TAKING ACTION

THEO ON PERSONAL JUDAISM AND JUSTICE

For one reason or another I am viewed not just as an artist who happens to be a Jew but, despite a large body of work in the general artistic arena, as a “Jewish artist.” I do not resent the label, except for the fact that I disapprove of labels in general.

Lest my predilection toward my own Jewishness be misunderstood or misinterpreted, let me emphasize that I am a universalist, quite passionately devoted to the cause of equality within the human family. But I came by this attitude precisely because of the Jew in me. I perceive the world, especially American society as a kaleidoscope. The brighter each particle shines, the better for society as a whole and certainly for each ethnic component of it. A ‘melting pot’, as some are so often tempted to define our society, is as silly a notion as it is dangerous; from it can come only cultural disaster. For it leads inexorably toward a no-shape, no-color, undelineated mishmash, reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. Need I stress that in cultural terms that turns out to be both low and common.

Apart from carrying the label of ‘artist’, I am also known as an activist. My activism had its genesis a long time ago, when I was a boy in Vienna, Austria. When the barbarians entered the city and paraded right under our windows on the main thoroughfare where we lived, there was anxiety and a gnawing fear of what might be in store for us. We were the only family on the block that did not open their windows wide to welcome the conquerors who passed in open sedans, first the fat one and then the ogre himself, the one with the little moustache. Much later when people we knew, Jews, were dragged into the street, subjected to brutal indignities, and we watched when some were bundled into trucks and driven off, there were some decent gentile neighbors who did not participate in the brutality. But they saw it, just as we did, and did not call a halt. And today neither you nor I nor history itself can absolve these ‘nice’ people of guilt and complicity.
I was not able to formulate my feelings until much later as an adult but I knew that I would never allow myself to become like these nice neighbors. Now, whenever I witness injustice and discrimination I do not have the luxury –as they thought they did – of saying ‘it’s not my fight.’ it is my fight; it is always our fight. The victims may be of any color, race, gender, ethnicity or religion – in my mind they become Jews.

45 years ago I stood in black churches in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, speaking of the curse of inequality, singing of freedom, holding hands with ministers, civil rights workers and students. From the churches we set out to march proclaiming a burning quest for freedom and more often than not we ended up in jail.

I was there not only because my voice and presence were needed as were those of so many other Americans — yes, liberals if you will (it was not yet a pejorative term). I stood there chiefly because I needed to be there as a decent person, as a good American, and as a Jew.

I also had to let them know all that, especially the last part, the Jewish part. How do you do that? Well, I am a very secular Jew, I travel and perform on the Sabbath, I eat all kinds of cockamamie food – but when I was in that jail in Alabama I insisted on kosher food.

We thought that with the passage of time America would learn and that the atrocity of bombing a church and killing four young children in it would not– could not — be repeated. It was a vain hope.

We live in 2008 now and it is sad to report that in the last two decades some 125 churches were burned and many more vandalized. And it is escalating.

What does that teach us?

Who are these people?

KKK, white supremacists, and members of — mark the term well — the “Aryan nation”. Remember how the word was used against Jews. It still is. Here’s a quote from one of their pamphlets: “non-whites are ‘mud-people’ and Jews are ‘children of Satan.’

Is it only in the south? SC, NC, ALA, MISS, FLA, GA? No. – it is also in Seattle, Wash. And the so-called Aryan nation is headquartered in Idaho.
“jerky kids?” “pranksters?”

In some communities, even now with all the national focus there is a woeful lack of attention being paid.
They say that white churches were also burned. True, but in these very few cases it was found that thieves committed the arson so as to cover up burglaries. Different, quite different.

Maybe it’s not a black thing, maybe it’s a church thing, a religious thing. So what. All of it is to be condemned.
All of it is criminal.

