Monday, 23 November 2015

The World Is Their Wedding

Sarah.Litman.Ariel.BiegelA young Israeli couple have issued an open invitation to their wedding in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Sarah Techiya Litman and Ariel Biegel see their move as a grand gesture of defiance against the Arab terrorist who murdered her father and brother,  Rabbi Yaakov and Netanel Litman in a shooting near Otniel, south of Hebron as the family drove to a pre-wedding party  on the afternoon of Friday 13 November.

News of the incident  received scant international media attention as it happened barely hours before the ISIS attack on Paris.

But the couple told the Israeli Press: "This will be the million-person wedding. Multitudes will come to make us happy”.

Their decision to celebrate their marriage as soon as possible after Sarah’s initial seven days of mourning follows the best Orthodox Jewish tradition. What’s more, their wish to have huge crowds at their party reminded  me of the Talmudic phrase the world is a wedding in which the ancient sages advise us all to ‘seize the day’ and enjoy life to the utmost.

Indeed the phrase is so intriguingly expressive that it has been used several times as the titles of popular secular English language works.

These include the memoir of Anglo-Jewish writer   Bernard Kops, a novel by Wendy Jones and a collection of short stories by American, Delmore Schwartz. It is Schwartz’s work I want to examine here.

Born in  1913 to Romanian Jewish parents whose unhappy marriage badly affected him, Schwartz nonetheless was a gifted student whose work began receiving serious attention in his early twenties.

Delmore.SchwartzAlthough Schwartz is generally considered never to have reached his full potential, his admirers ranged from fellow US poet Robert Lowell to rock musician Lou Reed and Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize winner whose protagonist in  Humboldt's Gift is based on Schwartz’s character.

I conclude here with my own tribute to the Litman family by posting Schwartz’s poetic dialogue -

Father And Son

On these occasions, the feelings surprise,
Spontaneous as rain, and they compel
Explicitness, embarrassed eyes——

Father, you’re not Polonius, you’re reticent,
But sure. I can already tell
The unction and falsetto of the sentiment
Which gratifies the facile mouth, but springs
From no felt, had, and wholly known things.

You must let me tell you what you fear
When you wake up from sleep, still drunk with sleep:
You are afraid of time and its slow drip,
Like melting ice, like smoke upon the air
In February’s glittering sunny day.
Your guilt is nameless, because its name is time,
Because its name is death. But you can stop
Time as it dribbles from you, drop by drop.

But I thought time was full of promises,
Even as now, the emotion of going away——

That is the first of all its menaces,
The lure of a future different from today;
All of us always are turning away
To the cinema and Asia. All of us go
To one indeterminate nothing.

Must it be so?
I question the sentiment you give to me,
As premature, not to be given, learned alone
When experience shrinks upon the chilling bone.
I would be sudden now and rash in joy,
As if I lived forever, the future my toy.
Time is a dancing fire at twenty-one,
Singing and shouting and drinking to the sun,
Powerful at the wheel of a motor-car,
Not thinking of death which is foreign and far.

If time flowed from your will and were a feast
I would be wrong to question your zest.
But each age betrays the same weak shape.
Each moment is dying. You will try to escape
From melting time and your dissipating soul
By hiding your head in a warm and dark hole.
See the evasions which so many don,
To flee the guilt of time they become one,
That is, the one number among masses,
The one anonymous in the audience,
The one expressionless in the subway,
In the subway evening among so many faces,
The one who reads the daily newspaper,
Separate from actor and act, a member
Of public opinion, never involved.
Integrated in the reverie of a fine cigar,
Fleeing to childhood at the symphony concert,
Buying sleep at the drugstore, grandeur
At the band concert, Hawaii
On the screen, and everywhere a specious splendour:
One, when he is sad, has something to eat,
An ice cream soda, a toasted sandwich,
Or has his teeth fixed, but can always retreat
From the actual pain, and dream of the rich.
This is what one does, what one becomes
Because one is afraid to be alone,
Each with his own death in the lonely room.
But there is a stay. You can stop
Time as it dribbles from you, drop by drop.

Now I am afraid. What is there to be known?

