The Story of the St. Louis: 80 Years Ago and Today
by Sandor Slomovits
May 31, 2019
A friend of mine recently sailed from Key West to Havana and back, taking third place in the Conch Republic Cup. (The race, with the intention of promoting “Cultural Exchange Through Sport” has been going, on and off since 1996.) Over breakfast after he returned, my friend told me about his trip and we looked at pictures and videos on his laptop. We talked of the occasionally rough weather, complete with thunderstorms and “boiling seas” that they’d briefly encountered one morning while sailing the 90 mile stretch of sea between Cuba and the US. Inevitably, the subject of refugees and rafts came up. My friend’s 26-foot Hunter was the smallest boat in the race, and some of his fellow sailors marveled that he and his crew of four made the trip in a boat so small. We recalled reading about the flimsy rafts—much smaller, much less seaworthy than my friend’s boat—in which Cubans fleeing conditions under Castro—used to make the same journey. As we talked, a more than fifty-year old memory suddenly surfaced in my mind.
While still in high school, I’d come home one day and mentioned to my parents that we’d been learning about President Franklin Roosevelt in our American history class. My mother frowned darkly and said, with some heat, “He didn’t let in that ship.” I had no idea what she was talking about, or why she was so angry. Turns out she was talking about the St. Louis.
The St. Louis was a German ocean liner that, on May 13, 1939 left from Hamburg, bound for Havana, with 937 passengers on board, largely Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Most had applied for US visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the US. But by the time the St. Louis arrived in Havana’s harbor Cuban authorities had had a change of heart and would not allow the passengers to disembark. Forced to sail on, the ship passed within sight of Miami; some passengers cabled President Roosevelt, pleading for refuge. He never responded. The ship eventually sailed back to Europe where the refugees were taken in by England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Over 250 of them died in German occupied lands during the Holocaust.
The saga of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of international media attention at the time, and my mother had followed the news in her native Budapest, where she herself was already beginning to feel effects of the anti-Semitic hatreds of pre-war Hungary, and would soon experience the full horrors of the Holocaust in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. More than twenty-five years later, when I brought up President Roosevelt’s name, she still remembered.
Neither my high school American history textbook, nor my teacher had mentioned the St. Louis. Likewise, I’m fairly certain that my curriculum probably also whitewashed or left out entirely many other shameful acts in our country’s history, including some of FDR’s other failings. Besides neglecting the story of the St. Louis, that history book almost certainly failed to mention Japanese internment camps, the racial exclusion policies that were aspects of the New Deal, and the relatively minor, but telling fact that FDR never invited Jesse Owens, the undisputed star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to the White House; all facts I learned only years later, and only because I majored in history in college.
I know every president has occasionally needed to—and has—made distasteful, ethically questionable, even painful and immoral political compromises for the sake of a perceived “greater good.” My sense is that, despite his serious failures, FDR, who led our nation through arguably one of the most difficult periods of our history, did far more good than harm.
I also know that our country’s current immigration policies need thoughtful review and updating. The St. Louis carried 937 passengers, a not insignificant number of human beings, but nevertheless far fewer than the number affected, and undoubtedly traumatized, by family separation and the other recent and current immigration control policies of Trump and his administration.
It’s utterly inconceivable to me that any future history book will praise Trump as we now mostly acclaim FDR. But even if it turns out that there’s no justice, and historians hence will view Trump the way we now regard FDR, there will be countless mothers—like my mother, who never forgot what FDR did—who will remember Trump, and will not allow their children to forget.
When you live with someone for nearly 42 years, you may think with some justification that you know them pretty well. And when they die, and seven years go by, you may think with some justification that you can’t get to know them any better — after all, they’re gone and you can’t interact with them anymore; they can’t tell you more about themselves; you’ve looked through much of what she left behind; and friends and relatives have told the stories they have.
But, of course, knowing someone does not mean knowing every detail of their life, especially of the part of it that happened before the two of you met.
Let me begin to weave together two seemingly unconnected strands. In September of 2011, a little less than a year before Helen died, she was invited to a reunion of women from all over the country who, in their youth had attended Quinibeck, a summer camp for girls on Lake Fairlee in Ely, Vermont. It was considered one of the very best camps in the country. The camp had opened in 1911 and this was its 100th Birthday Celebration, to recognize the impact it had on the lives of thousands of young girls. Helen was one of them; she attended the camp for four summers in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.
