Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Woody Guthrie the Jew and his Jewish Music

Rabbi Yehuda Lave from Jerusalem
The Most Common Mistake of Outsiders

One party comes over to you and tells you the negative things someone else said or did. You experience righteous anger. This person is certainly right, the other person is certainly wrong. You might tell your source, "I agree with you. He's an awful person." You might censure the other person, "You are an awful person." You might tell others, "This person is an awful person."

Did you hear both sides in the presence of each other before forming any opinion whatsoever? If not, the Torah considers what you heard as a "false report." (The Chofetz Chaim elaborates on this in his classic work. See Prohibitions, no.2)

"The map is not the territory." This basic principle of General Semantics applies to every story and report you ever hear. Details are always left out. Words describing any situation are never an exact portrait of any interaction. What was the entire context?

What were the exact words that were used by both sides? What was the exact tone of voice of each segment of the interchange? Even when someone reports what he himself said with total accuracy, the tone of voice totally transforms the energy that was exchanged. What were the facial expressions? What were the intentions, motivations, and assumptions?

King Solomon compares an outsider getting involved in an argument that is not his to a passerby who pulls the ear of a dog (Proverbs 26:17). The calm dog was harmless. Pull his ear and you'll have problems. Taking sides in a quarrel that's not yours is even worse when you don't really have the entire picture. Those who impulsively take sides often don't realize how many mistakes they will be making.

Every word an outsider says to a party in a quarrel can either make the situation better or worse. Whenever someone tells you about a situation that is either already a quarrel or could easily lead to a quarrel, ask yourself, "What can I say now that will be conducive for peace?" And when the answer is, "I don't really know," keep quiet. It's a major mistake to make things worse.

Love Yehuda Lave

Woody Guthrie: Jewish Family, Jewish Music

What is not as well known about Woody is that his wife and children were Jewish; that he raised his children as Jews; and that he wrote songs about Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and the Holocaust.

Guthrie was undoubtedly familiar with Jewish life well before his marriage to Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer (1945) and before his move to Coney Island, where the couple lived at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, across the street from Marjorie's parents. His manager was Harold Leventhal, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants; his politics were inspired by Ed Robbin, a Jewish editor with The People's World, a Los Angeles newspaper; and Moses (Moe) Asch of Folkways Records, perhaps the chief folklorist to record Woody, had specialized in Jewish liturgical music. His real interest in Jewish lyrics, however, may be traced to the warm relationship he later developed with his mother-in-law, Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet.

Coming to America after illegally fleeing her shtetl in Ozarinetz, Bessarabia in 1900, Greenblatt was an ardent Zionist who established a ZOA branch and served as national president of Pioneer Women. "Bubbe" Greenblatt, who cared for her grandchildren and served Friday night Shabbatdinners to the family, shared Woody's passion for social justice, anti-fascism, and union organizing – all causes dear to the immigrant Jewish community – and they often discussed their artistic projects and critiqued each other's works. Through her, Woody came to identify the Jewish struggle with that of his fellow Okies and other oppressed people about whom he sang.

Enchanted by his immigrant mother-in-law's rituals, stories, and incredible blintzes, Guthrie learned everything he could about the Jewish people, even taking several courses on Judaism at Brooklyn Community College, and his Jewish songs and lyrics were the result of his desire to pass her traditions and observances on to her grandchildren.

He loved living at Coney Island, which enabled him to enjoy the bustling Jewish life on the boardwalk. He would take his young daughter, Cathy Ann, on morning walks there, have breakfast at Nathan's, and watch the old men playing chess while arguing politics in Yiddish. Thus, in "Mermaid Avenue," he wrote:


Mermaid Avenue that's the street, where the lox and bagels meet,
where the hot dog meets the mustard, where the sour meets the sweet;
where the beer flows to the ocean, where the halvah meets the pickle . . .

Guthrie also wrote many Jewish ditties for his children, including Chanukah songs such as "Chanukah Gelt," "Spin Dreydl Spin," "Do The Latke Flip Flip," and "Hanukkah's Flame," in which he wrote:

Hanukkah candlelight, see my flame/ shining on my window's pane/
Come flicker 'cross my glassy glass/ and light each lonesome to pass.

As Woody's daughter Nora tells it, her father wrote most of his Chanukah songs within five days "because he had bookings in December for children's Chanukah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers."

Some of Guthrie's Jewish-related lyrics were somber and serious, such as those of his chilling ballad about the sadistic Nazi Ilse Koch written in the voice of a concentration camp inmate ("I'm here in Buchenwald, my number's on my skin…") in which he describes seeing chimney smoke, piles of bones, and "lamp shades made from skins." And in "The Many and the Few," Guthrie displays his knowledge of Jewish history during the Babylonian captivity:

My name is King Cyrus, my order I give, you Jews can go back to your home
To build your holy temple again, in the land of Palestine.
We've sung and danced o'er the hot rocky roads, back to Eretz Yisroel's land,
we worked with plow and rake and hoe, and we blessed the works of our hands.

My name is Ezra the Teacher man, I brought my scroll book along
I brought my flock to Yisroel, from that land called Babylon.
I'll read you my Talmud Torah book, and the prophet's dreams to you,
and you'll be fertile and multiply, if you keep your Torah true . . .

