Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From Cosi to Carnegie Hall


At 8:10 in the morning, Cosi was sparsely populated by Upper West Siders who seemed dazed to be awake and out in public at that hour.

Wearing a blazer and pashmina incongruously atop gym clothes, I gulped a Cafe Americano, fortified with an extra shot of espresso, and virtually inhaled a rare chocolate chip muffin in an effort to enter the state of alertness necessary for a brainstorming session followed by a workout at the JCC, just around the corner.

The subject at hand was the normalization of Israeli society in the post-Intifada era. The matter we were discussing was how a people who are accustomed to the adrenaline-rush of crisis deal with life-as-usual. Our focus was the cultural landscape of the country over the past couple of years, the facets of life that were now coming into focus, the new direction of contemporary art, even the welcome proliferation of wine bars...a clear indication of a society that can finally relax.

Not that things are perfect, as we were quick to point out to each other, noting the political and religious issues. But still...for those of us who pop back and forth between New York and Jerusalem as if were a Metro-North commute from midtown to, say, New Rochelle, there has been a profound sea-change.

"I find myself un-obsessed with checking the news from Israel every hour for the first time in over a decade," I confessed.

"Me too!!!" affirmed my breakfast mate, smacking the table in solidarity "It sometimes feels like something is missing without the constant sense of emergency."

"The question is -- can Jews handle calm for long?" I mused aloud. "We're so excitable. Were we born this way or conditioned by our history?"

That question hovered in the air as I took my seat, twelve hours later, for Part II of the Messiah performance last night at Carnegie Hall. Unlike the public sing-ins of the Messiah which I have attended, this performance was dull and pro-forma, kind of like a religious service one was duty-bound to attend or an endless funeral for someone you hardly knew. Sitting between HOBB and a German tourist, I felt trapped, bored and increasingly sleepy.

Indeed, just before everyone rose for the Halleluyah Chorus, HOBB roused me from sleep.

Dazed and somewhat embarrassed, I was also amazed. I had never fallen asleep in public before, rarely slept on planes, had an abnormal ability to endure sleeplessness.

Just before closing my eyes (having tried first to read the novel I lugged with me, yet failing, due to the dim lighting) I remembered thinking that the performance was not just boring, it was truly soporific, should be marketed, indeed, as a sleep-aid. I recalled looking around and taking note of the vast sea of placidity, the calm Christians who had come to hear this, the ultimate Christmas-time cultural offering, realizing that their perception of the performance likely differed dramatically from my own.

I tried to focus on the message of Handel’s Messiah, tried to try on the theological underpinning, share, perhaps, the sanctity of the impending day for those who believe that Jesus was the son of God and that this hugely commercialized holiday marked his miraculous, virginal birth.

Tried and failed miserably. Failed to rustle up even an iota of empathy. Found myself feeling, instead, confrontational towards Christianity for its history of persecution of Jews, found myself sneering as I spotted classically goyish faces or outfits, wondered if I appeared overtly Jewish to those sitting around me with my dark hair and eyes and cynical mien.

As the chorus sang “Glorious,” I longed for the campy, sacrilegious glory of Jesus Christ Superstar instead, for the critical gaze of Constantine’s Sword, for the music of Madonna.

Standing, dazed, during the Halleluyah Chorus, I wondered at my ability to fall asleep when normally I would be beset by that ultimate of Jewish existential modes -- shpilkes -- roughly and inaccurately translated as being on pins and needles, more aptly described as a state of extreme and pervasive agitation.

I thought about the various catalysts of artistic inspiration, wondered which would be proven by history to be the stronger muse -- heartbreak, hysteria or Halleluyah.

Sitting in the balcony of Carnegie Hall last night I felt alienated by my Jewish tendency towards shpilkes, my interpretation of the calm beauty of Handel's Messiah as totally and utterly boring, an assault of normalcy evoking in me the desire to tune out and seek refuge in my haunted dreams.