Friday, February 28, 2014

Penny's Song

The song of nature’s gray tones rose and fell on the snowflakes that swirled around us. Carried up from a nearby pond, the song of the wind in minor key, valiantly striving toward major, yearning in its breath and in the vaporous dance of our own. We were a small group huddled together around an open grave. Mostly strangers to each other, we had each been touched by Penny in different ways. In truth, as we listened to each other’s sharing, we realized we had all heard the same song, the same motif that was the song of Penny’s life. We were two rabbis, an Episcopal priest, a doctor who had cared for Penny, a teacher who had invited Penny to spend time in her classroom of little children, Penny’s landlord who had been so much more. We had each been points of contact for Penny at different stages of her journey, each of us touched by the seeking of a person who never seemed to find just the right place to alight. In that way, Penny had been to Nehar Shalom a number of times, flitting in and leaving again, the echo of her song remaining among us.

We had each heard of her death through the networks that joined us all without our knowing. We had each been touched, heart-broken at times, by the sadness in Penny’s life. There was no family at Penny’s funeral, a reflection of the brokenness with which she lived. And we had all been touched by the hope with which Penny also lived, if not hope for her self, then hope for the world. The major motif that rose up from all the minor modes and moods of Penny’s life was peace. 

Penny was the local representative of the World Peace Prayer Society, an NGO affiliate of the United Nations. If you’ve ever seen the peace pole in front of the Curley School and in so many other places around town, you can be sure Penny had something to do with its being there, a reminder of what we are all here for. At the bottom of her emails and on her phone’s outgoing message were words attributed to a great American pacifist, A.J. Muste, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” That was Penny’s message and reminder. Penny came to a Nehar Shalom Chanukkah party a few years ago. In her way, without asking, which at times could grate, she quietly hung a blue banner on the table holding the menorahs, “May Peace Prevail On Earth.” She left a pile of little buttons on the table with the same message. I took one of those buttons out of my desk drawer this morning and put it on my coat before leaving for her funeral. 

It was the week of Shabbos Shira/the Sabbath of Song, always coinciding with the Torah portion called B’shallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16). It is the Torah portion of Israel’s crossing the sea, free at last, free at last. Having crossed through the parted waters, we stand on the far shore with mouths agape, witnessing the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army, swallowed up by the churning sea returning. And then we burst into song, Moses leading the men and Miriam the women. It is a song of raw emotion, of disbelief, filled with the horrific images of what is seen in that moment. It is a song of relief, salt of the sea touching wounds still fresh from the lash. Through the telling of the rabbis, the angels in Heaven also began to sing, but removed from the direct experience of suffering they are told to stop, God sharply silencing them, “How can you dance, while My handiwork drowns in the sea?” The mix of moods and modes, diverse realities that swirl as one, all of life’s tensions become one in the Song of the Sea.

It is the song of life, of Penny’s, of our own. As I pray that Penny’s song be heard on High and carried on the wind, may it be in major key now as she finds rest. In nature’s gray tones there is beauty too, and in the song of the swirling snow, all the moods of our lives woven together, a tapestry of yearning and hope. We gathered as strangers, warm amidst the cold, come to mourn and to celebrate a life. When means and ends become as one, freedom song arising, “may peace prevail on earth,” Penny’s memory a blessing.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Music of Peace Made by ... Guns?

To provide some background for this video, we're reposting an article from the Huffington Post that originally appeared on December 13, 2013.

The guns that have caused so many deaths in northern Mexico are now making music.

Mechanical hammers ping against ammunition magazines from assault rifles. Gun barrels cut to different lengths ring like marimbas. Pistol parts strike metal plates, like cymbals, to create rhythmic, syncopated sounds.

"It's important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons, as if a sort of exorcism was taking place," sculptor Pedro Reyes said in a description of his project emailed to The Associated Press.

When they were played, he said, "the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost."

For the project titled "Disarm," Reyes said he was able to choose his instruments from about 6,700 guns that were turned in or seized by the army and police in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.3 million people that averaged about 10 killings a day at the height of the violence. In 2010, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas. Juarez had a murder rate about 230 per 100,000 inhabitants. The nationwide rate for the U.S. that year was 4.8.

