One Music Maker’s Musings: The Jewish Musician’s Guide to Useful Guilt

from Vivian Montgomery, Director of Music

This is a sermon I preached at Follen on Sunday November 25, 2018.

Today I want to speak to what I think is a fairly common feeling: the longing to reconcile oneself to oneself, to find wholeness, to be integrated. In particular, this longing drives us to want to make sense out of things we find abhorrent, or that others have found abhorrent, amidst what we also find beautiful, indeed essential in our lives. For me, Judaism has increasingly revealed that longing for reconciliation by placing in front of me elements within the tradition, and my relation to it, for which I feel remorse or guilt, while I originally thought I was immersing myself in some sort of luminous salvation. Wholeness comes from what we do with regret, and I’m still evolving, still working on how I’ll make use of guilt in my Jewish life. Having only started this journey in earnest about 8 years ago, I’m at best a 13-year-old, and like a child, I tend to have few answers, but lots of questions.

Among those regrets with which I wrestle are attitudes that I think have been endorsed in American secular Jewish culture: I had the ability to live for much of my life in relative ignorance of pogroms, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, my ancestors’ arduous journeys, on camels and haphazardly constructed boats, to find a homeland. The awareness slowly seeped into me through melodies, and the inexplicable desire to play the accordion. There was the accompanying ability to be detached, bored, dismissive, as I played for tepid Shabbat services in dreary reform temples in Flint and in the rich suburbs of Detroit. And there I was, right after marriage, living in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, the old Jewish neighborhood, a kosher butcher around the corner where birds were “cleaned and geshechted on the premises.” But somehow I failed to fully recognize that I was surrounded by “my people.”

I wrestle with conflicted feelings in relation to Jewish tradition and text. I come by this wrestling naturally, as I believe it to be the essential challenge of my mother’s adult life. Nine years ago, toggling from Boston to Connecticut as she was dying, I would read aloud stories she had forgotten she wrote, often hinging on a Jewish identity that wasn’t an easy thing for her, about ambivalent love, ecstasy in the founding of Israel, its inherent violence and division, her dancing with the newspaper at the signing of the Israel and Egypt peace treaty, and crying on many other occasions. It was about her Memphis orthodox childhood, her father chanting prayers then going into the backyard to eat a lobster roll, and threatening to whip her when she discovered him. After marrying an atheist goy, she cycled through yearly questions about the Christmas tree, about Hanukkah, about the shofar and the seder. Hearing her own stories late into the night, she whispered to me her regrets, and she kept saying how she wanted to go home. Somehow, she had never quite found her home.

There are many manifestations of sanctioned exclusion found in Jewish text and tradition, even in how Jews are now in our egalitarian, melting pot world. Exclusion of women in particular is an open wound. I think of Miriam – punished with leprosy and cast out for criticizing her brother. When she dies, having been the source of wisdom, counseling, balance, of water to sustain her people, her death is given only 6 words, “v’tamat sham Miryam v’tikaveir sham,” as opposed to Aaron’s death a few chapters later – 6 full verses, including 30 days of mourning. These disproportions encapsulate the ongoing imbalance found in much of modern day Judaism. The problem is making peace between what I see as a hateful tradition and honoring so many other traditions and values that are earnestly upheld in orthodoxy. The division is stark but I am yet to have any answers.

Like Miriam, my mother was the source of unity, counseling, sustenance, wisdom, clarity – yet she suffered from her family’s, her culture’s, devaluing of her gender. Her life was one of mediating between that which she loved and that by which she was disempowered – they were often one and the same.

The other type of exclusion that most directly impacts me in my Jewish life is because I am the product of a mixed marriage, and I am one half of an even more mixed marriage. For many years, before I realized what a schmuck Woody Allen is, I entertained myself with one of his remarks, that there are only two types of people in the world: those who are Jews and those who want to be. But now I see a wider and more nuanced spectrum, a continuum whereby anyone can be made to feel like an inferior outsider based upon the traditions, observances, and behaviors of their Jewish, or in some cases simply MORE Jewish, associates. Again the struggle mirrors those of my mother’s: what to do with the idea of the Chosen people? with the fact that certain things are only for Jews to do, whether it be the prayers chanted, the forming of a minyan for saying Kaddish, or the honor of carrying and reading from the torah? What to do with the deep-seated sense of oneself as designed differently, as blessed with a rich but complicated soul that somehow springs from this heritage? My increased entanglement with things Jewish further removes me from those who’ll never have access, barring their unlikely conversion. I have become increasingly more and more inside of something that my father and my husband are permanently outside of.

