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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy, um, whatever

Once upon a time I fully embraced the whole New Year's Eve thing.  As a kid it was a treat to be allowed to stay up and watch the lighted ball drop in Time's Square on TV.  And as a young adult I admit having enjoyed more than a few festive New Year's Eve parties.

I know intellectually that I should really try to get more worked up about New Years.  After all, I live in the modern world and it is the start of at least one of the calendars around which my life revolves.  But it holds about as much fascination for me as when my car's odometer turns over to some nice round number. 

In short, it's neat, maybe even important, to observe... but (IMHO) not really worthy of a party.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who likes to pretend that the Gregorian calendar doesn't exist, or that it should be shunned like some form of idolatry.  I guarantee that If I look over the shoulder of some religious zealot who pretends to completely eschew the solar calendar that I won't see Kislev or Tevet printed on their car registration.  We simply can't ignore that at least a small part of our lives is tied to the secular calendar.

But I think it would be disingenuous of me to give the impression that my disinterest in New Year's was entirely a rational decision.  No, the thing that really put paid to New Year's Eve celebrations for me was an event that was shared by a fellow musician and regular treppenwitz reader back in the early '90s. 

We had been rehearsing with a '30s/ '40s-style Jazz 'Big Band' that met weekly in a studio on 42nd Street in Manhattan.  The band had the occasional gig, but its raison d'être was simply for the chance to play the classic arrangements from the swing era. 

One day the wife of the bandleader (who did all the booking/scheduling) pulled me aside and asked if I was free the evening of Dec. 31st.  It seemed that the band was booked to play a fancy New Year's Eve ball at the 'Downtown Athletic Club', and she was trying to put together the roster.

For those of you not familiar with the Downtown Athletic Club, it is a very posh private club in a stately old building near Wall Street that claims, among its many honors, to be 'the home of the Heismann Trophy'.

Although I usually got a call every year for some sort of New Year's Eve gig, I jumped at the opportunity to play such a fancy-shmancy party.  This was the sort of affair most people only see in old movies... hell yes I wanted to play the gig! 

New Year's eve arrived and I showed up early at the D.A.C. wearing my best tuxedo with my trombone gig bag slung over my shoulder.  I felt like someone had turned back the clock and I was some swing-era sideman showing up for a swanky radio broadcast on New Year's eve.  It was really exciting.

We played the first couple of sets to an appreciative audience.  The ambiance was everything I could have hoped for... elegant, festive decor... well-heeled party-goers dancing gracefully around the room or chatting in small groups... and liveried waiters passing seemingly endless trays of hors douvres and Champagne.

After the second set the band was directed to a small table in an adjoining room where a nice spread of food and drink had been laid out for us.  I seem to remember that this other treppenwitz reader (who also played this gig), and I anticipated the whole kosher food issue by bringing along some deli sandwiches from Shmulke Bernstein's, but I may be remembering that bit incorrectly.  Whether or not we had thought to bring kosher food is really besides the point of the story. 

Of one thing I'm crystal clear: We were seated with the band at this private table when the bombshell was dropped.  The bandleader came over to the two of us, and without preamble unapologetically said, "The host asked me to tell you two to take off your yarmulkes."

I doubt that the two of us were the only Jews in the orchestra, but we were certainly the only two observant ones wearing yarmulkes/kippot at the time.  We were both wearing very unobtrusive plain black kippot on our heads, and unless someone was really looking closely they wouldn't have even noticed them.  But clearly at least one of us had been noticed... and someone close to the party organizer had taken offense.

I remember inwardly flinching at being told to remove a religious head covering.  I mean, for kripe's sakes... I'd worn a kippah on my head while serving on a Navy frigate in the US Pacific fleet!  Who the hell were these people I'd supposedly been protecting to tell me I couldn't cover my head while playing their New Year's Eve party? 

