I’ll admit it. I had the album. I really thought it was cool. The rugged truck on the cover, the first cowboy boots I’d ever seen in my life, Californian born and raised. The name of the CD painted with whitewash, white on black, right there on the driver’s side door: “Whitey Ford Sings the Blues.” A deceptive title. You might think you would pop the thing in your CD player and it would start with that unmistakable calming scratch of the old phonograph needle riding the groove of those ancient hockey-puck records, open up into the sound of a clunky guitar, itself no longer able to resonate much after the endless hours it was left outside in the cold, the breathing wood of the guitar’s body turned to concrete. I still love hearing the sound of the voice cutting through the mix on those old recordings, as if the rest of the band were playing next door, but the singer crooned right into your ear. That’s not what it sounds like though. Whitey Ford is another name for the 90’s rock singer that also went by the name Everlast. The two names juxtaposed against one another and reflecting the mix of styles the musician employed to make his sound. He was a rapper and a rocker, like everyone else was in the late 90s. Chasing after the holy grail of the perfect marriage between the two warring pop music genres, a war that still rages today, and that started in earnest with the hilariously dated duo of Aerosmith and Run-DMC singing “Walk this Way,” that video is a treat, for sure.
At the time that I bought Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, I treated CDs like they were made of pure gold. Like the light that shone off them wasn’t because of the plasticy reflective surface of their posterior, but rather that they had a holy magic to them. The notes of music have the power to change the world, they had the inevitable feature of lifting me up way above the earth every time I took one small hand-sized disc, dropped it in a CD player, and hit go.
That particular album, I bought shortly after my Bar Mitzvah. Most of the money I got I put away, but I allowed myself a small spending account from that savvy nest egg to have a little fun with. I had a long list of albums that I drooled over every time I made my way into Music Plus or the Wherehouse. And I immediately sent away for one of the then popular mail order CD stores. These dime-a-dozen services would let you pay a subscription fee, and then buy 12 CDs off them for the price of 6. I carefully budgeted how much the subscription and 6 CDs would cost me, and then poured over the large list of music in their catalog, sitting on the blue carpet in my bedroom. After hours I narrowed down the list to 12 and sent in my order with my check.
The CDs came one a month and by the end of each month I had the microscopic grooves of the compact discs etched into my mind. I loved this music. The Whitey Ford album was one of the first that showed up, I listened to it over and over again. But at the end of the year I received a bill from the music service. I can still picture the sum of $124 casually printed at the bottom of the note. $124!! That was way more than I had calculated. My dad sat down with me and together we looked at the original terms I had signed. I had carefully covered the information, but with one look my dad knowingly nodded his head, and pointed out those sinister words of fine print “shipping and handling fees may apply.” I paid the bill, and immediately canceled my subscription. A burn to my wallet, and my pride, but a strong lesson: all words are powerful.
Those albums stayed in my CD case, but over the years made their way out of it for other music. And I hadn’t heard the popular track on that album for years until it showed up on the radio this past Monday.
I knew the song immediately, that unmistakably slowly arpeggiated D minor chord. I could see the notes fretted on the ebony soundboard the second they rang out over the airwaves and the song brought me right back to my teen years. I mentioned that I listened to these songs over and over again, and so I’ve learned every last word of them by heart. So I was taken aback when I started singing “What It’s Like” and found that most of the words were taken out. Now I understand the need to block out curse words from the public radio. Most people don’t want their children hearing the harsh language, or don’t want to hear it themselves. But that wasn’t the only thing taken out, most of the content was as well. You heard the song tell the story about a man begging for some change, but you don’t learn about the response he gets from the passer by: “get a job you dirty slob.” You learn about the young woman who falls in love, but you don’t learn that she gets pregnant, you don’t learn that she gets an abortion, and you don’t hear the names that people call her. You hear about a young man who liked to party and have fun, but you don’t learn that he drew a gun in a fight and that he winds up dead.
The chorus of this song is haunting, all the more so given that so much content was taken out “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes, then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues.” How can the listener know what it’s like to live these people’s lives, when we are only given half the story?
