Archive for April, 2014

THE CHEMISTRY OF MUSIC

Last Tuesday, I saw my son Yosi play fiddle with Hurray for the Riff Raff at the Independent here in San Francisco. The club sold out a week in advance. The band played a lot of tunes from their new CD, “Small Town Heroes.” Much has gone right for the Riff Raff since I wrote about them in July after they opened for Alabama Shakes at the Hollywood Palladium. This Tuesday night, they appear on TV with Conan O’Brien (TBS). In August, they open for Dr. John in New York’s Central Park. More big events are coming—all thanks to chemistry.

No question, Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s founder and singer/songwriter, is a driven young woman. Also a sweetheart. But the Riff Raff has taken off because it’s prepared to deliver great music night after night.

Wherever a band resides on the food chain, its members have to work together. Like most professionals, Hurray for the Riff Raff spends lots of time on the road. There’s some flying and much driving. Some good hotels and lots of modest accommodations. Fatigue and constant proximity always come into play. If people can’t get along, the act suffers.

Chemistry isn’t easy to attain. Alynda and Yosi spent a lot of time looking for the right musicians—people combining talent with the willingness to work hard and avoid drama. They found them in keyboardist Casey McAllister, bass player Callie Millington and drummer David Jameson. The result was evident at the Independent: a tight sound and command of the room.

This isn’t just a plug for Hurray for the Riff Raff (although it is one). Pro basketball offers another great example of chemistry. The San Antonio Spurs (I lived in San Antonio long ago) have won four NBA championships since 1999. They barely lost to the Miami Heat in last year’s finals. This season, the Spurs, again coached by Gregg Popovich, a future hall of famer, finished with the league’s best record, 62–20.

Chemistry was a prime factor. Many teams look for big scorers to lead them. Popovich emphasizes team play. Individuals give up opportunities for the common good. The Spurs’ leading scorer, Tony Parker, averaged only 16.7 points per game, making him the league’s 41st leading scorer. Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City led the league at 32.0. Still, the Thunder finished three games behind the Spurs. The NBA’s third top scorer, Carmelo Anthony, averaged 27.4 for the New York Knicks, a dysfunctional franchise and a team so lacking in chemistry, it failed to make the playoffs.

There’s nothing magical about achieving chemistry. It forms when individuals curb their egos and direct their activities to the common good. Bring together people with great talent but little regard for communal purpose, and you get an underachieving group—maybe an outright failure. In music, in sports, in any endeavor, a willingness to roll up your sleeves, do the little things and ignore the spotlight produces winners.

Hurray for the Riff Raff and the San Antonio Spurs are two inspiring examples of chemistry leading to success. I wonder if anyone in Congress has given this some thought.

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Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village. 

HOOPOCRISY IN ACADEMIA

Fred Hoiberg got a raise. That’s good, because while employment is improving, many working Americans just get by. Hoiberg, basketball coach at Iowa State University, will take home an extra $600,000 a year. His new contract pays an average annual salary of $2.6 million. Maybe someday he’ll make serious money.

After all, the coaches of this year’s NCAA Final Four teams—Kentucky’s John Calipari, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie—pull down an average of $3.1 million. Plus bonuses.

Not all major-college basketball coaches get paid on that level. UC Berkeley just signed Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin, who would have received only $1.35 million each of the next two years. Martin was negotiating for an extension that would have paid $1.8 million per. Berkeley will pay him more, I’m sure. But Hoiberg or Calipari bucks? Don’t know.

Granted, these guys have families to feed. But should universities pay basketball (and football) coaches seven-figure salaries? Do faculty members make as much? And what about the folks who run prestigious academic institutions? Berkeley’s The Daily Californian reported that, “Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will earn a base salary of $486,800 per year—an amount below the UC-calculated median salary for chancellors nationwide of $569,000.” Compared with the coaches they employ, chancellors make chump change.

So what does this say about academia? Money talks, truth whispers. For TV rights to its Division I basketball tournament over a 14-year period, the National Collegiate Athletic Association hauls in $10.8 billion from CBS and Turner Sports. Hefty broadcast and gate revenues during the regular season swell college hoops revenues. Where does the money go? For starters, it pays NCAA officials. It also supports basketball programs and contributes to other campus sports. The players? They get scholarships. That’s not trivial, but many need extra money to get by. That’s why some players at Northwestern want to unionize—which the NCAA opposes.

What does this say about our society? Fans—particularly alumni—enjoy vicarious thrills associating themselves with the athletic accomplishments of 18-to-22 year-olds. I did once, but I was 15. Meanwhile, many of the NCAA’s biggest hoop stars leave school after their freshman year to enter the National Basketball Association draft. The NBA mandates them to “sit out” for one year after their regular class graduates from high school. Others leave after two or three years, generally without diplomas. Some make millions. Many—never interested in academics—don’t get drafted or make a team.

Money and boosterism infect sports beneath the college level. (Pro leagues exhibit their own hypocrisies but never deny the profit-making motive behind obscene ticket, parking and concession prices.) Whole communities seek validation in the exploits of high school athletes. Colleges now scout middle-school kids—even fifth-graders. Parents regiment youth sports with four-year-old tee ballers wearing uniforms and “playing” under the watchful eyes of eager adults.

President Calvin Coolidge famously said, “The business of America is business.” The academy has long sold out while buying athletes on the cheap. We have to question the values academia—and we as a people—say we hold dear. The answers may not be pleasant.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village. 

