DRUNKISH: A Night of Discourse, Study, and Song

LABA Alum Amy Handelsman reports on November 17th’s DRUNKISH event.

Here’s what the invite said:

We want to offer you a threesome to make sense of life in the age of outrage: fine wine, sage advice from Judaism’s ancient masters, and insights and reflections from current LABA Fellows. Join us for a family-style Havdalah with spice, light and libation.

This was an irresistible invitation; a chance to channel, direct or soothe our anger in these troubling times. On November 17th, in the calming dimness of the Theater at the 14St Y, horseshoe-shaped tables were festooned with candles, nuts, mandarins, cheeses, and other delicacies; a communal gathering of fellow seekers hungering for intelligent and civil discourse.

After a warm welcome from LABA Artistic Director Ronit Muszkatblit, LABA Resident Scholar Liel Liebovitz led an evening that combined the study of texts from Torah and Talmud, palate-cleansing songs by our 2018-19 fellows, and an opportunity to share strategies to quell fractious conversations with the Other.  

The first text, from Pirke Avot, was a familiar one:

Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person as meritorious.

We parsed the three injunctions, and, in particular, their imperative verbs. To “make for yourself a mentor” conveys a commitment to action and without thinking about gain. To “acquire for yourself a friend” stems from the Hebrew word “to buy,” connoting friendship as a continuous investment—we are asked to look at friendship as a transaction that requires work and demands emotional, spiritual and physical resources. And the command to “judge every person as meritorious” grants the Other some slack: there are hidden parts of everyone’s soul that we just can’t know.

In the interludes, the fellows contributed songs. Operatic tenor Marques Hollie sang the spiritual, “If I Can Help Somebody.” Mariano Wainsztein, a composer and filmmaker, put music to the verse “Targeted Assassination,” by Israeli poet Ha’ Loazy. Inspired by the Ramban, singer-songwriter Yonatan Gutfeld composed a song about anger:

It is not that I wasn’t truly hurt
But time and distance from you taught me there is little I can do
I need to let it pass
So we can come back again

The Ramban instructs us there are temperaments with regard to which a man is forbidden to follow the middle path. With anger, for instance, there is no middle ground: a man should move away from one extreme, either passive acceptance or fury, and adopt the other.

After actor-musician Ari Brand’s stirring guitar solo, “At the Bottom of Everything,” Liebovitz opened up the floor to us all, inviting our ideas on how to handle anger and what actions we might take when with someone whose opinions you directly oppose.  Among the suggestions were:

  • Cooking
  • Naps and other forms of self-care
  • Writing
  • Doing acts of lovingkindness
  • Optimism—seeing the glass half-full

Ilana Sichel, a writer pursuing a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at City College, made a case for expressing rage, “not as an endpoint, but a stop along the way.” As women, she said, we were often taught to tamp down our anger, to make peace, which leads to victimhood. It takes work to get to that anger, but healthy anger can be a catalyst for change—both internal and external.

Hollie, who married into a Southern Baptist family, volunteered that it was important not to anticipate anger without cause. He told of fearing a contentious visit to his in-laws last year at Christmas; however, “they did nothing to be angry about.”

Yael Sloma, a visual artist from the 2017-18 LABA cohort, believes in righteous anger—“If you don’t have health insurance, you should be angry”—and that we should “take it into the public sphere, rather than defuse it by drinking wine or practicing yoga.”  

Rather than protest, however, stories were shared of the efficacy of small acts of conversion:  LABA composer Alex Weiser told an insightful story of his Polish professor who admitted that it was painful for him to learn later in life of the Shoah. His ignorance, he claimed, had created his bigotry. Another guest mentioned two Jewish boys in Florida who opened the eyes of the son of the Klu Klux Klan member by bringing him home for Shabbat dinners.

So maybe one way to effect change is not mass demonstrations, but in smaller ways: inviting the Other into your home, breaking bread with them, sharing space. Liebovitz concluded the DRUNKISH evening with an homage to his guru, Leonard Cohen (about whom he wrote the book A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen). Cohen’s genius, Liebovitz, reminded us, went beyond poetry or musicianship, but resided in an aspiration to bring out the best in everyone.