“And in towns across the country
It’s color that divides
When in working men and ladies
We could find our common side”

What a respite the last 10 days has been. Not from the barrage of unimaginably bad news and developments. Or of simple and plain cruelty in the world. That sadly continues unabated. Even intensifies.

But it’s been a respite to have permission for a few minutes, hours or days — depending on how much could you muster — to focus on ourselves and those close to us. The high holidays are a balance of focus on ourselves and our communities, and maybe beyond. In a world so lacking in kindness and reflection and commitment to justice, we have a moment to reflect on our role in the world. Our work, our presence, and our potential. These 10 days are about the only place to find such an opportunity in our world.

To aid in this reflection and renewal, I have worked in the past to develop playlists for the Chagim — using hip-hop/indie/punk/African songs that feel connected to the prayers or to the themes of the season. Last year I focused on one song, FEAR. By Kendrick Lamar, as a singular capsule of the whole season. For me, it is finding the spiritual Jewish meaning in these tunes that brings them alive, and also far more than the liturgy, or modern interpretations of it.

So, this year I wrote no fewer than 5 playlists. But the sense of what one needs from a playlist kept shifting with the developments of the day. Do we need a motivational list? A sorrowful one? A reflective one? An angry one?

Should we listen to a surprisingly hopeful and inspiring song like “I Believe in Miracles” by The Ramones or a punk homage to immigration from a bunch of guys who don’t look like that’s what they’ll be signing about, like “Danny Nedelko” by IDLES? A rocking screed on reality like “Tumult around the World” by Titus Andronicus? Or a return to “C.R.E.A.M.” by the Wu Tang Clan, a mournful and tragically more apt tune today than it was when released more than 25 years ago? Or a Chicago gospel-infused clever hip-hop ditty reminding us focus on the need to love God and ourselves, no matter how hard it gets, like “St. Matthew [Agape] by Matt Muse”? Or just a song to put a smile on your face with all that it puts together, like hip-hop from Zambia via Botswana/Canada/Australia, like “Final Form” by Sampa the Great? (And you can check out a great interview with her here, including reflections on spirituality in her music).

Image result for sampa the great
What do we need from music right now, the day after the Chagim, the day we return to the world as it really is?

In some ways we need a combination of all of that — and I admit we need one song (because who can get through a whole playlist). For me, and hopefully for you, that song is “Morning in America” by the neo-soul stalwarts Durand Jones and the Indications.

After beating your heart to the Ashamnu, how to maintain a focus on the specific reality? After feeling haunted by the u’netaneh tokef, how to connect to both the fragility of life and death in this country? After feeling inspired by the Shofar, how to grasp the clarion call to act, to stay in the moment of what is possible? After feeling a moment of calm in the tumult, how to connect to a sound that can both inspire and soothe? And maybe make you dance just a bit?

I say it is this song. It somehow covers the entirety of American geography and experience more than any other (even the remarkable “This is America” by Childish Gambino, though nothing can beat that video). It somehow brings together anger, hope, frustration, dedication, resignation and inspiration — all in less than 4 minutes. It sounds like something that could have been produced in 1969, yet its lyrics and meaning are so clearly rooted in our moment. And given that it shares its title with one of Ronald Reagan’s best-known campaign ads, it also allows us to take back what it can mean to be both outraged and hopeful at the same time in this country.

It allow us to be patriotic…and pissed off.

Hang on to every moment of the Chagim. Feel the impact of the beating of your chest. Grasp the sound of the shofar as if it were a physical object. Bottle one of the tears you shed, likely spontaneously, because of a hard moment in your own life or at the many tragic moments that have befallen this society.

And then listen to this song every day to remind you of all of it — and get you to the next one.

Shana Tovah.

Full lyrics are here:

It’s still in San Diego
You can hear a baby cryin’
As the trains in New York City
Roll thunder down the line

The teachers rise in Richmond
As they sleep in San Antone
While the harbor lights on Baltimore
Got nurses headed home

And the jails of Mericopa
Say a man is but his wrong
It’s morning in America
But I can’t see the dawn

Congressmen in Washington
Receive their brief n’ brew
While lead it fills the pipe lines
In a Detroit county school

And I think of my grandmother
How she told me to be strong
It’s morning in America
But I can’t see the dawn

A junkie waits at Jacksonville
Prescription for the pain
As what the doctor ordered
Comes screaming through the vein

And in towns across the country
It’s color that divides
When in working men and ladies
We could find our common side

It’s morning in America
It’s morning in America
We’re mourning in America
And I can’t see the dawn
No