In the fight for human dignity I had the distinction of being arrested in Washington D,C. twice within one year. The first was in front of the South African embassy where daily protests about the evils of apartheid were mounted. The second arrest was at the Soviet embassy. The protest was about the treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union. This time there were eight of us, seven men and one woman. We asked to be admitted to the embassy, asked to talk with the ambassador or the chargé d’affaires and, naturally, were refused entry. We stood in front of the gates and demonstrated the only way one can in a peaceful manner: we sang. We sang in English “let my people go”, we sang in Hebrew “hiney ma tov – how good it is for brethren to dwell together in peace and unity,” and I sang in Russian “pharaonu gavaryu otpusti narod moy” – ‘to you pharaoh I say, let my people go.’

The DC police were there with their paddy wagon, ready to do their bit. A few

minutes into our protest, the sergeant came up and recited his formula of it being against DC regulations to demonstrate within 500 feet of an embassy. He ordered us to stop and leave. I said very politely: “we respectfully decline.” and we continued to sing. “In that case,” he said, “you are now under arrest.” They took us, one by one, to the van to be handcuffed. While this was going on the sergeant came up to me and said: “I’m leaving you for last; you’ve got the best voice.” I would not mind having those words on my tombstone.

At times I do use my voice and whatever other talents I may have in the service of a cause I believe in. When you do that you have to be careful not to abuse an audience’s trust. After all, many of them came just to hear music. But neither can you allow your voice to be stilled in order to please everyone who listens. If you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody, least of all all your own sense of justice.

My passions, both as an artist and as an activist were informed by a conviction, instilled in me by my father, that those who are voiceless and powerless must be empowered by men and women who have the voice and eloquence to speak on their behalf. And so, as a natural consequence, I found myself involved in labor unions, specifically those that dealt with the performing artist. In my role as president of the union representing stage performers I helped in the establishment of federally supported housing for artists. I also had a hand in bringing about the creation of the national endowment for the arts. Later I was appointed by president Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Council for the Arts, its overseeing body.

It was not an easy task because our nation, alone among others within Western civilization has little history and even less inclination of viewing the arts as an essential expression of the nation’s well being. Those of us who care have been champions of freedom for America’s arts and for creating an environment in which such freedom is made possible. We fought McCarthyism in the fifties and we are fighting for freedom of speech, including the freedom to dissent, even now as I speak.

After 9/11 our world, our way of life will never again be what it was. Our assumption that we are invulnerable, protected by two oceans and by modern technology, has been shattered. We were wrong to have been complacent and for caring little about the turmoil elsewhere. Then it hit us where we lived and now we experience the fear others have always known. We were wrong to be complacent but we did not deserve this. I count on the resilience of the American people but I wonder if we will be able to develop the mechanism to deal with our new fears. The people of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof knew how to survive; they had their faith and their structured lives were informed by their traditions. But most of us in America do not live by tradition. Finding a way to live in the post-9/11 world is not a matter of pop psychology, sound bytes, quick fixes and short monosyllabic bursts. Sentient and intelligent human beings need to do better than quick fixes.

We will find a way because we must. We may never get back the world we had before September 11 but, in the words of the song, we will ‘try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow.’ to suffer the loss of innocence is something we may have to bear; to lose the memory of it would be far worse still.

They say: actors should act and sing and keep their views to themselves.

They say: Performers have no business using their visibility to further political causes. Strange though, the very people who say these things had no problem cheering the political views of the actor Ronald Reagan or the of that other actor, the Wienerschnitzel who is the present governor of California.

The right of dissent is in the highest democratic tradition of a free country; and artists, indeed all citizens, have an obligation to speak truth to power (to use Elie Wiesel’s phrase.)
Let no one say that dissent in wartime or in peacetime is tantamount to disloyalty, or worse, treason. One thing I know for certain: my colleagues who stood in opposition to the war grieve for the American lives that are being sacrificed, grieve for America’s sons and daughters under arms, just as they grieve for civilian deaths. No one I know opposed this war because they supported Saddam — who was a criminal, a mass murderer, without whom the world is better off. But the case for war was presented to the congress and the American people based on two falsehoods: that there were weapons of mass destruction pointed at us by Iraq and that there was a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Even before the first shot was fired, there were cogent arguments to be made, questions to be raised about legitimacy, about unilateralism, about where we were, where we are headed, about our national equilibrium and about our moral compass. And yes, questions about the unembarrassed brashness of power.
The simpleton who coined the phrase ‘my country right or wrong’ was aptly answered over one hundred years ago by Carl Schurz, a U.S. senator and former general. “my country right or wrong,” he said, “indeed; when right to be kept right and when wrong to be put right.”
My attitude toward Israel is similar: those who care for Israel deeply – and I do — must be prepared to see it fully, accept its glory but must with equal vigor attempt to correct its flaws.

