JewishBoston.com: Four Questions with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

created at: 2011-05-09Last month, Rabbi Jill Jacobs became Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, an organization working to involve Rabbis in the United States and Canada in being moral voices in current human rights issues both at home and in Israel. Rabbi Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009) and Justice Shall Dwell There: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights, forthcoming in June 2011). She writes a regular column, “Public Judaism,” for the Forward, serves as a panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and blogs at the Huffington Post. She was Rabbi-in-Residence of Jewish Funds for Justice from 2005 to 2010, and Director of Education and Outreach at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs from 2003 to 2005. Rabbi Jacobs received rabbinical ordination and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, and a BA from Columbia University. She is an alumna of the Wexner Fellowship Program and spent the 2009-2010 academic year as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. And perhaps most relevant to JewishBoston.com, she grew up in Framingham, MA.

What’s the origin of your passion for social justice?

My very first social justice campaign ever was when I was a junior in at Framingham High School, and my principal was quoted in the local newspaper saying there was no teen pregnancy problem in Framingham. I thought otherwise because I walked the halls of my school and saw pregnant teens. I did a little research, called Planned Parenthood, and found that Framingham had one of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the US. We were one of the few schools in Massachusetts that had no sex education whatsoever, and I figured those two facts weren’t disconnected.

I started meeting with the school board about making sex ed and condoms available at our school. At the time, I had no idea that was connected to Judaism – that Jewish women had been involved in reproductive health battles for a long time.  I did notice that my parents were supportive and that my synagogue was supportive, so I knew there was something vaguely Jewish about it, but I couldn’t put it together. Only as an adult did I learn that Jews had been involved in reproductive health forever, and Jews had been involved in social justice work, and Jewish law includes thousands of pages on how we should behave in civil society.  Continue reading

Jewschool: Beautiful City

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

This is the fifth post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” here with a post about South Pacific’s “Carefully Taught,” and here with a post about “No More” from Golden Boy.

Theater is, by its very nature, impermanent. While a sculptor certainly could revisit a sculpture after declaring it finished and make some revisions, change is intrinsic to performance — no two performances are ever exactly the same. Perhaps that’s why those who create musical theater seem to have a higher propensity than other artists to rethink their work, be it after the original production opened, for a film version, for a foreign production, or a revival. Sure, every once in a while there’s a Walt Whitman or a George Lucas who subjects his work to similar rethinking in other media, but in musical theater it’s almost de rigueur. In fact, some shows (such as 1927′s Show Boat) have undergone so many phases of transformation they’ve inspired a cottage industry of musical theater restoration that can rival the Biblical Source Criticism biz.

A production number from the 2000-2001 National Touring production of Godspell.I say all this by way of introducing this week’s song, “Beautiful City,” which comes from Godspell. The musical is a retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew, emphasizing the theme of community-building and interdependence. Godspell itself has an interesting history, originating as a college production that transferred to an off-off-Broadway theater. It was given a major overhaul (including an almost-entirely-new score by Stephen Schwartz) when it moved to a commercial Off-Broadway run in 1971. Following a long and successful run, it moved to Broadway in 1976 where it ran for another couple of years.

This song wasn’t a part of those original productions. The first version of “Beautiful City” was written for the 1973 film version of the show. In the film, it’s a pleasant but somewhat forgettable soft-rock tribute to the power of doing things together, very much in the mold of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (aka “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”) from the same year. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I think it musicalizes the moment in which Jesus and his community enter Jerusalem (or, in the world of Godspell, New York) prior to the events of the passion narrative. Check it out:

In 1992, Schwartz was approached to contribute a new song for a production to be put on in Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots. Schwartz revisited “Beautiful City” and refashioned it into a song about urban renewal. The production never happened, but the song has been interpolated into most subsequent productions of the show. Of the song, he says:

I feel that the new lyrics are vastly superior to the ones used in the movie, which I find “drippy” and somewhat cloying. So I would prefer wherever it is used within the show, directors use the new lyrics. I don’t feel they are too specifically about Los Angeles if one doesn’t know they were originally written for that purpose; I feel their reference to urban blight and violence is universal enough.

