Religion & Beliefs

The Four New Years

1. I was born a thousand years ago in a cave that gave out onto a cliff that looked out onto the sea. I wandered out of the cave and was immediately lost in a snow storm. Each flake of … Read More

By / September 8, 2009

1. I was born a thousand years ago in a cave that gave out onto a cliff that looked out onto the sea. I wandered out of the cave and was immediately lost in a snow storm. Each flake of snow was heavy and full and when I looked at it closely I saw a letter of the alphabet in the pattern of the ice crystals. I gathered up a handful of snowflakes and the letters began to band together, forming words and sentences. And the snowflakes spoke to me, and said, "I will create as I speak. I will bring a world out of the void. I will cause the world to be sustained." I made the snow into a crown and I placed it upon my head.

2. Like every Jewish boy, I was born out of a rupture in history, at a special moment when the past had been either intentionally discarded or else appropriated by weak-minded, self-appointed guardians. Those who broke with the past completely sought a new world of order and beauty in the cultural achievements of Western Europe. Those who clung to elements of the old ways lacked the breadth of spirit needed to re-imagine their history flourishing in a new world. As I grew, I was consumed by sorrow and rage because I perceived that there was a vacuum in my world where once there had been a spherical wholeness of culture and spirit. I heard ghosts speaking to me from out of the emptiness and I clung to them and invited them to enter into me.

3. I was born in New York City and for me the subway was the center of the world. The winding subterranean passageways were both inviting and terrifying. The tunnels of the subway system felt like they might open up at any moment into another world. Down by the trains I saw old Blues singers play, old African American men transplanted from the South recreating the incredible sounds of their youth. I admired their style and the dramatic intensity of their performance and the beauty of their music. In all aspects of my life I was surrounded by culture but the experience of hearing the Blues in the bowels of the city made an indelible mark on my young imagination. I decided as a little boy that when I grew up I would be a singer down by the trains.

4. I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ apartment in Queens when I was growing up. My grandmother loves color. One of the walls in her living room is painted dark red. She has a huge glass door china cabinet all filled to overflowing with bits of chintz and tchotchkes mixed up together with Judaic objects brought over from the Old World long ago. The china cabinet seemed to me a magical thing as a child. It seemed as if there was a ritual order to all of the beautiful things jumbled together there. Her china cabinet was a kind of family altar piece-a place where objects were brought as an offering to be made holy by their contact with the ancient past. My grandfather was the master presence in the house, his booming voice and quick silver imagination constantly enlivening all the things great and small in life. And although his role as a Cantor and a great artist inspired and excited me, it was the red of the wall and the jumble of images and the smells of antique dishes and rose perfume that provided the ritual atmosphere and physical culture of our family’s special gift. It was in this sensual realm that I came to know and love chazzanus, the Jewish spiritual music tradition which I have devoted now many years to studying and making my own. The music that The Sway Machinery will play for Hidden Melodies Revealed is in many ways a tribute to my grandparents’ home and to their wonderful and un-self-conscious blend of tradition and iconoclasm.