We must fight injustice, discrimination and oppression wherever we find it: Specifically in Darfur, in all lands that oppress women, in Asia, in Africa, and yes, in our own country whenever baser instincts threaten to overpower its sense of higher morality.
All this is tikkun olam, a concept that originated with the 16th century cabbalist Isaac Luria. It roughly means ‘making the world better.’ I love America, my adopted country; and I also love Israel. Love them enough to want to help change them for the better. Tikkun olam – it is my task. It is our task.

ON BEING A JEW

“Being a Jew is an exercise in survival, in knowing where you stand, in having this notion that the past informs the present. I consider myself to be a Jew in the vertical and horizontal sense. Horizontal because I feel to be kin, relative and family of every Jew who lives today, wherever he may be. Vertical because I am the son, the grandson and the descendant of all the Jews who came before me. I am also the father, grandfather and ancestor of all those who will come after. I stand in the middle. That too is what it means to be a Jew. Sometimes people misunderstand the specialness of being a Jew. Being the chosen people to me means simply chosen for a task, not for privilege, not for special elite status.

And that task was to bring the Word, whatever it was, to a world that needed to hear the Word and still needs to hear the Word. It was meant to be the Word of God, an ethical orientation, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. We have to teach the world about survival, creative survival, not merely physical survival. There’s a difference. Sure, everybody threatened with extinction will fight for survival. But we have to survive as a moral people. Sometimes we Jews forget that.”

2010, Moment Magazine

FOR A BETTER WORLD

THEO ON PERSONAL JUDAISM AND JUSTICE

For one reason or another I am viewed not just as an artist who happens to be a Jew but, despite a large body of work in the general artistic arena, as a “Jewish artist.” I do not resent the label, except for the fact that I disapprove of labels in general.

Lest my predilection toward my own Jewishness be misunderstood or misinterpreted, let me emphasize that I am a universalist, quite passionately devoted to the cause of equality within the human family. But I came by this attitude precisely because of the Jew in me. I perceive the world, especially American society as a kaleidoscope. The brighter each particle shines, the better for society as a whole and certainly for each ethnic component of it. A ‘melting pot’, as some are so often tempted to define our society, is as silly a notion as it is dangerous; from it can come only cultural disaster. For it leads inexorably toward a no-shape, no-color, undelineated mishmash, reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. Need I stress that in cultural terms that turns out to be both low and common.

Apart from carrying the label of ‘artist’, I am also known as an activist. My activism had its genesis a long time ago, when I was a boy in Vienna, Austria. When the barbarians entered the city and paraded right under our windows on the main thoroughfare where we lived, there was anxiety and a gnawing fear of what might be in store for us. We were the only family on the block that did not open their windows wide to welcome the conquerors who passed in open sedans, first the fat one and then the ogre himself, the one with the little moustache. Much later when people we knew, Jews, were dragged into the street, subjected to brutal indignities, and we watched when some were bundled into trucks and driven off, there were some decent gentile neighbors who did not participate in the brutality. But they saw it, just as we did, and did not call a halt. And today neither you nor I nor history itself can absolve these ‘nice’ people of guilt and complicity.
I was not able to formulate my feelings until much later as an adult but I knew that I would never allow myself to become like these nice neighbors. Now, whenever I witness injustice and discrimination I do not have the luxury –as they thought they did – of saying ‘it’s not my fight.’ it is my fight; it is always our fight. The victims may be of any color, race, gender, ethnicity or religion – in my mind they become Jews.