Godspell 2001 National Touring Cast Recording

Beautiful City

from Godspell

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

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This rendition comes from the 2000-2001 national touring production, directed by Schwartz’s son Scott. Although Stephen Schwartz has gone on record as preferring the song performed as a ballad late in the second act, Scott Schwartz’s use of the song as a rousing second-act curtain raiser is more to my taste, at least as a purely audio experience. Plus, this series of social justice showtunes has been a little ballad heavy, and for the week of Sukkot it feels appropriate to use a more upbeat song.

Someday, someone (maybe me?) will write a more thorough exploration of Schwartz’s biblical- and religious-themed work. In addition to Godspell, he’s the songwriter behind Prince of Egypt (the animated musical retelling of the Exodus story) and Children of Eden (a musical rethinking of the first nine chapters of Genesis). He wrote the lyrics to Bernstein’s Mass and Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as the Jewish immigrant tale Rags (an ersatz follow-up to Fiddler on the Roof from librettist Joseph Stein). When I was still in college, I convinced our Office for the Arts to bring Schwartz for a series of master classes and seminars with students, partially in conjunction with a production of Children of Eden I was producing for our Hillel Drama group that semester. At the time, Schwartz noted that he was raised Jewish but without a particularly intense engagement with Judaism. These days, his official stance is that he doesn’t discuss his religious beliefs so they won’t get in the way of others appreciating his work.

For a song from a musical about Jesus, the song is surprisingly humanistic. The rallying cry is to build “not a city of angels, but finally a city of man.” A recent British production placed this song at the end of the show, at the moment when the community must recover from the crucifixion of their leader and move onward. That might be a shocking resolution to the story of Jesus, but in many ways it feels like a very Jewish approach to the loss of a leader or even to the feeling that God is absent. We don’t wait for signs from heaven – we know what we’re expected to do, and we go out and do it.

If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on urban renewal, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is one of the best. Although their work is focused on Chicago, their vision and values are applicable to pretty much any city in the world.

Jewschool.com: Carefully Taught

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

This is the third post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles and continues here with a post about the 1932 song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Today’s entry to the series is probably the most well-known of the songs we’ll be examining. “Carefully Taught” was introduced in 1949, when South Pacific premiered on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s show addressed racial intolerance head-on, which went on to win its own Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950.

South Pacific Original Cast AlbumCarefully Taught

from South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Premiere: April 7, 1949

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(Performed by William Tabbert, from the Original Cast Recording.)

As a stand-alone number, the song is a strong message against racism in general, and against unquestioningly accepting the values of one’s parents more specifically. Although there wasn’t a great deal of public backlash against the song, Michener recalled that the authors had faced some pressure to drop this song from the show, but, in Michener’s words, “This number represented why they had wanted to do the play and even if it meant failure of the production it was going to stay in… Courage and determination such as this counts for something in art.”

The show holds a special place in the history of the American musical, and a special fascination for fans of the form. The show represented a big step forward in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s creation of the musical-drama (as opposed to musical comedy), and Josh Logan’s direction was produced one of the first stage plays to adopt cinematic scene transitions. The show has been filmed twice (once for cinemas, once for television), and an all-star concert was also captured for PBS. The show has become a permanent feature of the high school and community theater circuits, and in the 1999-2000 season (the 50th anniversary of the show’s premiere), I must have seen a half-dozen productions around Los Angeles.

Lt. Cable romances Liat while Bloody Mary looks on (from the original Broadway production).Today, South Pacific is once again running on Broadway, in a smash-hit revival at Lincoln Center. This summer, I saw the show live again for the first time in about ten years. In context, the song is sung by a young lieutenant who has fallen in love with a native Polynesian girl. He’s singing to a older French planter whose love affair with a young nurse has fallen apart over the nurse’s disgust at discovering her planter has previously been married to a Polynesian woman.

