I’ve been writing this column for the Jewish Standard/Times of Israel for almost three years, but it’s not my first steady gig as a columnist.
More than 50 years ago, while a senior at Yeshiva University, I wrote a column for the Commentator, our college newspaper, called “In My Opinion.” (I had wanted to use that title for my column in the Standard, but since the pages I write in are headed “Opinion,” my desired title seemed redundant. We therefore decided on “I’ve Been Thinking,” which connotes the same general idea — that I’m one opinionated guy who speaks only for himself.)
My college columns were exactly what you might expect: a mixture of the parochial (student apathy, smoking marijuana on campus, college student protests, adding a Jewish philosophy course to the RIETS curriculum) and the great issues of the day (the Vietnam War, Soviet Jewry, the draft, McCarthy/Kennedy, the King assassination). It was, after all, 1968.
But my third column (I have them all in a scrapbook that my youngest daughter actually read in connection with an American studies course she took in college — history for her, current events for me) was neither parochial nor a great issue. Rather it was a remembrance of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, who had recently died, and whom I had learned about through the singing of PP&M, Bob, Pete, Joan, Phil, Odetta, the Weavers, and Judy (when the latter was still a folk singer).
I was a real fan; I had read Woody’s autobiography “Bound for Glory,” and discussed his life in a presentation I made in my required freshman speech course, with a musical background played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. (Remember those?)
(Parenthetical aside which can be skipped by anyone who didn’t attend MTA or YU in the 1950s to the 1970s. After the column appeared, I was summoned to Norman B. Abrams’ office during beis midrash. This was a first for me, and I couldn’t imagine what I’d done wrong. I was greeted by Mr. Abrams holding the Commentator open to my column and asking “Did you write this?” Still not understanding what was going on, I managed to stammer “yes.” “Vell, I’m a Voody fan too,” he told me, and, to my utter amazement, we spent the next 30 minutes discussing Guthrie’s music. When I returned to the beis midrash and told my anxious chavruta David what happened, it took me hours to convince him that my story was true.)
So when I saw a recent article in the Standard saying that Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter (and Arlo’s sister), would be speaking at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, I knew I had to attend, even though it conflicted with my weekly Men’s Fitness class at the Rodda Center.
Turns out I made a very wise choice.
It wasn’t difficult to pick Nora out among the hundred-plus women who filled the hall. Her glorious head of silver curly hair, so reminiscent of Arlo’s, instantly jumped out at me, and I had a chance to chat with her briefly before the program began.
She spoke personally as a daughter about her beloved father, with an emphasis on Woody’s Jewish connections. His wife Marjorie, Nora’s mother, was a dancer in the Martha Graham modern dance troupe and the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, a famous Yiddish poet. Her upbringing in a sophisticated, well-to-do, educated New York Jewish family was worlds apart from Guthrie’s dirt-poor Oklahoma cowboy background. But they met over music, fell in love, and eventually moved to Coney Island so Bubbe could help take care of the kids.
While the entire program was terrific, for me the most fascinating parts were the audio visuals. In addition to lots of pictures, we saw home movies, including a rare clip of Woody playing the guitar. Although it unfortunately was silent, with just a bit of concentration I was able to hear Woody singing along in my head. Simply glorious.
We also saw Woody and family at a Chanukah party at his in-laws’ house, with a background audio of Bubbe explaining Chanukah to Woody in Yiddish (which he didn’t understand), accompanied by Zayde’s sometime hilarious (mis)translations. But Woody must have absorbed something, because he wrote dozens of Chanukah songs, some of which the Klezmatics recorded in a Grammy award winning CD that lives on my iTunes together with tons of Woody’s better known songs sung by him and others.
We also heard about Arlo’s bar mitzvah. He had one of sorts, though it ended up mainly as a hootenanny with Woody and his friends (Pete, Leadbelly, Cisco, and others) playing their music. Now that’s a bar mitzvah I would have loved to have attended, even without sushi!
There was a Jewish element to the bar mitzvah as well. The Guthries hired a young rabbi to prepare Arlo for his big day. That didn’t work out too well, though; I think we’ll have to settle for Arlo’s singing “Alice’s Restaurant” and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” rather than a haftarah. In any case, the rumors rife on social media about who that young rabbi was have now been confirmed for me, because the short clip of one of those long-ago Hebrew lessons shows a very young Meir Kahane sitting at a table across from Arlo.
I didn’t buy any of the CDs for sale after the program because I already own them all. But I took from the program a lesson — one that wasn’t for sale — about home and family lore and traditions. I’ve written about this previously (“You Can Go Home Again,” May 11, 2018), then concentrating on the literal homes my wife and I grew up in and the need to seek out those homes and the family lore connected to them before the sources of that information are no longer are available.
I ended that column by noting that “you can’t go home again if you don’t know where — and what — home was.” But a significant part of “home” includes the arts and culture that inspired you as you were growing up.
And sometimes you can go back to that home again, as I did at Nora’s lecture.
Equally important, so can your children. They can, and should, learn what it was that once touched their parents’ hearts. What moved their parents may not move them, but it sometimes can help them see their parents in another light, perhaps even imagine them in their youth, for example, meeting and dancing for the first time to the Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody.” So when that song plays on an oldies station, it stirs the entire family, with the 1960s and the 2010s somehow merging for old and young alike.
I certainly made plenty of mistakes as a father. But one success that I’m proud of, truly, is that all my children love Peter Paul and Mary. (On the other hand, I failed miserably in trying to get them to appreciate Mel Brooks’ humor. Ah well.) But PP&M’s music is something that binds us as a family; when I, sometimes joined by my daughters, sing “For Baby/Bobbi” to my grandkids to put them to sleep, it’s three generations evoking the past while looking ahead to the future. And when I dance to that same song with my daughter at her wedding (“Ani Ledodi, V’dodi Li,” July 6, 2018), well, we’re all going home together.
Woody was a seminal folksinger, and he continues to live on and touch the soul of generation after generation through his lyrics and music. As Phil Ochs movingly wrote and sang: “And now he’s bound for a glory all his own/and now he’s bound for glory.” But Woody wasn’t always right; his song “Ain’t Got No Home,” while lovely, misses the mark by a bit.
We all got a home. Sometimes we just have to search for it.