This summer, in Provincetown, I rediscovered an old friend. Her name is Holly Near.
My parents are pretty typical examples of those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and since our family car trips when my brother and I were growing up predated ipods, ipads, hand-held video games and mini-vans with DVD players (we were still watching VHS back then), the hours were filled singing along to the folk music of my parents’ generation: James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, Carol King, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul and Mary Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a somewhat lesser-known artist (at least to those of my generation) named Holly Near.
A quick Google-search of Holly Near will tell you that a “significant arena of (her music & activism) is the LGBTQ community. Her interest (in this cause) was both personal and political. She was one of the first celebrities to discuss her sexual orientation during a pioneering 1976 interview with People magazine.”
The songs on the CD that my family owned, entitled “Imagine My Surprise”, are mostly songs about women: strong, empowered women; women facing oppression; and most of all, women loving women.
But as a young girl in the 80’s, belting out the lyrics, I didn’t have any real comprehension of the significance of Holly’s music or the barriers she had begun to break down with her music only a decade before.
While it’s true that her music was probably the first awareness I had of non-heterosexual relationships, I was lucky to have parents who lovingly explained to me that sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, and that, really, anyone can love anyone and that’s okay.
Just like my parents told me that being a woman and being a Jew no longer meant that I couldn’t pursue any dream I had. Just like they told me that a person’s skin color or ethnicity or religion doesn’t matter.
I was raised on the rhetoric of equality and it was decades more before I began to realize that when my parents said that these kinds of things didn’t matter, what they really meant to say was that these things shouldn’t matter. Because of course, all too often, all too sadly, they still do.
But back then I was an awkward kid with a loud voice and a love for the folk music of my parent’s generation – even if I didn’t really understand it. So I happily belted along to Holly Near’s lyrics, unaware that they were any different than anyone else’s.
I identified strongly with the songs about women who were oppressed or bullied, and when I sang out: “I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter and you can’t just take my dreams away – not with me watching,” the words flowed from my heart –a heart that knew about bullying all too well – and with my mind that,looking back now, I suspect unconsciously connected these words to the words of my families other beloved musical genre – Jewish folk music.
Holly singing “you can’t take my dreams away” was just like Debbie Friedman’s musical rendition of Theodore Hertz’s famous line: Im tirtzu ain so agadah – if you will it, it is no dream – wasn’t it?
But somewhere along the line, we lost Holly Near’s CD. Countless times, I combed through the house, looking for it to upload to my itunes playlist. Countless times I searched itunes to download it directly. But alas – the CD was nowhere to be found and itunes didn’t carry that particular CD (or much of her music at all for that matter) and so Holly’s music slowly faded from my mind.
Flash forward to this summer, where I found myself driving down a Las Vegas suburban street with my three cousins. Sydney is a 17 year old gorgeous teen-aged girl who grew up in California’s OC; Asher is a 21 year old, Orthodox, yeshiva-kid-turned-Israeli-soldier, and Elli is a 26 year old, rambunctious, outspoken, tattoo-covered vegan who is studying to be a midwife. And I’m a rabbi. So we make a pretty interesting crowd.
Despite our vast differences, our love for one another is deep and being together during those difficult weeks was a tremendous blessing. We did have some difficulty agreeing on what radio station to listen to in the car however.
That is, until we discovered Macklemore’s song, Same Love, which seemed to be on the radio every 5 minutes this summer (in case you didn’t notice).
Macklemore is a straight, white rapper, and Same Love is his commentary on the fight for marriage equality and on the irony of the Hip Hop world using the word “gay” as a derivative since it is, in itself, a culture that, as he puts it is, “founded in oppression”.
What a Jewish song! I thought, (although likely, I was the only one in the car thinking that particular thought).
Jewish, because we too concern ourselves with oppression everywhere – not just Jewish oppression – because we too, are a people “founded in oppression”.
So when Macklemore raps about how even though he himself is not gay, the cause of marriage equality is a cause worth fighting for, and when he states: “It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” I found that tears had come to my eyes.
How refreshing for a contemporary artist to promote love and not hate.
It seemed revolutionary, which, of course, it isn’t. Maybe it’s sadly all too unusual as of late, but wasn’t I raised on the socially conscious folk music of the 60’s & 70’s? It certainly wasn’t unusual then. But by then, on that Las Vegas street, I had forgotten all about Holly Near.