Here is the other strand. A few years ago, someone I had met in Pennsylvania many years before, on one of my concert tours, moved to Ann Arbor and we became re-acquainted. She had not known Helen, but a few months ago, while looking through childhood memorabilia, she came across Helen’s name in a booklet about the 100th Birthday Celebration of Quinibeck. Helen had been one of the former campers who had been found through the internet when the celebration was conceived. Though she was not able to go to the reunion, Helen did contribute a letter about the impact the Qinibeck camp experience had had on her life. Here is part of what she wrote, which was quoted in the booklet.
“I remember the big ferns and the quiet coolness of the woods, and I remember diving off the high platform into the beautiful cool lake. The feeling of having been nourished deeply by being at Quinibeck for those four years is still with me.”
She had signed the letter with her maiden name included — Helen Forslund Slomovits. My friend saw that name and figured quite correctly that there couldn’t be too many Helen Slomovitses who were not related to me! And though she didn’t remember Helen from the camp, she asked her older sister, who did remember Helen. And, in fact remembered Helen’s mother Betty, who had been a counselor at the camp, as well as the cellist in the resident piano-violin-cello trio that played classical music for the campers on a regular basis throughout the summer. In fact, that was the only way Helen’s mother — recently divorced and trying to make ends meet on an elementary school teacher’s salary — could afford to have Helen go to Quinibeck.
Over the years, Helen had told me some stories about this camp, and how much she still treasured her time there. But I didn’t really have a sense of how formative that time was for her. As I looked at the Quinibeck booklet, filled with pictures (I wondered about some small faces in group shots — could that have been Helen?) and vivid descriptions of the daily activities, I started to see how much of what she became had its beginning and development there.
I remembered how, in telling me about the camp, she had attributed her deep love of nature to the beauty of the surroundings and the varied outdoor experiences that were a daily part of camp life. At Quinibeck is where she became a strong hiker and swimmer, a good sailor, as well as expert at handling a canoe. This is where she was given professional instruction in horseback riding, tennis and archery — and where she gained the confidence that comes from working at and learning difficult skills. This was also where the foundation was laid for her love of music — both listening and playing — as well as her gifts and life-long interest in a wide range of arts and crafts.
There was one story that came to symbolize the preciousness of that time for her. I still remember the glow in her eyes when she related it. Dramatics was one of the camp activities, and each summer the campers put on plays, including creating the costumes, props and sets, and even contributing to the writing of the scripts. One summer one of the plays was Peter Pan, and Helen was chosen for the lead role. The counselors rigged up and operated a harness - pulley contraption above the stage, and several times during the production, Helen, as Peter Pan got to fly across the stage. That sensation of flying became a metaphor for Helen about how she wanted to live her life.
Perhaps most significantly, Quinibeck was where her spirituality became linked with her reverence for nature — an interweaving that stayed with her all her life, and the way she gave fullest expression to this yearning to fly, in everything she did.
When our son Daniel was a few years old, Helen told him the Peter Pan story. Though Daniel liked the flying image Helen vividly created, there was another camp story she told that became most requested at bedtime.
At Quinibeck, the girls stayed in small cabins, and at night these filled with mosquitoes. One summer, the girls in Helen’s cabin devised a plan whereby one of them would be bait and lie unmoving in the dark, (the other girls presumably continuing to swat the ones that landed on them) and then, when the “bait girl” heard a mosquito nearby, she’d give a signal, and another girl, who had been standing by the light switch, turned it on, a frenzy of mosquito swatting would ensue, and they’d all go back to sleep. The only problem was that by the time they’d rid the cabin of one batch of mosquitoes in this manner, one of the girls needed to go to the bathroom, letting in a fresh new batch of mosquitoes, and the whole process needed to be repeated!
This story, complete with wild, mosquito-swatting motions through Helen’s long hair, was hugely exciting for Daniel — and served as a very poor lullabye!
Looking through that Quinibeck booklet I felt I got to know Helen on a level I’d never known before. So many things that I loved and valued in her began and were nurtured at that camp. In a way, seeing the pictures and reading the detailed descriptions of camp life at Quinibeck was like being at an archeological site and discovering a lost civilization — and thereby reclaiming at least part of its beauty and wisdom.