I attended the show with a dear friend of mine, who happens to be Jewish and biracial, and her parents. Her parents were swept away by the show, but my friend was left with a bad taste in her mouth. You see, for all Lt. Cable’s protestations of his love for Liat, the Polynesian girl, all we’ve seen of their relationship has been strictly physical. They don’t even speak a common language. My friend, unable (or unwilling) to be swept up in the romantic idea of the white air force office rescuing the native girl from her arranged marriage to a wealthy, elderly planter, could only see a naive young girl being rescued from one kind of concubinage only to enter a different kind of love-slavery. (It doesn’t help that both relationships — the one with Cable and the one with the planter — are orchestrated by Liat’s wily mother, Bloody Mary.)

Honestly, I was sort of split on the issue – I hadn’t considered it in that light before. I was also very sleepy the night we saw the show, so I jumped at the chance to catch a matinée later in the summer, this time with my parents and brother. Again, I found the show to be a little long for my taste — director Bartlet Sher has restored a song cut from the original production and added some extra lines here and there (in part to emphasize the young nurse heroine’s racist upbringing), and if you ask me, a two-and-a-half hour show doesn’t need any lengthening. But aside from the length, I couldn’t get my friend’s criticism out of my head, and this time I could only see the relationship between Cable and Liat as exploitative (albeit exploitative in both directions).

And yet, it’s hard to deny the impact the story had on its original audiences, and that it still has on audiences today. The song itself still resonates, and artists continue to record it sixty years after its debut. One of my colleagues in the world of Jewish education keeps the lyrics framed on his office wall alongside quotes from great rabbis as a reminder of the full range of our responsibilities as educators.

As we enter the new year together, I hope we can all think about the ways we teach the next generation and renew our commitment to creating a future free from hate and fear.

If you’re interested in learning about a Jewish organization working on creating a Jewish community free from hate and fear, check out The Jewish Multiracial Network. To quote from their mission statement:

The mission of the Jewish Multiracial Network is to build a community of Jews of color and multiracial Jewish families for mutual support, learning, and empowerment. Through education and advocacy, we seek to enrich Jewish communal life by incorporating our diverse racial and ethnic heritages.

They’re doing important work. Check out their website for information on upcoming events and the resources they have to offer, and consider how you may help make your own Jewish community more inclusive of all Jews.

For more information about the Jewish influences on, and activities of Rodgers & Hammerstein, check out Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical by Andrea Most, which also features an entire chapter on “Carefully Taught.”

Jewschool.com: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Originally published on Jewschool.com.

This is the second post in a series on Social Justice Showtunes. The series starts here with a post about the 1937 Broadway musical Pins and Needles.

When I drew up my initial list of songs to include in this series, there was no question that “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” would be included. Since its debut in the third edition of Americana in 1932, the song has captured the imagination of Americans with its poignant and painful depiction of the Depression-era life of a WWI veteran. The song has been continually recorded throughout the intervening decades by everyone from The Weavers to George Michael. (In 2001, The Harburg Foundation issued a CD with 18 different renditions across seven decades that really drove this point home.)

But the most famous recording remains Bing Crosby’s 1932 recording with the Lennie Hayton Orchestra:

Brother Can You Spare a Dime sheet musicBrother, Can You Spare a Dime?

from Americana

Music by Jay Gorney

Lyrics by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg

Premiere: October 5, 1932

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Variety dubbed the song “a ballad of the Depression,” and the song remained on the Hit Parade through Crosby’s recording as well as Rudy Vallee’s.

The song was Harbug’s first masterpiece, but he went on to write the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow. In a 1970s Lyrics & Lyricists concert at the 92nd Street Y, Harburg spoke about the song:

I grew up when America had a dream, and its people, a hope. Whether we were struggling against the shackles of slavery or the shackles of scarcity, the hope was there. In 1930, the dream collapsed. The system fell apart. The people were not angry. They were not in revolt. This was a good country on its way to greatness. It had given our immigrant parents more freedom, more education, more opportunity than they had ever know. What happened? We were baffled, bewildered… and the bewildered, baffled man sang [these lyrics]…

Gorney is less well-known, although he is also credited with discovering Shirley Temple. His other big hit song was “You’re My Thrill.” (Here’s a Weekend Edition story on Gorney from 2006 with more information.)