"The dramatic thing is that this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the weapons that are seized every day and that the army has to destroy," Reyes said in an interview as he demonstrated some of his computer controlled instruments that played a sort of industrial pop tinged with marimba.

Reyes already was known for a 2008 project called "Palas por Pistolas," or "Pistols to Shovels," in which he melted down 1,527 weapons to make the same number of shovels to plant the same number of trees.

The new project began last year with a phone call offering him another chance to work with the seized guns.

"Normally, they bury or destroy them, but someone who works in the government said, `Would you be interested in making a sculpture with this metal?'" he recalled.

Drug-cartel violence cost more than 70,000 lives in Mexico over the last six years and the weapons trafficking that has been a sore point; many of the weapons used by the cartels are smuggled across the border from the United States.

In 2012, then-president Felipe Calderon inaugurated a billboard in Ciudad Juarez which, facing Texas, spelled out the words "No More Weapons" in welded pieces of decommissioned guns.

Reyes also hopes to take his message international, with an exhibition of the musical instruments in London's Lisson Gallery in March and later in the United States.

"This project has a pacifist intent, to create a global consciousness about arms trafficking," Reyes said.

Violence has become a theme in Mexican art in recent years. One artist from the violence-plagued state of Sinaloa, Teresa Margolles, works with artifacts collected from crime scenes, such as pieces of glass or cloth dabbed with mud and blood.

Reyes stresses that his work "is not just a protest, but a proposal."

"It occurred to me to make musical instruments, because music is the opposite of weapons," Reyes said. "This exercise of transformation we see with the guns, is what we would like to see in society."

Note: In this video you'll hear a haunting performance of John Lennon's "Imagine," using some of the instruments created from guns. If you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch the video.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jack Leroy Tueller: "The Power of Music"

World War II veteran Jack Leroy Tueller, from Bountiful, Utah, tells a powerful story about an experience he had one week after D-Day. One evening, after having witnessed innocent civilians being killed, he wanted to play his trumpet to release some stress--even though he'd been warned that there was one German sniper still out there, threatening his unit.

Colonel Tueller decided to play a German love song, "Lili Marleen" by Marlene Dietrich. His playing so moved the sniper that he couldn’t shoot. He surrendered the next morning. A 19-year-old, he kept asking, "Who played that trumpet last night?" Tueller met the young German sniper, who said he couldn’t fire after being soothed by the love song.

By choosing to play “his love song,” Jack recognized the fear and loneliness common to all of us. Now 90, he shares his unforgettable story about the power of music--and the power of compassion.

Note: If you can't see the viewer below, click here to watch the video.


Phyllis Cole Dai

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Song and a River to Carry Us On

In this video Pete Seeger performs "To My Old Brown Earth." If you can't see the viewer above, click here to watch the video.

Always to be sung, the Torah is a song, so referred to even from within itself (Deut. 31:30, 32:44); and it is a river, the river of a people, “the brook that descends from the mountain” (Deut. 9:21). A song and a river, two touchstones of Pete Seeger’s life, each joining people together, voices raised as one, travelling together along the current, “far beyond the raging waters,” (River of My People) yes, “I can see our certain home.” Celebrating sunrise and sunset, partners in creation, the whole world in our hands, whether from the shores of home or from a vessel on the wave, Clearwater song, “still I’ll keep the dream,” kiss of spray as hope upon the brow, “my Hudson River and my country will run clear.”

During my last year of rabbinical school, “long time passing…, long time ago” (Where Have all the Flowers Gone), time flowing to its source like the waters of the nearby Hudson, the soon to be rabbis of my class were asked for suggestions of people to receive honorary degrees at our ordination. Perhaps to come down to the bustling town from his place up the river a bit, I suggested Pete Seeger. I don’t think I ever received a response to my essay, as much a plea as a suggestion. I knew then and I know now that he accomplished so much of what should be ours to do, as rabbis, as people, as communities of people; to raise up the spirit, to bring people together across all the divides of our own making, to inspire us to act for the sake of justice, of peace, “I swear it’s not too late” (Turn, Turn, Turn), of goodness, and to sing truth to power in the face of all that demeans life and creation, to scatter seeds of hope on wings of song. 

