Saturday, 11 May 2019

Dance Me to the End of Love

I trust most of us are familiar with the song by Leonard Cohen which bears the titular name.
Several years ago, I was made aware of the following quote by Cohen when he was asked about the meaning of that song:
“I don’t think anyone needs to know what gave me the image of the “burning violin” but there were these little orchestras the Germans put together in the concentration camps. They played while people were being incinerated or gassed. If you want to read the song from that point of view, it becomes something quite different.”
That is the point of view I chose to read it from when I decided to teach it to my students before Yom HaShoah. And what an experience it was for all of us.

When I handed the song to them, I asked them to read it silently and share their impressions of it. To most of them, it amounted to no more than a love story between a man and a woman who have lived a full life sprinkled with episodes of joy, crisis, love and pain. None of them even remotely related it to the Shoah.
In order to make my choice of interpretation of this song clearer to them, I decided to focus on a few lines which, at least for me, reinforced the notion that I was trying to convey to them. I pointed to the first line.
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin…”

Though all my students were familiar with the history of the Shoah, many, unfortunately, were not aware of the quartets or “little orchestras” that the Nazis put together to welcome the new inmates of the concentration camps. They were composed mostly of violins.
Naturally, when considered from my point of view, the burning violin, mentioned in the first line, is a reference to the fate of many of the residents who were burned in the ovens of those camps.
“Dance me to the panic till I’m gathered safely in…” is the next line I drew their attention to. Of course, they have all been introduced to the conditions in which those doomed to death were brought to the camps. They have seen movies and photos; they have heard testimonies about the freight trains they were pushed and crammed into. They know about the poor sanitary conditions on cattle cars, the stench, the hunger, death and despair. Who would not be experiencing “panic” under such conditions?

What most of them did not know, though, is that the Nazis had lied to the Jews and promised them that the trains they were about to embark were for the purpose of relocating them to a “nice, safer place,” a “new home.” Many Jews believed these lies and were fooled by them. What reasons did they have to think otherwise? Hence, in my view, the shred of faith echoed in the words “till I’m safely gathered in.”

“Oh, let me see the beauty when the witnesses are gone…” is where many of my students realized why I chose to teach that song the way I did. They, like many other fellow Jews, are aware that those who witnessed the Shoah, those who lived to tell and share the horrors they had been through, abate in numbers. Soon, there will be none left. It will, then, be my task, as a daughter of two Shoah survivors, to ensure that “Never Forget” is alive. After me, it is them who will have to bear the torch of that vow and ensure that it is never extinguished. They are ready for that.

Finally, we reached the line referring to the children, our most precious asset. “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born…” a line that melts a frozen river in me, breaks a dam, frees the gushes of tears that surge in my eyes and blurs my vision each time I hear it.

The first time I read that line, I recalled Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s book Kappa, a science fiction describing Japan in the early 20th century. One of the ideas discussed in this book is that, after they are presented with an overview of what life has in store for them, the soon to be born babies of Kappa can choose or refuse to be born. Most of them choose to be aborted.

Unlike the children of Kappa, Cohen’s babies are asking for practicing their right, and our duty to allow them “to be born.” After all, it is in accordance with that which the Torah commands us, “And you should choose Life!”

As I was about to finish the lesson, I looked around the classroom. The silence that prevailed, the bittersweet scent of the air we were breathing as the rays of the shining sun were alighting the room and their beautiful faces, I knew that from then on, this song will not be just another song they hear and enjoy. In Cohen’s own words, it has “become something quite different,” a more meaningful piece of poetry, one that connects them to our People’s past and their role in its future.

Shabbat Shalom 

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