A scene from Americana, the musical that gave us "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"Both men were active in progressive politics, which eventually landed both on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee and on the blacklist. Gorney seems to have been devastated by the blacklist. Harburg continued to work on Broadway (where the blacklist was pretty consistently defied) and branched out into poetry with Rhymes for the Irreverent, republished in this decade to support the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and organization fighting to protect the separation of church and state in America.

The Harburg Foundation continues to support progressive causes in the spirit of Yip’s own politics, including

projects that (a) work toward world peace, (b) work to end economic and social discrimination and exploitation, racial/ethnic conflicts, and civil injustices; (b) provide educational opportunities to low-income and minority students through scholarship organizations; (c) advance and promote new works of American political art, especially efforts involving cultural and societal issues; (d) preserve and enhance the legacy of E.Y. Harburg through new projects or revivals of his standard works in all media.

And what of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” itself? Unfortunately, it has never been as timely as it is today. Once again we have veterans returning home to the worst unemployment statistics of our generation, laborers whose industries have nearly shut down, a national debate about how to provide for our needy, and many Americans questioning whether there ever was an agreement as to what the American Dream is.

Listening to the song today, it’s the very last line that really kills me, when the singer switches from addressing the listener as “brother” to “buddy.”

Whether you think it’s up to the government or the populace (or some combination thereof) to solve the various messes we’re in — the economy, health care, etc. — this song speaks to us all. The real question is whether any of us are really listening.

If you’re interested in learning more about a Jewish organization working on issues of economic justice, check out Jews For Racial & Economic Justice. Right now, their mission is centered on New York City, but if you live outside of NY, JFREJ provides an interesting model to consider bringing to your own city.

Jewschool.com: Songs with Social Significance

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

This summer, I attended my first National Havurah Committee Summer Institute. Part of each day at the Institute is devoted to workshops, one-hour sessions created by anyone attending who wants to share something they care about with the other attendees. I was strongly encouraged to offer a workshop or two… the workshop coordinator happened to be sleeping on my couch while putting together the schedule. I flippantly offered to offer a workshop on the subject about which I know the most: showtunes. And because I’m a wise-ass, I said, “Let’s call it ‘Social Justice Showtunes.’” I imagined the Institute crowd would eat that shit up.

Turns out, I was right. Not only did people flock to the workshop, my Facebook friends were also interested in hearing more. So, over the next several weeks, I will be presenting here a series on Social Justice Showtunes, featuring songs from the musical stage, written by Jews, about social justice issues.

Pins & Needles 25th Anniversary Studio Cast AlbumSing Me A Song With Social Significance

from Pins and Needles

Music & Lyrics by Harold Rome

Premiere: November 27, 1937

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(Performed here by Rose Marie Jun, from the 25th Anniversary Recording.)

Today is Labor Day in the United States of America. Apparently, in Canada, Bermuda. and elsewhere, today is Labour Day. While Labor Day may be no more a Jewish holiday than, say, Yom Yerushalayim, both holidays are alike in their origins, growing out of political movements spearheaded by secular Jews.

(Yes, it’s an oversimplification to call the Labor Movement a political movement spearheaded by secular Jews. However, the Jewish Labor Committee has an extensive bibliography about the history of Jews in the Labor Movement if you’d like to learn more.)

At any rate, I certainly learned about the Jewish involvement in the labor movement and union organizing way back when in my synagogue’s afternoon Hebrew School. By the time of my Bar Mitzvah, I knew more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire than I did about anything that happened in the Tanakh between Sampson and King David.

