Deborah Caldwell, Bill Talen, Arthur Waskow & Larry Harvey
Went to The Rabbi, The Reverend & The Renegade tonight at Angel Orensanz. Unfortunately, my digital recorder is a much bigger POS than I imagined so I won’t be bringing you the complete audio of the lecture. My bad—I’ll try n’ hook into the soundboard next time.
The event was essentially a metaphor for Burning Man itself—people of varying backgrounds, coming together in “temporary autonomous zone” and doing their best to overcome their differences and to work together for the duration of the experience.
In other words, I’m surprised all hell didn’t break loose.
I hate to start this way, but I’ve got to note that the 14th St. Y’s staff on the door were incredibly inhospitable. They would not let anyone in to purchase tickets or to use the restroom prior to 7:30 (though the area was fully staffed) thus forcing my 75 year-old friend with whom I attended the event to stand outside holding his pee. Considering this is the first major event under the banner of The Y’s Jewish Below 14th initiative that I’m aware of, it was very disconcerting that my first interaction with them should yield the uncaring face of corporate cool. If you are a community center looking to foster community, you want to be warm and inviting, not playing hot-shit with the velvet rope, cuz it taints the energy of the whole experience.
Just needed to get that out of the way.
The talk was sumfin’ else. Yarlmulkes spotted the audience amongst dyed-red dreads and SG-types [NSFF] in low-cut outfits. The tznius elbows of frum girls rested amongst the far-from-tznius elbows of men wearing rainbow tie-dyed spaghetti-strap tanktops. Reverend Billy served up drinks to the panel. Eratically-minded greying hippies interjected clever one-liners and out of turn questions, agitating the speakers and the audience alike. Audience members shouted at panelists. And Deborah Caldwell couldn’t manage one coherent question on her own. The air was tense, and made more so by the lack of air conditioning and the audience’s struggle to hear the panelists over the sucky sound system. All of this against the backdrop of a synagogue interior preserved in a state of decay for its aesthetic effect. Like I said, it was sumfin’ else.
Reverend Billy is a character. The Guido Sarducci of the anti-globalization movement, he is a comedic actor emulating a fiery Pentacostal railing against the corporotocracy. Undoubtedly a gifted orator, Rev Billy is profound in his condemnation of corporate culture, which he astutely defines as the dominant religion of the 21st century. Corporate retail chains and the mentality they perpetuate are pure evil, he asserts—and they must be stopped. Hallelujah! Amen!
Despite my esteem for all of the words which Rev Billy offered this evening—he really was kick-ass—I was left troubled by his indictment of religion and religious narratives which arose in his interactions with Reb Waskow. He flatly branded religion a bankrupt institution incapable of reform, nor worthy of any interest, brushing aside all the Torah wisdom which Arthur brought forth.
Of course, being familiar with the corruption of religious institutions, I can understand how he’d come to feel the way he does—I suppose I even walk the same line myself at times. But I can not accept the assertion that because one group can misappropriate a narrative that the narrative itself is or becomes inherently bankrupt. This is my fundamental problem with the Marxist-inspired attitude towards religion which dominates leftist thinking. It is unapologetically extreme in its opposition to theology and its adherents. This attitude has, at its worst, led to the repeated persecution of religious peoples, leaving millions dead in the wake of its advent. Further, it seems contrary to the notions of tolerance and compassions which I feel are a pillar of progressive Socialist thought.
Non-theologues must understand that the dominators are always going to misappropriate our culture and our narratives to achieve their own aims. For a person so strongly opposed to cooptation and recuperation, it seems hypoctrical for Rev Billy to demand we abandon our folk tradition to the dominators so that they may ram it into the ground. Contrary to Billy’s assertion, I believe that, not only is our narrative salvagable, but nothing needs salvaging! We just need to scrape the plankton off the side of our hull, and we’ll be just fine. If you’re not a yid, I of course don’t expect you to get it. But don’t insist we abandon our culture because you don’t understand our struggle as progressive people working for radical change within our own ‘nation’. There’s no way we’re giving up a narrative that—against all odds—has kept our community together for 5,000 years, just because uninformed or intolerant people don’t get what it’s about, or because others are just as outraged as we are that corrupt individuals abuse it to empower themselves.