Guilt, guilt of time, nameless guilt.
Grasp firmly your fear, thus grasping your self,
Your actual will. Stand in mastery,
Keeping time in you, its terrifying mystery.
Face yourself, constantly go back
To what you were, your own history.
You are always in debt. Do not forget
The dream postponed which would not quickly get
Pleasure immediate as drink, but takes
The travail of building, patience with means.
See the wart on your face and on your friend’s face,
On your friend’s face and indeed on your own face.
The loveliest woman sweats, the animal stains
The ideal which is with us like the sky ...

Because of that, some laugh, and others cry.

Do not look past and turn away your face.
You cannot depart and take another name,
Nor go to sleep with lies. Always the same,
Always the same self from the ashes of sleep
Returns with its memories, always, always,
The phoenix with eight hundred thousand memories!

What must I do that is most difficult?

You must meet your death face to face,
You must, like one in an old play,
Decide, once for all, your heart’s place.
Love, power, and fame stand on an absolute
Under the formless night and the brilliant day,
The searching violin, the piercing flute.
Absolute! Venus and Caesar fade at that edge,
Hanging from the fiftieth-story ledge,
Or diminished in bed when the nurse presses
Her sickening unguents and her cold compresses.
When the news is certain, surpassing fear,
You touch the wound, the priceless, the most dear.
There in death’s shadow, you comprehend
The irreducible wish, world without end.

I begin to understand the reason for evasion,
I cannot partake of your difficult vision.

Begin to understand the first decision.
Hamlet is the example; only dying
Did he take up his manhood, the dead’s burden,
Done with evasion, done with sighing,
Done with reverie.
Decide that you are dying
Because time is in you, ineluctable
As shadow, named by no syllable.
Act in that shadow, as if death were now:
Your own self acts then, then you know.

My father has taught me to be serious.

Be guilty of yourself in the full looking-glass.


© Natalie Wood (23 November 2015)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Where the Cage Bird Was Forced to Sing

 Sebastian de IradierWhen the Basque composer,  Sebastian de Iradier composed La Paloma - his  universally loved habanera (Cuban dance melody) - little could he envisage that one day it would be used to accompany a grotesque death march.

But this is what happened when Jewish jazz musician Heinz (‘Coco’) Schumann was incarcerated at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and was forced to play the song by the side of the ramp that sent streams of fellow inmates to their deaths.

 “I've played La Paloma all my life. It's a great piece”, he says, “really great, and I love it, but it doesn't get under my skin. Thank God. Otherwise I couldn't play it now”. Coco.Schumann

Like countless other Holocaust survivors, the German-Jewish drummer and guitarist repressed his dreadful experiences for almost a half-century before being persuaded to recount them.

He has since appeared in a documentary and written a memoir that has been translated into English and will be published on 01 January 2016.

But here I’m concentrating on the history of the song, which was composed after Iradier visited Cuba circa 1860:

“In Zanzibar they play it at the end of weddings, in Romania at the end of funerals, in Mexico as a protest song, and in Germany as a sailor’s lament. Written a century and a half ago … and first performed in Cuba, La Paloma — the most frequently played song in the world — has circled the globe like a dove to touch listeners’ hearts with longing”.

The oldest recording of the song, made on a metal disc between 1883 and 1890, is kept in Havana's Museum of Music. It is said that the song's rhythm defines the style of the habanera, a popular music genre in the 19th century and which first gained admirers in Mexico and Hawaii. It was then performed by a wide range of singers ranging from pop stars to jazz artistes and even opera singers.

In the 1939 Romanian film Juarez the song is played for the dead and consoles the bereaved throughout the Hapsburg Empire and to this day in Romania the song is played at funerals.

Then the tune somehow arrived in  Zanzibar, Tanzania, Africa and while older locals insist it was there before they were born,  it is unarguable that the melody of La Paloma accompanies the words of the marriage ceremony.


“The Dove

When I left Havana, help me God!

nobody saw me leaving, it was just I.

And a pretty artful-flatterer, there I go!

she just was after me, yes sir, she was.

If to your window happens to come a dove,
treat it with loving care, for it's my own.
Tell her your love affairs, my loving one,
and crown her with flowers, for she is mine.

Ay, chinita, that's right,
Ay, please give me your love,
Ay, you come with me,
chinita, to wherever is my home.

Ay, chinita, that's right,
Ay, please give me your love,
Ay, you come with me,
chinita, to wherever is my home.


** The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers
by Coco Schumann is published in English translation by DoppelHouse Press @ US $24.95.

© Natalie Wood 08 November 2015)