Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

On more of my childhood nights than not, as soon as our family was finished cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, my father (of blessed memory) used to retire to the piano bench to play some of the blues songs from his earliest memories. His favorites became mine, as his gentle touch on the keys and his soulful, melancholy blues singing became the soundtrack of my childhood. His repertoire relied heavily on Aretha, Ella, and BB (all of whom we knew on a first-name basis in our house), so much so that when Aretha Franklin passed away a few years back, the loss felt akin to losing a family member, as strange as that may sound.

In addition to those bigger names, there was one Bessie Smith song that my father truly loved to sing: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. It’s about losing everything you’ve ever had and dreaming of what it might be like to recover even just one silver dollar. Having grown up with very little material wealth (he used to joke that his family was so poor that they could only afford one-sided pancakes), Smith’s lamenting words felt like his own; for a good part of his life, he wasn’t all that sure that there would be even a single silver dollar in his future.

His favorite line, which – if I close my eyes and think back to those vivid memories of evenings by the piano – I can still hear him singing: “But if I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hold on to it ‘til them eagles grin.”

Even as he sang that song while playing a gorgeous piano, in a cozy living room, in a safe neighborhood, surrounded by family, the fear of losing it all never left him. Having grown up in Lynn, Massachusetts (“Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin, you try to get out, but it pulls you back in”), he forever felt like he was in the wilderness, never quite settled in his own promised land.

In the Wilderness

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – describes the Israelites’ attempts to regain a sense of comfort and stability amidst the tumultuous conditions of their endless wanderings through the desert. We learn about three such efforts: (1) taking a census of the population, (2) developing systems around the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan, and (3) better understanding the nature of the Promised Land ahead by sending 12 scouts across the border. For all intents and purposes, it’s no different than what our ancestors did in the 1880s after being processed at Ellis Island; we took a census, we built up some places to worship, and we scouted out new lands where we could put down generational roots.

These three methods of seeking stability in the midst of the unknown are much more constructive and purposeful than the incessant complaints that this exodus generation’s predecessors directed at Moses throughout the earliest years of their wilderness journey. We might conclude, then, that the takeaway from their wanderings is that we, too, must seek out a sense of security during tumultuous times. When the world feels like it’s spinning off its axis (and few would argue that things feel stable these days), we do what we can to feel secure, to feel like the future won’t be as chaotic as the present, to feel like the world we’ll someday give to our children will be worthy of them, and vice versa. Like Bessie Smith gripping the silver dollar with all her might, we do everything in our power to hold on tight.

When Stability Destabilizes

On the other side of the border from our wanderings, though, is the Promised Land, the one flowing generously with milk and honey. And with it comes a stable existence for these weary people. It is there that the Israelites will soon take root and become a people. It is there that they will build a religion, build a Temple, and build a nation.

But in these very same efforts to become a people, we know that the stability will soon take its toll on them, on their faith, on their peoplehood. In the books of the prophets, they will soon go far astray, time and again, losing sight of their covenant and of their highest ideals. And in less than a generation’s time, they’ll forget entirely where they came from, who they once were. Strangers in a strange land no more, they soon become a people who act in ways unrecognizable to their wandering ancestors.

So, too, has been the case for so much of American Jewish life ever since those aforementioned Ellis Island arrivals almost 150 years ago. There was no milk and honey waiting for us; we found it ourselves. Our ancestors worked tirelessly so that—generations later—the American Jewish project could be deemed a success. We made it: academically, financially, politically, and culturally.

And yet, just as the generations of the Prophets experienced, our unfathomable success – the brick-and-mortar, this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it, stability of it all – has plagued us, too. Like them, we have become deeply polarized and sharply divided; each side certain of both their rightness and the shameful sinfulness of their opponents. Like them, we are too reliant on our buildings and institutions; we are a centralized nation with a decentralized body politic. And like them, we are holding on so tightly to what we know that we fail to remember that the coin in our grip has another side to it.

Two Sides

Perhaps, then, our wilderness story’s most important lesson is two-fold; two sides of the same coin, as it were. On the one side, finding forces of stability in the unknown wilderness is precisely how we first became a people. When chaos and uncertainty reign, we must do everything we can to hold onto what we know and hold most dear in this world, be it our God, our covenant, our traditions, or our beliefs. And on the other side, what made us a people in the first place isn’t what has kept us as a people since then. Our curiosity, experimental nature, willingness to challenge ourselves and others in love and for love – those are what have sustained us, enriched us, and enlivened us. So no matter what kind of coin you find in your hand, remember that holding on to it “til them eagles grin” is only half of the work; don’t forget to turn it over once in a while, too, to discover what lies on the other side.

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