Over the last weeks and months, conversations which have been percolating have given me lots to think about. This past week they've all begun bubbling to the surface, meaning that other people have been thinking as well. In no particular order, I'll let some of the topics here and some of my thoughts about them.
1. The tragic suicide of a transgender teen girl two weeks ago, when she could not find support from her religiously conservative family, has sparked a huge discussion on the Jewish education interwebs. The upshot of it seems to be this question: "If this were a child in my [Jewish] community, how would I/the community respond?"
The answer seems to be: it depends on one's community and their approach to Jewish law and tradition. While we've mostly taken great pains in this discussion to avoid categorizing responses by movement or stream of Jewish thought, the fact is that such separations will happen anyway because different groups of Jews have differing viewpoints about the origins and immutability/fungibility of Torah and about gender and sexual expression. The conversations have mostly been respectful, though some who identify as Orthodox have expressed that they do not feel "safe" entering the discussion for fear of being called out or discriminated against as somehow intolerant. While I feel sorry that these folks feel unable to fully participate in the discussion I don't know how to include them when my own personal history -- of exclusion and even outright violence as a gay person -- is impossible to deny. It's a real quandary, one that has gone on for much longer than I've been involved in Jewish communal life; and one for which I have no clear answer.
2. There's a lot of attention being paid to synagogues these days. The synagogue model of the 1950s-1990s is, frankly, no longer sustainable. Too many families have suffered job losses and have fallen down the wage scale too far to afford dues or religious school tuition; synagogues are having to tighten belts as they shrink and some have merged or folded outright. It does not bode well for this model that, while everyone is wringing their hands over shrinking congregations, almost no one in a position of authority wants to talk about adjusting salaries of clergy and other top-drawer Jewish professionals, some of whom pull down over $150,000 a year while many congregants are struggling to make do on a fifth of that -- or less. Once upon a time, Jewish clergy all had day jobs to pay the bills, and did the Rabbi and Cantor thing sort of on the side. We may see a return to that paradigm in my lifetime.
On one hand, it does give me pause to think that this ride I'm on -- to see how far I can go working in Jewish music and education -- may only last a few years. On the other hand, it may last longer, especially if more Jewish communities decide that bringing in a specialist now and then to train musical lay leadership is more cost-effective (or otherwise more desirable to them) than paying a full-time cantor. It's hard to tell where things will end up at this point.
2a. Transcontinental Music, founded as an independent Jewish music publisher in 1938 and bought by the Union for Reform Judaism in the 1970's, is now up for sale. The URJ has decided it's a money-loser -- most publishing is, these days -- and is letting it go. The staff were all quietly fired in September and the URJ is looking for a buyer. Major composers whose works make up a large chunk of the catalog are up in arms. Transcontinental's catalog is the largest collection of published Jewish music in the world; it is unclear what will happen to the publishing rights and the existing inventory of published works. It is also unclear how many outside the shrinking world of classically-oriented jewish music this will directly affect. While there are some big names in classically-oriented Jewish music still writing and arranging music today, their numbers are dwindling and so is their appeal, as more synagogue communities across North America choose to utilize more contemporary styles of music in their worship.
This development does not come as a surprise to me, since the writing has been on the wall about the direction of synagogue music for quite some time now. Worshippers want more of their experience to be participatory; it is hard to sing along with classical pieces of music when they are so obviously structured as performance pieces to be listened to. Some of this music is amazing, and I appreciate its beauty. But too many congregants no longer have an interest in it, and are transitioning to service that resemble community sing-alongs rather than symphony concerts. Is this bad or good? I think it's too simplistic to limit the discussion to those terms; there's a lot of poorly-written contemporary Jewish music out there that I would never want to program for use in a service, just as there's some gorgeous classical music that I could listen to for hours -- at home, at least, if not in a worship service. There used to be a place for both kinds of music in worship, but I suspect that gap is closing in favor of contemporary, pop, and folk settings, to the eventual exclusion of classically-oriented works.
2b. This also relates rather directly to the fact that a whole generation of Cantors in their late 50s and early 60s are being forced out of their pulpits in favor of younger songleaders who can play guitar and lead group singing when that's what a congregation would prefer.
2c. No one else is saying much about this, but I blame this evolution in part on an entire generation of public school students whose arts education funding was slashed, and who therefore had little or no exposure to classical music, opera or ballet in school. People will gravitate towards what they know, not what they don't know.
2d. If all of this musical transition represents the swinging of a pendulum, then it's highly possible that the pendulum may well swing back the other way. But it's too soon to know what that might look like or how long it might take.
3. Large Jewish organizations continue to spend a lot of time investing resources in developing and maintaining young Diaspora Jews' relationship with Israel at the expense of nurturing and strengthening Jewish continuity in their own backyards. While this is not an either-or equation, there needs to be a rethinking of the balance between those goals -- and I believe more resources must be invested in the United States in order to promote Jewish communal engagement and continuity here at home. (Yes, I said "here at home," meaning here in the United States. Israel, while a place of great spiritual significance, is not my home; America is, and I believe in doing whatever I can to carve more doorways into Jewish life here where I live. If that gets me in hot water with The Jewish Establishment, so be it.)
4. While we're at it, what exactly IS "The Jewish Establishment" anymore? This is a question whose answer seems up for grabs and depends on whom you ask, as evidenced by the infighting among various Jewish organizations and their leadership about everything from halachic observance to Israel to Jewish identity. If the leaders are fighting amongst themselves, you can bet that some of the rest of us will follow suit, and that's a shameful waste of time and resources. We could be doing more to communicate across movement and political lines and we could all benefit from the resulting cross-pollination.
5. It's a complicated world. I don't know how much of a say I or any other individual can have in where things will go. All I can do is my best, at whatever it is I do (which these days, seems mostly to be music), and hope that it makes a difference somewhere for the good.
Shavua Tov -- have a good week.