Wednesday, July 28, 2004

More JM Chesed

David Bogner writes:
Like many of my JM colleagues, I was asked to play 'tzedakah jobs' from time to time. Nursing homes were the most common gig of this sort, and I usually came away feeling I got much more from the experience than the audience. Seeing tears of joy standing in aged eyes as we played their favorite Yiddish or Hebrew songs was payment beyond rubies (at least for me).
However, occasionally I would get a call to play a wedding for a needy family, and these gigs were always handled with the utmost modesty.
One that stands out in my mind (I am slightly changing a couple of details so as not to perfectly identify the affair) was a wedding I once played in Queens. The bride was an orphan, and the groom had only his father (having previously lost his mother). A week before the wedding, the groom's father was on his way to a 'Gamach' to borrow some of the funds necessary to pay for the wedding when he dropped dead of a heart attack.
The tzaddikim, who always seem to be waiting in the wings in such a case, swept into action and made arrangements for the musicians, the caterer, the photographers, and even the hall, to forgo their fees. I was called a few days before the affair to augment the modest sized band.
In the groom's family, the tradition was to visit the grave at the end of Shiva, so he ended up coming directly from the cemetery to his wedding. Needless to say, as this young couple tearfully walked down the aisle, there wasn't a dry eye in the hall.
The band played its heart out that night, and the guests were not aware from any aspect of the beautiful affair that services had been donated. It was one of the few affairs that I can honestly say none of the musicians looked at their watches!
After desert had been served and one last set of 'ladies dances' had started to peter out, the appropriate time came for Benching and Sheva Brachot, so we began to play the 'Shir Hamalot vamp' under the usual announcement for people to bring their chairs to the head table.
Within seconds, several ladies approached us loudly complaining that we should continue playing dance music. The leader gently explained that the time had come for benching, and asked that they join the rest of the guests for benching. Since I was sitting up front in the horn section, I was able to hear the unbelievable response from one of these guests:
"You musicians...always looking at the clock! Don't you ever think about anything but money???"
We all just sat there smiling... but were somewhat frustrated that we couldn't tell this boor how wrong she was. However, over the years, as I've looked back on that affair, I realize that just as our happiness shouldn't be complete until the Temple is rebuilt... neither should our sense of satisfaction at our level of chasadim.
For this I suppose I should have thanked that lady.
I've always loved the nursing home gigs myself. I remember one volunteer nursing home gig where one old lady sang along with us for the entire set with tears in her eyes. Afterwards, some of the nurses approached us and told us that this was the first time in two years that the woman, a dementia patient, had been aware of what was going on around her. For that short time, she was again a little girl sitting on her father or grandfather's lap singing with them. It was a simply beautiful moment.

I also remember one gig in which I had to hold my tongue in the face of similar rude comments. This happened soon after I entered the JM field. One Thursday in June, I received a call from a friend who needed some help. A bandleader, he'd booked two gis for the following Sunday. The first one ended at 4 PM and the second was scheduled to start at 7 PM about an hour and a half drive from the first. He'd just gotten off the phone with the groom who'd hired him for the second gig. Apparently the groom, who was from the Syrian Jewish community as was his bride, had decided that since everyone knows that Sephardic weddings run on "SY time", he could book the band for later than the invite time -- 7PM instead of 4 PM. My friend had no idea that the invite time was earlier than the band's start time.

When the groom's family found out about this "bright idea" only days before the wedding, they told him it was unacceptable and he called the bandleader in a panic saying that he needed the music to start at 4 PM. As you can imagine, my friend was unable to be there by 4, so he called a few musicians to cover the beginning of the gig until the band could get there. Being that it was a Sunday in June, a tough slot to fill at the last minute, we wound up with two musicians playing a rather large cocktail party.

Things went quite smoothly until the badekin, at which point, the bride's father -- who'd been told an eight piece band had been hired -- came over to say hi. When he noticed that there were only two musicians there, at an hour and a half into the affair, he blew up. Not wanting to tell him what his son-in-law had done, we sat there quietly assuring him that the rest of the band was on their way and would be there soon. They made it for the chupa, but it was quite close, and I'll never forget how this guy kept coming over to berate us for something that was not our fault.