A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway forgets his thirtieth birthday, distracted by the climactic events to which he is witness. Unlike Fitzgerald’s fictional narrator, I did not forget when the time came. I celebrated with a small party in the modest flat I shared with my friend – just off Pottergate (a street which leads west out of the city and is as cobbled as it sounds). It was not to be the “menacing road of a new decade.” In fact, it was a good decade, one to be thankful for. As the evening climbed to its heights, and offered what music it could, I danced around the small living room to the Yiddish album, Cantors and Cantorials (Chazanim & Chazanut). My favourite song on this album (and the only one I can really remember now) was the darkly jaunty, ‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’. According to the sleeve-notes, in this folk song a layman asks the rabbi to explain the Hebrew verse: “Let us all sing a ditty of bread, meat, fish, and all fine things.” The rabbi replies:

“Bread for the rich is a freshly baked roll, and a dry crust for the poor.

Meat, for the wealthy is a roast duckling, but for the impoverished, liver and lights.”

‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’

Something like, The poor are always with you; a kind of philosophy of acceptance, endurance or perhaps even gratitude in the face of suffering. It also exists within the long rabbinical tradition of scriptural exegesis, interpreting the Torah and other sacred texts. One lesson from this way of thinking is that there are always at least two ways of understanding our experiences. Last month I wrote on Leonard Cohen, and recently the parallels between this folk song and his ballad ‘Bird on a Wire’ have grown more apparent to me. At the key-change, he sings:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He cried to me, ‘you must not ask for so much,’
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, ‘hey, why not ask for more.’”    

‘Bird on a Wire’, Songs from a Room (1967)

The lines may be somewhat of their time, but the voice of the poet remains one caught between poverty and plenty; between suffering and desire. This is pure rabbinical thinking. Even the origins of the song are disputed, with two different versions (Cohen said that his then-lover, Marianne Ihlen, gave him the idea; Joni Mitchell claimed that her painting of three birds inspired the song). It’s interesting that both songs concern a response to wealth, or its lack. In the Gospels both poverty and riches are potentially seen as a prison of sorts (the man at the pool at Bethesda; the rich young man – both of whom move in their shackles. Or, cast differently, have tried in their way to be free).

Leonard Cohen simply presents us with two alternatives and asks us to consider the question of what we may ask of life, or take from it. When Cohen himself was defrauded by his ex-manager, he seemed to receive his near-bankruptcy philosophically. A kind of worldliness—other-worldliness seldom seen in most people. “I don’t recommend this as a spiritual exercise,” he half-joked in interview, “but if it does happen to you, a lot of very important information is delivered to your heart.” Something like Miguel de Cervantes who was said to become more generous the more impoverished he grew. Leonard Cohen was forced out on tour again which, in part, led to his extraordinary late flowering. A gift transfigured out of a theft.

In a time when we seem to swing wildly between division and cohesion, and division again, it might sometimes be worth thinking more rabbinically about things. To consider the possibility that not every question can be answered immediately or definitively. That it is okay (sometimes even wise), to suspend our judgement and learn from our experiences in the fullness of time. To let opinion or reaction cool into something more considered. As the young Irish writer Sally Rooney says in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), “You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”

I previously wrote on Leonard Cohen (June 2020), here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/06/02/be-not-afeard-the-isle-is-full-of-noises-my-search-for-leonard-cohen/

Poet of suffering and desire
‘Rich folk, poor folk’ (“Die Negidim un die Kabzonim“), a song of poverty and plenty

References in this post:

Chazanim & Chazanut, (Pearl; Pavillion Records), 1988; (the song and was recorded by the tenor Mordechai Hershman in 1920, the year he emigrated to the United States)

Allan Showalter reports the story about Joni Mitchell’s influence on ‘Bird on a Wire’: https://allanshowalter.com/2019/03/04/leonard-cohen-and-joni-mitchell-just-one-of-those-things/

Interview with Leonard Cohen in 2007 (SVT/NRK/Skavlan, 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2pFG9WoxfU

William Eggington, The Man who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes ushered in the Modern World (2016), an excellent blending of biography and literary criticism

leonardcohen.com, Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times

  1. Pingback: Home Movie (1980) | Benedict Gilbert poems

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