New York. On I-80 through the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania, going fast on a long downhill, I suddenly spotted some deer far ahead of me on the road. I began slowing and checked my rearview mirror. I could only see one car behind me but coming on fast. I turned on my hazard lights and continued to slow down. The driver of the other car picked up on my message, or also noticed the deer, and slowed too. As we got closer, the deer scattered, leaping over the low guard rails and into the shrubs on the side of the road. All but one. A good-sized doe stayed on the road, in my lane. I kept approaching and she took off, bounding ahead of me, still staying in my lane. I kept well behind her, but matched her speed, not daring to slow more because now I could see several other cars coming fast over the rise behind us. The car behind me pulled into the lane on my right, hazard lights also flashing, and matched my speed. The two of us continued side by side for maybe a quarter mile, blocking traffic from passing us, until the doe suddenly swerved, gracefully leaped the low guardrail, and was gone.
The man in the other car and I looked over at each other, grinned, and gave the thumbs up sign. The memory warms me still.
We’d been paying attention, we’d kept a safe distance from each other, and things had turned out well. We’d managed to save the doe, ourselves, each other, and who knows how many others.
This morning the deer in my yard reminded me of those long-ago moments on that highway. I thought of what so many people have been doing lately for their own safety and for the common good—staying home whenever possible, social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks—and also of the, thankfully, relatively few who have rebuffed repeated pleas to cooperate. Despite the reckless, at times even repugnant behavior of that latter group, I don’t wish them ill. I hope they’ll change their stance, but I don’t hope they come to harm.
I don’t feel this way because I’m a saint, nor because I’m not furious at their conduct, but because I’m pretty certain that the only way we’ll get through this—without a lot more people getting hurt or dying unnecessarily—is if we look out for each other, for all of us.