Of course, I’m not always in the Psalmist’s frame of mind—certainly not in the subway—and this gives rise to little meditations.
Psalm 136 (Protestant editions 137) summons two musical evocations.
The first verse takes me to Don McLean’s Waters of Babylon, which he sings in rounds (click here for this beautiful performance). As McLean explains the sadness of loss is partly recovered in the end by the remembrance of the object lost, in this case, Zion. Anyone who knows me well enough, knows during my sojourn from 1961 to 1970 in Argentina I came to call my life there an “exile” from the United States—to me, a familial Promised Land of sorts—and that is what the song I first heard in 1973 evoked.
Verses 2-4 bring back another sad religious song, On the Willows, from the musical Godspell (click here). My friend Matt P (hi, Matt, wherever you are) took me to see the show circa 1972 in Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, during a period of faith enthusiasm inspired by the Catholic Charismatic movement. With this plaintive song, the apostles foreshadow bereavement after the arrest of Jesus. As with the previous one, it harkens to the Babylonian exile, from which it echoes a terrible sense of loss.
Then comes the fifth verse and the spell is broken: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.”
Hold on, there, Psalmist! When did I know Jerusalem to be able to forget her? Life has taught me that the United States is no Zion, much less Argentina, not even polite Canada. No matter where you are, it's the same old story of love, hope and glory—broken, dashed, snatched.
Yet aren’t we all in exile from the Godhead, in whose mind Augustine tells us we were envisioned long before we were born? Aren’t we all hoping to abide in that Yeru Shalom, or mount of peace, as the Passover song has it: “Next year in Jerusalem”?
Clearly, it’s not the ancient Jerusalem, whose temple’s antechambers were rife with seedy vendors. Nor is it the modern Jerusalem, the epicenter of an endless war between cousins.
I don’t know the Jerusalem I yearn for.
In Mordechai Richler’s Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist’s zeyda (grandfather), sits in his Montreal shtetl (or ghettoized Jewish village), talking about the ideal of a farm he will never own. Duddy gets it into his head that he has to get hold of land to make that dream come true only to discover a misunderstanding. Read the novel, or rent the movie, for details.
As with the zeyda, the idealized other place tells me there is something more out there than the dreary day in, day out. To dream, perchance to fly, to arise from this condition as the exiled children of Adam and Even in this vale of tears.
Like the Psalmist, I will always remember that hoped-for dream. May my body wither if I forget!