Tradition and identity are beautiful, and we learn from immersing ourselves in them and interpreting them, but they can be used as shields, yes against our adversaries, but more dangerously and unintentionally against our friends. As Jews we have every right to work arduously to preserve our strong sense of who we are and what guides us, but the more we pursue that clarity, the more we need to grapple daily with who we may be separating ourselves from, who might be left on the outside, not able to accompany us into the proverbial promised land through no fault of their own. I’m a child in this process. I am yet to have answers. Talk to me in 10 years.
So where am I mature, how have I arrived at such certainty that reconciliation can be achieved between something that I feel passionately attached to, even defined by, and forces contained therein that have brought about pain, offense, or disenfranchisement? From a very early age, and for 50 years, I have built my musical life upon the European, white, elite, and often rigid tradition of classical art music. I’ve pursued it rabidly in my education, my performing life, in competitions, creating ensembles, leading orchestras, and directing operas, in researching, teaching, directing choirs, writing. To this day, my primary collaboration with my fellow musicians is on music that was composed for royalty, that requires specialized training excluding a large majority of musicians from participation, is mostly by men, and leans heavily on the creeds and control of the early Christian church, with its disenfranchisement of Jews, of women, the uneducated, as well as its inexorable dependency upon those of wealth and rank. I have loved my musical life with its specializations in 17th, 18th, and 19th century art music. It has been my language and will continue to be so for the rest of my life. But I have been ashamed of much that it represents, and the damage that has been done at this tradition’s hands in perpetuating divisions, in excluding women, in ignoring the anti-Semitism in which Bach himself was steeped. I have been ashamed of the way classically trained musicians sometimes wield their educations and their expertise to separate themselves from other admirable musicians. I’ve been guilty of it myself. I have been pained by my admiration for orchestras that continue to underpay and under-hire women musicians and musicians of color, and rarely program music composed by people outside of the white male Eurocentric legacy. I’ve detested the fact that so many people couldn’t possibly afford to attend a classical music concert, that they find the atmosphere and the expectations of such concerts to be oppressive and impenetrable, and that many of the convention-bound attendees would prefer to keep such people out so as to not disrupt the purity of their experience. Faculty at my institutions of higher learning have been dismissive of music coming from the margins, music coming out of oral tradition, music from the hands of amateurs, music from the drawing room, or the dancehall, or the front porch and I found myself scrambling on many occasions to apologetically justify my fascination with disregarded musical spheres. More significantly, I carry shame that my academic career and scholarly life is built on the shoulders of elitist, paternalistic snobs, some being my doctoral advisors.

Perhaps, though, I serve myself and others better by not calling all of these responses “shame” but rather “useful guilt.” Useful because I noticed in my teenage years how my musical world was separating me from my peers who were also deeply engaged in music of another sort, and I felt a blossoming desire to approach things differently so as to bridge those divides. Useful because, by college, I was asking the question ”Where are the women?” of my music history professors. . Useful because some 35 years ago I felt propelled toward researching, performing, and advocating for early women composers and musicians, and to this day that remains one of my most gratifying pursuits. Useful because I knew that there was something wrong with the “great master/hungry devotee” dynamic that would set itself up between teachers and students at the conservatory to the point of making my contemporaries open to predatory and proprietary actions by their instructors, and I spoke out about it. Useful because in my early 20s, I took up the accordion, in order to play by ear, improvise, in easy and fun collective musicking with friends, and to learn music from my own Eastern European Jewish heritage. Useful because I’ve worked to make sure nobody performs the Bach St. John Passion without some attention to the hate-filled anti-Semitic text and the culture that surrounded it. Useful because I’ve founded an ensemble that presents “Pay What You Decide” concerts, dissolving boundaries between what we think of as art music, as refined composed repertoire, and many other great traditions: malleable Sephardic song, jazz, tango, jamming. Useful because I’ve come to believe in irreverence and disruption in the sanctified concert hall. And, it seems, in the sanctuary. Like so many of the Follen youth, I was raised with progressive principals of inclusion, respecting difference, keeping an open mind, engaging in practices and traditions outside of my own to gain greater understanding of others, and listening when people spoke their truths. And yet I put at the center of my life a tradition that I love and that I will never let go, but which causes me a fair amount of guilt. I could just merrily go on my way, continue my work in this troubled field with limited consciousness, dismissing others’ concerns, with no regrets – sometimes I envy my colleagues who can do so. Nobody is making me feel ashamed, it is the result of my own cognitive dissonance because of knowing what I know, having heard what I’ve heard, and believing what other people say.