I was troubled by this because as Jews we have a strong aversion to censorship. That is why after so many years of staunch disagreement with the prohibition against homosexuality every Reform Torah translated, that thick blue volume, is still printed with Leviticus 18:22 that reads “a man shall not lie with another man as he does with a woman.” Because we confront our challenges, we talk about them, but we do not censor them. Truth be told, we’d have a pretty short book to read from if we did. As a people oppressed throughout the ages, we are well aware of the pitfalls of censorship. For example, on Shabbat morning we say the Shema not once but twice, the second time is during the Torah service. The prayer was forbidden at one time, and the authors of the service honestly thought that non-Jews wouldn’t notice it if they snuck the one liner into the Torah service. It remains there, even after the original, towards the beginning of the service, was put back.
The second verse of Whitey Ford’s song has always stayed with me. A young woman falls in love with a young man who promises to take care of her and support a family. As soon as she gets pregnant the man disappears. She decides to have an abortion. The song goes:
“Then she walks through the clinic and she gets some static walkin’ through the door, the call her a killer, and they call her a sinner, and they call her a whore. But God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes, then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose.”
But the entire thing is blocked out. We just hear that they fall in love and that the man leaves. We have a strong discomfort with sexuality in our culture, evidenced by the notion that Abstinence is a policy for sex education. When abstinence is no education at all. What it is, is censorship. It ignores what is real. The same censorship that banned the book Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or any of the other texts one person has decided not to permit to another. The majority of which were banned in the United States because of sexual allusions and content.
In the Jewish tradition we read about how sex is a holy thing, and not something to be suppressed. The Talmud discusses sex and its holiness, the Ramban in the middle ages explained that sex is a holy act in his important work The Holy Letter, and just recently the Reform rabbi’s press published a book called The Sacred Encounter to help encourage a sex positive Reform Jewish culture. This coming week we are having a workshop for parents of teens to help parents understand how to talk to their kids about sex.
Sometimes we censor ourselves in conversation as well. Under the guise of kindness we keep our true words from one another, only to watch them accidentally slip from our tongues when we are with other friends, a safe space. The same principles of censorship that make us wary of blocking holy writ and honest literature apply to our common social conversations. It is important, even critical, that when we have something to say to our neighbor, we say it. There is a way to say almost anything with kindness, but with honesty. This is why our laws of forgiveness insist on us speaking directly to the person that we are seeking forgiveness from. As we’ve read countless times on Yom Kippur, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for transgressions of one person to another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” Our tradition insists on honesty, on not censoring ourselves even to each other.
It’s surprising that in our American community we would be so keen to censor, when our country holds such strong beliefs about the freedom of speech. I recently listened to an episode of Radiolab that talked about a group of reporters that disappeared in Ethiopia because they criticized the government. John Kerry, acting as secretary of state, while in the country denounced the occurrence, a bold gesture. At a press conference another Ethiopian reporter asked Kerry to truly hold the Ethiopian government accountable. That reporter then had to flee the country himself because the government threatened his safety. We sometimes hold the drive to free speech higher than our own physical safety. The need for our voice sounding louder than our need for life, or perhaps the two are inseparable.
A common philosophical trope is to ask simply, what makes us human? What differentiates us from other living things? What part of our essence is distinct? Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher answered this question by saying that what makes us human is that we have the ability to reason. Using our intellect we differentiate ourselves from animals because we can use logic. The rabbis took a different tack. Finding the richest parts of their lives in the study halls of the great schools of learning, drinking in the words of their teachers and without books literally studying the spoken text, they decided that what makes us human, above all else, is our ability to speak. Without speech we lose what makes us human, and what allows us to be truly human to each other.
We use our words to help make us human, when our passageways are blocked, that neshama, which is the Hebrew word for soul, and means literally the organs for breath in our bodies, when that is blocked we are limited in our being. These are the things that make us human, our words and when we have the opportunity to speak with one another, we have the opportunity to be human.
And so this Shabbat and this coming year, I hope that we all have the opportunity to truly speak, to be heard, and gain a small glimpse into what it’s like to be our neighbor, what it’s like to be ourselves.