Judaism and The Blues

By Matthew Greenwald and Stephanie Lager

“It’s a natural. Black people suffer externally in this country, Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering’s the fulcrum of the blues…”

This quote is from the late blues legend, Michael Bloomfield, who was a musical expeditionary, and a pioneer in the electric blues rock that was such an important part of the zeitgeist that was going on in the 1960’s. Bloomfield’s slant on Judaism and The Blues was thought-provoking to us; so much so that we decided to sit down with Rabbi Mark Borovitz and pick his brain the subject. The Rabbi had his own unique insight on all of this, both as a member of the clergy as well as a fan of  blues  music (he had even seen Bloomfield perform in the mid-60’s) and as a keen sociological observer.



A: This quote by Bloomfield is an interesting thought to me…I’m not sure that Blues is just about suffering. I think that blues is just another expression of life. I would say that the blues is the Yetzer Hara, the negative inclination, coming out in a way that’s healthy and holy. So here again, we’re having what’s happening in life help us, rather than have it beat us down…we’re using it to raise ourselves up. Because, if you listen to the blues – really listen – it’s about people sayin’, ‘Man, it’s really fucked up, and I’m singin’ about it, because I know there’s a way out.’ And one of the ways out is just the music. But I think that it’s not suffering as much as its just pain.  And if you don’t have pain, you don’t have any gain. And that’s when real transformation happens. When everything’s fine, they don’t give a flying’ fuck, and they don’t take care of anything…

Q: Nobody’s calling when everything’s wonderful…

A: Right! This is really saying, ‘You know what? It’s all what it is…we gotta stop lying to ourselves. So the blues to me is a statement that the lies we’ve told ourselves just don’t work anymore, and the blues is the breakout of the truth.

Q: I think the fact that you used the word ‘truth’ in there hits home, because that’s what this music has always said to people…it draws this out from anyone who listens to it…and people hear it and intrinsically feel it as music that is truth.

Rabbi Mark ShadesA: Yes, and I would also add the word experience, because that what you have to have with this music, and all great music pushes us to have an experience, and I think that blues is great music, and pushes us to have an experience. We forget that; it’s not just about us havin’ a good time with it. It’s really about ‘what’s the experience? What’s the experience that the blues is the answer for?’ To me, it’s the experience of living life fully, knowing that there’s pain, and that pain is ultimately good, because it’s going to save my ass, and without it, when everything’s good it’s all good, and when everything’s bad, it’s terrible and I want to kill myself. It’s all bullshit; all the things I’ve told myself that are lies. So, the blues says, ‘Stop lying to yourself, man…and stop lying to everyone else. There it is: I see myself, and I see the pain, and now I’m going to get rid of it, and I can move forward, into the light, into the solution, and the rest of the story, because you see, the negativity of the blues is only half the story – or 49% of the story. You’ve got to be able to see the whole story, because that’s the way you’re going to learn how to live. That’s what Torah is, and that’s why blues is such Jewish music. If you notice how here at Beit T’Shuvah how many prayers we can put into that genre, and they just fit. That’s because the prayer is a pleading of what’s wrong. So the pleading is just saying, ‘God, let me know what’s wrong…I’m in the shit.’ As soon as I say it, God or the spirit of the universe, and my community and my guides and the people around me bring me back to the light, so that I can see the rest of the solution and tell the story; that’s what I believe.

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