Off Key

Most of us are familiar with the comical depiction of a person, red in the face and in a fit of rage, roaring, “Who are you accusing of screaming? Me?! Am I screaming?”

We laugh at the ridiculousness of a person actively engaged in actions that directly contradict that which he purports to advance at that very moment!

This brings to mind a similarly tragic-comic incident that this author witnessed some years ago.

It was at a wedding of a cousin in Eretz Yisroel, a very nice boy, whose family fell somewhere along the spectrum of Mizrachi/Modern Orthodox. As with many such families, each child, and each event, can turn out differently, some more Modern, some more Orthodox.

Since I was learning in Eretz Yisroel at the time, I was able to attend this family simcha along with a number of local chareidi cousins. Family being family, it was indeed special to have been able to be there and share in the simcha. An extra bonus was the opportunity it afforded me to meet many distant, and some quite elderly, relatives about whom I had heard, but had never had the opportunity to meet.

When the chosson and kallah entered the hall once the meal had begun, a number of mechitzos were wheeled in and the dancing began with gusto – separate and with mechitzos. Thankfully, we were able to participate and join fully in the festivities.

After the dancing, more food was served (which we regretfully but politely needed to decline). Before long, the band struck up a hora, and a second dance commenced. While the men and women still danced separately, the mechitzos somehow never made it back. Now it was separate dancing, but with no mechitzah.

Interesting.

The dancing eventually wound down, dessert was served, and the guests milled happily about. The mood was light and buoyant. It was then that the band began playing once more, this time accompanied by a far more wild and frenzied beat and the shrieking of electric guitars. The younger crowd took it up in a frenzy, the genders one big mix this time.

Us chareidi cousins decided that now was the perfect time to check out the luxurious lobby. We walked about, catching up on family news and enjoying each other’s company. Being a son of the youngest among his siblings, these cousins were all far older than I was. They were married with large families, enjoying a rare night away.

Every now and then, the wife of one of my cousins peeked into the ballroom proper to see if perhaps the situation was such that we could rejoin the others. For now, the situation was regrettably still one of complete abandon and kallus rosh. Remember, this was ostensibly a Torah-observant crowd, where the older members did not partake in or officially condone the behavior of the younger set.

Suddenly, my cousin stopped short and exclaimed (in Ivrit), “I don’t believe it! Do you hear what’s going on?!”

I tuned in – and indeed found myself speechless. Since everyone in Eretz Yisroel – secular, religious, and anywhere in between – speaks Ivrit, which is quite similar to our Lashon Hakodesh, even the most secular bands are often up to date on the latest “Chassidic music” albums and play some of their hits. In this case, a “Chassidic music” album had featured an actual Ivrit song that the band was now playing, its lead singer belting out the words while the crowd danced with gusto.

“Ach mipnei chato’einu ufrikat ha’ol, galinu mei’artzeinu, hecherivu et hakol…” I listened as the man sang and the crowd rocked. For those familiar with the song, the tune is indeed a catchy one and great to dance to. “Nasheinu vetapeinu latevach kemo tzon,” he continued, “al naharot Bavel bachinu bezachreinu et Tzion! Whoo! Yerushalayim…” the crowd roared.

We looked at one another. There were no words. It was surreal.

Eventually, my cousin found her voice. “Are they even listening to what they are saying?” she wondered.

Clearly, they were not. I pictured the angry man loudly demanding who it was who dared accuse him of shouting. Comic. Pathetic. Tragic.

• • • • •

A number of years ago, we discussed in this column the beauty, the wonder, the intensity, the responsibility and the state of Jewish music nowadays (Sure! That’s Jewish Music! Yated, Dec. 9, ’07). The article was followed by some vigorous debate in the letters section, along with some heartening letters sent by Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum zt”l and, lhbcl”c, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Golding (producer of the first 4 JEP records) and Mrs. Dina Storch.

From that experience, it would seem clear that there is little one can say or write to convince those who are not interested in being convinced that there is anything at all wrong – let alone a lot wrong – with much of the trash and the demeaning sounds and gyrations that pass for “music” and “dancing” nowadays. This is true in a broader sense as well, as too often people will stick with their preconceived or preferred opinions even if the truth was spelled out before their own eyes. It would seem, however, that especially in this area of music and song, where what is kosher, what is beautiful, and what is disgusting often takes the sensitivity of the soul to appreciate and cannot be confined to definitive facts the way kosher food and kosher money can be dealt with, there really is precious little one can say to sway the unwilling.

One can find himself at a wedding where any honest and cognizant individual can sense that the music, the levity, the gyrations, the shrieking, is far from anything Jewish and is one of the saddest and most tragic ways for a couple to begin their new life together, and yet there will still be that person who will insist that this is simply what the younger generation prefers and who says there is anything wrong with it?

