Rabbi Lev Yossel, A&R Man
In a most encouraging development, a major
recording label began expressing interest in The Twenty % Tippers. An A&R
scout for the company arranged to meet me for dinner at a very exclusive
Manhattan restaurant. The name of the scout was Lev Yossel, and I don't
think I was at fault for not initially putting two and two together. It
wasn't until I arrived at the eatery and looked across the room to see a
long-bearded old fellow in black frock coat and black beaver hat that I
realized the A&R man was none other than Rabbi Lev Yossel of Congregation
B'Nai Schmuel, which I attended as a boy growing up.
"Rabbi!" I said without masking my shock as the maitre 'd escorted me to my seat across from him.
He simply lowered his sad weathered eyes. "The world of the Almighty, blessed be He, is filled with many surprises," he said.
"But how can it be that you're working for a big entertainment conglomerate? What about the synagogue?"
"Oh Chaim," he said, calling me by the Hebrew name I hadn't used in years. "The synagogue is in such financial trouble, you wouldn't believe. We've set up an emergency relief fund. The roof is leaking. There are holes in the floor. One of the members of our congregation, Stanley Weiss, is a high-powered attorney. His clumsy son Schlomo tripped playing basketball in the Hebrew Youth League and we're being sued for millions. Still, the father has the nerve to show up for Friday night services. I had to take this job to help with the expenses. At first I guess they took me on thinking it was a good joke, perfect for publicity, a pious Rabbi attending heavy metal and rap concerts. But I seem to have the magic touch. All the acts I've signed have gone on to be big sellers. Now they don't laugh so much. They're even talking of promoting me to vice president of A&R."
A waiter came by to ask if we were ready to order. Rabbi Yossel, smiling benevolently, said he was familiar with the menu and asked if he might order for me, which I agreed to. He told the waiter I would start with a green peppercorn paté as an appetizer, followed by a delicious chilled cucumber bisque, then on to the main course, roast baron of lamb "fantasy" served with a dill flavored chablis sauce and finally mocha cream torte for dessert. I flushed with embarrassment because it all seemed so exotic and voluptuous to me. When he told the waiter he would have nothing himself, I felt guilty and protested. The rabbi reminded me that the food wasn't kosher and besides, eating in restaurants was for bachelors. His wife Lubarifka would have some kishke in chicken fat waiting for him when he got home. Refusing to dine by myself, I asked the rabbi if he might like a nice fruit salad platter prepared with plastic utensils. I said this in Yiddish, which surprised me. The waiter had already moved on to the kitchen.
"Oh Chaim, Chaim, Chaim," Rabbi Yossel said. "I remember you as such a nice quiet boy. And now you want to be a fancy shmancy rock star like the goyim. You wrote some nice little songs and now you crave the honor of everyone knowing your name. It should do you well to remember that Rabbi Menahem of Vitebsk, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov himself, said, 'the honest man should avoid honors. But just like everybody else, he is born with a desire for them and must fight against it. Only after a long time, during which he has studied the Torah zealously and for its own sake, will he succeed in overcoming that reprehensible desire. But the desire for honor which he had in his youth, and which he has conquered, still clings in the very bottom of his soul, and though he knows that now he is free, it pursues him like a tenacious memory, and confuses him. That is the taint of the primeval serpent, and of this too he must cleanse himself.'"
What kind of A&R rep was this, I asked myself. Here I was thinking I could cut a deal for The Twenty % Tippers, but instead I was getting a lecture on original sin.
"Tell me Rabbi," I said, trying to change the subject, "you mentioned that the acts you've signed have gone on to be big sellers. Who exactly have you signed?"
"Are you familiar with 2 Live Crew?" he asked with a toothy grin.
"You signed them?!"
