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On Artistry and Questions

As we make our way to summer’s end, I’ve been reflecting on the gifts of these past months: for me and for my family, summer in the Berkshire is no less than sacred time. It’s as though our little corner of the world conspires to set the stage for joy and growth, rest and inspiration. From those first warm nights on the porch when the lilac is still in bloom, to the golden light that peaks during dinner in these waning days- summertime in the Berkshires is a masterclass in living well.  And now, we are on the cusp of a turning, as we make our way into the month of Elul.  The joy and the growth and the rest and inspiration line up for an inspection in our souls: how are we doing? Did we learn the lessons offered to us in the past year? Did we appreciate it all enough? Did we find joy in the small things? Did we grow and learn from our mistakes? Did we slow down enough— did we invite Shabbat into our lives to offer the lessons of rest? Were we inspired by all that this beautiful and puzzling world showed to us?

I have been reflecting on these questions over the last few days— the shift in season apparent as I get my kids off to school instead of camp. What have I learned from this year gone by? How has this summer sharpened my ability to live well?

Peter Korn, a craftsman and author of the book Why We Make Things and Why It Matters, writes that “the most godlike aspect in mankind is the ability to create, to forge order out of chaos, to shape oneself and the world in new and, hopefully, better ways. It exercises one’s innate capacity to re-form the given world in ways that matter. Creative practice is a way to proactively challenge and refine one’s beliefs on an ongoing basis.”

I am inspired by artists: I love to watch people do what they are excellent at doing—in those moments of witnessing true artistry, I feel God’s presence: how else to explain the way in which a truly masterful artist can open our souls with just one note, one word, one image? 

One of my favorite things about living here is the access to unbelievable arts and cultural performances that we have year round, but especially during the summer season. This summer I saw three performances in particular that really weaved their way into my heart. And so tonight in the spirit of Elul, this month of self reflection,I want to share with you three questions that have stayed with me since encountering three different artists over the course of this past summer. 

First, the voice of a poet, who leaves me wondering: “how can our lives be instruments for the wisdom of our ancestors?”

Poet Joy Harjo was the first native American poet laureate of the United States. She is a poet, musician and self-described mystic, part of the Muscogee tribe, and sitting and listening to her not only read her poetry, but illuminate her process felt like an invitation. She talks extensively about ancestors— about her ancestors, about the power of words that we inherit over the generations, especially for those who see themselves as part of an oral tradition.  She writes: 

Anyone who’s ever sat in front of a blank page, held an instrument, or is getting ready to craft or carve something out of air always eventually ponders, where does this come from, and where does it go, and what’s behind it? Some of it’s connected to ancestors. Some of it’s connected to the particular landscape or even to descendants because time is not linear. A spiral. Creativity is the alignment with the unknowable.

This really resonated with me— what is our own Jewish tradition if not a spiral of words and sounds sung and whispered across the generations? 

And so this Elul,inspired by the wisdom of poet Joy Harjo,  I am beginning with an ear toward the voice of our ancestors: finding strength in the utter humanity of each generation. 

The second question, this one posed by a writer and comedian. 

"Who is deserving of our empathy?" 

Alex Edelman describes himself as a Bostonian comedian. Jew. Sweetheart. This summer, his one man show called “Just For Us” was a breakout hit, following a run at the Greenwich House Theater in NY that was twice extended. I had the chance to see it up at the theater festival in Williamstown and was electrified. 

As he describes the show himself, Just For Us takes the audience through hilarious anecdotes from Alex Edelman’s life — his upbringing as an orthodox Jew in the Boston suburbs– but at its center is an astonishing and frighteningly relevant story. After a string of anti-Semitic abuse is directed at Edelman online, he decides to covertly attend a gathering of White Nationalists in New York City and comes face to face with the people behind the keyboards.

I will pause here to say that I believe laughter is holy— and humor, at it’s best, leaves you thinking as you hold your sides from laughing so hard. To be sure, it was one of the funniest pieces I have ever seen— but at heart, it was also one of the most incisive interrogations of what it means to be a Jew. 

Describing the moment when his cover is blown, and this motley crew of White Nationalists reacts to the discovery of a Jew in their midst, Edelman turns to face the audience, and describes his inner struggle in that moment. 

And he asks: who is deserving of our empathy? 

Who is deserving of our empathy? Do we draw the line at white nationalists? What if we can see the pain of the human experience behind their eyes? Do we lose our own humanity when we deny empathy to others?  How do we live out our mandate to see each human being as created b’tzelem Elohim, even in the face of hate? 

These questions feel very live to me right now— at a time when democracy and civility hang in the balance, is there a line over which empathy cannot cross?

And so this Elul,inspired by the wisdom of comedian Alex Edelman,  I am beginning with an awareness of the power of empathy to bolster our own humanity. 

Finally, a third question, posed by  a master storyteller and songwriter. “How do we make space for the next generation?”

This past week, along with more than 18,000 of my closest Berkshire pals on the lawn at Tanglewood I had the chance to see two incredible performances by women whose words and music inspire and comfort me.  

After two years of covid-induced cancellations, Brandi Carlile, a world-class rockstar finally took the stage, this time with her musical idols and mine, the Indigo Girls.

I don’t think I was the only one who was struck by the seeming role reversal— the Indigo Girls, a duo comprised of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been touring together as commercially successful musicians for more than 35 years. Like many of the people on the lawn on Tuesday night, I have probably seen the Indigo Girls in concert more than twenty times— but it was my first time seeing the headliner, Brandi Carlile live. 

Brandi Carlile is my age. From the stage at the Koussevitsky Shed, facing an enraptured audience of thousands, she honored her mentors; her musical idols, reminiscing about memorizing Indigo Girls lyrics from the liner notes of cassette tapes, and the ways in which their music inspired her, and lit up her path.  

Truly, a beautiful lesson in how one generation inspires the next— no ego, no elbowing for more room: the student had become the master— but the masters were there, applauding her, joining her, and celebrating her. 

I am so inspired by this particular example of how we might lift up the voices of those who come before, and how those who paved new pathways might help shepherd newer voices to the front of the line. 

And so this Elul,inspired by the wisdom of musicians Amy Ray, Emily Saliers and Brandi Carlile,  I am beginning by looking behind me and in front of me, considering the mentors on whose shoulders I still stand, and the newer voices who I want to cheer on as they make their way to the front. 

The author Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote  “there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer.”. For me, after the realities of these last two years, the idea of a year of questions feels energizing— it points to a future-me that I can just begin to imagine. Ultimately, I understand the work of this month of self-reflection and introspection to be an exercise in artistry: how will we paint the canvas of our lives in this year ahead? What songs will our souls sing out loud? What beauty will we create? Art is ultimately a mirror and a metaphor for life itself.  Inspired by the brilliance of those artists whose work I encountered this summer, I offer you the gift of these questions too, with the prayer that your journey toward the new year ahead will be enlivened by them. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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