In each of the seven year since Helen died, I’ve done a concert in her memory and donated the proceeds to two organizations that were meaningful to her. I’ll be doing such a concert again this month on Saturday, May 11th. One of the causes the concert will benefit is Alpha House, an emergency shelter in Ann Arbor for children and their families experiencing homelessness. I still remember the time Helen had me pull over so she could talk to a young mother standing with her daughter by a highway exit ramp. She gave them some money and referred them to Alpha House which they hadn’t known about. Helen was heart-broken at seeing a mother and child in such dire straits; it brought back her own anxiety as a child, when her newly-divorced mother, though not in danger of being homeless, was nevertheless, in difficult circumstances.
The concert will also benefit a scholarship fund Daniel and I established in Helen’s name at the Friends Lake Community, a nature preserve in Chelsea. Helen loved this beautiful, serene place, and it was here that she introduced Daniel to the joys, both physical and spiritual, of being in nature. The scholarship fund is intended to pay the membership dues for underprivileged families with young children, so they can enjoy swimming, hiking, canoeing, as well as learning how to take care of our natural environment.
After reading about Quinibeck, I realized on a deeper level why those causes were so important to Helen. Her own experience as a child, of being cared for and taught in a lovely setting in nature was one of the main foundations on which she was able to build the rest of her life. I now more fully understand how she wanted to make that opportunity available to all children.
In the last seven years I’ve looked through so many photographs, journals and other writings Helen left behind, and talked with relatives and friends. On some level I’d stopped expecting to learn something very new. Thank you to my friend for noticing Helen’s name, and thank you Helen for contributing to that Quinibeck booklet, and thereby coming back to me in this unexpected, lovely way, seven years later.
I was alone in my house the other night. Before she went off to work in the late afternoon, my wife left me a sink full of dishes and the bread she’d made that needed to rise a bit more before it was ready to go in the oven. My wife’s bread is the best I’ve ever had. A sink full of dishes is a very small price to pay for it.
I turned on the radio and listened to the news while I loaded the dishwasher. The story that came on was about the killings in the mosques in Christchurch two days earlier; how the killer had videoed and live streamed his murderous acts on Facebook, and how the video was copied well over a million times. I confess that when I’d first heard about the killings two days before, I didn’t have a strong reaction. These kinds of things have become—incredibly—almost routine. But this now got to me. Videoed? Live streamed? Shared? Really??? This seemed almost more unfathomable than the acts themselves. I got choked up, my eyes filled, I turned off the radio and put on some music that I knew would help. Ever since November 2016, Joshua Bell’s recording, “The Romance of the Violin” has been my balm whenever a maelstrom of emotions threatens to overwhelm me. The ineffable beauty of Bell’s tone, the profound humanity of all of the pieces of music on this recording always seem to allow me both to feel, and to heal. I stood in the kitchen, listened, and breathed. After a while, I went back to the sink, finished the dishes, put the bread in the oven, and went out for a walk.
I live on a small street, only eight houses. It’s the kind of neighborhood where we regularly borrow eggs, milk, lawn chairs, chainsaws, and kayaks from each other; where if someone goes on vacation, somebody will mow their lawn, sometimes without even being asked; we’ve cared for each other’s pets, driven each other’s kids to school, and brought meals when someone came home after a hospital stay, and also after a funeral.
Walking past my neighbors’ homes, I began to notice, to my surprise, that I was feeling grateful; grateful that I didn’t lose any people I knew in those mosques; grateful I wasn’t the father, brother or friend of any of them or—God forbid—of the killer’s; grateful for the police, doctors, nurses and others who responded; grateful for music, grateful I was no longer as enraged or as desolate as I’d been before; finally, grateful for my great good fortune to be living among these neighbors, and hoping that the people in Christchurch also had neighbors like mine who will help them through this.
I walked toward a small city park. A man I know from the nearby neighborhood was walking his dog on the other side of the street. We waved to each other, then crossed to meet in the middle of the street. “I’ve been listening to Blind Faith,” he said. “I haven’t heard them for a long time.” I told him about needing to hear Joshua Bell after listening to the news. I didn’t say what news I’d heard, but he replied with a sigh, “I get it.” I walked home, took the bread out of the oven and cut a still steaming slice. It was delicious, even better than usual. I sent my wife a picture of the loaf and thanked her. Then I found Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” on YouTube. It’s a sad song, but fortunately, tonight, not my fate.