45 years ago I stood in black churches in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, speaking of the curse of inequality, singing of freedom, holding hands with ministers, civil rights workers and students. From the churches we set out to march proclaiming a burning quest for freedom and more often than not we ended up in jail.

I was there not only because my voice and presence were needed as were those of so many other Americans — yes, liberals if you will (it was not yet a pejorative term). I stood there chiefly because I needed to be there as a decent person, as a good American, and as a Jew.

I also had to let them know all that, especially the last part, the Jewish part. How do you do that? Well, I am a very secular Jew, I travel and perform on the Sabbath, I eat all kinds of cockamamie food – but when I was in that jail in Alabama I insisted on kosher food.

We thought that with the passage of time America would learn and that the atrocity of bombing a church and killing four young children in it would not– could not — be repeated. It was a vain hope.

We live in 2008 now and it is sad to report that in the last two decades some 125 churches were burned and many more vandalized. And it is escalating.

What does that teach us?

Who are these people?

KKK, white supremacists, and members of — mark the term well — the “Aryan nation”. Remember how the word was used against Jews. It still is. Here’s a quote from one of their pamphlets: “non-whites are ‘mud-people’ and Jews are ‘children of Satan.’

Is it only in the south? SC, NC, ALA, MISS, FLA, GA? No. – it is also in Seattle, Wash. And the so-called Aryan nation is headquartered in Idaho.
“jerky kids?” “pranksters?”

In some communities, even now with all the national focus there is a woeful lack of attention being paid.
They say that white churches were also burned. True, but in these very few cases it was found that thieves committed the arson so as to cover up burglaries. Different, quite different.

Maybe it’s not a black thing, maybe it’s a church thing, a religious thing. So what. All of it is to be condemned.
All of it is criminal.

In the fight for human dignity I had the distinction of being arrested in Washington D,C. twice within one year. The first was in front of the South African embassy where daily protests about the evils of apartheid were mounted. The second arrest was at the Soviet embassy. The protest was about the treatment of Jews by the Soviet Union. This time there were eight of us, seven men and one woman. We asked to be admitted to the embassy, asked to talk with the ambassador or the chargé d’affaires and, naturally, were refused entry. We stood in front of the gates and demonstrated the only way one can in a peaceful manner: we sang. We sang in English “let my people go”, we sang in Hebrew “hiney ma tov – how good it is for brethren to dwell together in peace and unity,” and I sang in Russian “pharaonu gavaryu otpusti narod moy” – ‘to you pharaoh I say, let my people go.’

The DC police were there with their paddy wagon, ready to do their bit. A few

minutes into our protest, the sergeant came up and recited his formula of it being against DC regulations to demonstrate within 500 feet of an embassy. He ordered us to stop and leave. I said very politely: “we respectfully decline.” and we continued to sing. “In that case,” he said, “you are now under arrest.” They took us, one by one, to the van to be handcuffed. While this was going on the sergeant came up to me and said: “I’m leaving you for last; you’ve got the best voice.” I would not mind having those words on my tombstone.

At times I do use my voice and whatever other talents I may have in the service of a cause I believe in. When you do that you have to be careful not to abuse an audience’s trust. After all, many of them came just to hear music. But neither can you allow your voice to be stilled in order to please everyone who listens. If you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody, least of all all your own sense of justice.

My passions, both as an artist and as an activist were informed by a conviction, instilled in me by my father, that those who are voiceless and powerless must be empowered by men and women who have the voice and eloquence to speak on their behalf. And so, as a natural consequence, I found myself involved in labor unions, specifically those that dealt with the performing artist. In my role as president of the union representing stage performers I helped in the establishment of federally supported housing for artists. I also had a hand in bringing about the creation of the national endowment for the arts. Later I was appointed by president Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Council for the Arts, its overseeing body.

It was not an easy task because our nation, alone among others within Western civilization has little history and even less inclination of viewing the arts as an essential expression of the nation’s well being. Those of us who care have been champions of freedom for America’s arts and for creating an environment in which such freedom is made possible. We fought McCarthyism in the fifties and we are fighting for freedom of speech, including the freedom to dissent, even now as I speak.

