Friday, January 26, 2007

Have you found the beat yet?

I myself am still looking for it, here and there. There are stretches of my life that seem to be free and easy - and then the syncopation happens, and I trip up a little, trying to find my way. Something wormed its way inbetween the steady beats, and I have to go with it, or else I'll fall behind.

I have the beat in mind because of the Savion Glover performance I saw last night, his only one in New Orleans. There's a man who has found the beat in some of the most unlikely places. If you haven't heard of, or taken in, his latest show, it is a tap performance complete with some incredible live string musicians playing Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Bach, and some other classical selections. The grand finale of the night is when each musician shines in an improvisational sparring with Glover's fleet feet, and a few jazz musicians are added to the mix to come together on a "Stars and Stripes 4 Ever" Savion Glover style. Glover leads it all as conductor, dancer, funky metronome - you name it, and his feet - his entire body, even - are there and then some.

Afterwards, my husband dismissed it as "not too different from what Gene Kelly might have done". My husband didn't get it.

Much as I love Gene Kelly, what Glover is doing is different. Gene Kelly never made me think too much. He was a great dancer in a highly formulaic context. And he did it well. Savion Glover, however, is trying to push the formulas around, and he's following that beat wherever it takes him. I can't say that Gene Kelly has lifted me up in the same way as Savion Glover has, either.

I began thinking about the beat near the end of the performance. I thought about what relevance it had for my life and for others lives. I tried to get at why Glover's truly mind-bending tap was making me think this way, only to find that the thoughts had been there all along. All I'd found was a vehicle.

Earlier this week, I presented a re-worked board game for my religious school students to play. The kids had to roll a colored die and move their playing pieces to the color rolled on the die. There were certain spaces on the board that, if a player's game piece landed on them, that player would be asked questions about basic Jewish law and the Jewish holidays. Since these were first graders, I tried to make the questions simple in content and format. They got a good number of the questions that pertained to Jewish law, but when it came to the Jewish holidays, they weren't so sharp.

I talked it over with Dan and Edie, who said that fill-in-the-blank type questions, unless they were structured as multiple-choice ones, were tough for first graders anyway. I told the education director at the school about it, and she said it was because many of these kids didn't get the reinforcement of the religious school teachings back at their own homes. I'm now seeing it as a combination of the two.

So one of these things - the way the game is played - is within my realm of change. I need to go with the learning beat of the kids I am teaching. The other thing, the reinforcement at home, is tougher.

It's tougher because I can understand where the parents are coming from, and yet, as a teacher, I'm a tad concerned that these kids are getting the idea that Judaism is nothing more than another subject in school. Personally, I can understand that tug-of-war, but as a teacher, I rail against it on a quasi-regular basis. I think I've found some sort of beat regarding our religious life, but then a major Christian holiday comes around, such as Christmas, or, in these parts, Mardi Gras, and then I fall right out of step. Mark Twain may have once observed that "the religious element has been pretty much knocked out" of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but the origins of it are still readily apparent. Once again, I will have to explain why we don't observe Lent, and I will do my best to keep up the secular Judaism that we practice.

There was a time when most Jewish people simply left town when Mardi Gras time came, largely because it was a realm in which tacit favoritism and discrimination was practiced. Most Jews were left out of the celebrations and the membership of the krewes such as Comus, Momus, Proteus, and Rex, largely because they were considered to be out of the loop as far as self-styled WASP carnival royalty was concerned...not to mention prejudice in general. As it is, after an anti-discrimination ordinance was passed in the early 1990's, two of the above mentioned krewes are still not parading, preferring to hold their own private parties rather than supply a list of their members to the city for a parade permit.

To outsiders, Mardi Gras celebrations are simply another excuse to party - which is not bad. The parade themes are not particularly religious. It's all good clean fun, going to a parade. Even the executive director of our synagogue is a captain in a superkrewe. The general attitude over the past twenty years or so - even longer if the entire history of Carnival is considered - has become that of, if we can't join 'em, we'll get together ourselves over here and do the same thing, with our own variations and in our own way. There's a couple of subkrewes in the French Quarter's Krewe du Vieux - one of them named the Krewe du Jieux - that are microcosms of this attitude in action.

But none of this means a thing if you have no clue of where you come from. I guess that's what I fear for these kids I'm teaching - that they are missing what makes them different. That their families aren't cluing them in enough for their partaking of American society to really make a difference. If their parents aren't fully cognizant of this in their own homes, then how can the kids be made more aware?

Yes, we are indeed tripping along in this life, trying to find that beat. Every time it seems there is a blueprint, a set of rules for us to follow, a series of bars within the music throws us off. I guess I am slightly content with the fact that it's taken Savion Glover twenty-some-odd years to get to where he is. It means that we all have to keep working.

I simply question what it is exactly that we are all working with ...


Adrastos said...

Good post, L. I was in fact watching the krewe formerly known as the Krewe du Jieux decorate bagels. They're now Mishigas. The new name rocks but the old one ruled.

saintseester said...

Wow, what an intriguing post. I've never really thought about teaching Judaism in New Orleans. Since I was Catholic, I loved the fact that New Orleans was steeped in it. But nearly all of my roomates at Tulane were Jewish. I never really sat with them and picked their brains about it. Of course, I was young and ignorant. Now, it is too late.

Leigh C. said...

Ooooh, as a former Yiddish chorus member, I also think the name "Mishegoss" rocks. I imagine those bagels will soon become hard as rocks. Y'all need to warn the subkrewe and the paradegoers of the harm that could come from really winging those things...

And Saintseester, it's never too late to pick ANYONE's brains about Judaism. Just make sure you leave me with something to use in my day-to-day life... 8-)