Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Glenn Beck , Antonio Gramsci and Christa Branch

I am fortunate enough to be able to listen to Glenn Beck on weekday mornings while I am working. There are aspects of his philosophy that I like, such as his devotion to the constitution and his fear of the strings attached to a free lunch. Yesterday morning, Beck was talking about how popular culture is used to fashion the masses into supporters of those in power. He advocated producing entertainment and art that would underscore the values that he supports.

There is a man who was a major luminary in the Italian Communist Party named Antonio Gramsci who had pretty much the same realisation and put it to different ends. Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony and believed that popular culture would have to be used and fashioned as an instrument in the development of a socialist society. Although Beck is completely opposed to Marxism of any variety, he shares with Gramsci the realisation that popular culture is a battleground for the hearts and minds of the American people.

It would be easy to complain about the leftist tilt in films and music. Although there is a place for flagging negative cultural influences, Beck takes expresses his Gramscian awareness in an affirmative way, by highlighting performers whose music embodies the values he wishes to promote.

There is Christian rock music, that many believers in Christianity use to strengthen themselves in their faith. It has become a respected genre in popular music. Less known is the fact that there is orthodox Jewish rock and pop music that likewise strengthens the Jewish religious commitment of its listenership. The Nachum Segal show is a good place to become familiar with this genre of Jewish music.

Glenn Beck has been promoting a genre of pro American, politically conservative music. It is good for performers to produce music that underscores traditional American values, but eventually it will be seen as necessary to have music labels and movie production companies that are sympathetic to Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and other varied factions of American conservatism.

As Glenn Beck leads up to his August 28 rally at the Lincoln memorial, he has been promoting some performers who will be at the event. While I have some reservations about some of Glenn Beck's economic and political ideas, his ideas about cultural hegemony resonate deeply with me. As a former communist who became disillusioned with communism decades ago, I see Beck's ideas from my own perspective. Much of what he says has a resonance of truth to it. The longer I listen to Beck, the more I like the idea of going to Washington on August 28.


One of the performers promoted by Glenn Beck is Christa Branch, the wife of a Christian minister, who expresses her social criticism beautifully in music. I hope her type of music gets more air time. It is a classic example of the concept of popular culture as an arena of political struggle. Popular music with Tea Party themes is a powerful concept. When an idea has a song, it has wings as well.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Czerwone Gitary, A Great Polish Band From The Communist Era

This evening, I was looking for some songs in Russian by the Puhdys, a great rock band from East Germany. Back in the 70's, they did a tour in 5 republics of the former USSR in which they sang beautifully in Russian. I have not been able to find any recordings of this. It is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, they were very open to western cultural influences. They sang in English and even dedicated a song to John Lennon after his murder, back when communism was still going strong. Despite this, they were willing to speak Russian and sing in that language. It is a cultural and political tightrope that must have taken some dexterity to cross.

While I was looking for the Puhdys singing in Russian, I found out about a group that loomed large on the Polish rock scene in the 60's. The name of the group is Czerwone Gitary, which translates as "Red Guitars". They have the look and sound of groups that were contemporaries of the Beatles. They have the added advantage that they sang in Polish. An added advantage to the group's stylistic range is that they are not shy about sounding Polish. I even heard some of their music that had a bit of a Jewish sound to it, which makes me wonder how much Poles and Jews influenced each other musically after centuries of living side by side. Of course, some of their music sounds like classic early Beatles.

Some of the best rock music in Eastern Europe under communism came from Poland. Hungary also had some excellent rock bands as well. Omega, Bikini and Lokomotiv GT were among the all time great Hungarian rock bands. One of the compromises that the communists made was to allow some artistic freedom, not to force cultural life into some sort straight jacket of socialist realism.

As communism crumbles into faded memory, there is a nostalgia for the music that entertained the people of Eastern Europe. With such high quality bands as Czerwone Gitary, one need not wonder why.

The first video is of the Puhdys. The second is of Czerwome Gitary of Poland. The third video is of the Hungarian group Omega.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Taste As A Metaphor And Words Of Courage From The Fog

In my family, I am in the distinct minority. I lean towards semi dry wines. My family likes sweet wine and considers my choices to be very dry. When we pass the wine cup around the table Friday night, I say the blessings and drain the cup to the last few drops. Then I fill it up with the sweet wine everyone else likes. It has become a metaphor in which everyone drinks what they want from the cup of life.