A Scene from Pins and NeedlesBut as with many other subjects in the world, I’ve learned even more about the Labor Movement through showtunes than I ever did in Hebrew School. Much of that knowledge comes from my familiarity with a musical called Pins and Needles .

In the mid-1930s, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union had grown so large that the union invested in forming a Cultural Division charged with spreading the union’s values to its members through the arts. Pins and Needles was a revue, a collection of songs and scenes, that grew from this effort. It was so popular that it moved to Broadway and ran for years, even getting updated as headlines changed. This show was particularly special because all the performers in the original production were members of the ILGWU. Dressmakers, cutters, embroiderers, et al took a break from the factories to sing and dance on the Broadway stage. Harold Rome, the composer & lyricist, later reflected, “I didn’t realize that the big attraction was that the garment workers themselves were doing the show and singing to the audience, creating a rapport which is very rare in the theater.”

The song “Sing Me A Song With Social Significance,” which you can hear if you click on the icon above, was the opening number of the show. Although there had been topical revues prior to this one, this song announced a new kind of topicality. Pins and Needles wouldn’t just take pot-shots at the news and events of the day. This was a show with purpose.

In 1937, the original cast album hadn’t been invented yet. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first musical film to issue a soundtrack album, in 1937. Oklahoma was the first original cast album in the contemporary sense, although there were earlier albums that captured songs from musicals sung by the performers who introduced them. But I digress…) A few singles from the score were recorded, but only one got any significant airplay. In the words of Rome, “‘Social Significance’ in those days was not for our airwaves.” (He wrote that in the early 1960s, when Social Significance was definitely on the airwaves. How sad that we’ve since regressed.)

Fifteen songs from the show were eventually recorded in 1962 for a twenty-fifth anniversary recording. Two singles recorded by members of the original cast were released on CD as part of a boxed set a dozen years ago (that now appears to be out of print). And Rome himself some of the songs in the 1950s. It is from one of those collections, A Touch of Rome that I draw the song I want to leave you all with for Labor Day:

A Touch of RomeIt’s Better With A Union Man

From the album A Touch of Rome

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(Performed here by the songwriter.)

It’s interesting to me the difference between songs like this and the more straightforward and earnest protest songs of the 1960s. However, RubyK tells me that this song in particular fits in with the tradition of union organizing songs from the turn of the century, which makes sense given the circumstances of the creation of this show. It’s also interesting to me how racy the song is. We tend to imagine the ’30s as a more innocent time, but this song doesn’t really mince words in describing the sex life of the sweet little sewing machine girl. It’s interesting that the version recorded for the twenty-fifth anniversary recording whitewashed some of the lyrics. Who would have thought the version from the 60s would be cleaned up, while the version from the 30s was more explicit? History and memory are funny things.

As we look at other Social Justice Showtunes in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to consider the techniques the songwriters use to get their messages across in the context of the times they were writing. Stay tuned.

A couple of notes, as post scripts:

I am half-thinking about creating a curriculum from this series to use with my teens, pairing the songs with traditional Jewish texts and historical documents. Feel free to suggest texts you’d pair with these songs in the comments!

I also want to acknowledge my discomfort at posting these songs here, particularly in a post about unions. These aren’t my songs to post, and I’ll fully admit to a fairly limited understanding of how “fair use” works. That’s why I’ve only offered them as streaming files, and with a relatively lousy bit rate. That’s also why I’ve included links to purchase the albums from which these songs are drawn. If you enjoy these songs or want to learn more, please purchase the albums. Yes, the Pins and Needles album is owned by a giant corporation (although A Touch of Rome is on a small, independent label), and thanks to the way AFTRA and AFofM negotiated payment for singers on these kinds of albums, it’s not like any of the performers involved get paid because you buy a CD half a century later. (Hell, Harold Rome has been dead 16 years, so even he doesn’t stand to gain.) But on the other hand, the showtune is an endangered species, and every purchase helps keep it alive.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, if I did things right, you purchasing albums through these links will benefit Jewschool.com, with a percentage of your purchase price coming back to help fund the operation of this site.