But at the same time I also felt that as part of an ensemble (and as a sideman on someone else's bandstand), I really didn't have the luxury of refusing or making a scene. 

We played at least one more set after that, including an endless rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne' while confetti and balloons cascaded from the ceiling. But for me the magic had gone out of the evening. 

Instead of a 1930s-esque society party, the room had taken on the washed-out look of a cheap movie set.  The guests weren't dancing as gracefully as I had originally thought, and the quiet elegance I had seen through my rose-colored glasses at the beginning of the evening now seemed forced and contrived.

That event really finished New Year's Eve for me.  With the exception of a very pleasant New Year's eve wine & cheese party Zahava and I attended a few years ago at the home of some close friends, I really haven't marked the date in any significant way since that ill-omened D.A.C. Ball. 

Maybe that's for the best. 

I wouldn't think to make a big party out of my car's odometer turning over to show a fresh bunch of zeros... so why force a celebration out of the calendar equivalent of such an event? 

When my car hits certain milestones I obviously mark them and take stock of the car's overall condition (tune-ups, scheduled service, etc.).  A wise person would do well to mark the new Gregorian year by performing the same kind of things (physical exams, dental check-ups, mammograms or prostate exams, etc.).

So, for me there really isn't much to celebrate... but plenty to think about. 

I'm off to work today, because here in Israel, January 1st, 2006 is just another start to a busy work week... and nobody seems to mind what I wear on my head.  :-)

So, happy whatever!


Posted by David Bogner on January 1, 2006 | Permalink


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I remember when I was in seminary my roommate and I were studying for a test (yes we had those in seminary!) and did not even realize it was new years. I think I did get up at 7 the next morning to call my parents and wish them a Happy New Year tho. Thanks for the interesting perspective.

Posted by: Faye | Jan 1, 2006 5:06:42 PM

When I spent an extended time in Israel many years ago, December rolled around and so did "Sylvester". I only knew about Sylvester the cat--it was so weird to me to be asked, "What are you doing for Sylvester?" Israeli radio/TV advertised big bashes for this 'cat celebration!'
In any case, David, hope you had a nice Motzei Shabbos...however you spent it!

Posted by: Pearl | Jan 1, 2006 5:20:20 PM

I think the best New Years was Dec 31, 1999 - it fell out on Friday night, so it was incredibly easy to avoid all the ridiculous hype. Plus, had the Y2K risk been real, we'd only have lost some cholent from it.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 1, 2006 6:20:44 PM

That host was a rotton piece of *$#%. What a horrible thing to have happen, it was quite brave to have stayed and finished the set.

Posted by: Lisoosh | Jan 1, 2006 7:45:55 PM

i agree with you about having a rather hohum attitude towards new years these days, but i have very fond memories of spending a new year's eve with zahava and another friend, a ton of food from deli kasbah and some old movies. if my memory serves me correctly, that evening was within hours of you and zahava meeting!

Posted by: rachel | Jan 1, 2006 7:45:57 PM

I can so totally relate to the excitement going out of New Year's. Every year, it's just a little bit more boring. I'm not sure I'm going to stay up next year at all. *Sigh*.

Posted by: Irina | Jan 1, 2006 8:50:32 PM

You are a better man than I am because I would have refused to have removed my kippah and made a scene.

That is such a sad statement about the host of the party.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 1, 2006 9:50:06 PM

Faye... It is easier here. If you want to celebrate you can certainly find plenty of places that make a big deal out of New Years... but if you aren't specifically looking for a celebration it is also quite easy to ignore.

Pearl... We basically sat around and watched a movie and were in bed before midnight. Old fuddy-duddies... that's us. :-)

Dave... How practical of you! :-)

Lisoosh... It really wasn't that hard a decision to make. A professional musician has to put up with a lot of crap from hosts, caterers, waiters, valets, promoters, bandleaders and even fellow musicians. You really have to pick your battles quite carefully or you risk being labeled as 'difficult'. 'Difficult' musicians often find themselves sitting home when more 'go-with-the-flow' musicians are working. Also, as I said in the post, if I were the bandleader or if it was my gig I might have thought about standing up to the host. But as a sideman... part of an ensemble... you are expected to avoid being disruptive.