Rest assured: I’ll be out on the corner chanting down Starbucks with you. Hell, I be the first one on the block. But you’ll never get a concession from me that the Jewish narrative is a dead horse. Don’t be so sure. It’s an unattractive quality.
I asked Billy, after the talk, if he was at all concerned that his extremism could be a turn-off to parties otherwise interested in what he has to offer. He explained that he is an actor, playing a role, and that role is an extremist. He is an absurd character, and thus it is part and parcel of his act. And I mean, yeah—I get it. But doesn’t that trivalize the message he imparts? Or is his maximum ultraism that which makes his message succeed?
Arthur was delightful. He was entertaining, he was passionate, and he offered beautiful teachings from the Torah that were accessible to all. He honestly seemed conservative in comparison to Billy, perhaps even a bit to Larry Harvey (who was much more “normal”, centered, and even conservative than I had expected). But any Jew who was there knows Arthur’s teachings are considered radical within our community, which is a pity because I believe neither the other panelists, nor the majority of the audience, were aware of his place within the Jewish community and how progressive and forwardthinking he really is. Despite all else, I thought he still got sort of snubbed for being ‘clergy’. Not by everyone, though. I caught Larry chatting with some folks afterwards, remarking how much he really enjoyed what Arthur brought to the table, and heard him counter a flaky red-white-and-pink-dreadlocked 50-something-year-old white woman’s contention that Arthur was, essentially an uppity religious Jew. “Actually, I think he’s pretty loose,” he said. “I really liked him.”
Though very collected, Arthur seemed to be on the defensive most of the time against Billy’s attacks on religious narrative. This is because Arthur’s whole shtick was sharing religious narrative. Thus he was forced into the position of defending the ground he was standing on, which was a place neither of the other panelists really found themselves in. And perhaps it wasn’t most of the time but just that those moments had the most powerful exchange of energy and were thus the most noticeable. Either way, in retrospect, it’s another interesting illustration of the place of the Jew in a gentile society. No respect! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!
After relating his own experience beating willow branches against the shore of the Hudson, resurrecting an ancient Jewish tradition, and hearing a story from Billy about the profoundity of his experiences performing & protesting, as well as Larry’s story about the founding of Burning Man, Arthur asked—”This shared communal experience, these profound transcendent moments, these encounters with the unknown: Can we call it religious or do you have an aversion to that term?” That’s pretty much where it all started.
Larry was on a very different tip than Arthur and Billy, and he’s not nearly as eloquent a speaker—he stutters a lot and mumbles a bit. But his content was spot on. His focus seemed to lean more towards immediatism than the invention of a new narrative or the reinvigoration of an old one. The impression I got from him was that, essentially, we don’t need to forge new myths, we just need to live them. “If you build it, he will come,” was kind of his summary point: By creating alternate possibilities for existence outside the dominant paradigm and demonstrating success within such constructs, we can prove that another world is possible, and in doing so, others will be drawn to and participate in that new possibility of their own accord. And Burning Man, which saw 35,000 people successfully construct an anarchist city in the desert last year, is a testament to that fact.
Speaking with him afterwards, Larry said that what he’s most excited about is the springing up of small autonomous Burning Man collectives around the country that are organizing ongoing events for the Burning Man community. There are so many at this point, he said, that one could hop from one event to the next and never skip a beat. Werd to your pilgramage!
Overall the event was chaos. There was no real moderation on the moderator’s behalf. The audience was unruly. The panel was fiesty. The conversation was all over the place… but it was profound and enlightening all the same. Thus the evening was a success. I can’t say that I learned anything new that I hadn’t heard before—I’m enmeshed in the culture of all three of the panelists. But I’ll say it was certainly gratifying and entertaining to watch three of my favorite folk heroes hammer it out, and attempt to arrive at some semblance of Truth (note the capital T), for whatever that’s worth.
More on Burning Man and its Jewish participants soon to come… My bad about the font-size earlier. Forgot to close a tag.