Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Half Jew Celebrates Passover

When I am asked, “Are you Jewish?” I usually say, “I am culturally Jewish.”  I come from a household that is half Jewish, half Christian, and mostly Atheist.   I grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays, and for the first several years of my life I didn’t quite understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity.  One famous Chanukah, I asked my parents if I could say the blessing as we lit the candles on the Menorah and promptly thanked God for the Baby Jesus. 

Since then, I’ve managed to get the two straight and my Jewish heritage has become quite important to me.  Perhaps it is a way for me to connect to my grandfather who died when I was quite young.  Perhaps it is because I spent a lot of time living in places where I was the closest my friends and classmates came to a “real” Jew... whatever the reason, I tend to find myself called upon to be “Jewish” at least one or two days out of the year, generally around Passover. 

This year, the Day of Jewishness was Tuesday, April 19th, the first day of Passover (the night of the 18th was the first night).  On that day, I participated in a Seder and a half (the half was a presentation I gave in a class), told a story about Chelm, and danced the horah.  I said blessings and sang songs in hebrew.  I even cooked a potato kugel from scratch (in spite of the 95 degree weather).  I always feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly guilty, wondering perhaps if I am appropriating a religion to which I have no right.  But then I find myself surrounded by first-timers singing Dayenu IN HARMONY and something inside me rejoices.

There is something beautiful about Passover that calls me to be Jewish for a day.  After all, the service starts with the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  Every year I find myself at this table.  And every year I find myself wondering if I am disgracing my ancestors by only claiming “Jewishness” a few short days out of the year.  Probably so.  And yet I cannot quench the desire I feel year after year to return to that hope of Passover: Next year in Jerusalem.  Next year may all be free. 


Sunday, April 17, 2011

There's Even Music at the Grocery Store

Austin is a city of live music.  It’s everywhere: in the clubs, in the restaurants, on the street corners, in the schools... everywhere.  One of the things I love most about Austin is the over-abundance of live music.  You can head out your door on any given day and I would be willing to bet you money that it would only take you ten minutes or so to find someone playing music.

It may sound strange when I say that my new favorite place to go hear music is actually a grocery store, but take into account the fact that it’s a grocery store in Austin and it begins to make sense.  There’s a Central Market (the organic and gourmet branch of the local chain) a couple blocks from my house.  It’s well within walking distance, which has proved useful since I tend to shop a bit sporadically and often realize that even though I was just at the store yesterday, I need to go back today.  This particular Central Market also has a rather large prepared food section that’s half-way decent and a gorgeous patio area with trees and tables where you can eat the food. On Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays they have local bands playing for free outside on that patio.  So you can go to the grocery store, do your shopping, buy yourself a dinner, and eat it in the afternoon sun under the shade of trees listening to FREE MUSIC.  It really doesn’t get better than that.

Actually it does, because Central Market is a gathering place for all types of people: older couples sway to the strains of the local indie-rock band that happens to be playing at 6:30 on Friday and next to them, a four year old is excitedly jumping up and down while her father chases her around frantically, carrying an ice cream cone.  It’s one of the best places to people watch.  Today a couple who clearly were trained in ballroom dance spent the first half of the band’s set dancing really impressively and the second half teaching a bunch of thrilled children how to swing dance.   This is what I love about Austin.   

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spirit Voices

The first time I heard Paul Simon’s album,  Graceland, I was in a coffee shop in Mount Desert Island, Maine, called Cafe Milagro, and it felt like un milagro.  Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes was playing, and it felt like Paul Simon had written that song for me.  It combined together all of my varied tastes in music into one glorious song: a simple, folk-like melody, african drums and rhythms, voices in close harmony, acoustic guitar, and poetic lyrics.  I turned to my mom, who was ordering a latte, and asked, “What is this?”  She told me, and I don’t think its hyperbole to say that my whole life changed.

You see, before that day in the coffee shop I hadn’t really managed to define my taste in music.  Now, armed with my parents’ copy of Graceland on tape, I was able to say clearly that I liked folk music, world music, and particularly that rare, beautiful place where the two intersected.  For Christmas that year, my mom gave me a three CD collection of Paul Simon’s music.  I discovered Rhythm of the Saints with its South American beat and portuguese lyrics, and my conversion became complete.  It may seem like a small thing to safely say “This is the kind of music I like,” but for a shy teenager stuck in that difficult place where you’re not really sure who you are, it was a moment of fantastic self-awareness, a chance to clearly define an aspect of my own personality.  “I like this type of music, and I don’t care if you don’t like it.”  It was a powerful feeling for me.  Thanks to Paul Simon, I tend to march to the beat of my own talking drum.

Why am I throwing this out into the world seemingly at random?  Two reasons: I happened to be drinking a latte in a funky locally-owned coffee shop near my house this morning when Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes started playing, and it took me back to that day in Cafe Milagro.  It also started me thinking about this past week.  I just finished one of the longest, most insane weeks of my time at UT Austin: the New Works Festival.  It’s a huge, week-long festival of theatre, dance, and art totally written and produced by UT faculty and students.  I worked on three projects (an over-commitment, but worthwhile)  and spent the week running around frantically trying to fulfill my duties to the shows I had worked on and somehow see other people’s shows at the same time.   I am still overwhelmed by the sheer amount of high-quality theatre my colleagues and I produced this past week.  We march to the beat of our own drum, all of us, and I feel so privileged to be able to spend my days working with such a creative, individual group of people.  We have found our Graceland.