What are the odds? On a night when my faith in humanity, and in our future, is at low tide, I can walk among my neighbors and be reminded of reasons to have faith, and even meet someone who reminds me, of all things, of blind faith.
I didn’t know Jim Dapogny well. I wish I had. I think I met him sometime in the late 1970s, probably at some UofM event that featured musicians and entertainers from a number of different styles and disciplines. I was at the beginning of my career, he was already solidly established in his. I’m sure I felt intimidated and shy; his talent as a player and arranger was prodigious and obvious, and his reputation as a scholar outsized. Over the years, our paths crossed every once in a while. He was always cordial, I was always timid.
About ten years ago the Ann Arbor Observer asked me to write a brief review of the first recording made by his Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm King’s jazz band. I went to hear the band several Sunday afternoons at the old Firefly Club, talked with Jim, and listened to the test pressing. After the article came out he called to thank me, said some kind words about the piece and asked about my writing and my music. His words have stayed with me, partly because he seemed so sincerely interested, but mostly because of how precise, intelligent and insightful his comments were.
Three years ago, my trio with Emily and Jacob played in the River Raisin Ragtime Revue’s Extravaganza at the Michigan Theatre. Jim also played in the program and, after the show we all went over to the Zal Gaz Grotto for the afterglow. I managed to overcome my diffidence and sat down next to Jim at his table. He asked about my daughter, how old she was, what’s been her training, and then said, “She’s got an extremely mature singing style for someone her age.” Fathers remember when someone compliments their daughter. Especially when that someone is a world class authority on the subject.
The last time I saw Jim was in October. Laz and I were packing up our instruments after a concert, having just played in the lobby of the UofM Hospital, as part of their Gifts of Art series, when I thought I saw Jim rolling by in a wheelchair. I caught up to him and called out, “Jim Dapogny?“ He turned and said wryly, “What’s left of him.” I hadn’t known he was sick. We chatted for a minute, I wished him well and we said goodbye.
A couple of weeks after Jim died on March 6th there was a four-hour memorial event for him at the Zal Gaz Grotto, where he had played so many times before. By the time I got there, about an hour after it started, there were a dozen people chatting in the parking lot, and the hallway by the front door was full too. It made me smile to see how many people had come to honor Jim. Inside it was so packed that they were only letting people in as others left. So, we stood in the entryway, listened to the music wafting out, made jokes about the fire marshal, and shared stories of the times we heard Jim play.
Jim’s music touched countless people, but from my few interactions with him, I am certain his kindness did too. I imagine he must have been an outstanding teacher; he seemed to be naturally perceptive, curious and supportive. Jim’s death is our loss, but what’s left of him is a great gift, and will always be our gain.
At a recent concert at Ann Arbor’s Quaker Friends Meeting, Laz and I played mostly some of the very familiar songs from the Folk Revival of the Sixties (or the folk scare, as many of us have come to call it). Our audience, most of them aging baby boomers like us, with fond memories of hootenannies, protest songs, marches, Dylan, Seeger, and Peter, Paul & Mary, sang along with us enthusiastically. Barbara Brodsky, founder of the Deep Spring Center for Meditation and Spiritual Inquiry, and her son, Davy Rothbart, the creator of FOUND Magazine, were in the front row and Davy was signing and mouthing the lyrics to his Mom. Barbara has been deaf for many years, and the songs, Blowin’ in the Wind, Kumbaya, Puff the Magic Dragon, as well as protest songs like Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, We Shall Overcome, The Hammer Song and others from that time, were among the last songs she had still been able to hear. During most of the show she alternated between looking at us and at Davy, but on a few of the songs she sang along.
At one point in the course of the evening I mentioned that I’ve rarely sung some of these songs—such as We Shall Overcome—in concert; I’ve mainly sung them at political events like the anti neo Nazi rally in Ann Arbor in 1982, or at last year’s March for Our Lives. I said I was profoundly grateful to the people who created these songs, and to those who sang them at significant political and social justice events in the Sixties and since. Not wanting to draw attention to Barbara and Davy, I didn’t mention how grateful I also felt—way beyond my ability to articulate—for the everyday miracle of hearing, for being able to sing these songs, or how moved I was at seeing how much music can mean to people—that Barbara chose to come to the concert despite knowing she would not hear it.
