Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor

In today’s “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau acknowledges the interfaith zeitgeist. In the strip, a medic informs a military chaplain that a patient is going to survive and won’t need last rites, after all. The medic notes that the patient “was worried he wasn’t eligible for rites. He’s from some sort of multi-faith family.” The chaplain replies that this would not have been a problem. The medic asks, “You do mash-ups?” The chaplain responds, “It’s not pretty, but yeah.”

In a handful of words, Trudeau touches on several key interfaith family issues.  First, note his use of the term “multi-faith family,” which indicates to me that perhaps my insistence on using “interfaith,” which I defended in a recent blog post,  is indeed behind the times. Trudeau has an ear for the sound of the future; I am reconsidering my stance.

Calling an interfaith prayer or ceremony a “mash-up” is awfully clever, and appeals to me as a tech-savvy adult (and obviously would appeal to my iPod-addicted teens). On the other hand, I think I will resist taking up this term. I am just too old-school I guess. To use a musical analogy, when I hear appropriated bits and pieces of music in a current hit, I enjoy them, but for me, the joy is in using the mash-up as an opportunity to teach my children about the original music being mashed.

For instance, both my teens and I love Sublime’s 1996 hit “Doin’ Time.” My kids happen to know that it is based on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” because I sang the original to them as a lullaby, and because my father and my son both play the tune as jazz pianists. We are educated insiders, we get the reference. I worry about kids who are ignorant of Gershwin, who don’t understand that Sublime did not actually write the hook on which they are caught.

In the same vein, I worry about mash-up interfaith prayers or services: unless our children understand the references, appreciate the originals, they lose the historical context. I believe interfaith children should be grounded in the classics, in the rites and rituals of both their Christian and Jewish heritages. Am I just uncool?

At the same time, I understand the gleeful power of the mash-up. My teens, all teens,  resonate with the harmonics and the dissonance, the new produced by combining and overlapping old tracks. They have an intuititve understanding of Ecclesiastes (that “there is nothing new under the sun”): that  all religion, and art, evolve through recombination.

Trudeau also touches on the reality that clergy are acting, by necessity, as deejays: they are innovating, riffing on traditional rites for every life transition, in order to accomodate their interfaith flocks. Often, they are writing and performing new rituals quietly, without permission from institutional authorities, because institutions lag considerably in comprehending that this is the dawning of the Age of the Interfaith.

Trudeau also hints at the truth that many clergy are ambivalent about their roles on the cutting edge of creating and leading interfaith liturgy. “It’s not pretty,” the chaplain sighs. The mash-up makes her long for the original, the unadulterated Gershwin. But Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, was appropriating, transforming, mashing-up the African-American gospel form with jazz and opera. And religions have been cross-fertilizing since the beginning of time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Finally, Trudeau refers, obliquely, to a conundrum facing this first great generation of interfaith families as we age: how do we gracefully ritualize the end of our lives in an interfaith world? I personally know a Jewish man whose wife was exhumed after someone decided to enforce a prohibition against non-Jews being buried in a Jewish cemetery. My own mother, after more than fifty years of interfaith marriage, makes nervous jokes about needing to do a deathbed conversion before she can be buried in our family plot. Our interfaith community is seeking a solution: a final resting place for interfaith families. Or, if you will, a final mash-up.

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6 Replies to “Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor”

  1. Doin’ Time based on Gershwin’s Summertime? Wow! I heard it the second time around, thought I was deaf to the analogy, but I’m not. To continue the conceit, it takes a wish to hear, a willingness to open up, to understand what it takes to live a multi-faith life.
    My mother’s wishes for her last rights included being wrapped in a shroud, buried in a simple plank coffin. The rabbi of the synagogue where our family was welcome in the early 1960s didn’t even want to grant us Kaddish. If she wanted that, she should have converted, he said, and that while she helped my father raise me Jewish and continued stirring me in that direction after his death.

    1. Judith–Thanks for commenting. The way I see it, the purpose of the Kaddish is to comfort the bereaved. As far as I’m concerned, no one can stop you from saying it, and if one cares about minyans, I certainly have ten friends who will join me. A rabbi does not have the power to prevent heartfelt, communal prayer. The religious status of the person who is gone seems almost irrelevant, doesn’t it? But to humiliate and hurt the family of a mother who raised Jewish children–astonishing, but common. We can only hope that it’s becoming less common…

  2. Sue, spot-on! The Mourners Kaddish is for mourners. Even though one recites it in the wake of a death, it is not really for the deceased. It is a declaration made in public of God’s glory (whatever you privately feel that to be), offered in the context of a service, to show that faith endures.

    By contrast, the prayer El Moleh Rahamim is a prayer for the deceased.

    The Mourners Kaddish is a Jewish prayer but no feeling person would deny someone in attendance at a service the right to recite it. Judith’s experience only reinforces your point about the need for each person to find a religious community that is right for herself and her family.

    1. Seth, Thanks for your response to my lament. I’d make your “Kaddish is not really for the deceased” even stronger by stating it “really is not for the deceased”. You’re absolutely right, a person needs to find the right community for her/himself.
      The sad reality was that I’m an immigrant who returned to the Netherlands to attend to my mother’s needs from the U.S. where I make my home.
      After WWII Jacob Soetendorp, the rabbi of the Reform Synagogue in Amsterdam, wholeheartedly welcomed Interfaith families. My mother was friends with his wife. A friend of mine, the daughter of Soetendorp’s second wife was the one who suggested Kaddish to be said at the (our old) shul. Soetendorp’s successor is the one who turned me down, he likened saying Kaddish for a non-Jew to having Catholics put up a mass for him. Later I heard his own wife had had to convert…

  3. Seth–Thanks, as always, for the additional information.

    All–Check out today’s Doonesbury, where it is revealed that the soldier in question’s multi-faith family is Mormon/Catholic/Hindu. Trudeau has been chided in the past for reenforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes. Maybe that’s why in this story-arc he’s sidestepping the more obvious interfaith Jewish families. It’s true though that Mormon interfaith families face many of the same fraught issues faced by Jewish interfaith families.

  4. I hate to say this, but how to handle death in an interfaith family had never occurred to me before. I feel like most people put family before ideology, but I suppose cemeteries aren’t necessarily going to go, “Aww, we loved you, we’ll make an exception” in the same way someone’s relatives will.

    I don’t know about the current cemetery options either. Are the majority of cemeteries religiously strict? I always thought that most cemeteries are somewhat religiously affiliated, but that it wasn’t actually enforced.

    Anyway, thank you for providing this food for thought.

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