That still leaves good natured arguments about whether dry wine or sweet wine is better. How do you explain taste? This Shabbos night, someone at my table asked me why I had such odd tastes in wine. It occurred to me that only in language are sweet and sour opposites. In the physical world they are mixed together. By tasting them simultaneously in a cup of wine or a cup of espresso, I am accepting the fact that what is handed to me in the cup of life is a mixture of the bitter and the sweet.

Most metaphors are visual or auditory. My wine and my coffee are taste metaphors.Every once in a while, the world yields a metaphor. In a sense, the inanimate finds a voice.

In the morning, when it is foggy out, the street where I live ahead is mostly invisible. Yet as I approach, people, trees and cars become visible. Moving forward, I see what had been covered in fog. As I leave my yard in the shrouded dawn, I see that the sky has spoken.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thank You Shirley Sherrod

The controversy about Shirley Sherrod has been widely discussed lately. In a video released by Breitbart News, Sherrod tells an audience at an NAACP banquet about an incident in which she was supposed to help a white farmer who was facing foreclosure on his farm. Listening to the 2 minutes and 36 seconds provided by Breitbart News left many with the impression that Sherrod had simply sent him to a white lawyer and washed her hands of him.

The actual video, which was posted by the NAACP paints a very different picture. That 43 minute 14 second video was a very personal speech in which Sherrod described her life and ideological evolution. In the complete video, Sherrod describes an impassioned intervention with indifferent and incompetent lawyers to save the farm of Roger Spooner. Her story was corroborated by Roger Spooner and his wife Eloise.

The video was indeed newsworthy. An African American was stepping forward and speaking of her ideological and spiritual transformation. She spoke from the heart of a life full of heartbreak that she snatched from the jaws of bitterness with the aid of her religious faith. She spoke with equal conviction of her fondness for and pride in President Obama as well as her ideas about economics and the Bush administration. It was the kind of speech that leaves a conservative listener in disagreement with her conclusions yet fascinated with her personal and professional experiences.

Cropping Sherrod's speech was not "doctoring" it. But it created an impression of her beliefs that was totally false. It was wrong of Andrew Breitbart to have presented such an exercise in deceit as news.

Glenn Beck and other conservatives are vehemently and viscerally anti racist. A recurring theme on the Glenn Beck show is that all people can be racist, that it is a human condition not exclusive to any single race. Breitbart could have presented the entire video as a vindication of this viewpoint. Instead he chose to defame her with a misrepresentation of her entire speech, when he could have advanced a responsible conservative viewpoint by promoting the entire speech. In practicing such irresponsible journalism, Breitbart distracted attention from real, unrepentant racism that persists today.

I will not trust Andrew Breitbart for any "hot news" at all. The only reason to crop a speech is to present a synopsis, to convey in seconds what might otherwise take minutes to grasp. Any other use of editing is sleazy propaganda.

There is a bright side to the travails of Shirley Sherrod. She gave an excellent speech back in March. She deserved a far wider audience. Thanks to Breitbart News, her beliefs and life experiences will get a far wider dissemination. Thank you Shirley Sherrod for presenting your views. Contributions such as yours make personal transformation a contagious process. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I wish you success.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Breaking The Musical Fast With Music From Paninnguaq Jensen

As much as I enjoy music, during the 3 weeks preceding the 9th of Av, I pretty much withdraw from music. The themes revolving around the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, the Holy Temple make that a necessity for me.

It occurred to me that 100 years ago, all of my ancestors spoke something other than English. As much fondness as I have for the English language, it was the fairly recent decisions of 4 people (my grandparents) to come to America that made English my language of communication. Perhaps it is for this reason that I seek out music in other languages.

Greenland has always fascinated me. It is 10 times the area of Great Britain, yet has a population of only about 50,000 people. It is 88% Inuit, including those of mixed Inuit Danish ancestry, and about 12% European, most of whom are Danish.

