It is no surprise that people living with autism have enormous talents. Consider 7 year old prodigy Ethan Walmark, who plays Billy Joel’s Piano Man with the same fervor as his passion for the Beethoven etude. Music runs through his soul, and time will usher the world to experience more of his exquisite gift.
Our son Paul,18 years older than Ethan, has his own innate genius. Whether it is his keen memory or natural curiosity for detail, I knew that he would revel in watching the PBS special: Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, a fascinating and brilliant tour through the history of Broadway. Not only does it chronicle the vital contribution that Jews have given to musical theater, it describes a story of assimilation. It also revealed a precious significance in our personal story as well.
“Paulie, I taped a wonderful show for you, on Jews and musicals”
“How long is it?”
“I don’t know, but Irving Berlin is in it”
“Irving Berlin! My favorite” says my 25 year old son with autism.
And so, for nearly two hours, we shared a stunning revelation. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was the idea of assimilation. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your religion, race or color is; integration is the stuff that makes a community. The notion of assimilation is hardly a story designated for Jews; it marks history for all minorities. Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy skillfully highlights the plights of immigrant Jews, Afro-Americans, and the Gay and Lesbian population, as ultimately illustrated on Broadway; it also makes us think. The stories mimic the troubles facing individuals living with multiple disabilities, all with rich potential. It is always about integration. Art imitates life; the hope is that the messages in this special ring loud and clear while making a difference.
The history of the Broadway musical led to blockbuster marquees, including: West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Porgy and Bess, La Cage Aux Folles, and finally a show that mocked Hitler, The Producers. They all shared a common bond that was born of discrimination, segregation and the pain of seeking acceptance in a world of diversity.
The most fascinating example for assimilation was illustrated by Irving Berlin born as Israel Isidore Baline on May 11, 1888 in Mogilyov, Russia. He came to America with his family at age five to escape the pogroms or massacres in Russia. Irving Berlin couldn’t even read music, but taught himself to play piano. He earned thirty seven cents for his first published song, and went on to write White Christmas, Easter Parade and finally God Bless America. Paraphrasing historian Philip Furia in this PBS special, who shared that Berlin exemplified the real “Horatio Alger story in Yiddish; Berlin grows up and becomes the most American of all of us.”
Maury Yeston, composer and lyricist recognized the stunning similarities in the tune God Bless America and the Amidah, the first blessing in a Jewish prayer service. Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student chants the Amidah, perhaps innocent of the impact of its message: Ha’el, ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, v’ha-norah el el-yon, gomel chasadim tovim, v’konei ha-kol, v-zocher chas-dei avot, u-mei-vee go’eyl liv-nei v’nei-hem l’ma’an shemo b’ahavah. The God who is great, mighty and awesome, most high God, who bestows loving kindness, Creator of all, who remembers the loyal acts of the ancestors and will send a redeemer to their children’s children in love, for such is his way.
One indelible day in September of 2000, our quadruplets chanted their B’nai Mitzvah portions and for a single precious night, the challenges of autism paled in comparison to pure joy. The work that led up to that day was hard. While the effort is arduous for every child preparing a Bar Mitzvah, it is a Herculean task for a child with autism; language was tough enough for Paul, but chanting Hebrew was a monumental test. But our boy, autism and all, shined like a hero. He sang in concert with his siblings, all beautiful.
The words el el-yon, were in Paul’s assigned prayer portion. The translation is about highlighting G-d’s strength. It was quiet in the room, Paulie stood at the pulpit as 300 guests were feeling the pressure and compassion has he drew a loud breath. He stretched out his vocal cadence in two long syllables “el el-yohohooon” during his chant; he changed the age old tempo, his personal signature of sorts. His Dad and I glanced at his siblings and we all tried to cover our grins. It became a signal for the 6 of us, during any Sabbath service or celebration, when the Amidah is recited. Like dominoes on cue, our eyes cascade down the aisle, as we fold into a sweet reminiscence of love and tender memory. El el-yon will forever be Paulie’s moniker, as he yearns for loving kindness in a world of diversity.
We talked a lot about Irving Berlin today.
“Paulie”, said his Dad, “When did Irving Berlin die”
“On September 22, 1989 age 101”
Asked and answered. The gift of autism.