In Jewish tradition we are taught that there are four “new years.” Two are familiar to us: Rosh Hashana, our calendar new year and a time of introspection and atonement, and Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees, which we now observe as a celebration of our environment. The Talmud also teaches that there is a new year of the kings, to mark the years of government, and the new year of the animals, which in ancient times marked the age of animals in preparation for Temple sacrifice.
So we are used to the idea of multiple communal anniversaries, and as Jews living in America we also mark multiple “new years.” In addition to our Jewish holidays we join with others to welcome in the Gregorian new year tonight. And I’m also thinking toward March, when we will mark a “new year” of living under the shadow of the Covid pandemic.
On the cusp of another (Gregorian) year, it is a time to look back over what was. The year began with an uprising at the US Capitol in protest of the election results, and now ended–at least locally here in the Pacific Northwest–with a snowstorm that has shut things down for a few days, and (as I write this) with the death of Betty White just shy of her 100th birthday.
When we gather for Rosh Hashana, it is a time of personal spiritual introspection as to where we have been and where we are going. When we mark the turn of the Gregorian year, we can use it as a time to look back as a society where we have been and where we are going.
One of the 2021 highlights for me, towards the end of this year, was the release of Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story. I’m a fan of musicals, and this got me into the movie theaters for the first time in a long while. I thought it was amazing–I loved the visuals, the acting, and–of course–the music. Seeing it a few weeks after the show’s lyricist and Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim died added a new poignancy to the viewing.
I’ve always been intrigued by the Jewish elements of West Side Story–the four main creators (author, lyricist, composer, and choreographer) were all gay Jewish men. The story was originally going to be about rival Jewish and Catholic gangs before being turned into “white” and Puerto Rican. Themes of immigration and assimilation and acceptance are underlying the main story of star-crossed lovers.
But what grabbed my attention this time is one particular song: “Gee, Officer Krupke!” If you are not familiar with the story of the musical: in 1950s New York City, two street gangs–the Jets and the Sharks–are enemies. Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, meet at a dance and fall in love, but their relationship is doomed against the backdrop of the rivalry and the violence that ensues.
“Gee, Officer Krupke!” is a song sung by the Jets in derision of the named police officer who, along with Lieutenant Shrank, are the characters in the show who represent authority and are continually trying to keep order. The song is meant to be funny and satirical, poking fun at the different ways their behavior is labeled as “anti-social” and the different “solutions” that are offered, all in contradiction to each other. And like any good satire, there is truth underneath.
You can watch a version here, and the full lyrics are underneath the video on YouTube:
In an effort to tell their story, the Jets see themselves as being pushed around: the police send them to the judge, who thinks all they need is therapy, so sends them to a psychiatrist, who thinks all they need is a job, so sends them to a social worker, who thinks all they need time in jail, so sends them back to the judge.
The song culminates with these lyrics:
DIESEL (As Judge) The trouble is he’s crazy.
A-RAB (As Psychiatrist) The trouble is he drinks.
BABY JOHN (As Female Social Worker) The trouble is he’s lazy.
DIESEL The trouble is he stinks.
A-RAB The trouble is he’s growing.
BABY JOHN The trouble is he’s grown.
ALL Krupke, we got troubles of our own! Gee, Officer Krupke, We’re down on our knees, ‘Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease. Gee, Officer Krupke, What are we to do? Gee, Officer Krupke, Krup you!
This pandemic has revealed for us some of our deepest societal challenges: income inequality, lack of a strong social safety net, lack of access to resources, gross individualism, deliberate undermining of our governing institutions, and more. And yet, we don’t seem to have the will to truly address them, just put on Band-Aids at best. And even when we see those who struggle under these societal challenges, we tend to try to find individual causes–either its drugs, or bad choices, or laziness, or whatever–rather than confront the larger forces at work.
We see it too in this week’s Torah portion. We continue the story of the Exodus with Moses repeatedly confronting Pharaoh to free the Israelites, each time bringing a plague upon Egypt. Each time Pharaoh seems to cave under the pressure of the plague, but once it is alleviated he changes his mind. He responds to the immediate pressures, but is unable to see the underlying systemic forces at work.
Sondheim invites us to laugh along with the Jets, not only with their humorous portrayal of their situation, but in the flippant way society treats those it deems “other” or “outside” or “delinquent”: pushing them away, making it someone else’s issue, failing to see the forest through the trees. And as we laugh, deep down we know that the real story–like West Side Story–is a tragedy.
In 2022, let’s do better. Happy New Year.