After 9/11 our world, our way of life will never again be what it was. Our assumption that we are invulnerable, protected by two oceans and by modern technology, has been shattered. We were wrong to have been complacent and for caring little about the turmoil elsewhere. Then it hit us where we lived and now we experience the fear others have always known. We were wrong to be complacent but we did not deserve this. I count on the resilience of the American people but I wonder if we will be able to develop the mechanism to deal with our new fears. The people of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof knew how to survive; they had their faith and their structured lives were informed by their traditions. But most of us in America do not live by tradition. Finding a way to live in the post-9/11 world is not a matter of pop psychology, sound bytes, quick fixes and short monosyllabic bursts. Sentient and intelligent human beings need to do better than quick fixes.

We will find a way because we must. We may never get back the world we had before September 11 but, in the words of the song, we will ‘try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow.’ to suffer the loss of innocence is something we may have to bear; to lose the memory of it would be far worse still.

They say: actors should act and sing and keep their views to themselves.

They say: Performers have no business using their visibility to further political causes. Strange though, the very people who say these things had no problem cheering the political views of the actor Ronald Reagan or the of that other actor, the Wienerschnitzel who is the present governor of California.

The right of dissent is in the highest democratic tradition of a free country; and artists, indeed all citizens, have an obligation to speak truth to power (to use Elie Wiesel’s phrase.)
Let no one say that dissent in wartime or in peacetime is tantamount to disloyalty, or worse, treason. One thing I know for certain: my colleagues who stood in opposition to the war grieve for the American lives that are being sacrificed, grieve for America’s sons and daughters under arms, just as they grieve for civilian deaths. No one I know opposed this war because they supported Saddam — who was a criminal, a mass murderer, without whom the world is better off. But the case for war was presented to the congress and the American people based on two falsehoods: that there were weapons of mass destruction pointed at us by Iraq and that there was a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Even before the first shot was fired, there were cogent arguments to be made, questions to be raised about legitimacy, about unilateralism, about where we were, where we are headed, about our national equilibrium and about our moral compass. And yes, questions about the unembarrassed brashness of power.
The simpleton who coined the phrase ‘my country right or wrong’ was aptly answered over one hundred years ago by Carl Schurz, a U.S. senator and former general. “my country right or wrong,” he said, “indeed; when right to be kept right and when wrong to be put right.”
My attitude toward Israel is similar: those who care for Israel deeply – and I do — must be prepared to see it fully, accept its glory but must with equal vigor attempt to correct its flaws.

We must fight injustice, discrimination and oppression wherever we find it: Specifically in Darfur, in all lands that oppress women, in Asia, in Africa, and yes, in our own country whenever baser instincts threaten to overpower its sense of higher morality.
All this is tikkun olam, a concept that originated with the 16th century cabbalist Isaac Luria. It roughly means ‘making the world better.’ I love America, my adopted country; and I also love Israel. Love them enough to want to help change them for the better. Tikkun olam – it is my task. It is our task.

ON BEING A JEW

“Being a Jew is an exercise in survival, in knowing where you stand, in having this notion that the past informs the present. I consider myself to be a Jew in the vertical and horizontal sense. Horizontal because I feel to be kin, relative and family of every Jew who lives today, wherever he may be. Vertical because I am the son, the grandson and the descendant of all the Jews who came before me. I am also the father, grandfather and ancestor of all those who will come after. I stand in the middle. That too is what it means to be a Jew. Sometimes people misunderstand the specialness of being a Jew. Being the chosen people to me means simply chosen for a task, not for privilege, not for special elite status.

And that task was to bring the Word, whatever it was, to a world that needed to hear the Word and still needs to hear the Word. It was meant to be the Word of God, an ethical orientation, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. We have to teach the world about survival, creative survival, not merely physical survival. There’s a difference. Sure, everybody threatened with extinction will fight for survival. But we have to survive as a moral people. Sometimes we Jews forget that.”

2010, Moment Magazine

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