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Hair, Harry And Hindus

Hair, Harry And Hindus

Associate Editor

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

In the end, of course, “Hair” is a Broadway musical, a superficial story with superb songs that just happen to be about drugs, dropouts and draft dodging. Some teenagers, from a yeshiva, told an old man (me) that seeing “Hair” made them wish that they were “activists,” too, like the kids in “Hair,” which is as connected to real life as wanting to be a nanny after seeing “Mary Poppins,” or a horse after “Equus.”

Of course, the kids in this decade could have closed down Columbia University when Ahmadinijad was there last year, but they didn’t. And this year, all the idealistic students could have risen up against the Jewish organizations that screwed-up the Iran-rally invitation to Sarah Palin, disinvited for the sake of party politics (the organizers invited Hillary Clinton, who withdrew when she heard Palin was coming, and they invited Joe Biden too late). What are we to make of Jews who have a greater allegiance to party than to the Jewish people?

Imagine the disgust of history if in 1944 a major New York Jewish demonstration against Hitler decided to disinvite vice presidential candidate Harry Truman because they bungled an invitation to John Bricker?

(Bricker, governor and later senator from Ohio, was the vice presidential candidate under Thomas Dewey, but you knew that.)

In 1944, Bricker was arguably more prominent, experienced and worthy of being vice president than Truman, who in 1944 was considered an uneducated bumpkin — a folksy haberdasher without even a college degree, not even the University of Idaho, an unprecedented lack of schooling for any national leader since the 1890s. Truman was surely of dubious qualification to be a heartbeat away, especially with an elderly Roosevelt in clear physical decline. FDR did, of course, die just months after the election.

Let’s not pretend that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, cared equally about the rally against Iran. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, e-mailed with the observation that the National Jewish Democratic Council had sent out several press releases about and against Palin’s presence but “did not even call upon Jewish Democrats to attend the rally or provide details as to time, venue, scheduled speakers and so on. Neither did J Street in its press release entitled ‘We Won! Palin Not Speaking at Iran Rally.’”

There have been miserly turnouts for other Jewish demonstrations in recent months, such as rallies on behalf of the doomed captives — and the (hopefully not doomed) Shalit, in captivity still.

OK, kids, get activated about that. You can bet that if the anti-Iran rally was instead about Darfur or global warming there would have been a really nice turn-out, with politicians big and small happy to be there, no matter what other politician was invited or not invited. And there indeed have been larger Jewish turnouts for rallies on behalf of Darfur and global warming. Let’s cut the pretense. Let’s admit that the New York Jewish community cares less about the Israel-Iranian crisis than it cares about the African crisis or the weather.

But back to “Hair.” What was most unique about the sixties was that the revolutionary spirit was not against all religion, as youthful rebellion tends to be. What “Hair” did, along with George Harrison, singing of “Hare Krishna,” was introduce millions of teens to eastern religion.

No, that “Hair” or Harrison’s presentation of religion was particularly deep. It was “sweet and cute,” as Reb Shlomo would say. Nevertheless, a great thing about the United States is how often religious themes, albeit sweet and cute ones, make it onto the pop charts and into the culture’s consciousness. Every December, for a whole month, there are radio stations in New York that play only Christmas music, not just snowflake jingles but the elegant and elegiac: “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “O Holy Night,” performed by everyone from Bing Crosby and Perry Como, and renaissance Christmas music by the Waverly Consort at the Cloisters.

I tend to the traditional, and have never once been interested in writing or reading about the “December dilemma.” But rather than having the “nittle-nacht” attitude of Euro-centric Orthodoxy emphasizing the negative energy of Christmas Eve, I like to think that my Judaism has been enhanced by Christmas Eve. It has moved me to the populist idea (shared by the Baal Shem) that messianism and holiness are not only found in a yeshiva but in a Vermont forest, or in O’Henry’s Manhattan, with childlike anticipation, a simplicity, a meditative silence, a looking to the stars with a great wonder. Can one find these truths on a Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah? Of course, and I have, but sometimes the techniques and wisdom of another tradition can be wisely brought home to one’s own.

That is true of American Christianity, and Buddhism and Hinduism, as well. What begins as pop, “Hare Krishna” on Broadway or on a transistor radio, can be a portal for the curious to go further into realms of holy mystery.

One excellent portal to the fusion of spiritual traditions is Rabbi Yoel Glick’s web site, “Seeking The Presence,” found here. In ways that he can best explain himself, Reb Yoel (ordained by Yeshiva University and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) often utilizes Hindu and eastern wisdom to elaborate points of Torah.

Is it radical and untraditional? Sure. It was radical and untraditional for Rashi, in his sacred commentary, to use Old French to explain an idea when Hebrew was insufficient. (Try arguing in an Ivrit-b’Ivrit day school that Hebrew can be insufficient.) Did Rashi think Old French was holier than the Holy Letters? Of course not, but Old French was sometimes the best way, the most articulate way, to illuminate God’s truth. In a similar way, Reb Yoel — who like Rashi studied and felt God’s wonder in France — will use a Hindu concept and even a style of writing echoing the cadences and structures of Hindu teachings and legends. The purpose, the only purpose, is awareness of God, the One-And-Only who watches over the Ganges, the Yarkon, the Vistula and the Allegheny.

And so, from the pop music of “Hair” and George Harrison, there are those who find a way, all these years later, to bring it all back home.

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