Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Mamet, Hanukkah and the Giving Tree

Shel Silverstein was truly a master. Though I had read some of his books, I never knew the “whole story” until I attended a Jewish retreat at Camp Yavne, organized by our local Jewish Day School (JCDS) in the Boston area (I was on a two-year Boston residency at Brandeis University).  It was at this retreat that I learned who Shel Silverstein was. I also knew that director David Mamet was one of the school’s parents, and had only met him casually once or twice. It took this retreat to truly meet each other for the first time.

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Friday night was sweet, Saturday/Shabbat was quiet; each one of us prayed according to his/her tradition and/or inclination. Late morning was free time, and I happened to run into Rebecca Pigeon (singer/actress and David Mamet’s wife), and she said, “Maybe go down there and rescue David. He’s kind of bored. I can take care of our son…”. She motioned to a gigantic field at the bottom of a hill, and I saw father and son, just “hanging out”. I walked down to meet them and said to David, “Rebecca said she can take your son. Can I offer you a drink?” “Whadya have?”, he asked. “I’ve got something good!”, I replied.

David Mamet, Rebecca Pidgeon and the author (courtesy).

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So we went to my cabin and I took out my bottle of 12-year Glenfiddich single malt and we toasted a “L’ Chaim”. On my dresser was a copy of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.  David immediately saw it and with sadness in his eyes said, “You know Shel was one of my best friends. He was a true artist. And what a mensch! Too bad we lost him. I really miss him. What a loss…” There were tears in his eyes.

David and I started to look at the book. As we both thought about the tree and giving, we continued to imbibe. “I didn’t realize how much I miss him.” Deep sadness increased in his eyes, so I poured more. We drank until our legs were a little rubbery and then the sound of the lunch bell called us to eat with the others.

Meanwhile, the glow from Shel’s book remained, as vivid as the taste of Scotch.

I thought of just what Shel gave us with his beautiful book–and how much of an impact it probably has had all over the world. How many hearts did it help soften? How many marriages did it save? How many marriages did it helped create?…and how many young children, who lived and breathed with the book, were left with a positive imprint on their souls?

I thought to myself–great art may lay latent for years, but if it is strong, it can still have great impact after being “resurrected” years later. Shel, however, was lucky in that he saw a measure success (and gratitude) during his lifetime; people of all ages resonated with his universal message. Like Johnny Appleseed’s legendary apple trees, Shel Silverstein’s stories were planted far and wide. They had universal appeal. Their message crossed denominational boundaries, uniting us in our common humanity.

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So this Hanukkah week, we might return to The Giving Tree to broaden our giving spirit.. Many people unfortunately celebrate Hanukkah with lavish present giving, though this is not an “official” part of the traditional holiday (when we DO marvel at the mystical quality of the lights and the miraculous story of the Maccabees). Nowhere in the Shulchan Aruch is there a mention of present giving (even to the poor, as on Purim). According to Jewish scholar Noam Zion, on the holidays of Pesach (Passover), Sukkot and Hanukkah originally people did give presents to celebrate. According to Zion, this subsided on Pesach and Sukkot, but remained with Hanukkah. Other people confessed: we just tried to become like “Christmas” (these people were primarily Americans!)

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Anyway, returning to the Mamet story: We returned on a Saturday night (Motze Shabat) and next day, when I arose to bring in the Sunday morning Boston Globe, on my doorstep was a bottle of rare numbered single malt Scotch with no note attached.  I knew it was from David.  I called to thank him, and he said, “Thank you for medicating me!”.  I laughed; weeks later on a Sunday morning I brought the new bottle to David’s to toast a “L’ Chaim”. I started to pour VERY generously and David suddenly said: “Do you know what that IS?”. “Yeh, some great Scotch”, I replied. He rolled his eyes (knowing how precious it was) and said “Go slow, go slow! Just a little is enough”. In retrospect I imagine the bottle was worth a pretty penny, probably “hundreds”of $.

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Today I  return to Shel’s mythic story, as I have on countless occasions. The tree’s lifetime of giving to a child growing older is vivid:  the tree giving its leaves, branches, trunk, in essence,  its total “being” to the child/adult…and then finally giving its last stump  (the tree trunk) on which the now very old man can sit and rest. Like David’s precious Scotch, the tree’s precious giving, right down to the very “end” , is so much more meaningful than the grandiose lavish gifts which in some circles have become the Hanukkah tradition! A little goes a long way..a simple smile, gesture, phone call. Simple gestures like Mona Lisa’s smile. Sometimes that’s all it takes to shake the world. Is Shel’s story about unconditional love? Or is it about gratitude? Is it the infinite giving of a parent or close friend? Or does it reflect Shamai’s seemingly reverse Talmudic concept of lighting, where we being with all eight candles, and one by one reduce them until the last night we have only ONE…i.e. that the “burning of the candles” en masse, purifies us, leaving just one.

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Like the lone tree trunk, which still can and must give, the human spirit, stripped from all the accoutrements of life, stands out strongest and truest. The tree survived long enough for the child, now aged adult, to show true gratitude. The tree gives of itself until there’s nearly nothing left of it, aside from it’s essence. Is Shel’s story about basic human greed and selfishness?  Is it about infinite kindness?

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The debate about Shel’s story continues. But meanwhile, perhaps we can all learn to celebrate Hanukah with more kindness to each other, spreading light throughout the year, through our smiles and simple deeds.

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About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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