15 Adar B 5779 / Friday, March 22, 2019 | Torah Reading: Tzav
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School of Hard Knocks    

School of Hard Knocks

More than once, I've asked Hashem: are the four years of keyboard harmony, sight-reading, counterpoint, fingerings for violin and bassoon, Bach and Brahms all for nothing?


I don’t remember what the women’s activist Bella Abzug spoke about. All I remember from my graduation was the guy with a sign over his gown, “School of Hard Knocks”. The dean called my name and I walked onstage, but some clerk had made an error and so he had no diploma to give me. Two hours later, I stood alone on the pavement and wondered what to do, even if I picked up my diploma a month later.


When in doubt back then, I would always consult my role model, the fantastic composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). He had worked as a concertmaster for a duke and then a prince, but I couldn’t find one of those. Later Johann had become director of church music for the city of Leipzig. That was an idea and so I made my pitch to every synagogue I could find. Nobody wanted me, though.


Just to experiment, I telephoned the first church I found and the pastor, Reverend James K. Law, rushed out to meet me at a hamburger joint on the East Side, and soon I realized he had hired me.


Part of my duties was to meet with the Swedish and Filipino children at Sunday school. It was a great chance to get creative and take the kids out to the park for Zen meditation, and later we did a reenactment of the animals entering Noah’s Ark. The kids loved it, but it seemed that they blabbed to their parents about what we were doing in Sunday school, and soon the parents put the heat on Rev. Law to get me baptized and into the new testament stuff.


Truth was, I should never have entered a church. Of course, I didn’t agree to get baptized so right away I landed back on the street. In music school they said that the also-great composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had played piano at the local honky-tonks for pocket money. Some people say he did, and some say he didn’t, but I thought well, I can’t be more of a highbrow than Brahms.


So, back on the pavement, a bar owner near Madison Avenue agreed to an audition, but the only song I knew well enough to sing on the spot was a German art-song, the kind they sing sometimes at Carnegie Hall, which wasn’t the style he was looking for, so I hit the street again.


I needed rent money for sharing a tiny duplex in the West Village, and my roommates happened to be three Mormon girls. In case you don’t know what Mormons are, they come all the way from Utah and usually work for Xerox Corporation, and have about 50 brothers and sisters each; don’t ask me how. The kitchen in this duplex was tiny too, especially because it contained two huge barrels. I asked what was in them, and they looked at each other a moment and then said it’s a thing Mormons do, to store water and grain, because any minute it was going to be Armageddon. Nowadays just about everybody does that, but the Mormons started it some 40 years ago or more.


I guess Rev. Law’s name gave me a hint to try out for law school, which most people thought made more sense than the music idea, at least to pay the rent, and the only school that accepted me was Loyola in Chicago, which later I found out was run by Jesuits. Strange, but I couldn’t make up my mind to go or not. Mom and Dad, happy to get me into a real career at last, sent my suitcases and typewriter ahead by express train, and I still couldn’t make up my mind. The night before my plane was to fly to Chicago, I talked it over with one of my Mormon roommates, the one I met in the music department, and for a moment you could have mistaken her for a Breslever:


Just read a verse from the Bible and ask G-d what He thinks.


Okay, first a disclaimer: Mormons believe in some cheesy stuff, like instead of one G-d they have a father, a son, a mother-in-law*, and a friendly ghost. However, this bit of advice worked. G-d, the real G-d, said no, don’t go. You know you’ll just get entangled with one of those nutty Jesuits.


And Mom and Dad, peace to them, hadn’t been thinking about that aspect of it; they were just thinking of my career as all the normal parents did. Anyway, they called back the suitcases and the typewriter, which came back smashed, and it’s just as well since no one has a use for it now and I wouldn’t have been able to throw it out, because of its sentimental value, and I’m cluttered enough as it is.


More than once I have asked Hashem: look, I’m not doing anything with the four years of keyboard harmony, sight-reading, counterpoint, fingerings for violin and bassoon, in-depth analysis of Bach’s fugues and Brahms’s sonatas…is that all for nothing?


Well, I do sing Rossini’s Figaro aria for a rapt audience, which is to say my little grandchildren. But Moshiach must be here already because yeah, after some 40 years doing nothing in the music field, an angel in the form of a playwright said she wants some original songs for her new comedy.


So yes, dear sisters, we need lots of patience. Everything happens in its time for a reason. But can we wait 40 years? Hey, it’s not like you’re sitting around doing nothing. Chances are, you could be having children. Maybe not 50 of them; something do-able. So, go ahead! Enjoy your children while you can. Don’t worry; hum along and go with the flow!


*hat tip to Rabbi Nosson Maimon



* * *

Alizah Teitelbaum has been an actress, an editor’s assistant at Random House, and a columnist at the Jewish Times of Johannesburg. Her stories have appeared in Hamodia, Ami, Mishpacha, The Voice of Lakewood, The Jewish Press, and other places. She edits fiction and poetry  for https://sassonmag.com/ and blogs at http://alizahteitelbaum.weebly.com/blog . Alizah lives in the Negev Desert. Write to her at eliseteitelbaum@gmail.com

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