Art and Protest: A Jewish Folktale

The Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #2

February 20, 2017

A story. Once upon a time in the old country, there was a tiny town in a wine-producing region of Eastern Europe. The villagers in this region heard that a revered and renowned rabbi was planning to visit their town on a grand tour. So they called a meeting and said, “We must host a great celebration in the rabbi’s honor.”

Then one of the villagers suggested, “Since we all make wine, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a wine festival where the rabbi could taste the very best of our wine?”

And then someone countered, “But each family only makes a little wine each year. A big celebration would use up a family’s entire supply of wine for a year.”

So they devised a plan. They put a big oak barrel in the center of town, and every week, just after sundown on Shabbat, every household was to bring a small pitcher of red wine and pour it into the cask. Then, by time of the rabbi’s arrival, they would have a full cask.

In one of the village families, Mendel went home and said to his wife Rebecca, “Listen, you know that everyone is going to be bringing wine, and we’re not a rich family. There’s going to be so much wine in that one cask, ours certainly will make no difference. Why don’t we just fill our pitcher up with water? When I take it to the barrel – I’ll pour it right at the lip – I guarantee you that no one will notice.” And that’s what he did, every week.

Six months later, the big day arrived. The villagers set up a stand in the center of town and put the cask on top of it. Right on schedule, the famous rabbi appeared. The townspeople were all very proud of their village and their wine, and they were anxious to impress the rabbi. They presented him with a beautiful, ceremonial kaddish cup to taste the wine and inaugurate the celebration. He put the lovely cup underneath the spigot, filled it up, and lifted it high.

Suddenly there was a gasp from the crowd: his cup was filled to the brim with water.

This story, told to me years ago by Rabbi David Holtz and published in my book Because God Loves Stories, popped into my head as I sat on the bus on the way to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. If everyone thought the way that Mendel and Rebecca did, what would that mean for the protests? Perhaps, as my friend Barbara Dyer pointed out, that’s why the election turned out the way it did – so many stayed home and didn’t vote.  It’s precisely that so many didn’t decide to “pour water and not wine” that we saw the numbers we did at the Women’s March and continue to see at other protests, such as those for immigrant and transgender rights. Though many through history have sacrificed more, their bodies and their blood, we all gave a measure of our time.

At the march in D.C. following Trump’s inauguration, I was struck too by the astonishing creativity we contributed collectively to the protests – from the puppets to the slogans and the imaginative signs: “We’re the witches you forgot to burn.” And the chants, this one heard from middle school children marching near the Capital building, “We want a leader, we want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.”

On my way home, my phoned binged and it was from photographer Martha Cooper who had been at the march. “Why don’t we do something with the signs?” She told me about the installation of signs created at the Washington Memorial.

ecooper7218                    Photo by Martha Cooper

We talked on the phone about how the magnitude and widespread dispersion of the signs and protests across the U.S. and beyond seemed as powerful an outcry as the memorials that cropped up nationwide after September 11th. At that time in 2001, we worked with Martha Cooper to document the memorials and to produce both an online exhibit and an exhibition at the New York Historical Society; 15 years later, we had the opportunity to work with her again. We began to plan an exhibit in the City Lore gallery on the Art of Protest, and we are inviting the public (i.e.: you) to send us images of the signs and your stories to my email below. Let us know, too, if you saved your signs.

170121_nyc_womensmarch_flashart_loresLive-Drawing from 2nd Av & 46th St, NYC Women’s March, January 21, ‘1 © Flash Rosenberg 2017

 

As our bus pulled into Port Authority, another bit of Jewish folklore occurred to me—this time an often-quoted piece of wisdom from Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

I began to spin a Talmudic gloss on the line to try to get to its deeper meaning. “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Yes, take action. “If not now, when?” Do it now!

But the first line made me think a little deeper. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” You cannot be only for yourself, but we need to find ways to channel our outrage into creative acts that mean something in our lives. We need to do it for our own sake and our own sanity, to avoid becoming depressed, and in that way, let the other side win. We are doing this so our own lives have meaning as creative beings at the same time as we try affect change in the world. The signs and chants represent art for social change at its best, but they also speak to the poetry of everyday life. So do it for yourself, for your army of one – then let it become an army of two and then four, then four hundred thousand. Let us protest creatively.

And so – as it happened in story – my wife Amanda and I decided not to skimp on the wine we poured into the cask. We got on the bus to DC. Because we marched, five hundred thousand marched. Because you did, others did. Three million worldwide….

paintinghopingpraying_mongeon_blog           Painting, Hoping, Praying: Women’s March on Washington.” Artwork by Jessica Mongeon

 

       *        *        *

Poetry_book-cover
“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org. This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

THE POETRY OF EVERYDAY LIFE – BLOG POST #1

BENEATH THE VISITING MOON: POETRY TO EASE THE FINAL PASSAGE

 

January 27, 2017

“We all have to face this thing sometime,” my wife’s father, Lucas Dargan, told me around the time he turned ninety-nine.

