Most of us who have immigrated to Israel and committed our lives to this country can remember when and how we were first attracted to Zionism or, shall we say, “bitten” by the Zionist “bug.” Some of us, perhaps, fell in love with Israel during a summer visit to the country during our high school or college years. Others began their romance with the Holy Land as children, growing up in Zionist families, educated in Jewish day schools, and following life trajectories that led them here in a straight line.
I, however, had absolutely no use for Israel whatsoever until I was in my mid-forties. Not only did I not want to come live here, I did not want to so much as set foot here. I wasn’t merely disinterested in Israel, I was almost viscerally hostile.
How did Israel—the cradle of Judaism and the homeland of our people—become my personal bette noir? It had nothing to do with my upbringing. I did not grow up in some Waspy little suburb, the child of neurotically upwardly mobile parents desperate to shake off their Jewishness and assimilate. I came, in fact, from a working class, inner city Jewish neighborhood in Boston that closely resembled the working class, inner city Jewish neighborhoods of New York, Newark, Chicago and Montreal described by writers like Malamud, Roth, Bellow and Richler. Our neighborhood’s Yiddishkeit was healthy and intense; support for Israel was strong and unquestioning.
Nor did my problem with Israel have anything to do with politics. I have always believed that our people had the same right to self determination as anyone else, along with the same right to a homeland. If anything, my identification with Zionism became stronger at precisely the point at which the commitment of most American Jews became weaker, with the election of a brash, “pushy” right-wing government under the “embarrassing” and “rather un-photogenic” Menachem Begin. The more Begin made my friends, neighbors and relatives nervous, the more I admired him. But all that admiration was simply not enough to get me to want to come here, even for a weekend visit.
My problem with Israel came down to one thing: I simply could not stand accordion music. Let me explain.
No matter how members of the human race may differ, no matter how diverse are the ways of humankind throughout the world, one thing is true of each and every one of us here on Planet Earth—from Pittsburgh to Perth or from Cape Town to Cucamonga: when we are young, we each have very strong ideas about what is “cool” and what is “uncool,” what is smart and what is stupid, and the difference between being “hip” or hopelessly gauche.
Throughout the most impressionable years of my childhood, myriad numbers of people, places and things began to bifurcate into the parallel streams of cool and uncool. Senator John F. Kennedy, for example, was almost phenomenally cool, while Vice President Richard Nixon, his opponent in the 1960 presidential election, was uncool’s virtual poster-boy. New York was indisputably cool; Philadelphia was just as decidedly not. My neighbor’s sleek, sinuous 1963 Corvette Stingray was just about as cool as “cool” got; my father’s frumpy, dumpy, boat-like 1964 Pontiac Catalina four-door sedan was almost the dictionary definition of “uncool.”
And when it came to music, two instruments seemed to stand in my young mind at the opposite extremes of cool and uncool. Stated simply, the saxophone and the accordion were respectively the very icons of cool and uncool, smart and stupid, hip and hopelessly gauche. I heard the saxophone and imagined the likes of John Coltrane on stage at the Village Gate, playing “My Favorite Things” soft and low in front of a smokey, booze-mellowed beatnik crowd at around two o’clock in the morning. I heard an accordion, however, and imagined beer-bellied guys in feathered hats and lederhosen, playing “Beer Barrel Polka” in front of beer-swilling Ukrainian-Americans celebrating Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s birthday at the local American Legion Hall. The saxophone suggested the kind of cool jazz one heard on weak-signaled radio stations at the extreme end of the dial; the accordion conjured up images of the Lawrence Welk Show, more polka-playing guys in feathered hats and lederhosen, and the kid who lived next door, who took accordion lessons for five years and never learned to play anything other than “Lady of Spain.” One instrument symbolized everything that was new and avante gard; the other typified everything that was backward and retrograde. Saxophones were the sound of the future waiting just around the corner; accordions, I then imagined, had probably been played in prehistoric times by Neanderthal musicians.
Ah, summer! Of all the four seasons, I have always loved summer the most. Summer was especially wonderful when I was a kid—a time of school vacation, endless days of leisure, and happy fun-filled nights. Summer brought special things of the season, like days at the beach, baseball, popsicles, drive-in movies, and Israelis.
Yes, Israelis. Boston’s Israeli population seemed to swell in the summers of the 1950s and 1960s, as young “Sabras” came over by the hundreds to work and travel. Many of these young people used to find their way to jobs in Jewish summer camps, working as counselors, lifeguards, art and music instructors, and athletic coaches. I can still remember some of them, across a gulf of more than 40 years. They were, quite simply, magnificent specimens of humanity, with handsome craggy faces; muscles rippling under taut, smooth skin; and long sinewy legs. And those were just the girls.
For us young Jewish denizens of straight-laced old Boston, these young Israelis were an exotic, colorful spectacle from a different—and more perfect—world. They all wore little pointed kova tembel hats, form-fitting kaki-colored work shirts, very short
shorts, and sandals. They told riveting stories about draining swamps, fighting Arabs and building cities. They sang catchy songs and danced cool dances. They ate tasty foods, redolent of the spices of the Middle East. They spoke to each other in the language of our ancient forefathers. They were attractive, brash and genuine. They were emotional and down-to-earth. They said what they meant and meant what they said, with a tough no-nonsense élan that was almost irresistible. They were virtually everything a young Jewish kid growing up in Boston could possibly want to be. There was just one problem: they played accordions.
