Songs of Youth

In different ways, the various senses with which we are born can take us back in time to people, places and events long ago forgotten.

Smell is a particularly effective reminder of past experiences. The right aromas can transport people back through time and space into their parents’ and grandparents’ kitchens, particularly on a Friday afternoon. The smell of chicken soup cooking will do that. I can remember, with the right sensory prompt, exactly what it smelled like when the grass had just been cut at the home on the Jersey shore where my family spent many a summer, or the sweetness in the air when the thunderstorm was over, or the incredible aroma in my camp’s dining room when there was fresh corn bread for five hundred or so people baking in the kitchen. It always amazes me how complex an instrument the brain is, so much more so than any computer that wows us with RAM and CPU speed.

Lately I’ve been focused on the auditory version of the same phenomenon- how hearing particular songs, or poems, can transport us back to a different time in our lives, with either pleasant or other associations.

I’ve been having a running e-mail correspondence with a member of my congregation, aimed at naming the twenty or so best rock albums (not CD’s!) of our youth. (Yes, even rabbis….) Every mention of a particular album by the Moody Blues, Judy Collins, the Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and all the others reminds me of what I was doing when those albums were the background music of my life. It’s such a fun exercise, especially for someone like me who can’t always get my children’s names straight.

I had another such experience just last week, when my wife Robin invited me to join her at the Heschel Middle School for a special performance by Yehonatan Geffen, one of Israel’s most gifted and prolific poets. Although he writes a regular column in the weekend magazine of Ma’ariv and is in every way an accomplished author, most people of my age (and younger) know him through a remarkable selection of children’s poems assembled together under the title of Hakeves Hashishah Asar – literally, the sixteenth lamb.

Set to music by some of Israel’s most gifted musicians in the 1970’s, entire generations of Israeli children grew up singing those songs/poems, and slightly older folks like my wife and myself raised our children to love them. I guess the closest thing to Hakeves Hashishah Asar here in America would be Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You and Me, another exceptional work.

It’s hard to describe exactly how powerful an experience it was hearing Geffen’s iconic voice, so familiar to me from the original recording, in that school gym, all these years later. I was taken back to a much more innocent place and time, singing along almost unconsciously with the other adults who were present about the smell of chocolate, the prettiest girl in the kindergarten class, and how giraffes can see weather coming long before other animals. The whole experience was oddly moving, in a way I could not have anticipated.

I guess there’s still some hope for us aging baby boomers if we can be helped to remember precious memories from so long ago. Now if I could only remember my kids’ names….

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.