Six months later, he found himself facing precisely that “thing.” A retired forester who planted over two million trees in his lifetime, he had split wood every morning until two years before.

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Photo by Sarah Dargan

Tonight, he lay in a hospital bed at the McCleod hospital in Florence, South Carolina, unable to properly swallow or get out of bed unassisted. Family members took turns staying overnight with him, and this night was my turn. At one point, I thought he was sleeping. I was working on my computer, when I heard lines from a poem coming from the other side of the room:

 

I am dying, Egypt, dying

Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,

And the dark Plutonian shadows

Gather on the evening blast

 

“I think it’s from Shakespeare,” he told me, so I brought my laptop over to his bedside and looked up the lines. Born in 1917, Lucas was always amazed at the magic of the Internet to access any tidbit of knowledge. The verse turned out to be from a poem by William Haines Lytle inspired by Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first line, “I am dying, Egypt, dying,” is from the play itself. We then looked up the drama online and found Marc Antony’s soliloquy that begins with that line. Then I read to him from Shakespeare’s play.

 

Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers

 

 

 

 

       Photo by Rosa Dargan Powers

When I finished, he said, “Steve, when I close my eyes I think of the billions of people who have done this before me.”

“Well, you know you’ll be remembered,” I said.

“That’s true,” he said, “not as good as heaven—but a lot better than hell.”

The next day the doctor told Lucas and the family that there was nothing more to be done medically and recommended hospice care. That day, we brought Lucas home to the family farm and set up his bed in the living room, where for the next three weeks he was surrounded by family members and a stream of visitors, including guests for the weekly poetry and music nights he had hosted at the house for many years. Other visitors included members of his old Boy Scout troop, who talked about what they had learned from him, and a local farmer, David White, who had started a tradition of bringing lunch to share with Lucas every Monday, and who this time brought in a newborn duckling on his visit.

Among his many visitors was the hospice chaplain with whom Lucas couldn’t help but share his view of religion: “I do not claim to understand the nature of the Supreme Being, and I do not acknowledge that anyone else does either.” Lucas was a devoted agnostic who believed that it was just as much a leap of faith to be an atheist as a believer. The chaplain, who returned for a second visit, said he enjoyed discussing spirituality with Lucas and concluded, “He just doesn’t want to put God in a box.”

It was clear to all of us that in his final days Lucas sought solace in poetry, not religion. He told my wife Amanda, “I think all poets share a deep concern for the human condition.” And the poets whose works he wanted to hear or to recite were those who wrote about death and dying and those whose poems he had memorized when he was young.

Many of the poems he knew by heart, including some we had never heard him recite before. Once, when I asked if he wanted us to read him a poem, he said, “Steve, look up Carruth.”

“Carruth?” I said.

“Yes, C-a-r-r-u-t-h, William Herbert Carruth.”

The poem he had in mind, “Each in His Own Tongue,” seemed to capture Lucas’s poetic perspective on religion. I picked up his tattered copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1924. I read a line from the poem, A haze on the far horizon. Lying in his bed, he recited the second from memory, The infinite, tender sky. I read the third line, and then he responded with the fourth from memory. We went all through the poem in tandem.

 

The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,

And the wild geese sailing high—

And all over the upland and lowland

The charm of the goldenrod—

Some of us call it Autumn,

And others call it God.

 

A day or two later, he asked Amanda to read him the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, another classic nineteenth-century poem about death.

 

. . . When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart . . .

 

As she read, Amanda watched her father close his eyes. She thought he had drifted off to sleep, and she put the book down, too sad to continue. When he opened his eyes a few minutes later, her sister Rosa asked, “Would you like to hear another poem?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Amanda hasn’t finished the one she was reading.”

Rosa finished reading Bryant’s poem.

 

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, that moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

Lucas draped himself in the weave of his favorite poems as he confronted death, as if he could pull them up like a blanket. They kept him warm and clearly helped him approach his death with peace of mind. His amazing mind—“fastened to a dying animal,” as Yeats put it—remained sharp until the end. He didn’t stop reciting and listening to poems until the day before he died. “We should all aspire to his life—and his death,” his nephew Rod McIver said.

As befitted this man, his daughters planned the funeral service to include his grandchildren reading some of his favorite poems, including Shelley’s “The Cloud,” Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” The service closed with his poetry-night stalwarts—Stanley Thompson, David Brown, and Worth Lewellyn—playing his favorite song, “Loch Lomond,” on fiddle and guitar. (“You take the high road and I’ll take the low and I’ll get to Scotland before you . . . ” )

I was left mulling over the lines we had read together from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

 

This case of that huge spirit now is cold . . .

And there is nothing left remarkable

                                                   Beneath the visiting moon.                                                                                       

 

                                                                                              ~Steve Zeitlin

 

*      *      *

 

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org, “By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness. “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

 

 

 

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