Rachel... Yes, after reading your comment Zahava and I were talking in the car (on our way to dinner tonight at a nice little Turkish restaurant in Jerusalem) and she confirmed that your shared New Year's Eve movie and take-out fest was indeed only a few hours before she and I met.

Irina... You're much too young to be taking that attitude! :-)

Jack... Yes, it is a sad statement about the host (and/or whoever pointed out the offending beanies), but you have to understand that this place is known as an exclusive WASP haven. The joke is that the only time anyone of color is allowed through the door is when the recipient of the Heismann Trophy comes to pick up his award. As to what I should or shouldn't have done... see my reply to Lisoosh.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 1, 2006 10:59:17 PM

I appreciate David guarding my privacy, but I have no problem outing myself as the other guy in the band.
There are a few details I remember differently. First of all, we ate at Shmulke Bernsteins with my parents and brother, who was off to do his own gig in a bar in the West Village.
Sevond, we were warned about the Yarmulke issue beforehand. We got around it on the bandstand by wearing silly New Years Eve hats. Thje offensive part to me was what happened off the bandstand, when we were sitting at the table. Since we were in a semi private location, David was feeling much more comfortable and felt it would not be a problem to take off the silly hat and put on the Yarmulke. It was the bandleader who asked him to take off the Yarmulke at that point that that created the unlpleasant situation. Unlike Dave, however, I did not walk into the gig thinking it was anything other than a chance to play music we enjoyed.
After the gig, we went and sat in with my brother's rock and roll band at his gig, WITH Yarmulkes.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | Jan 2, 2006 2:37:29 AM

That just sucks! I also posted about not having celebrated New Year's for a while, but your reason is better than mine. I like the car analogy. Very well-put.

Posted by: mcaryeh | Jan 2, 2006 7:29:37 AM

Jordan... You are probably right about having eaten beforehand. I was pretty sure Bernsteins was mixed up in this somehow but I couldn't remember exactly how. :-) As to the other parts I think you are remembering things incorrectly. The only gigs where I ever wore 'funny hats' were those where Shuby was the drummer and Shuby wasn't on this gig [note: Shuby was one of the regular drummers in the Band Jordan and I usually played with. He usually brought a bag of funny hats for the band to wear during wilder gigs]. A couple of compelling reasons that I think you might be misremembering this detail are as follows: a) If I had been told beforehand not to wear a kippah and was wearing a funny hat during the gig, I would have simply continued to wear the funny hat for the rest of the gig. b) If we were wearing funny hats I imagine the guests wouldn't differentiate between a kippah and any other sort of funny hat. c) I clearly remember one of the other trombonists asking me where my kippah was when we came back for the set after the meal. As to your brother's gig in the village that we crashed, I know for a fact I had my kippah back on then because a really cute (but very drunk) girl kept asking me to give her my kippah to wear. She had no idea what it was but she thought it would look much better on her than on me. It may be that there was some hint beforehand about whether or not kippot would be an issue at such WASPy venue like the D.A.C., but my standard mindset has always been, 'if I could wear it on a ship in the navy, I can wear it anywhere'.

Mcaryeh... Thanks, the car analogy came to me while contemplating the indignities of my next 'service'. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 2, 2006 8:39:31 AM

Oh- I wanted to say kudos for your Car analogy too, but my hangover only just cleared up so McA beat me to it.

I personally just appreciate any excuse for a party, what with everything we deal with in this relaxed, stress-free country we've voluntarily relocated to. (But I still can't say "Sylvester" without thinking about Tweety!)

Posted by: PP | Jan 2, 2006 9:39:25 AM

It was only a year ago that I had my first student who wore his yarmulke to class every day.

