Wading Through Widowhood: Magic in a microphone

Whatever the reasons, in the run-up to the holiest days of our year, I found myself in the revamped and glorious Mann Auditorium humming along to some of humankind’s greatest hits.

Tony Bennett with Pamela Peled (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Tony Bennett with Pamela Peled
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Ah, the hagim. The cooking and the cleaning and the burnishing of candlesticks.
The dusting and the herring and the getting down of crystal from top cupboards.
Ah, the hagim. The ritual and the sanctity and the spiritual side of life. The apples and the honey and the wishes for sweet health and joy.
And the longing and the longing and the longing for loved ones who are gone, and the ache that makes hagim the cruelest time of all.
This time last year was our first brush with the awful Liturgy of the Days of Awe after Martin died. I wrote about the stark, cruel blast of the “Who will live and who will die” that we intone, over and over again, and how hard it is for me to believe in an apparently heartless Almighty in the heavens, who strikes at us for reasons only God knows. This time round the Days of Awe are truly awful: More young soldiers added to the unspeakably sad list of our fallen, more of our civilians killed at home, more chaos in our tough, tiny country. And as we struggle to cope with yet another war, I find I just can’t seek solace in this kind of column – not this time, not now.
So I’m going to write about Tony Bennett instead. Which leads me back to God.
Here’s the connection: On a late-summer morning last week I drove through an uncharacteristically unclogged Ra’anana, on my way to an ESRA editorial meeting near the sea. The sun was shining, the living seemed fine, and the radio was belting out a medley of Tony Bennett hits from a career spanning, it seems, almost a century.
And I had a brainwave. “Martin,” I said, to my husband in the other- life, “come home, darling. Just long enough to take me to the concert. Then you can die again. What do you think, baby? Can you do that for me?” Even my Martin couldn’t manage such a task, but he did the next best thing. I walked into the meeting, and someone smiled and said “Pam, I have a free ticket for the Tony Bennett show on Sunday – wanna come?” So you tell me: Was that my husband saying hello? Or was it God, hinting that for all the opacity of His design, that I had just better get myself back in gear and mosey over the road and into shul this year for a good pray? Total serendipity? Who knows? Take your pick according to your predilections.
But whatever the reasons, in the run-up to the holiest days of our year, I found myself in the revamped and glorious Mann Auditorium humming along to some of humankind’s greatest hits.
So, Tony Bennett. Nearly 90 and still singing. Three wives, four children (one of whom converted and now lives an observant Jewish life, married to an Israeli), 17 Grammys and two Emmy Awards, 50 million records sold. Anthony Dominick Benedetto, the son of a grocer and a seamstress, has what to sing about.
As an American soldier in WWII, he did some fierce fighting, even participating in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. After the war, still in uniform in Germany as part of the occupying forces, Bennett joined an army band that entertained American troops. Unbelievable as it seems today, he was demoted in the still racially segregated army for dining with a black high school friend.
Bennett has crooned with the best of the best: Bob Hope and Pearl Bailey, Herbie Mann and Count Basie, Amy Winehouse and Stevie Wonder... the list goes on and on. So do the hits. The inevitable brush with drugs and debts successfully overcome, the singer went on to wow a whole new generation and is still socking it to audiences all over the world – including rocking Hayarkon Park, where he delighted Tel Aviv when he turned up on Lady Gaga’s stage.
And yes, we are grateful to the two of them for showing up in the Jewish state in these days of boycotts and disdain, for simply being here, for saying shalom. But mostly we are thankful for the music. Their styles could not be less similar; the Lady sprays confetti, and pyrotechnics light up her stage; Bennett stands there, mostly still, with some occasional cute little jigs. But they both, magically, lift their listeners into a better place.
Lady Gaga is young; Tony Bennett is old. His endearing moves are not quite as fluid these days, his voice doesn’t simply soar. But as he thrilled his Tel Aviv crowd, with his back-up band of oh-so perfect musicians, the heartbreakingly beautiful jazz that lives in our blood gave Martin back to me, at least for two hours. “Fly Me to the Moon” flew me straight to the beach, where I melted into my love on so many sunset walks as we planned our future and knew that the best was still to come. “For Once in My Life” filled me with that heart’s ease that comes from knowing that, at last, you have someone who belongs just to you, and who will iron your clothes and mow your lawn and fill your car with gas. And who will then thank you for giving him the chance to show he cares. “Body and Soul” is how I loved you, darling, and how you loved me.
And although I left my heart in pedestrian Kfar Saba, not San Francisco, and although the shadow of Mart’s smile proclaimed that he was as gone as the willow tree we had sat beneath once upon a time, counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn, and despite the ache and the longing and the pain, those marvelous musicians mellowing on the stage just took me by the hand straight into paradise.
And as the guitarist riffed “Hava Nagila” and “Uru Ahim, Be’lev Sameah” into some of the loveliest jazz standards ever, and the ecstatic sell-out (and surprisingly young) crowd surged to its feet between each fabulous hit, the mess in the Middle East simply stopped messing, and the cares that we carry around disappeared, and we knew for surer than the most certain sure that life is still worthwhile, if we … just … smile.
So, forget the “Who will live and who will die” dramatics of the Day of Days, and forget the beating of the breast and the anguish and the angst.
This Yom Kippur, as I eat my pre-fast soup and kreplach, I’ll turn the music way up loud and sing along, ’cause, hey, while we still have such a thing as the beat of our hearts, what the hell else are we to do? Hag sameah, shana tova and hatima tova me’od to us all.
The writer lectures at IDC and Beit Berl. peledpam@gmail.com