PASSOVER AND TRUTH

Passover begins Monday night. Most Jews—including many who maintain no other religious practice—will attend a Seder to hear and help tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Some Seder participants will view the Exodus story as historic truth. Others will dismiss the story as fantasy yet engage in the meal and companionship. Still others at Seders will value the story but understand the Exodus in a different way.

I mention this because inevitably at this season, some Jews question whether the Exodus ever took place. We have no archaeological evidence. If proof existed that the Exodus story is a hoax, they wonder, would Judaism collapse?

For those to whom religion claims legitimacy only if the Hebrew Bible—or by extension the Christian Bible or Qu’ran—is literally true, the answer is self-evident. Prove the Exodus bogus and Judaism, even if practiced minimally, must be abandoned. Without facts, religion must sink beneath spiritual quicksand.

These folks exist on the cusp between the pre-critical and critical stages of religious belief, using the terminology of the late Rabbi Michael Signer. They might like to believe the literal truth of the Torah but maintain serious doubts. Some almost seem eager to call Judaism’s bluff and make their exit.

Signer, however, points to a third stage of belief—post-critical. Literal belief no longer carries much weight. Religion isn’t about facts—whether God spoke to Moses at a burning bush, struck Egypt with ten plagues or parted the waters of the Reed Sea. Post-critical Jews seek Truth with a capital “T.” Facts become irrelevant, although no one can prove that the Exodus did not take place. (Richard Elliot Friedman offers textual proof of the Exodus by a single, small group of Egyptians in the current Reform Judaism magazine. His thesis varies from the biblical account.)

Bearing a capital “T,” Truth reveals enduring insights about human nature rather than historical events. Biblical stories and all the commandments serve as springboards for discussion and speculation. The study of Torah, which includes Talmud and all other Jewish texts—note, interestingly, the “T” words—has involved questioning and, yes, arguing for 2,000 years. Jewish tradition has never promoted easy answers.

Granted, if the Exodus could be proved to never have happened, many Jews—and perhaps of necessity, Christians and Muslims, too—might be faced with difficult choices. But I suspect that most Jews who undertake religious practice would not be deterred from studying and worshipping as they do. The Truths presented by the Hebrew Bible bear our attention regardless of their historicity. As the late Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote in his commentary on Job, the Torah represents the mythos of the Jewish people. As such, it teaches us a great deal about the human condition, and is worth our study and reverence.

So if you are celebrating Passover, may the concluding words of the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” inspire you as you need to be inspired—to make aliyah to Israel, to visit, or just as important, to experience the figurative coming home of the soul as you draw nearer to Truths that remain eternal.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village. 

KASHRUT VS. UNIVERSALISM

Two weeks ago, my friend, Ellen, delivered a drash (mini-sermon) during Friday-night Shabbat services. She proposed that kashrut (Jewish dietary law) divides people at a time when globalism seeks to unite humanity. Meals bring people together. But strictly kosher Jews don’t go to non-kosher restaurants and avoid eating in non-kosher homes.

Ellen’s is the position Reform Judaism took two hundred years ago. The chukim—the Torah’s non-ethical commandments for which no rational explanation is given—were considered irrelevant to (newly) modern Jews. Why no pork or shellfish? Why no mixing meat with dairy? Theories abound from disease prevention to separation from polytheists, but no one knows.

Orthodox Jews keep kosher because this represents God’s will. Kashrut remains the standard for the Conservative movement but is not widely practiced among its members. Some Reform Jews like me eat kosher-style. We avoid forbidden foods (treif) and separate meat from dairy but don’t buy meat from a kosher butcher or have separate dishes for meat and dairy meals.

Kosher-style eating enables non-Orthodox and “post-denominational” Jews to make dietary practices a conscious part of their lives and still dine with others. In restaurants, I skip shellfish and eat fish with fins and scales. Pork, including ham and bacon, often fill the menu. I choose chicken, beef or lamb. Do mashed potatoes with butter or milk come as a side? I ask for extra vegetables. And I can always order a salad. True, I find restaurant menus limiting. But when I eat out with friends, I always enjoy what’s most important—their company.

Admittedly, I sometimes ask: Why set myself apart? That leads me to ask: Why do others set themselves apart from me? Why do they eat pork and shellfish? Why do they eat cheeseburgers? And more important, why do they think I should?

People worldwide have distinct dietary practices. Muslims don’t eat pork but do mix meat and dairy. Some eat shellfish, some don’t. Hindus refrain from beef. Then there are vegetarians, vegans and a complex number of allied groups.

Should we all have the same diet? If so, who creates the menu? And what other practices should be recognized not as preferences but as law? Before I retired, did I induce conflict by not working on Friday night and Saturday? Do I fracture the global society by attending Shabbat services and Torah Study? Do I create civil disorder by being in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

If peace depends on foregoing “tribalism” and adopting universalism, whose is the default position? Will those who claim it cling to or cast off Christmas trees and Easter bunnies? Will San Francisco see the last of parades on St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year?

At the end of her drash, Ellen invited anyone to join her for lunch while she eats a BLT. “You can have a tuna sandwich,” she added. She was referring—jokingly—to me. And that’s just the point. We can keep to ourselves, because that’s our right. Or we can eat as we wish and still sit at the same table, which Carolyn and I did with Ellen and her husband, David, last night.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village.