He encouraged people to sing, his concerts as hootenannies, however much people came to hear him. He helped others to find their own voice, the song of their own soul. It is the essence of what coming to a place of worship should be. He didn’t need the degree, but we needed his blessing. As a chorus that never ends, his blessing remains as a gift of his having been, shining with the twinkle of his eye, the warmth of his voice, expressed in so many ways, as at the end of the introduction to his songbook, Bells of Rhymney. “Yours for peace, freedom, jobs for all, lotsa good picking and singing, instruments that stay in tune, and people likewise.” I got the songbook, his signature on the cover, tickets still inside, at a concert he gave on my sixteenth birthday.

I woke up that morning to the news of Pete’s death, as did so many others, and, so too, as so many others, I cried as at the loss of a family member or close friend. He had been part of my life for as long as I can remember. If we worry for how to go on beyond one so present for so long, he sang and soothed the way, words I sang through the storms of adolescence and still do now at times of stress, “it takes a worried man to sing a worried song, I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long” (Worried Man Blues). Growing up in a house of folk music and progressive politics, going to his concerts was a spiritual experience. My mother often cried at those concerts, even as we might on hearing the haunting melodies of Yom Kippur evening in the synagogue, soul touched deeply in the company of others. In either case, it is not the music in itself, even though it is, but the impact of song on soul, of people joined together, a reminder and reflection of what might be in the wide world all around. My mother’s joy overflowed when we first went to a concert with the next generation, hope unfolding; the song of life carried forth. Pete sang in harmony to the cycle of life, encouraging, soothing, that it might always be, and so it unfolded before him, singing the generations to each other, helping us all to embrace the unfolding of life, to live until we die, unafraid; encouraging, as from a Russian lullaby, “May there always be sunshine, may their always be blue skies, may there always be momma, may there always be me.” In whatever language he sang, he was of that people, and through song, he was of all people. Wherever he sang became sacred space.

Pete lived, worked, and sang to create a sanctuary of earth in which all people shall dwell together, in peace and unafraid, each with its own song, all learning to sing the chorus for another’s song. That is the message of the desert sanctuary/the Mishkan, its building beginning in the Torah portion of the week he died, the portion called T’rumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19). God says, v’asu li mikdash/and they shall make for Me a sanctuary/v’shochanti b’tocham/and I shall dwell among them. God doesn’t need a place to dwell, but yearns to dwell among us. It is about our own coming together and recognizing the presence of God in each other. The building of the Sanctuary becomes a model for so much that Pete stood for. It is as though all the people drawn to the task are one big union, no straw bosses or overlords, as we knew in Egypt. People are to give only as their hearts make them willing and only then as they are able, only the gifts of their own hearts. And every one has a role, none to be diminished, each one of equal importance, each one a stockholder and stakeholder in the national enterprise. No steel is to come upon the altar, the sound of the sword banished from the sanctuary of God. For the rabbis, the sanctuary was the world itself. And God waits. The sanctuary was a reflection of creation, the world and the human as vessels to be cared for with tenderness. All the details of its building lovingly described, curtains of brilliant hue, “Oh, had I a golden thread, and needle so fine, I’d weave a magic strand of rainbow design;” one teaching says, gold represents the sun, silver the moon, and in the intermingling colors of the setting sun there is copper. Another teaching compares the details of the sanctuary to the miracle of the human body, the greatest sanctuary; gold represents the soul, and silver the body, and copper is the voice of Heaven (as carried within each one). It is for us to protect and care for each other and the earth we share. 

And in time we return, each one, “To My Old Brown Earth,” Pete’s song of life even in death, a song of love and hope for those to come:

To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.” And you who sing and you who stand near by, I do charge you not to cry. Guard well our human chain, watch well you keep it strong as long as sun will shine. And this our home, keep pure and sweet and green, for now I’m yours and you are also mine.