In fact, I was fascinated when it was brought to my attention recently that already decades ago, Dr. Bernard Fryshman, a choshuve frum professor, wrote a piece in the Jewish Observer about this very topic, wondering where the introduction of wilder and clearly less Jewish sounds into what is considered “acceptable” Jewish music will lead us down the road. While unable to ascertain the date of that issue, suffice it to say that he was discussing the sounds he was hearing in the “records” being played in the “finest” of homes back then! Already then, someone wrote in to complain about the bashing of what is simply an “innocent new style” that the younger folks prefer.

It is for this reason that I resisted the call of many over the years to once again address the topic of Jewish music. After all, it seems for the most part that those who “get it,” get it. They know exactly what is wrong with the way one of the most potentially special, joyous and uplifting modes of expression is being used and abused by so many in the “industry.” At the same time, those who don’t get it – or don’t want to get it – just don’t. What more is there to add?

As the world descends into yet further and further depravity, with the worst sounds and basest emotions infiltrating everything that was once considered sacred, perhaps we do have a responsibility to at least bring this topic up once more. Our focus, however, need not be on convincing anyone of anything. There is enough out there for those who truly want to know and who are ready to be honest and objective.

Far more pressing, it would seem, is the need for a raised awareness by those who do have standards – each according to his own standard – not to take their standards for granted. It breaks one’s heart to join a simcha where he realizes that the baalei simcha – perhaps somewhat distracted now – will themselves be embarrassed and horrified later on at what went on at their own simcha. If others have no problem with it, so be it. For those who have standards of decency and of basic feinkeit, though, let it be understood that these standards will not automatically be adhered to even at their own affairs unless they see to it beforehand.

In today’s topsy-turvy world, it matters not whether a singer or player identifies himself as frum, chassidish, heimish or b’heimish; it makes little difference whether he sports no peyos, thick peyos, curled peyos or permed peyos; it matters not whether he sings with an Israeli accent, a yeshivishe accent, a chassidishe accent or like his presence is one big accident. There is no telling what you will get. Whatever your standards might be, make sure that your affair will live up to it.

It’s the same for the music that one listens to on a day to day basis, and to which he exposes his children. It is utterly baffling to consider the percentage of people who would never allow certain albums to enter their homes or to be bought by their family members, yet who have the radios in their cars tuned to emit the selfsame albums and even worse.

To reiterate, I am not (chalila!) telling people what kind of music they should or should not listen to. All I am suggesting is that if your standard of decency in Jewish music is such that you would never even consider buying certain types of albums, don’t take those standards for granted when you tune in elsewhere. If you wouldn’t play it in your home, why have it play in your car?

This is not to disparage any particular album or station. The point is simply that we must be cognizant of the fact that whatever our standards of decency in music may be, those standards should not necessarily be expected everywhere else. We understand not to walk into any store with a sign pronouncing “Bosor kosher” and buy their meat. Rather, we ensure that there is a hechsher on par with our standards. By the same token, the words “Jewish music” today, sadly, mean absolutely nothing. Make sure that whatever you listen to or provide for others is up to whatever your standard is. Why sully yourself, your soul, and your children by exposing them to sounds and ideas of entertainment that you find offensive, demeaning or damaging?

It is time people took a stand for that in which they believe. Jewish music and niggunim of all sorts have such a rich history and can be joyous, exciting, uplifting, and heartfelt, and touch us in the deepest and truest of ways. It is a wonderful tool, a powerful tool to be enjoyed and utilized in elevating ourselves, our meals and our simchos.

If others abuse this gift, if they use it to satisfy their bodies at the expense of their souls or to arouse the animal in them rather than to tap into the greatness we all possess, don’t let them convince you that you must settle for the same cheapening of yourself and your sensitivities. Neither you or your family, nor the schools or camps to where you send your children, need abide by new ideas of “Jewish music” being foisted upon you. If you find it uplifting (and both fast and slow music can be uplifting in very different ways), by all means enjoy your favorite niggunim. If you feel otherwise (and so many of us know exactly what that feeling is), then you need not accept it simply because there are Hebrew words in it or others call it “Jewish.”

We’d hate to be that guy frothing at the mouth while yelling at others for daring to accuse him of shouting. We shouldn’t want to make ourselves into the same sort of laughingstock by shouting out songs featuring words that bespeak Hashem’s majesty or other Jewish themes while at the very same time making quite clear by our moves, our mood and our loss of inhibitions that these are the last things on our minds.

• • • • •

Perhaps we should conclude with a thought heard in the name of Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l. While discussing the “rocky” beats and sounds that were infiltrating and lowering the standards of the music up until that time, Rav Gifter quoted the posuk (Vayeira 20:11), “Rock ein yiras Elokim bamakom hazeh.”

Nothing more need be said.