About thirty-five years ago, Laz and I were invited to play on a radio program called Morning Pro Musica on WGBH, Boston’s NPR station. Every weekday morning, the host, Robert J. Lurtsema, played all manner of music, from folk to jazz to classical, treating them all with identical respect and affection. After hearing us play at the Fox Hollow Folk festival in upstate New York, where he often served as MC, he invited us on his show. A few days before our appearance, he informed us that we’d have a live audience, something not typical for his broadcasts. He also said that this audience would be unusual. We’d have all the kids and their teacher from the one room schoolhouse of a small community in Maine, who would make the several hour ride down to Boston to attend our live in-studio concert. The community consisted of a religious sect, one of whose tenets was that no one was allowed to listen to music. The teacher, not a member of the sect, had previously gotten permission from the sect’s leaders to allow the children to listen to Morning Pro Musica, because of its educational, varied, and wholesome content. Then, hearing about our upcoming live concert, she petitioned the sect leaders to allow her to bring the children to attend and, having secured their permission again, she also asked Lurtsema.
None of the dozen or so children had ever seen or heard live music. They had never seen musicians singing or manipulating their instruments to produce musical sounds. I couldn’t—during the concert, or after, or even today—imagine what they were thinking, feeling, while listening to our music.
After our concert at Friends Meeting the other night, I thought of that long-ago show for those kids who had been deprived of and kept deaf to music. Just as I could not then, I could not now imagine what the experience of “listening” to our music was really like for Barbara. But I was grateful she had been there; clearly the music—even silently—communicated something precious to her.
A few days after the concert I got an email from Davy. He wrote, “To me, part of the magic of the songs you sang, is that those protest songs of the 60s were so instrumental to people like my Mom during their peace work and fight for Civil Rights. My Mom, who was among the original Freedom Riders, shared the story with me of being on a bus of Freedom Riders and being forced off the road on a Southern highway. The bus slowly tipped over into a ditch, and while no one was seriously injured, everyone was shaken by the incident. When the bus landed on its side, my Mom told me, there was a stunned silence. Then someone began to sing, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on’ and everyone joined them in song until the whole bus was singing, dusting themselves off among the broken glass, cuts and bruises.
“Part of what got me so emotional about the concert was that it transported me to the moments I know my mom experienced as a pro Civil Rights and anti-nuke weapons protestor in the 60s; though I knew these stories, hearing the songs—and watching her re-experience them so fully—helped to connect me to this courageous, crucial part of her life which happened, of course, before I knew her. So, I felt swelled with pride for her actions (and of the others in the room who were part of the same cause), as well as inspired to continue the fight for equality, justice and love which they began, and which now feels as urgent as ever.”
I've long understood that every person who hears Laz and me sing has a world of experiences, feelings and emotions inside them that filters all that they see and hear, and that I will never really know what the music means to them. I feel acutely grateful that Davy was willing to share a little of the worlds through which he and his Mom experienced our concert. His stories were the latest, and among the most astounding, of the many magical moments I’ve been fortunate enough to witness and experience in a life of making and listening to music. When any of us create music, any art—or in truth, interact in any meaningful way with another human being—we never really know the effect we are having. That’s not important. What is essential, is remembering and trusting that in those interactions something priceless can happen.
We had a fabulous time at our 140th Birthday concert at the Ark!! Twelve of our favorite musicians and storytellers joined us on stage throughout the evening. Most of them we’ve known and worked with for decades, and all of them brought their A-game! We had a full house of friends and family from near and far; people came from all over Michigan and as far away as Chicago. There was a great deal of wonderful music, a lot of laughter, some tears; we raised money for our favorite venue, the Ark, and created many sweet memories for all of us.
Joe Giese, who ran sound for the evening—superbly!—and whose parents used to bring him to our shows when he was a little boy, lugged in a bunch of his equipment so he could record the entire show. (As we speak, Joe is hard at work replacing, updating and improving the Ark's sound system and stage lighting. The next time you go to the Ark, you'll enjoy his efforts!) A few days after the concert I drove over to his Allen Park studio to mix the result. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon hanging out with Joe, listening to the recording, while Joe did his studio magic, tweaking and balancing the sounds of the various instruments and vocals.
