Tony Kushner's Commentary on the Klezmatic's recent CD, "Possessed"


I find myself unable to write your liner notes. Your music moves me like no other, it makes my genes and molecules writhe & dance even though I am, as always in my ashamed embarassed body, inert. When I first heard your "Shnirele perele" on Rhythm and Jews, no kidding, it changed my life, oy so gorgeous, so sexy, so full of August Mystery, I decided to reinvent the kind of Jew I am upon hearing it but I haven't got around to doing that yet, I've been too busy and so am unworthy to write the liner notes for your wonderful new album.

First let me tell you about the kind of Jew I am. Having spent more than half my life in psychotherapy and half in theater, I am incapable of beginning anything without first confessing to a feeling of fraudulence, and tonight that feeling is pronounced, so let me start by telling you what a half-baked, half-formed, reformed, dummermann kind of Jew I am.

In June of this year I answered the phone, and it was my father. The Board of Temple Sinai in my hometown, Lake Charles, Lousiana, had just behaved, my father felt, in a dishonorable fashion. Their previous Rabbi having departed for more remunerative work in Houston, Texas, the congregation had initiated a search for a replacement. Lake Charles Rabbis are notoriously of short-lived tenures, including one, an excruciating, terrifying cheek-pincher, who vanished leaving behind mountains of unpaid bills; and another who, I'm sorry to say, was nabbed in a dragnet the police had cast to catch a peeping tom!

Anyway, the Temple needed a new Rabbi, and the search committee contacted the UAHC and got a list of newly-minted recently-matriculated Rabis, and as they have always done they contacted the Top Guy in his H.U.C. class, expecting as always to be turned down because Temple Sinai is poor and small and in Lake Charles, Lousiana and is always turned down by the Top Guy in his class. But to their immense surprise and excitement the search committee's inquiry as to his availability for a job interview received an enthusiastic "Yes!" from this Magna cum Laude Rabbi. A historic First for the Temple! Followed by this Rabbi's informing the selection committee's chair that he, the Rabbi, is gay, and in a committed relationship with a man who would be, if the Rabbi was hired, the Temple's new Rebbetsin. Another first!

The search committee's chair told the Rabbi they would get back to him in a day or two and the committee discussed. And -- and let this stand as refutation to those who say there is no progress -- they decided to invite the gay Rabbi down south for an interview. Their decision was conveyed to the gay Rabbi and at the same time to the Temple Board for its rubber-stamp approval which, in 120 years of Temple Sinai's existence, had never been withheld. On this occasion, I'm sorry to report, it was withheld. The gay Rabbi was disinvited.

From New York City I called my cousin, the treasurer and a past president of the Temple, and I blasted him! Hypocrites! I threatened to call the UAHC and have them busted for discrimination! My cousin told me that last year somebody spray painted a swastika on the wall of the Temple, a thing which had never happened before. David Duke, Newt Gingrich, this was the recrudesced Deep South. In this climate, I was told, a gay Rabbi isn't possible. Clearly, a pogrom could be anticipated.

When I was a kid, one of our Rabbis, very old, told us Sunday School kids we had to send our Tsedakah to Israel to plant trees. Rabbi, we asked, why do thay need so many trees in Israel? Because, he told us, when the Nazis come back, there must be enough trees planted for all the Jews to climb up them, and hide.

We were, shall we say, anxious to assimilate.

On the other hand, at the conclusion of our Seder meals, we didn't say, "Next year in Jerusalem", we sang "America the Beautiful" -- and assimilationist expression of millennial desire with which, these days, I find myself bemused, appalled (at the assimilationism), and in fundamental agreement.

I want to be both a God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic. I want the State of Israel to exist (since it does anyway) and I want the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs honored and I want to shokl with Jews at the Wailing Wall and at the same time (and I'm afraid this won't help sales of your CD) I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity. Contemplating the possible destruction of Israel (civil war?) I feel at times if I could ever kill for a nationalist cause, I might kill for that one but at the same time I wish modern Israel hadn't been born; I am a diasporan Jew, not a Zionist; and I say this feeling that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, is, its Zionist agenda and homophobia notwithstanding, Jewish history's best most eloquent single answer to Hitler and the Holocaust; and is so because it is in Jerusalem but I wish Jerusalem was an international city under a U.N. protectorate; and I wish the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington was a Museum of the Jewish-American Experience instead, with a holocaust wing, and I wish it stood on the Mall alongside museums devoted to the sufferings and triumphs of other ethnic-American groups, including a museum of the African-American experience, with a Slavery wing, which I wish was built with, in addition to other funding sources, Tsedakah from committed, determinedly anti-racist Jewish-Americans.

Identity ought to move from a politics of recognition, celebration and liberation towards its utopian goal of ultimate effacement: somewhere, far in the future, on the same far horizon beyond which lies the withering of state, the arrival of Moshiach, and the termination of my psychotherapy -- there also lies the whispering away of the lovely alluring historical grit, the gorgeous gruff textural and aromal specificity of ethnic identity, of race; of the need for rehearsing and even remembering the agonizing, glorious, heroic histories of oppression -- there also likes the Unity beyond Difference, Internationalism, the Creole and Mulatto World, Paradisiacal, the passage through Babel back to Eden, God's purpose from the start.

Are we not possessed, and is your CD's title not apt, by the multitudes we contain, not only multitudes of observant and unobservant brave martyred ancestors, not only of the hosts of spirits and demons who parade through our dreams and nightmares, but of all the cultures through which we have wandered, which we helped to shape, in which we are at home and never at home?

Hebrew- and Yiddish-illiterate, I barely know how to pray; riddled with ambivalence, child of Marx, Freud, Mahler, Benjamin, Kafka, Goldman, Luxemburg, Trotsky, An-ski, Schoenberg, mongrel product of Judaism's and of Jewish exteriority, of its ghetto-hungry curiosity, of its assimilationist genius, I now approach Judaism as Jews once approached the splendid strangeness of the Goyishe Velt: I am shall we say deeply confused, but not complacent. And this I think of course is profoundly Jewish. So perhaps I can write your liner notes after all. Of music, son of a clarinetist and a bassoonist though I be, I know nothing.

The gay Rabbi, by the way, was finally invited for the interview, but before he could go he got a better-paying job in Baltimore. So the Temple moved on to its next choice: A woman Rabbi! Who is pregnant!

High Holy Days this year found me doing research for my new play in a tiny town in Britain with no other Jews and no shul, so I cast my bread upon English waters, said the prayers I remembered, lit candles, made Shofar noises, cried for the Dead, begged for forgiveness and decided to read the Bible.

Why does the God in whom I may or may not believe, or rather in whose existence I simultaneously believe and doubt, why does the Almighty spend the first five books of the Bible writing such morally problematic, bewildering stories? We've always had the answer to that one. Because the Torah is not clarification but the World itself; it is the World's Goad towards perplexity, interpretation, towards Midrash and Talmud. "Az er darf ringen mit zayn Libn Nomen!" as a character in Perestroika says, in a scene that's always cut because let's face it, the play's too long. "You must struggle with the Almighty!" "Azoy tut a Yid!" "It's the Jewish way!"

Hey, for the next album let's do a klezmer version of Mime the Dwarf's lament in Act One of Siegfried, the one in 3/4 time, "Das ist nun der Liebe schlimmer Lohn!" "That's all the thanks I get!" Translate the German into Yiddish! Get Daniel Goldhagen to do the liner notes. Already I can hear Wagner spinning in his grave.

Tony Kushner

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