I had tried in the past to find popular music from Greenland. Maybe I didn't frame the search right, but I always came up empty handed. Today I was successful. I found some songs from Paninnguaq Jensen. Her style of music ranges from folk music, somewhat like Melanie to mild punk rock. I was not able to find a biography of her or an official web site. She does, however have a My Space Page where you can buy her MP3s. From her name, I would guess that she is of mixed Inuit and Danish ancestry. She sings in Greenlandic Inuit. Her songs are posted on You Tube.

The economics of the music industry tend to favour those who speak more popular languages such as English and Chinese. Butt there is a lot of talent and beauty in the music of less popular languages. It is for this reason that I try to look for music off the beaten path. Maybe it was the hot weather. I don't know, but Greenland is one of those places I daydream about sometimes. So here is some music in Greenlandic Inuit. I hope my readers enjoy it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gaza, Teheran or Lahore: Who Chooses The News?

Yesterday, I opened the Jewish Press and it had a story about Hollywood and other entertainment ditzerati who have decided that they are boycotting Israel. Israel's latest provocation was the Gaza flotilla fiasco, in which 9 people were killed. The same day, a mosque was attacked by suicide bombers in Pakistan, who inflicted around 100 casualties. But the spotlight of the news media was shining on Gaza, so the Pakistani mosque bombing got buried.

A point that is lost in presenting the Gaza flotilla story is that Israel is defending itself against a neighbour that has declared its desire to aid in wiping Israel off the map. Terror bombings and rocket attacks attacks launched from Gaza and PA controlled territories are periodic reminders that Hamas means what they say.

Who decides what makes the news? Last June, Iran was in the midst of violent upheavals following its blatantly fraudulent elections. Why did Iran fade from the front pages of the newspapers and from the 6 o'clock news? Did peace descend upon that troubled land? No it did not. There are still prisoners there as well as an underground opposition.

The stories generated by China, Iran, Cuba and every other country in the world are commodities. Stories are rotated on the front pages for the same reason that top 40 songs are regularly rotated. People want new stories. People want variety. That is understandable. News is not only information but entertainment. But what about the events that are relegated to the back pages of the news that touch millions of lives? Shall we allow our view of the world to be shaped by those who choose the news for us?

I have a tiny readership, in proportion to the billions of news consumers on line. I am, however a writer, and I get to choose my stories. On my own sites, and, I can run whatever stories I want. On my own sites, I have resolved to dedicate half of my stories to a rotating spotlight. In the course of a month to six weeks, I will rotate my focus around the globe. Iran, the Congo, Cuba, and Australia will be among the countries that I will focus upon. The other half of my stories will focus on America, Israel and Jewish issues. This is a logical choice for me. Canadian Protestants or a Japanese Buddhists could likewise be expected to view the world from their respective geographical and religious centers. My choice of a niche is logical.

On Indyposted, where I write news articles, I am constrained by the fact that it is a different medium. On my sites, I can be impassioned and strident. I can be recklessly indifferent to what has mass appeal. That is why Catalonian and Quebec rock music have a place on my sites. But on Indyposted, I have to make some effort to appeal to a far larger potential audience. It is for this reason that my topic choice on will be different. Despite this, I do intend to "circle the globe" with my news stories on The difference will be that I will attempt to reconcile my story choices with public interest trends.

Not every story about the Congo or Rwanda has to be about war or genocide. Sometimes a human interest story or musical presentation from a troubled region can be far more effective in presenting the population of a war zone as sharing with the reader a common humanity.

I was hurt and offended by the Hollywood figures boycotting Israel. But the boycott raised the deeper question of who chooses the view we have of the world. Who decides whether 100 dead end up on page 1 or on page 43? By choosing to write news, I am giving myself the opportunity to make these decisions. I am one writer. I may well forever remain as obscure as I am today, with a daily readership that could probably squeeze into my living room.

But I hope other bloggers and other news writers will also ask themselves the same questions that I have presented today. Other writers will certainly come up with a different focus than I have chosen.

Why are we reading about a crumbling celebrity marriage one day and Afghanistan the next day? Why do some stories fade from the back pages while other stories linger on the front page of our daily paper? Hopefully, more writers will ask these questions and more readers will demand such a focus. Creating a more complete picture of the world we live in might be the first step to making it a better place.