Here is how we improvised Happy Birthday that night, with San playing the bones and Laz playing the pennywhistle:
Here is a medley of our original songs from that night, performed with some of our band:
First of all, thank you. I believed you when you testified, and believe you still. Nothing has changed my mind, or diminished my feelings of gratitude to you for what you did.
Thanksgiving Day will be exactly eight weeks since you appeared before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. So many events, so many news cycles, have come and gone since then that it sometimes seems as though it was a lifetime ago. I wonder if that’s the way it seems to you, or if that day continues to still resonate powerfully in your life and to affect your and your family’s daily life the way it did in the weeks before you testified. The media has for the most part, out of necessity, “moved on,” but I am appalled to hear that you’ve not been allowed to. I have felt revolted and sickened to read that you have continued to receive death threats, that you and your family still need security guards, and that you’ve been forced to move several times. I am writing to let you know that I—and I am certain countless others—have not, “moved on,” have not forgotten.
I imagine it’s possible that because of everything that has happened since your testimony, you’ve questioned your decision, and may have come to regret having spoken up. I would not blame you. But I want you to know how much I admired your decision to speak, as well as the way you carried yourself during your testimony. Trump’s cruel and malicious mocking notwithstanding, you were the personification of strength and grace, and an extraordinary example of how to act like a true citizen, patriot and human being.
Since the day of your testimony I’ve thought frequently of Galileo’s famous phrase “E pur si muove,” “And yet it moves.” He is credited with saying those words, speaking truth to power—in his case the Catholic Inquisition—affirming his observations that the earth moves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Even if his phrase is apocryphal, as well it might be, Galileo’s published works boldly affirmed the truth, despite the consequences he surely suspected he might suffer. In fact, he was subjected to house arrest for the rest of his life for his powerful and public affirmation of reality. He probably could not have imagined (as you couldn’t) the magnitude of those consequences.
Among the many aftermaths of your testimony, perhaps the one that may have been especially disheartening to you—it certainly was for me—that Trump and his followers chose to laugh at you, despite your moving statement that perhaps the most painful and distressing aspect of your harrowing experience many years ago was the laughter it provoked in your attackers.
Your story of hateful laughter also reminded me of one my mother used to tell. She was a Holocaust survivor, having endured the Ravensbruck concentration camp for several months in 1944 and 1945. She related how, shortly after she and her fellow prisoners arrived at that hellhole, the Nazis cut off their hair. But the Nazis weren’t content to merely disfigure them, they seemed to find it necessary to also humiliate them. Before the shearing the Nazis heartlessly baited them, “How short would you like your hair?” When the women, confused and hesitant, shyly indicated a length, pointing to a spot on their neck or shoulders, the Nazis brutally cut off all their hair, showed them a mirror and laughed, “How do you like the modern styling we gave you?”
My mother said, “I’ll never forget the wailing when we saw ourselves in those mirrors.” It was her most poignant memory of her entire ordeal. On April 15, 1945, she escaped from the Nazis while on a forced march and eventually made it back to her homeland in Hungary. She “moved on,” several times in fact, eventually emigrating with my father, my brother, and me to America. She rebuilt her life, created my brother’s and mine, and she never forgot. I also have not forgotten her stories, and I will not forget yours.
I hope that you and your family will soon be able to begin to heal from the trauma you have, and are still experiencing. I thank you again and wish you and your family a sweet Thanksgiving, happy Holidays and a great New Year.=
The day after the bloodshed in Pittsburgh my brother and I played a family concert as part of the 100th anniversary of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in East Lansing. We’ve played for that congregation a number of times before; this date had been booked months earlier.
It never entered my mind to consider cancelling the concert. That’s not a statement about my courage, but more a reflection of an attitude of “the show must go on” that my brother and I have adhered to… well, religiously, for more than 45 years. Still, the thought of what could happen did of course cross my mind, in the same way that, in the few days following news of an airline crash, most of us, I’m guessing, board a plane with a heightened awareness of the catastrophic possibilities.