These findings can be applied widely, and we need to give ourselves credit when we go through the process of reconciliation, even when it’s not a perfect peace. I’m learning to do just that (to quote beloved Follenite Lili Fisher, I’m learning to accept the incompleteness of my acceptance). I believe we need to go through a similarly challenging, and probably pretty dissatisfying process in relation to elements of Follen’s traditions and foundations, in particular (you knew it was coming!) the operetta. In another place, were we different people who were less devoted to learning from one another, growing, opening, tackling our differences, finding new ways, then we could just say “it’s over, this isn’t working, too much shame, too much division.” But that’s not us: we are listening, we are speaking out, we are trying to stretch, we are trying to make our guilt useful, whether it be about people having felt excluded, people having been pained by stereotypes, people not appreciating a type of inconsonant satire, an antiquated art form, people feeling pressured, people feeling trapped by tradition, people feeling protective of the same traditions, people feeling unable to say what they need to say.

We all benefit from forces for which we must feel some guilt. I’ve benefited from an educated, white upbringing associated with an elite university that originally excluded women, Jews, and people of color, in a town whose low income “projects” were built by the shoddiest design in a floodplain. It would be impossible to live a conscious life in the Boston area without experiencing some guilt over what that well-being rests upon historically, and the tremendous imbalances that exist within a 20 mile radius. Empathy brings regret, and I have the privilege of existing in a place where it is safe, and encouraged, to have consciousness about others, their hardship, their differences.

In the poem Available Light, Marge Piercy writes “As consequences show their lengthened teeth from the receding gums, we hunger for the larger picture, the longer view…” My long view is, simply put, that guilt will be with us as an imbalance felt when harmony has been violated. Guilt has long been blamed for misery and damage, but guilt is being increasingly viewed as a valuable human feeling, essential to social order, moral behavior and survival. Misplaced and extreme guilt has tended to overshadow the more positive force. In the words of Dr. Willard Gaylin, a New York psychotherapist who is the author of Feelings: Our Vital Signs ”Guilt, the sense of anguish that we have fallen short of our own standards, is the guardian of our goodness.” Dr. Helen Block Lewis, a psychoanalyst and psychologist at Yale University, says that guilt ”helps people stay connected” to their fellow beings. ”Guilt is one of the cements that binds us together and keeps us human. If it occurs to you that you’ve done something to injure someone else, guilt compels you to do something to fix it, to repair the bond.”

I’m fortunate to be able to look across my decades as a musician as a reasonably healthy model of grappling with feelings of guilt by forcing myself to deal with the reality of the situation among my fellow musicians and the public. As I’ve uncovered various detestable phenomena and my part in them, I’ve been led to re-evaluate my actions, my morals, my motives, and have accordingly acted differently the next time. Over the years, it’s gradually been clear that I need to look at situations realistically and not be too hard on myself. After all, to wallow in guilt is not selfless or noble. The question is always what must be done? To face that question over and over can’t help but bring about increased emotional maturity, bringing us confidence and humility, honesty and accountability, and the integrity to own up when we’ve hurt someone else and disappointed ourselves.

Dr. Lewis explains that emotions like guilt live in the primitive part of our brain that has evolved to help us make choices to stay safe in the world. When it comes to evaluating guilt in the modern world, it’s the underlying beliefs that matter. If a feeling of guilt stems from a belief that’s realistic and helps you move toward your goals in life, it can be incredibly helpful. When you can think of guilt as simply information about how you see the world and your role in it, it can be a lot less scary than feeling the emotion without having that understanding.

So we do what we can to the situation that is remaining now. The past is gone, not real anymore. Never will be. But the present is here and in our hands. The beautiful thing is that this community is so very good at evaluating its history, taking responsibility, and taking action. I feel blessed daily to be working and evolving in a context that supports, and has sympathy for the fits and starts of personal growth, of questioning, of redirecting. Never have I had the opportunity to lay out the thorny contradictions found within the parts of my life and work that matter most to me. And I’m so fortunate to look out to a community that’s listening, standing at the ready to help in untangling and putting to good use whatever regret and guilt rise out of our deepest loves. May we all be there for one another in this way.