WE’VE BEEN WORRIED about David Berman, the singer-songwriter and poet who died last Wednesday at the age of 52. That he was in some danger was clear. His new album, released last month under the name Purple Mountains (his first and now, tragically, his last release after the dissolution of his band Silver Jews in 2009) has the feel of a suicide note. Though the cause of death remains unconfirmed, the lyrics tell the story of a man who’s had enough of life. “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting,” he talk-sings on “That’s Just The Way That I Feel.” The lyrics to “Nights That Won’t Happen” are perhaps the most ominous: “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.”
For two decades, Silver Jews made ragtag records filled with bitter humor and gnarled cynicism, shot through with wonder and hope. At the center were Berman’s lyrics and his gravelly baritone. Though Berman, an enigmatic figure, kept his distance—he rarely toured—his songs inspired devotion. (This is true, too, of his poetry, which appeared frequently in periodicals and in a 1999 book, Actual Air.)
As fans (the word feels woefully inadequate) and as editors of a magazine with “Jewish” in the name, we were eager to talk to him—the man we referred to only half-jokingly as our poet laureate. A possible interview was in the works. But it wasn’t until we read his recent interview in Aquarium Drunkard that we began to wonder if our interaction might be meaningful for him. Discussing his loss of faith, Berman, who had at different points taken textual study and religious practice quite seriously and occasionally posted bits of Torah on his blog, said:
there was no real place for me in Judaism. Maybe if there was I would’ve hung in there, but I was attracted to the social-justice aspects of Judaism, and I was attracted to the prophets . . . Part of it was also that Judaism is all about community . . . and where I live in Nashville, there’s just nothing there. The reform temples—the rabbis are like anchormen. There was just no community for me.
It was not lost on us that in our attempt to revive a prophetic, leftist, literary Jewishness, we’ve been trying to build the kind of community he was missing, one intended as an antidote to the anchormen rabbis: the conservatism, the impoverishment of vision, the ignorance of the infinite. He was roughly 20 years older than us, yet we saw in his story a familiar Jewish intergenerational struggle—a push against a previous generation, against Jews who’d been seduced by sudden access to power into forgetting themselves. His announcement of his retirement from music a decade ago was followed the next day by a post on the Silver Jews message board about his father, Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist on the side of all that was evil (oil, corporations) against all that was good (unions, animals). “There is the matter of Justice,” he wrote. “And I'll tell you it's not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns. It hurts. There needs to be something more. I'll see what that might be."
We saw in his words—we have always seen in his words—evidence that he was one of us. And by “us,” we mean—not Jews, exactly. Not Jews genetically, nor Jews religiously, not even Jews culturally. (After all, Richard Berman is no less a Jew than his son.) But Jews spiritually. Jews positionally. Silver Jews, if you will. What Berman, offering a new gloss of his former band’s name in the Aquarium Drunkard interview, called “the Jews of the Jews. The outsiders”—which, it should be said, does not require those other kinds of Jewishness at all (though it might involve them), and which may be the only kind of Jewishness worth inhabiting in the age of widespread assimilation to whiteness and Israeli apartheid. This Jewishness of the spirit is, it seems, the only way to put “Jews” in the name of one’s band and still lay some claim to the larger world.
Berman downplayed the significance of that name in the same interview, suggesting that it was never supposed to matter. The band was, he said, just a private “art project”; its name grew to be a “burden,” the “bane of my life.” “It was such a difficult name to have,” he said, capturing in his ambivalence the Jewishness of Moses and Jonah. His albums took up the grand project of Jewishness, to which he came honestly: wrestling with God, playing the stranger. Watching the world die of old age while awaiting the messiah; catching the dazzling light reflected off the shattered glass of our material world.
All of this shines through on what will now be known as his final album. So too, sadly, does the sense of distance from community he spoke of in relation to Judaism. “Sometimes I wish we’d never came here / Seeing as I’m held in such disdain here,” Berman sings on “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” which reckons with his feelings of isolation and increasing estrangement from those around him (including his wife, from whom he was separated). The pun in the song’s title is part of a prevalent motif throughout the album. “All My Happiness Is Gone” also plays on the relationship between “friend” and “stranger”: “Lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go / Some of them were once people I was happy to know.”
But even Berman’s distance from Jewish community fixes him in Jewish tradition. His work is redolent with the stranger’s intimate distance from the world; this yearning separation was the source of its poetry. “The Poet and the Jew,” writes Jacques Derrida in his essay on Edmond Jabès, “are not born here but elsewhere. They wander, separated from their true birth.” Berman accepted this mantle, even expressed a desire for it. “I want to wander through the night / As a figure in the distance even to my own eye,” he sings on “How to Rent a Room.”