"Signed them? I discovered them. I was driving down to the Fontenbleu for the high holidays when I stopped in Broward County to use a payphone. I walk into this club and I see a bunch of shvartzes acting like mashugas, trying to get the girlies up on stage to pull their dresses up. I don't know Chaim, I just seem to have a nose for this sort of thing, maybe because I've been such a fervent student of good and evil for so long, I'm sensitive to all the forty-nine gates of defilement which are so well documented in the thirty-six volumes of the Talmud. I can feel the hysteria in this country. It's like a mass orgy of self-loathing and boredom. I seem to know what the public wants. My most recent signing is a rapper named Berlin. He's got a single coming out where he cruises up and down the Grand Concourse in a souped-up Lexus looking for baby carriages to snag, seeing how many blocks he can drag them. In the middle of the rap he doubles back to the grieving mother and begins to sodomize her. At first she's distraught, but his sex organ is so big that soon she forgets all about the baby. It's all a little controversial, I'll admit, but we can always rely on some apologist. There's a critic for Newsweek named Leland who'll get up on the stand at any trial and call anybody who disagrees with us a racist.
"I've also recently signed a hard-core band named Ethnic Cleansing. We've already begun to circulate the rumors about their drug problems. I had to show the drummer and the bass player how to suck the mixture up through the cotton and how to hold the dropper between their thumb and forefinger. They're seventeen-year-olds from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, they don't know from such things. I had to show them how to put up their dukes for the brawls we're going to publicize. This I know from the days when I was a young student walking to yeshiva and the neighborhood toughs used to push me around. Oh Chaim, how they used to beat me day after day after day, you have no idea. Well anyway, we were mixing the tracks for Ethnic Cleansing when we realized the vocals were too clear. People can't think them profound if they can actually understand what they're saying! So on top of the singer's voice we mixed in the voice of Tom Carvel hawking soft ice cream, a soprano continuously hitting high C and a hyena's howl played backwards until it was all completely indecipherable. We sent an advance pressing to Jon Pareles of the New York Times. He called it a brilliant and important musical statement. Well, everyone wants to keep their job, who can blame them? Look at me, I hope God will forgive me for what I'm doing, but it's for the synagogue, the emergency relief fund. That clumsy Schlomo Weiss. I can still see him flailing his arms like a clucking hen. 'Pass me the ball, pass me the ball!'
"Oh Chaim, Chaim, Chaim. You were such a quiet boy, a gute kinde. It was me who taught you how to put on tifilin after your bar mitzvah, remember? It saddens my heart that you should want to be mixed up in this industry. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Ptooey. Well, I guess you've got your heart set on all those industry parties and those wild shiksa girls with the turned up noses. Maybe you've heard the stories of what they can do. OK I'll admit, ours is not the most attractive of races. But when you reach my age you realize there are more important things in life. Well I see your food is coming so I'll leave you to eat in peace. But Chaim, it would do you well to remember what Rabbi Shalom the grandson of the Great Maggid and the grandfather of the Rabbi of Leva said in the final days of his life. 'The Talmud tells of a wise man versed in the lore of the stars and relates that the paths of the firmament were as bright and clear to him as the streets in the town of Nehardea where he lived. Now if we could only say about ourselves that the streets of our city are as clear and bright to us as the paths of the firmament! For to let the hidden life of God shine out in this lowest world, the world of bodiliness, that is the greatest feat of the two!'"
"But Rabbi," I blurted out as he was getting up to leave. "What of The Twenty % Tippers?" A feeling of shame began to burn in the pit of my stomach as the peppercorn pate was placed before me.
Rabbi Lev Yossel smiled his weary smile. "My associates at the company aren't very enthusiastic about your band. Your music is out of touch with the times. It's too sincere, too earnest. You expect too much of people. With every hue and cry the crowd is clamoring for something more vicious, more snotty. But I'll see what I can do. I haven't forgotten how your father helped us out in the fund raising drive to build the synagogue. While all the others expected plaques on the wall with their names, he asked nothing for himself. Well, my track record is so good I suppose I can live with one blemish."
I rose to shake his hand as he was leaving. Walking up to his side I tightly pressed my eyes shut and whispered something into his ear. "I want this so badly, Rabbi. Forgive me."
-- sent out as announcement for 12/22/93 show at the Sun Mountain Cafe