Flash-fiction: In Every Age

<a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_karaidel'>karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo</a>Cantor Sylvia never expected to be playing the guitar and singing ancient songs in the lounge of a starship, but then, she’d never expected to be on a starship in the first place. She was too old, they said. She wouldn’t last the trip from Earth to Centaurus.

And yet, here she was, sitting in the common lounge, staring out the huge window – viewports -they called them viewports –  at the streaking stars, her great-grandmother’s acoustic guitar resting against a belly that had seen a few too many latkes and maybe not enough salad in her lifetime, sharing the old songs with kids who would never remember that they came from Earth.

Actually, the Goldberg twins had been born under the dome at Curiosity Village, on Mars, and little Rachel Levi had grown up at Luna Colony. Earth might be in their blood, in their DNA, but it wasn’t where they were from. Not the way she was.

She played the chord again, and saw the children gathered around her focus their attention. And why not? They’d grown up with digital instruments: violins and cellos that relied on computer chips for their tone, guitars that made their sound through a wireless amplifier, and pianos that could be rolled into a cylinder the size of a zip-top sandwich bag. Her guitar didn’t have any chips, and it couldn’t be made smaller. It was wire and wood and care and love and history, and its lines were the only ones Sylvia had caressed since her beloved Harry had passed on five years before.

“I’m going to sing you an old song now,” she told them. “And you’re going to sing it with me. It’s in Hebrew. So, listen once, and then repeat.”

Mi yimalel gvurot Yisrael,
Otan mi yimne?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor
Goel ha’am!

Their singing was tentative at first, as their tongues learned the shapes of the long-ago language of their people, but they repeated the verse and then moved on to the next, learning the words a line at a time, and then singing them as a cohesive verse.

Ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’ze
Maccabi moshia u’fode
U’v’yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yitached yakum ve’yigael!

“But what does it mean?” Rachel asked.

Sylvia understood that what the little girl really meant was, Can we sing it in English?  She reached out and tugged one of the child’s strawberry-blonde braids. It was gentle. Harmless.  “My granddaughter used to ask me that, too,” she shared. “In English, it goes like this.”

Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.

The little girl wrinkled her nose. “I like it the other way better,” she said. “It’s prettier.”

Sylvia’s eyes twinkled, and her face stretched into a broad grin. “You know what?” she asked. “I like it both ways. Do you want to know why?”

“Yes, please.”

She changed her focus to include all the children. “When we sing it in Hebrew, we’re remembering the old stories, the country and the planet where all our families originated. And when we sing it in English, we’re making our stories and songs accessible to new generations. Someday, maybe we’ll sing these songs in languages Earth has never heard – or Mars or Centaurus either.

She didn’t really expect the children to respond, but when she looked up, she saw the reflection of their parents in the glass of the window – viewport – whatever – for they had gathered around behind her during the singing.

“Can we do it again?” Benjamin Goldberg wanted to know.

“Yes,” Sylvia said. “Yes, we can.”

They say space is silent. They say that you could scream your loudest inside a starship, and never be heard beyond the hull. But on that night, Sylvia was certain, if there were any creatures who existed outside the warm and oxygen-filled atmosphere of their vessel, they would have heard the voices of children and adults lifted in song.


Notes: Mi Yimalel is a traditional Jewish song, and was suggested by my friend Joy Plummer.  Photo Copyright: karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo

Tikkun Olam and Me

This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!

Peter Yarrow (2009) It was my friend Carmi Levy who introduced me to the phrase tikkun olam, but oh, what a huge impact those two words have had on my life.

It’s weird the way things resonate. You read a blog post about a concept, and that sits in your brain and stews for a while. It marinates, really, soaking up some of your flavor, sharing some of its own. Then you make a connection with someone else entirely, and the first thing suddenly bubbles up from the back of your brain, and you present it to the new person, and suddenly, connections are formed, substantive questions are answered, information and appreciation are shared.