This year I have two Muslim girls that wear head scarves.

I do ask students to take off ball caps and stocking hats, but the thought of requiring someone to take off apparel with important traditional links to their faith is unthinkable. The demand from the club party organizers reeks of ignorance and bigotry.

Posted by: christopher | Jan 2, 2006 10:01:35 AM

Wow. What the host(s) did ... that really stinks. I'm sorry you had to deal with that.

I've never put much stock in the whole New Year thing either, not even when I was still living in the US.

Posted by: Rahel | Jan 2, 2006 2:28:30 PM

Could it be that the evening lost it's luster because you gave in to their demands and you felt defeated. Personally I would have stuck to them and would have walked out. I'm sure the only people that noticed that you were wearing a yarmulke were the smattering of neuvo rich self hating Jews. As for the fear of being labeled 'difficult', what of emunah, the belief that G-d will provide....

Posted by: Avremi G | Jan 2, 2006 3:59:15 PM

PP... You Brits do like the occasional pint don't you? :-) Glad to hear you're feeling better. I totally agree about the whole Sylvester thing.

Christopher... They have minorities in Oregon??? Who knew! :-) Seriously, I'm glad (though not surprised)you're sensitive to the religious needs of your students. It's interesting to note that with all the problems France has been having in recent years with their Muslim minority, they decided that the root of the problem lay with the head scarves and banned them. Gotta love French logic!

Rahel... It's funny how some people have turned celebrating New Year's into a litmus test for frumkeit. I'm with you... it isn't really a problem to celebrate the occasions, but I've sorta lost interest.

Avremi... Yes, in a way I did feel defeated. I experienced something that many observant Jews have run up against while trying to make their way in a completely secular endeavor. It's all well and good to say that a religious Jew can do anything he/she wants and anyone who stands in their way is a bigot or a racist. But the truth is that I wasn't asked to violate the sabbath, eat traif or break any halacha. I was simply asked to conform in a way that I have not been asked to conform in the past. This made me feel like an outsider... but my decision to conform had nothing to do with my level of belief in G-d's ability to work things out. It was simply a very high price I decided at that moment I was willing to pay for the privilege of playing a type of music that is rarely performed live anymore. In retrospect I realize it was too high a personal price... which is one of the (many) reasons I never did a gig like that again.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 2, 2006 4:35:32 PM

The downtown Athletic Club was not a place one would find "nouveau riche" self hating Jews. I suspect that Lynn asked you to take off the Yarmulke because of his own fears. I was warned beforehand, but obviously you were not. Had you been I think it may have been less of an issue. I must also point out that I had much less of a problem being asked not to wear it, but that does not negate Dave's experience one iota. I do remember vaguely something about the girl at that club.

Posted by: jordan Hirsch | Jan 2, 2006 5:20:09 PM

Jordan... Yes.. mostly old money, and not many Jews.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 3, 2006 11:04:14 AM

Although I'm late to the party, I must say that I'm highly offended on your behalf. Even though I'm a Christian. That kind of thing would still upset me decades later.

But the truth is that I wasn't asked to violate the sabbath, eat traif or break any halacha.

Isn't wearing the kippah all the time required? Even if it's based on personal conviction, that still seems pretty important. I cover my head in church, and I know a few women who do all the time. If I believed that God wanted me to wear the covering all the time, I wouldn't take it off for anybody.

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | Jan 14, 2006 5:14:13 PM

how dare you?!! because you were part of an ensemble you felt you had no choice. what a weak, lame excuse for a man you are. how's this sound? "no, i will not remove my kippot. i am a devout jew who wears it for religious reasons. if there is a problem, i wish i were told before hand. but since that's not the case, i should leave, with it on." you certainly owed nothing to the band "leader" who let this happen.thank goodness you were not present in the warsaw ghettos.

Posted by: art | Jun 1, 2008 8:11:44 PM

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