In those dynamic, halcyon days of the 50s and 60s, the accordion was Israel’s national instrument. Like Japan’s samisen, India’s sitar and Ireland’s harp, the accordion seemed in those days to be almost emblematic of the vibrant new country arising from the soil of an ancient land. No other instrument better suited the desire to create a new culture from the shards of our ancient heritage, new dances—like the hora—that our forefathers might also have danced, and folk music that sang of our people’s unbreakable ties with the land. The “new Jew” being born here, it was said, needed music for the pioneer masses—for the farmers tilling the soil, for the factory workers building new industries, and for all those who by the sweat of their brows were making the desert bloom and the land flow with milk and honey once again. And everyone was happy—everyone except one incorrigible accordion-hating curmudgeon then in the midst of his childhood in Boston: me.
At least once a week at my summer day-camp, the same pas de deux would occur. Our counselor would usher us through the woods to the cabin of the Israeli music and dance instructor, where we were to learn a new Israeli song and, if time permitted, a new Israeli dance. As we were being assembled and brought to order outside the cabin door, out would step the Israeli, accordion in hand. What happened next would vary little from week to week: The accordion would come wheezing to life, the Israeli would sing “ZOOM gali, gali, gali, ZOOM gali, gali,” the other children would happily sing along with the Israeli, the camp counselors and unit heads would smile and sigh blissfully, and I—sitting miserably in the back—would yell, “Hey! What’s with the #@%&#@! accordion music?!? Don’t you guys have guitars or anything???” The poignant little drama would usually end with the Israeli music and dance instructor lifting me up by the collar of my T shirt and the seat of my pants and carrying me, more or less horizontally, away from the group to sit alone somewhere until the Israeli music and dance program was over. The message that emerged in those long moments of solitary meditation could not have been clearer: Israel was not for me.
Accordion Music, Redux
Fast forward, some 35 years. It was a hot summer evening in 1997; I was then 45 years old. I was sitting in my living room, watching the Discovery Channel on TV and appreciatively savoring the last swallow of a very dry martini—about six parts gin and no parts vermouth. A documentary program began, about a fascinating group of people in
the U.S. state of Louisiana, known as the Cajuns. If, like me, you were forced to read Longfellow’s poem Evangeline in junior high school, you will no doubt recall that once, long ago, there was a French colony in Canada called Acadia which, through the shifting forces of war and diplomacy, one day became the English colony of Nova Scotia. Rounded up and expelled from their homes by the British in 1755, the hapless French-speaking Acadians dispersed and journeyed to all points of the compass, most seeking out French colonies elsewhere. A large group wandered down the Atlantic coast and found their way to the then French colony of Louisiana, where they ventured up the rivers and eked out new lives of poverty in the backwater swamps, woods and bayous. As their name, Acadian, gradually became corrupted to “Cajun,” they interbred with American Indians, runaway Black slaves and others, producing a hybrid culture and a peculiar dialect of French that no modern French person can now understand.
The TV documentary ended in a shack by the side of a river, where a group of what appeared to be old Black men were drinking whiskey, eating something called “gumbo,” and playing some wild, hot kind of music I had never heard before. The narrator identified the music as “Zydeco,” a distinctly Cajun art-form that is the amalgam of musical styles from 18th century France, Africa, the “Hillbilly” hollows of southern Appalachia, with a touch of pre-Columbian American Indian and God knows what else.
One old man played a stand-up bass fiddle; another scratched away on an old violin. A third man played the drums while another—and I am not making this up—provided additional percussion with a spoon on a washboard. It was the centerpiece of this little combo, however, that made me drop my now empty martini glass on the floor: an accordion, played by a bald old man with thick, bottle-bottom eyeglasses in heavy black frames. The music rocked and rolled, while two or three other old men did some sort of shuffling buck-and-wing dance off to the side.
To make a long story short, that old Cajun man, clad in worn-out overalls and sitting on an old swivel stool, made that accordion smoke. The music rocked and that accordion throbbed right along with it, at times providing the rhythm, at other times breaking free of the rhythm to whoop and wail. I sat there watching with my eyes wide, my mouth open, and my feet tapping to music that was as hot as the Tabasco sauce that Cajuns also invented.
The accordion, long the very symbol of cultural crudity, had now become cool.
And so, with that last roadblock to aliyah finally out of the way, I decided to bring my little family to Eretz Yisrael. The young official in charge of aliyah stared across his desk at me, with a look of obvious surprise.
“Why now,” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Why now, all of a sudden out of nowhere, at age 45, have you decided to move to Israel?”
“I’ve discovered that I’m crazy about accordion music,” I replied, brightly.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, the young official let out a breath, shook his head ever so slightly and said, “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but that whole dancing-around-the-kibbutz-with-accordion-music thing is long gone. No one sings “Hava Nagila” anymore, and I don’t think that anyone in Israel has so much as picked up an accordion in…I don’t know…maybe 35 years.”
Well, we came anyway. We made aliyah and have lived here happily ever after. After all, what with my new-found obsession with accordion music, it was either that or move to Louisiana.
Image credit: yosefsilver.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/yos/467505049/