It’s too late for General Custer, too late for Robert E. Lee.
Gotta get back on the highway, before it’s too late for me.
— Neil Young
Elijah Oberman is the musician of the decade. He’s queer, transgender, and Jewish, and he plays a wicked violin for the rock band, The Shondes.
I was hooked on the Shondes from the first song on their first album, The Red Sea (2008). The song, “Don’t Look Down,” starts off driven by electric guitar and voice (Louisa Rachel Solomon’s voice, which is a punk band unto itself). Then, a minute into the song, the guitar and voice drop away, and Oberman launches into a violin solo that’s as Jewish as any klezmer riff, in some kind of Eastern European, Phrygian dominant scale, leaping semitones like an alley cat.
The wonderful thing is how perfectly it fits, as if Oberman discovered some tonality that’s been slinking around the back alleys of punk all along. That’s the genius of Oberman and Solomon: they hear what’s already punk and political in traditional Jewish music.
Like Shane McGowan’s creating the Pogues out of a heaping gob of rock-and-roll spit and an Irish musical tradition that was rebellious to begin with: Oberman and Solomon find in Jewish traditional music not some exotic cultural artifact of the shtetl, but the blood and politics that gave the music life to begin with: anger and joy, defiance and hope.
That sounds like punk rock to me.
I’m thinking about this now because — well, because I’m a child of rock and roll, and nothing runs through my brain without filtering through the music.
But more to the point: I’m searching my own tradition — my religion, Catholicism — and finding it at odds with the demands of the moment and political lines that keep getting drawn more and more clearly.
Last week, a group of Christians called the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” issued a statement — the “Nashville Statement”— defining homosexuality as a psychological disorder and reaffirming their intolerance of gay and transgender men and women.
I don’t know any Catholics who support this statement, but the Church’s position is fundamentally the same: homosexuality is a disorder, same-sex marriage forbidden, and heterosexuality the only acceptable avenue for sex — and a narrow corridor at that.
The timing of the Nashville screed is hardly accidental. Throughout his campaign and into his administration, President Trump has created an environment hospitable to unabashed public ugliness from white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other racists and anti-Semites. Now, with Trump banning transgender men and women from military service and his Attorney General declaring that gay rights are not civil rights, the homophobes are seizing the day.
The Catholic Church doesn’t see its position on gay sex as homophobic, but call it what you will; to want to deny a person a job because he’s gay or transgender — as the Catholic Diocese of Juneau, Alaska wanted last year when it opposed our city’s antidiscrimination ordinance — is no better than denying him a job because he’s black. It’s the dictionary definition of prejudice: to judge an individual by his or her membership in a group. And no welcoming words from the pulpit will ever be truly welcoming as long as the Church insists on seeing gay sexuality as a mental illness.
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan distinguishes between tradition (“the living faith of dead men”) and traditionalism (“the dead faith of living men”). Traditionalism turns our faith traditions into institutions, and we end up serving the tradition, instead of the tradition serving us. Christ saw the problem clearly and was unambiguous about how our religious institutions and dogmas relate to the well-being of men and women: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
When my religion tells me that I should not celebrate the individual that a man like Eli Oberman is — celebrate all the complexities of his character, his sexuality and gender as much as the beauty of his music, the complexities that make his music so raucous and beautiful — then that’s a problem with the institution. And I’ll take my stand with the individual.
Early 20th-century Reform Jewish rabbi Kaufmann Kohler said it best: “The true object of religion is the hallowing of life rather than the salvation of the soul.”
I believe that. So I’m leaving the Catholic Church.
• Jim Hale is a writer and resident of Juneau.