The Neutralizing Power of Music

In rehearsing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston tonight in rehearsal, I had another stark realization:

Music functions as a remarkable neutralizer.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean that music is neutral; it is anything but neutral. However, if you sit in a room in which everyone is unified by the music they produce, everyone is level. Especially in a choral setting, the only important thing is the unified sound. Age, ideology, religious belief, career, or sickness: nothing matters except for the music. It’s brilliant!

… maybe.

The realization that I really discovered was something I hadn’t thought about recently. That is, the realization that I really don’t know anything about the people with whom I sing.

With regard to some of my choirmates, I know their careers; I know that they have children but not necessarily how many; I know their voice parts. But that’s about it. I am conspicuously in the dark about people’s religious beliefs and practices, and the more I think about this, the more it surprises me. This is one of the only religious organizations in which I have ever participated that, of forty people, religious observance is not an “important” element of people’s religious identities. Some grew up religious, some still are, some not. I’m sure that when the choir goes on tours that include Shabbat the religiosity of our constituents is called into play, and is something to be shared. But otherwise, it’s not something that just “comes up” in conversation.

To some extent, I’m neutral about this issue. I find it interesting, but it does not affect me. To another extent, it frustrates me: in all of my other relationships with other Jews, religiosity is a large part of who we are and where we come from, where we go, and what we do.

I’m fascinated by the fact that by nature of our music, we come together, as Jews. We represent one nation, one people, united. Denominational difference transcends us, and our voices mix, as one. That’s all that matters. Jews, from all walks of life. As one we sing.

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Almost Atheist

Sitting in the first lecture of a course entitled “Catholicism” at Boston University, Professor Donna Freitas requested that we introduce ourselves by saying our name, our school and major (the usual stuff), but then also to include our own religious backgrounds, and how that drove us to take the course. She explained that our “baggage,” which she says, “some of us carry around with a forklift behind us,” defines our perception of the material we are going to study, and thus it was important for us to know about the “baggage” of those with whom we’re about to share our semester. This survey revealed that the student body in our class is composed of, among others:
— some religious Catholics looking to get an academic perspective on their religion
— some students who grew up nominally Catholic but whose families were never practicing
— one or two Muslims
— two Jews, including myself and an Orthodox friend
— some non-believers or non-practitioners.

While “unloading our baggage,” one student’s response particularly interested me. She said, “I grew up Catholic, but we weren’t really practicing, and I haven’t gone to church in a long time. I would say now that I’m probably almost atheist.

Almost Atheist? Does she mean almost a-religious?

My most handy Dashboard computer-dictionary, crafted by Oxford American Dictionaries, defines atheism as “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” The word is derived, by way of French, from the Greek word atheos, “a-” meaning “without,” and “-theos” meaning “God”. By this definition, can one ever be almost atheist?

I am sure this student didn’t mean her response to be so intensely and excruciatingly scrutinized, and I don’t fault her for this semantic error. It merely gave me fodder for pondering, so I used it to springboard an interesting excavation of thought. but there is indeed at least one great philosopher who can readily fall into the category of almost atheist: Primo Levi.

Primo Levi, author of the famous Holocaust survival memoir Survival in Auschwitz, consistently writes about how he wrestles with the existence of God in the aforementioned book. His beginnings were in an emancipated but Jewish family in pre-World War II Italy, in his twenties ending up in the Auschwitz death camp. Levi was a “non-believer, and even less of a believer after the season of Auschwitz” [Primo Levi, “Shame,” in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, ed. Lawrence L. Langer (New York: Oxford UP, 1995), p. 115]. But Levi’s atheism is unique and interesting: he tells comrades and others time and again that he is an atheist, but occasionally acknowledges that a god exists in whom others legitimately believe. In this way, a number of times in Survival in Auschwitz and in his other writings, Levi essentially says, “God, YOU don’t exist.” He is uniquely defiant in his atheism, explicitly expressing that his belief is optional, that he chooses to resist God.

The same dashboard dictionary that I used to define the term “atheism” also intriguingly gives it the following synonyms: nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, irreligion, skepticism, doubt, agnosticism; nihilism. Okay, so perhaps I was mistaken in my approach to the word: not that it is defined differently than I originally thought, but that, if “atheism” is legitimately a synonym for irreligion, then perhaps it can also apply in the context in which my classmate used it. Of course: leave it to me, ever to remain the Literal One.

Depicting the Holocaust: A Problem

It is a constant struggle for us to figure out ways to represent the Holocaust that are respectful to those who perished. Often representatives from different groups wish to remind the world what happened in those dark years while Hitler was in power and the Nazi party ruled and ruined the lives of all it enveloped, so that the world can remember and renew our vow again and again that we will do what we can to ensure that it never happens again. The question is always: how?

Today, January 31, 2008, a group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was faced with this very issue. The Rio carnival has a reputation of being “a festival recognised worldwide for its joy, humour, entertainment and eroticism,” the lawyer of Fierj, the Jewish federation of Rio, explained in an article about the opposition toward a certain float depicting the Holocaust. He opposed the float because of the aforementioned characteristics, and represented Fierj in their fight against it, saying that “The monstrosity that is the Holocaust just cannot be combined with the excessively festive nature of the carnival.”

According to the same article, “The float is one of several that Viradouro was planning to use as the group parades down Rio’s sambadrome under its theme ‘It gives you goose bumps’. The other floats are set to portray cold, fear and birth.”

Does the memory of the Holocaust give you goose bumps? Does it sometimes infringe on your ability to sleep at night? Of course it does. How about the time of Pogroms? Or the Crusades? Or the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, in which the Church told many pagans, Jews, and others, that they were to convert, be expelled, or die. And yet, Mel Brooks can poke fun at both the Inquisition and the Crusades in his movie, “History of the World: Part I”. What is it about the Holocaust that makes us so opposed to those who want to depict it for an effect? What is it that makes it okay for people to create video games in which the player is a Crusader, reminding us of a time when thousands of Jews, and others, were killed in the name of Jesus Christ, but the idea of a video game in which players play the role of Nazi is abhorrent to us?

Don’t think I’m downplaying our pain still from the Holocaust. I am not. I am asking simply why we don’t share that pain when we think about the other events that were just as horrific? On Yom Kippur we read the martyrology, which tells of ten Rabbis who were brutally murdered in their respective time periods, just for being Jewish. This is perhaps less well-known, but this too doesn’t make you want to vomit?

The fact that people would want to dedicate a parade float to displaying anything resembling the atrocities of the Holocaust sickens me. A memorial is one thing. A display is another.

Try to have some respect for the Dead. They have been through enough.