And it was from this vantage that Berman’s work struggled, openly, with God—a struggle that came to a head on the Purple Mountains song “Margaritas at the Mall.” There, Berman laments an absentee God:
How long can a world go on under such a subtle God?
How long can a world go on with no new word from God?
See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God
Trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God
At other moments, Berman sang not of the divine’s absence, but of its presence. (The dialectics of belief and unbelief, of extolling and bemoaning, are of course nothing if not Jewish.) “God must be carving the clouds into animal shapes,” he sings on the whimsical “Animal Shapes.” On “The Wild Kindness,” a song haunted by the Jewish experience of history, of messianic deferral infinitely repeated (“Instead of time there will be lateness / And let forever be delayed”), Berman sings of something like a vision: “Some power that hardly looked like power / Said I’m perfect in an empty room.” But for Berman—as for the Jewish people—God often remains absent even in his presence. On “There Is a Place,” Berman sees not God but “God’s shadow on this world.”
Elsewhere, even when God is not invoked, the prophetic persists. On “The Poor, the Fair, and the Good,” Berman declares: “We were built to consider the unmanifested / And make of love an immaculate place.” Later in the song, he turns to outright prophecy:
Now a man keeps his money folded square in his pocket
And doesn’t take everything that he could
He’ll rise like a lion and line himself up
With the poor, the fair, and the good
This was Berman’s Jewishness: just, holy, and strange.
IN A 1964 SYMPOSIUM on Jewish writers and Jewish identification, Leonard Cohen unleashed a bitter censure on the state of Jewish life. That the balance had tipped so far in favor of “the material, secular, artificial, ethnocentric” at the expense of the “spiritual, ecstatic, natural, experiential” disturbed him. “There is an awful truth which no Jewish writer investigates today, which no Jewish poet articulates,” he said. “It is a truth that the synagogues and the cultural establishment cannot efface. And it is this truth: We no longer believe we are holy.” He continued:
The absence of God in our midst is a deep rotten cavity that has killed the nerve of the people . . . and we will die very badly for our choice, and our monuments will be new parochial schools, and the State of Israel, and a militant Anti-Defamation League, and maybe even a Jewish President of the United States. Well, to hell with these mausoleums! . . . Before we begin, we must face that despair that none of us dares articulate, that we no longer feel we are holy. And our writers will continue to be sociologists and cataloguers. There will be no psalms, there will be no light, there will be no illumination, until we can confess the position into which we have decayed . . . Let us refuse the title “Jew” to any man who is not obsessed by God. Let that become the sole qualification of Jewish identity . . . Let us declare a moratorium on all religious services until someone reports a vision, or breaks his mind on the infinite. Jews without God are lilies that fester.
This was more than half a century ago; Jewish life today is almost entirely entombed. We have replaced our psalmists with sociologists. To say that Berman was our poet laureate is also to recognize that his competition has been scarce. In this regard, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that American Jewish communal life failed Berman—that it helped make him lonelier than he needed to be, that it could not produce a worthy chavrusa.
Yet in that endlessly Jewish way, it was in its very alienation that his work became a place of welcome. We Jews are strangers in strange lands who—not despite this, but by virtue of it—are commanded, or command ourselves, to welcome the stranger. Even if Berman lacked the ego to fully appreciate how his own work accomplished this (“I’m not convinced I have fans,” he said, absurdly, in one of his last interviews), he understood this feature of music. In “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan,” the tenderest song on that final album, Berman imagines songs as a place where weary guests might find rest:
Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines
It’s no surprise that this song takes place on Shabbat. Berman notes this as an aside in the first verse: “Snow is falling in Manhattan / In a slow diagonal fashion / On the Sabbath, as it happens.” But, as is often the case in Berman’s work, casualness belies significance. In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence.” Berman’s vision is a more modest version of Heschel’s. The palace gets downsized to a single room (perhaps a rented one)—fitting for an artist whose grand visions always came clothed in the worn-down, the humble, the beer-soaked, the punk and the profane. For Berman, every song is a small Sabbath.
If a song is a room in time where one can find comfort—and where holiness might emerge and linger—then an oeuvre is a whole temporal world built for the same ends. A place where lost souls might gather. That the community Berman sought and deserved didn’t exist for him is a tragedy; that his work brought one into the world for us is a blessing. We felt the force of this gift the evening after he died, as mourners seeking solace in one another’s company, and in Berman’s—or at least in “the ghost the host has left behind.” May there be a place for outsiders wherever Berman’s songs ring out. May You who are the source of mercy shelter him beneath Your wings eternally, and bind his soul among the living, that he may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.