Thank you, Pete, for the teaching of your life, a song and a river to carry us on.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, February 7, 2014


Memory is a funny thing. Some fade. Some remain. And then there are some that  are planted indelibly in our brains. They'll go with us to our graves. I can see in my mind's eye now, where I was and what I was doing, when I found out about the assassinations of the sixties.

Watching the movie "The Butler" brought back a host of memories. After all, many my age are children of the sixties. That  was the formative period in our lives. It was a time electric with change. It  was a time when many of us believed the life of our democracy and our country was at stake and slowly bleeding away in rights denied and Vietnam.

The movie theatre was almost empty. It was just my wife and I and one other person. I knew "The Butler" had been in town a while. I hoped attendance was better earlier since it's a film everyone should see. It's about historical memory and I'm afraid our national memory in the U.S. is almost nil. As a country, we can hardly remember to put on our pants in the morning or zip up our fly, let alone learn from the past.

In the mid seventies I was working as Chaplain at a college in Maryland. One of the faculty members arranged for a film to be shown about the turmoil of the sixties. There was a great attendance with the auditorium almost full. My emotions were raw, watching all those events play out again on the screen in front of me. I was dismayed, as I watched the students leaving and spoke with some of them. They  were unmoved,  untouched, unaware of those momentous times.  I thought then, as I think now, our historical memory as a country is very,very short. 

Of course, there are movies. There are books. There are memorials. But if the past only touches us in these external ways, if there's no interior or structural change, what good are memories?

Two of my memories from the U.S. civil rights struggle occurred on a visit to Washington, D.C. Our New York City Seminary was part of a coalition of seminaries across the country working to get  the Civil Rights Act passed. We set up a twenty four hour vigil in front of the Lincoln Memorial to inform visitors about the pending legislation. As students rotated in and out of the vigil and the city, they also went to visit their representatives in Congress.

Since I still had my residence in South Dakota, I went to visit my Senator, Karl Mundt. He graciously welcomed me into his office and I proceeded to tell him who I was, why I was there and that I hoped he would vote for the civil rights legislation. He proceeded to tell me how his wife had been robbed recently in D.C. by a Negro. Not knowing what the connection was between the robbery and the legislation (although I could guess) my response was not as generous as his welcome and the conversation disintegrated into a quick good bye.

The other memory of that D.C. trip that sticks in my mind is of a boy scout troop from Georgia. There were several scouts, maybe twenty in all, with a couple leaders, visiting the Lincoln Memorial. The boys saw our seminarians table and sign  and were curious.  Several started our way to talk with us. Catching sight of what we were doing from our sign their mentors quickly called them back, rounded them up, gave them a quick lecture about staying together and headed into the Lincoln Memorial; to see the one who represented freedom, from the past.

There's a Vietnam veteran I count among my friends. He was in the Marines and doing some of the up front and personal combat in that Asian nation. He told me once how he remembers the trip out of Vietnam. He was looking out the window of the airplane at the jungles below saying to himself, "never again." He may have been speaking for himself, but my sense was he was speaking even more for his country. Because the context for our conversation was our attack on Iraq and his great grief over that unnecessary war. His memory as an individual was front and center. Our memory as a country was blunted, especially by leaders who had no memory of war, up close and personal. 

"The Butler" jogged my memory. It reminded me that freedom is not free. Sometimes we have to struggle for it right here at home. And here we are, at another crossroads in the U.S.. Our rights are being denied again and again, day after day. We're all losing (some more than others, so far) our right to privacy; to reasonable cause for search and seizure; to freedom of assembly; to freedom of the press; to the right of transparency and information necessary for an educated citizenry; to the right for a fair and speedy trial; even to the right to vote.

And still we continue, bleeding the country to death, sacrificing our young and our wealth on the altars of militarism. Where will the next war be? Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan are slowly fading conflicts, fading memories. Will Syria or Iran or N. Korea or Yemen come front and center? 

Carl Kline