The picture at the top of this article was uploaded from Flickr

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts About the Book Of Jonah, Assyria And Redemption

I finished learning the Book of Jonah on Shabbos. I was learning it, usingthe Meam Loez commentary.  It resonates with me a lot. I was learning it as part of my project to learn the entire Prophets and Writings in the order they appear in Tanach. I have forgotten a lot more than I remember, but it has really deepened my appreciation of the Prophets, and exposed me to in depth commentaries from Jewish sources.

What resonates with me personally about Jonah is the fact that he was sent to a non Jewish nation. As a convert who maintains warm relations with the family I grew up with, it is comforting to see that a prophet was sent to a non Jewish nation. The idea that everyone and everything has a purpose and a potential is a powerful message.

What I admired about Jonah was his love for the Jewish people. He was afraid that if the city of Nineveh repented that it would show the 10 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel in a bad light and magnify their punishment. For that reason he fled. It reminded me of Moshe telling G-d to erase him from the Torah if he destroyed the Jewish people. If Jonah sinned in fleeing from his prophetic mission, there was a lot of goodness in his transgression. What was even more admirable about Jonah was the fact that he put his heart and soul into his mission once he left the belly of the fish.

It is wearisome reading some of the terrible prophecies in the books preceding Jonah when the promises of rebirth and restoration seem not to have been fulfilled. G-d has fixed the length of the exile at nigh on 2000 years and the average human lifespan at well under 100 years. It is not like the 40 days that the Jewish people waited for Moshe to come down from Mount Sinai. It's been centuries upon centuries. If so many of us have despaired during the long exile it makes rational sense.

The Assyrian people still exist today and proudly call the city of Mosul by its original name of Nineveh. I wish them well in their yearning for their own homeland. May we soon be neighbours in a peaceful Middle East with a Bet Hamikdash fully functioning in its proper location.


This is the song of the Assyrian National Football team, Assyrika. When the 3 weeks are over on July 21, I will return to this song and blast it over good speakers.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crown Heights Election Winners

Now it's official. Yossi Hackner and Fishel Brownstein have joined Zaki Tamir in forming the new Vaad Hakahol of Crown Heights. For once, everyone recognized the election as legitimate. There were certainly the usual anonymous leaflets and accusations, but everyone agrees that the election was fair and inclusive.

There are a lot of talented and caring people in Crown Heights. A good Vaad haKahol will solicit community opinion and concerns in arriving at conclusions and deciding on a course of action. There are many people who have talents that could be put to use in bettering our community. One need not be elected to a supervisory position to work for the betterment of the community.

There is a lot to be done in Crown Heights. We have more schools and more kids who don't fit into any of them. We have struggling families looking to wealthy people who are themselves strugglng in a troubled economy. We elected three people who have their intelligence and perspectives and the help G-d gives to those elevated to leadership positions. But they can't do their job alone. You don't have to be rich to help your neighbours. Maybe you have heard of a job at your work that is opening up. Maybe you have a few hours to give to a shul, a school or a charity. Our community is going through some tough times, but part of wealth is realising what you already have.

May G-d guide and strengthen our new Vaad and our community. How we live as a community is as much a source of guidance to the world as anything we print or teach. may G-d bring us from strength to strength.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thoughts During The Three Weeks

We are now in the middle of the 3 weeks. As important as music is to me, I find that I need to pull back from it. There is a shul that I stop at for evening prayers. As always, when I go there I stare at the yarzeit plaques. In this one shul, a man put up plaques for his wife and kids who were all murdered the same day (May G-d avenge their blood) My co worker observes a yarzeit for his father's home town, in which every Jew who was not fortunate enough to have been elsewhere was murdered on the same day.

I need three weeks to absorb all this, to incorporate it into a world view that is not random and godless.

We try to avoid factional bickering and hatred during the 3 weeks. This is at least as important as any of the rules about music and getting haircuts. It is amazing that the orthodox Jewish world is as beset by factionalism as it is. When you look at pictures from the camps of people in striped uniforms with shaven heads, it is impossible to see who was a chossid, who was reform and who was a socialist. There was a unity imposed from without. There has to be a way of creating unity besides tragedy. We are breaking our heads trying to make peace in the Middle East. Maybe we need peace talks between Jews