As a dishwasher at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA thirty years ago, I was walking down Bridge Street to help with kitchen prep for that evening’s sold out Billy Bragg show when I bumped into Billy Bragg himself.
Billy was one of my favorite singers at the time, so just as I had done with Dr. John, Warren Zevon, Richie Havens, John Prine, Shawn Colvin and many more, I stopped him to introduce myself and thank him for his music.
“My name’s Stephen, too,” he said. “My given name.”
We chatted about names and naming of people and places, including me saying that I recalled him mentioning an English town called Northampton in one of his songs. “Don’t think so, mate,” he said. Then Billy asked me where he might be able to buy a new pair of shoes. I pointed him in the right direction and off to work we both went.
Billy Bragg is an avowed leftist, and though he joined an empathetic interview about Jewish issues with Dr. Rabbi Raphael Zarum at JW3 a few years ago, my hunch is that his sympathies are not with Israel these days.
No matter. I’m not a twenty-two year old socialist dishwasher looking for a father figure anymore, and leftist politics – especially since October 7th – have not aged well for me. But I still admire Billy Bragg’s early career one-man punk tunes, the nostalgic but realistic love songs that came later, and his emphatic call for justice throughout. I still quote the following line from his song “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” all the time:
And if no one out there understands
start your own revolution
and cut out the middleman
In a landscape defined by carnage, suffering, ignorance, and leveraging lives for power by the worst of people, it’s hard to find a middle ground, let alone a middleman. And which revolution would you pick if you had to start one yourself? Uprooting years of cynical complacency as Hamas built a terror empire in our backyard? Israel’s contentious internal politics infecting the war cabinet at a time where we need smarts and solidarity? Our relationship with Palestinians and the Arab world more broadly? The festering anti semitism of the Left, which begs the question of how a trillion dollar higher education industry could be so very bad at education?
I want to call for a new way forward. You probably do too. I’m all for a new pair of shoes, asking for directions, and going to work. But where do we begin?
These questions bring me to my recent meeting with the Archbishop of Sweden.
The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center where I serve as CEO has worked proudly and productively with the Swedish Theological Institute for many years, and when our colleagues asked if we might be interested in hosting the Archbishop and his delegation on Friday evening, our Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Joel Levy and I offered an enthusiastic “Yes.”
I’ve been thinking about the ensuing conversation at my Shabbat table all week – from stories of the Archbishop text messaging with the Prime Minister of Sweden to saying kiddush together accompanied by a prayer to #BringThemHome to the fact that a delightful man who holds a position tracing its roots back to the 9th century enjoyed two scrumptious servings of my (not Swedish) meatballs.
With so many takeaways about interfaith relations, belief, religion over time, and the deep parallels between the Church of Sweden’s cultural, egalitarian values and Masorti Judaism’s focus on the same, I’ll share only one invaluable lesson from our time together.
This lesson was revealed when Rabbi Joel and I brought the Archbishop and his delegation to services at Kehilat Zion before dinner. Our friend and teacher Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum dedicated a profound sermon to the Archbishop that I translated in his ear from Hebrew to English as she spoke.
Tying together themes of Joseph the dreamer and dream teller with the end of Hanukkah in context of this awful war, Rabbi Tamar explained that our age will be defined by our capacity to redirect religious energy from the temptation for world-wide religious war towards a radical new reality in which world religions actually seed peace.
The ancient monotheistic religions share a basic calendar, Rabbi Tamar taught, and this year, as Hanukkah ends, Advent begins. “We had our turn with the light, Archbishop,” she said, “and now it’s yours.”
With words to which I cannot do justice, Rabbi Tamar described the critical need for an evolution in observing our shared, ever-revolving calendar. Revolution will come when we change that calendar’s direction on a global level. Can we align our religious urges with light rather than darkness, plurality rather than fundamentalism, and an open hand rather than a closed fist? If not, she said, there will be no world left in which to worship – neither for believers nor for non-believers.
We’re all stuck in the middle – men and women, girls and boys – from Sweden to Israel and all around the world. Unless we reverse the negative cycle of religion, it will plow us under. The cancerous, wicked fundamentalism represented by Hamas, while perhaps unique in its capacity for cruelty and death, is not unique in its misogyny, its hatred of difference, and its complete lack of tolerance for anything other than its narrow, violent worldview. We can see such shadows globally on the Left and the Right as well as in every religion.
There were no revolutions at our Friday night meatball summit. But there was a glimmer of hope in knowing that good, wise people of different faiths can come together to pray, to break bread, to learn from each other, and to share in lighting a pathway that leads to something better, even beautiful. It can help to have a rabbi or an Archbishop to remind you to look for this light, but you don’t need a middle man to see it.