In very rare exhibit displayed with this column, Guthrie writes what in retrospect are heartbreaking lyrics for his daughter Cathy Ann in this unpublished April 20, 1946 work shortly before she died in a fire at age four on February 9, 1947 (the print is a bit light, as it was written in pencil):

Cathy on guitar, guitar lays on rug,
and Cathy sits playing on strings and talking: Hm hm hm hm/
This is how the little kitten sounds/ hm hm hm hm/
And this is how the mama cat sounds and the mama cat is in the lake/
hm hm hm/
and the big daddy cat sees the mommy in the water and here is how he sounds/
And he sees hears the little baby cat/ Hm hm hm hm/
And the little baby cat is crying/He is crying on the sand/
He is crying for his Mommy in the water/ mmm mmm mmm/
And the Daddy kitty goes this way/mm mm mm/
And do you know what the daddy cat done?/no?/ mm mm/
No?/Don't you?/Don't you know?/
Did he jump into the water and pull the mama cat out?/
I don't know/ mm mm/
I don't know.

Aliza accepted the non-Jewish Woody as a son-in-law, but Marjorie's more traditional father, Isidore, did not. However, Cathy's tragic death led to a family reconciliation and later, when Guthrie was fighting Huntington's Disease (it eventually killed him), Marjorie's parents moved back to Brooklyn from Israel (they had made aliyahin the early 1950s) to help raise the grandchildren, including Arlo, Joady, and Nora.

Arlo – who later become famous in his own right, writing and performing the classic 18-minute musical monologue "Alice's Restaurant" and performing at Woodstock in 1969 – occasionally sang a song about the lament of his "Bubbe Greenblatt" for Cathy's death, saying it fit a lullaby that Bubbe often sang to the family.

And how's this for a wonderful historical coincidence of the sort I love to feature in my Jewish Press columns: While Arlo's Jewish friends went to Hebrew school, he was given private bar mitzvah lessons by a "sweet young rabbi" who came to the family's home: Meir Kahane

About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every other week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at

Pretzels with flavor--cute Israeli advert

Report: Abbas' Son Held $1 Million in Firm Tied to Panama Papers

Photo Credit: Issam Rimawi/FLASH90

A review of the millions of Mossack Fonseca & Co. documents exposed last week reveals the PA fortune club, most of whose members are not necessarily known to the Israeli or American readers. Ha'aretz on Friday published the results of its examination of the documents, which revealed, for instance, that the son of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas held stock worth some $1 million in a company that was tied to the PA.

The company, Arab Palestinian Investment Company, was registered in the British Virgin Island in September, 1994. Its first meeting of the board of directors took place on May 24, 1995, at the Dubai Sheraton. The stated purpose of the new company was to create jobs for PA Arabs, so they would not have to depend on the Israeli market. Over the past 20 years, APIC has become an economic giant in local PA terms, owned in part by the Palestinian Investment Fund, which is connected to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

In 2011, a new member was added to APIC's board of directors: Tarek Abbas, son of you know who. And while his board membership is a matter of public knowledge, the Panama papers reveal that he owned APIC stock worth $982 thousand.

It is interesting to note that the personnel changes at the help of APIC matched changes in the PA leadership. For instance, Mohammed Rashid, a financier who was close to former PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, was appointed to the APIC board in 2000, while serving as CEO of the PIF. Then, about a month after the demise of Arafat, in December 2004, Rashid left his post at APIC. Then, in 2006, Abbas issued an edict making PIF part of his office, and Rashid was out of that job as well. Then, as often happens in Areas A and B of Judea and Samaria, in 2012 Rashid was convicted of stealing millions from the very PIF he was running.

Stay tuned for more embarrassing revelations.

About the Author: David writes news at JewishPres

A hilarious "take-off" of airline safety videos to get you through the seder this year!
Ted Cruz makes matzoh at a Brooklyn bakery.

Kahane on the Parsha

Rabbi Meir Kahane- Parshat Tazria


I recommend to all those who speak of the difficulty of making a living in Eretz Yisrael (and who really mean the difficulty in making the kind of living they would like to make) the following Tanchuma (Tazria 6):

"A kohen who was in dire economic straits decided to leave Eretz Yisrael and make his fortune outside of it. He told his wife how to recognize the signs of leprosy and other plagues, saying, 'If you see that the root of the hair is dry, know that it is smitten, for the Almighty gave each hair root its own well from which to draw sustenance, how much more is it true that you, a man who has countless hairs and whose children derive their sustenance from you, will be granted a well-sustenance from the Almighty.' She therefore did not allow him to leave Eretz Yisrael."

What a difference between the simple faith of the wife of an ordinary kohen and our present-day generation that is so in bondage to materialism that it lacks the faith to make minimal sacrifices to keep the mitzvah of living in the Promised Land!

Lack of trust in G-d's ability to support or defend us has been from time immemorial the plague that severed us from this great mitzvah, causing us to distort it and contrive all sorts of warped excuses to exempt ourselves from it.

In the Kuzari, the king of the Khazars tells the rabbi that he cannot understand why the Jews mourn for Jerusalem but do not move here. The rabbi replies:

"You have shamed me, O king, for it is due to this sin that the great goal G-d had planned for the Second Temple was not fulfilled: 'Sing and be glad, O daughter of Zion! For I am coming and I will dwell in your midst' (Zechariah 2:14). For the divine even was destined to be for them as in the First Temple if they had all responded to the call and returned to Eretz Yisrael with a willing soul, but only a part went up. The majority and the important ones among them stayed in Babylon, agreeing to the Exile and the servitude as long as they were not separated from their dwelling place and businesses."

Woe unto a generation that has lost sight of the clear truth.

The Jewish Press, 1988

Shabbat Shalom!

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