Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Good One Who Ran Away: Ode to Bongo Barry

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2009 at 11:43 pm

A childhood friend died suddenly and his untimely demise evoked speculation from which a subtle undercurrent of panic could be felt among his contemporaries. “He was overweight.” “His family had a history of heart disease.” Somehow, these reasons were supposed to immunize we, the fifty somethings, from a similar fate. Nobody wants to be cheated out of his three score and ten, so we blame the victim. Deep down inside, we know the truth–it could be any one of us at any time. After all, there are plenty of fat, old people. I, unfortunately, am not able to mollify myself with rationalizations that have little bearing on reality. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn, and it often–more often than not–feels too soon.

His was a life filled with celebration, music, and children. He was a music therapist/performer who brought a sense of celebration to the Dewey Decimal System, the anatomy of ants, and the art of drumming. He was beloved by the local community of musicians and they showed up in great numbers to celebrate all that he had achieved with children, with his persona, and with his craft.
I knew Barry from my synagogue youth group. He was younger and was always pleased to be with one of the older guys. Growing up in an almost exclusively Jewish millieu, he was a typical product of Jewish American suburban culture, but in young adulthood he became so profoundly alienated from the Judaism of his youth, that Judaism and his Jewishness played the most minor of roles during his funky, eclectic memorial service. No kaddish, no burial, only the slightest acknowledgement of those who almost exclusively nurtured him through high school.
One could ask why I went only to see the tradition I revere, snubbed in such an overt fashion. I went because his eighty year old mother is still alive and I knew she would get comfort from seeing some of his old friends come to pay their respects. She did. Barry intermarried, and he succeeded in freeing his daughters of the Jewish baggage that he wished to leave behind. More than I blame him. I blame us.
Even though there are many ways to be a Jew, membership to any part of the Jewish community comes with a hefty price tag, and too often, the materialism and pretension that comes with it. Barry made a choice to live through music, and certainly there were sacrifices that attend such a decision. We as a community let him know in many ways that these are choices that a Jew shouldn’t make. He shouldn’t help autistic children. He shouldn’t be silly at libraries creating cacophonous symphonies of percussive sound to the delight of young and old. This may be a way to work ones way through college, but this is not a path for a grown man to make a living.
His communities were those who made similar choices. Those who were fulfilled by entertaining, educating and supporting the most vulnerable in our society. Those who somehow manage to feed their families by doing what they love. Such conviction takes courage not appreciated by those who make “great” livings doing something they hate.
That Barry found little resonance in Jewish symbols, Jewish traditions, Jewish song and dance and celebration is not entirely our fault, but I can’t help but wonder what a little appreciation and acceptance might have done, not only for him, but for us as well. Certainly, he could have found company with those Jewey Jews who have maintained the spirit of the sixties throughout their lives, but why seek out that which you feel you already know and don’t much care for?
The Jewish vacuum at his memorial service meant we missed the scores of children’s performances and songs. We missed drum circles with a Jewish vibe. Songs that taught the holidays in our Hebrew schools. We missed somehow, a spirit that grew up among us and saw little of value to take with him. He bears some responsibility for this, but, then again, so do we.
Lech B’Shalom Barry. I’m sorry we missed you.
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