Shaarey Zedek’s Rabbi, Amy Bigman, greeted us warmly, and naturally we talked of what had happened less than twenty-four hours earlier. She and her congregation had also been in the middle of their Shabbat morning services when they learned of the tragedy. She and the congregation leadership had decided to not make a public announcement at the synagogue, due to the number of small children at the services. Now she asked us not to refer to the event in our concert either, since our family concert audience that Sunday morning would also include young children. Of course, we agreed; actually, we’d already decided that on our way to the concert.
So, we played the same lively, lighthearted songs we usually do at our family concerts for Jewish audiences. But, of course they now had additional layers of meaning and shading. Our typical opening song features hello in English plus in eight foreign languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. You can easily guess what I was thinking about as I was singing.
The words of the very familiar, “Hine Ma Tov,” How good it is and how lovely for people to live as one… rang particularly apt — and hollow. Still, for the most part, it felt like a typical concert: lots of singing along, enthusiastic and rhythmic clapping, some happy giggling and laughing when we acted out a story about two donkeys who gradually learn that they’ll only get to eat if they cooperate and pull in the same direction. “The moral of our story, the moral of our tale: if you work together, you will never fail.” Right.
And then came the four songs with which we often close our Jewish concerts: the medley of “Am Yisroel Chai,” The people of Israel live, and “Lo Yisa Goy,” Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchama. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they will study war no more – Isaiah. We ended with “Shalom Chaverim,” Peace friends, a lovely slow round which we medley to the rousing, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” literally We brought you peace, which is often used as a greeting or a farewell.
A few seconds into Hevenu Shalom, people began standing up. By the end of the first repeat, the entire audience was standing, singing and clapping along. I immediately understood that this was not a typical standing ovation. While clearly they’d enjoyed our concert, our audience was not standing for us. It seemed to me that they instinctively got to their feet in response to an ancient and universal human need to stand together with community; to speak out — in this case to sing out, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the weak, the broken, the attacked; to stand up and be counted; in a very real sense to live standing upright, rather than remaining seated and silent in the face of evil.
Last Thursday morning while I was trying to decide whether to take time off from work to watch the Senate’s Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings live, I found myself remembering a line from a book by my favorite mystery writer, Robert B. Parker. Parker’s hero, Spenser, has been called in to help investigate a woman’s gruesome murder. Someone tells him he doesn’t have to look at the body if he doesn’t want to, but he says something like, “If she could endure it, I can endure seeing it.” In other words, he felt he owed it to her to look at, and see the tragic, ugly truth of her suffering. I realized I felt the same way. I felt I owed it to Dr. Ford to watch. She had endured what happened to her when she was fifteen, and then also in the weeks since her allegation became public, and she was now willing to endure all that might happen to her at these hearings. I could endure watching.
Although I found the hearing often heartbreaking, occasionally enraging, I don’t for a second regret that I took the time to watch what was perhaps the most remarkable public display of courage I have ever witnessed. There were countless noteworthy highlights in Dr. Ford’s testimony, but for me the most stunning moment, the one that brought me jumping off the couch to stand and yell, “Yes!” came near the end, when Senator Cory Booker asked her how she felt about the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee refusing to ask for an FBI investigation of her allegation. He offered her the perfect opportunity to blast the senators; he lobbed her a beach ball she could slam out of the park. He teed it up for her.
And she refused to swing away. It was a leading question, but she wasn’t about to be led. She resisted the temptation to point fingers, to vent her frustration, to accuse.
Who could have blamed her, after the way she’d been treated by the Republican members of the Committee for the past few weeks? Instead, calmly and without hesitation she replied, "I wish that I could be more helpful and that others could be more helpful and that we could collaborate in a way that would get at more information." It was a truly stunning statement, delivered with an honesty and a clarity we don’t often hear from people in Washington. There was no guile, no calculation in her tone or in her delivery. Her words simply reinforced what she said earlier in her opening statement; she was only here to tell the truth.
Since the hearing, I’ve read and heard that some people, while admiring her courage, and believing her testimony, thought Dr. Ford’s manner to be too ingratiating, felt that she worked overly hard at trying to please. People have pointed out how our culture does not encourage, or even permit, women to express anger and outrage in these situations.