Until a few weeks later, in Provincetown, where my mother and I got some pretty strange looks as we crowed with joy, having stumbled on a copy of Holly Near’s greatest hits, including all the songs from our long-lost Imagine My Surprise CD. We could barely contain ourselves as we bounded over to the counter to pay for it, and it was all we could do not to rush back to the car and play it immediately!
When we finally, hours later, made it back to the car and began to listen – I discovered Holly Near anew. No longer a child, I was now fully aware of the meanings and significance of her music, and I found myself, for the second time that month, moved to tears by an artist singing about the struggle for a person’s right to love anyone they want to.
Only weeks before, Marriage Equality had become a Federal reality. How far we have come!
How far we have yet to go.
After all, if Macklemore’s message profoundly silences a car full of diverse young adults in 2013, some 40 years after Holly Near began sharing the same message, then the problem is most certainly not solved.
And that’s because the problem isn’t gay rights. The problem, as Macklemore so strongly emphasizes, is human rights – for all. Winning one battle does not entitle us to declare the war at an end. “No freedom till we’re equal” Macklemore declares. And he’s right.
And so was Holly, who writes on the cover notes of the album we discovered, entitled “Simply Love”, that she and other women musicians of her era, “made music in the face of homophobia, racism, misogyny, poverty, war and patriarchy.” What I had sensed, but not been old enough to fully understand as a child was true. Holly’s music was not “Lesbian music” it was Civil Rights music; it was Equal Rights music. As is the music and so much of the liturgy of Judaism. Long before the 60’s and 70’s – before Civil Rights and Women’s Rights and Gay Rights – Jews were singing about freedom and praying about freedom and fighting, when they could, for freedom. Mi Chamocha Ba-eilim Adoni – what is this prayer, if not a daily liturgical reminder of the moment of our own freedom?
During the past week or so, I have shared with you how important it is to have a cause that you stand up for, and I talked about how Judaism is my cause, and should be the cause for all of us, because it’s values are at the root of all the things we care about and fight for.
But what I have so far neglected to say, and what I sometimes forget, is that just as we can’t exclude Judaism for the sake of our other causes, neither can we neglect other causes when we are mired in Jewish causes.
This year, I happily watched and cheered and supported many of my rabbinic peers as they fought the good fight. My friend, Rabbi Melissa Simon, who is a proud Lesbian and social activist, was on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality in Minnesota. All year I read about her achievements and “liked” her Facebook posts and told her I was proud of the work she was doing.
And I didn’t get involved because marriage equality was already a reality in New York and Massachusetts, the states where I’ve been a rabbi these past 3 years, and because I’m not a Lesbian, and because I think of Judaism as my cause and it takes up all of my time. . .
Which is exactly the reverse argument of what so many of you say, about being too busy to commit to Judaism because of all of your other important commitments.
I am guilty too. We all have some work to do I guess.
But Holly Near’s music – rediscovered and finally truly understood – sparked something in me. If she had only sung about women loving women – the cause of her own heart, her impact on the world would have been so much less profound. And if Macklemore had abstained from his important message because he’s white and straight and therefore shouldn’t reprimand the black community for being apathetic (or worse) to the gay community …Well, I think the loss would have been immeasurable.
We cannot stand up for only one cause and count ourselves among the righteous. We all have to figure out how to balance the causes of our hearts with other important causes – causes that we cannot responsibly abstain from supporting.
I will work harder at this. I hope you will too.
And I hope that this year we will all find times to belt out the words of justice – be they spoken or sung; be they poetic or liturgical; be they in Hebrew or English or any other language; be they Hip Hop or folk or another genre; Let us sing out these love songs – Macklemore’s Same Love, Holly’s Simply Love – Debbie’s Ahavat Olam – a song about God’s love! – because all songs for justice are love songs, if you really think about it.
So in the words of Holly Near:
“You bet I sing love songs / Songs that carry me along / Through fearful times and tender times / Songs of mother-love / Songs of my lover’s love / Singing the songs of loving myself”
This year may we love ourselves and others enough to carve out the time to perfect the broken world around us.
“No Freedom ‘till we’re equal.”
Kein Yehi Ratzon.