Six or seven years ago, Carmi talked about tikkun olam in his blog, and later that year, or maybe the year after, he did a last minute interview with me for All Things Girl when we had a planned “Man of the Moment” back out.

Five years ago, I was approached by a publicist working with Peter Yarrow, about the children’s books he was publishing, many based on some of his songs (I have signed copies of two of them), and that led to my second time seeing him live (the first was in 2002, for my 32nd birthday), in a special concert/talk at the local Jewish Community Center (in Dallas), and that led to an in-depth interview with him, again for All Things Girl.

One of the things I made sure to ask him about was tikkun olam, and this is part of what he said:

“Tikkun Olam means that each of us has the responsibility to repair the world and heal the world, not alone by ourselves, but we each have the responsibility to do what we can, in our own individual ways, to help heal and repair the world. This is, for me, is the most important and inspiring teaching of Judaism. I firmly believe that if we all devote ourselves to pursuing Tikkun Olam as a central part of our lives, the world will get better and better.”

“In the words of the great moral leader Mahatma Gandhi of India, who changed the world and inspired so many of us, including Barrack Obama, we must “be the change we seek to make in the world”, which means we cannot work towards greater humanity in some organization and then go home to humiliate and mistreat our friends, our family or even our dogs, cats and farm animals. We must truly “live” and “be” the answer to the trials of the world we seek to heal.”
~Peter Yarrow, in an emailed interview with me, Melissa A. Bartell, November/December 2009

Having grown up on his music, and later shared chocolate-covered strawberries with him at a benefit concert, it’s possible his words have more impact on me than they would on someone who grew up ignorant of folk music, and of who Peter, Paul, & Mary were, but an impact they did have…echoing down the years.

Last February, I was at Dallas Comic-Con’s annual Sci-Fi Expo, the most intimate of the three conventions they hold each year. It turned out to be the most intellectual con I’d ever attended, with Jaime Murray talking about feminism, strong female characters, and women in media, Saul Rubinek digressing from Warehouse 13 questions to talk about good works, Peter Weller giving us a lecture on Renaissance art, and Richard Dreyfuss speaking about education and activism.

I stood in Mr. Dreyfuss’s line because his appearance at cons is a rare thing, and because it annoyed me that even when he was speaking about real things, he kept getting questions like, “So, in Jaws, how much time did you spend in the water with the fake shark?” (Okay, that might be a tiny bit of an exaggeration, but only a tiny bit.) I wanted to see if I could get him to engage. (Also, he had a fantastic hat, and we all know I’m a sucker for headgear.)

I asked him what tikkun olam meant to him.

He lit up and we chatted for about ten minutes – not a long time, in the grand scheme of things, but longer than is typical when you’re supposed to be an autograph machine.

I owe that encounter to Carmi.

So why bring this up tonight? Partly, it’s because Carmi asked question on his blog today: What’s the most important little thing that’s happened to you – lately or ever? I answered it in his comments box, but it was a bit disjointed, and I wanted to expand, and partly because it’s the start of Hanukkah, and even though it’s not a holiday I celebrate (we did when my mother and step-father were first married, largely to acknowledge that part of my step-brother’s heritage), it’s one I observe. So, over the next few days, I’ll listen to the Hanukkah channel on the Sirius XM Radio (76 in the car), and I’ll fry some latkes, and I might think about lighting some extra candles.

And I’ll spare a few moments to send up a prayer in remembrance of Bubbie, who grated potatoes by hand to make latkes for us one year, and who loved to hear me sing, and who would light up like a little kid getting the best present ever whenever she sat at a piano and played.

And I’ll think about this concept of healing the world, and consider what I can do better, or more, or differently to meet my obligation, because no matter what religion we practice, what culture we come from we all have a moral imperative to leave the earth a better place than we found it, and as one year is dying and a new one is waiting to dawn, that seems a better use of brainpower than concocting frivolous resolutions.

Holidailies 2014