They’re right, and I fully agree that women should not be made to feel that they must speak and behave within a more muted range of expression than men are allowed. I am not praising Dr. Ford for having been, at times, excessively agreeable. When Senator Grassley asked her if she wanted to take a break, she did not need to reply, “Does that work for you?” On the other hand, given the overwhelming hostility she has faced since coming forward, and given the intensity of the public scrutiny she was facing for the first time in her life, is it surprising that she would fall back on being overly obliging? And then go on to explain, “I’m used to being collegial.” However, there was no meek accommodation at any important moment during her testimony. Whenever she needed to be strong, clear, “100% sure”, she was. Her flexible, gentle bearing did not prevent her from being a warrior. We have had more than enough public examples of people, mostly men, being loud, rude, disrespectful, inconsiderate, relying on the bullying power of their self-righteous rage and entitled indignation, to gaslight and get their way. (I submit as Exhibit A, B and C, Kavanaugh, Graham, and of course, Trump’s peevish, petulant outbursts.)
I’ve felt some compassion for Judge Kavanaugh, and especially for his family, in the past few weeks. No, I was not, am not, in any way excusing his alleged actions. Attempted rape, even under the influence of alcohol, is not high school hijinks; it’s not something to later be merely “not proud of.” And yes, it should automatically disqualify him from sitting on the Supreme Court, even if it did happen in high school, 36 years ago, and even if he’s been a model citizen since then. If Dr. Ford’s allegation is true—and I find it almost impossible to believe otherwise—he surely must be held to account. Nevertheless, I could not ignore his and his family’s pain. Dr. Ford’s refusal to speak harshly to the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee powerfully showed that it’s possible to state a necessary truth, without demonizing those who disagree, or even choose to ignore it. And for me, it somehow validated the way I’d been feeling about Judge Kavanaugh and his family. That feeling was severely tested a few hours later when he almost completely squandered all goodwill with his demeanor and behavior.
It would be good, maybe even crucial, if we all got “used to being collegial.” It would not mean ducking our responsibility to speak truth to power. Dr. Ford repeatedly demonstrated that it’s possible to do both. But it might help heal some of the painful divisions in our country if more of us, more often, found it in our hearts to try to be “more helpful and… could collaborate.”
It was six years ago yesterday that you left this Earth. So it feels a bit strange for me to be writing a letter to you, since, of course, I don’t know where to send it. I have so many questions that are no more answered today than they were six years ago, but really, they all add up to this one: Where are you? In one of his poems Richard Wilbur asks, “Is she now there, wherever there may be?”
Different religions and spiritual paths give various answers about the afterlife. In these last six years I’ve only arrived at one answer I’m sure of — you are within me as memory, as gratitude, as love. And you are in our son Daniel, and in all the people whose lives you touched with your kindness, your encouragement, your gifts.
I am starting to accept that I may never know the answers to some of my related questions, like: Is it just my wishful thinking, or are you still listening when I talk to you? And is it just my imagination that you are still guiding, protecting and blessing Daniel and me from wherever you are? But I’ve gradually decided over these past six years that I don’t need a reply from anywhere else but from inside me.
The author Sandra Cisneros writes, “In Mexico they say when someone you love dies, a part of you dies with them. But they forget to mention that a part of them is born in you — not immediately, I’ve learned, but eventually, and gradually.”
When I started to try to play your flute a few months after you died, the first note I learned was a B; it’s the easiest note to play on the classical silver flute. For months after, though I learned how to play other notes, whenever I picked up your flute I always started with that one. After a while it struck me that this B note was telling me to be, to continue to be, even when, especially when, I sometimes wondered if I could.
Over these past six years, as I’ve continued to play your flute, that B note has kept being my favorite, and it keeps expanding its meaning within me.
In the European notation system the B note is called “ti.” (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti) In Spanish — a language you started learning when you were nearly 50, but which you learned so quickly and well that you could translate in real time the talks of the Ecuadorian shaman with whom you were studying — ti is the familiar form for the word “you.”
In Hungarian, my native tongue, ti is the word for the plural “you.”
So, perhaps that B note has a message for all of us: to be me, to be you, to be all of us.
Ultimately, that’s what your death — and your continuing life within me — has taught me, and is continuing to teach me; that while I’m on this earth, to be myself, to be more and more fully myself, to more and more fully understand what it means to be true to myself.