David Berman: I Don’t Know, Adonai

Video artist Julie Weitz remembers her unlikely friendship with the musician a year after his passing.

Before social media made it easy to openly criticize public figures for their minor offenses, effectively reaching a musician you idolized to challenge him on a political issue was highly unlikely. In November 2009, I sent David Berman a typed letter to the P.O. Box listed on his website. After watching the documentary Silver Jew (2007), which follows David and his band on a tour of Israel, I had questions. As a fan and fellow Jew, I was concerned about his omission of the political conflict. I had spent two summers in Israel; first as a teenager in 1996, as part of my religious and Zionist overnight camp experience, and second as a college graduate in 2001, on a spiritual quest to reconcile my ambivalent relationship to Judaism and Israel. The last thing I expected in response to my letter was a two hour phone call from David, which sparked a creative exchange that unfolded over the course of 10 years. 

Michael Tully’s documentary offered Silver Jews’ fans a rare personal portrait of David after he had resisted the public eye for more than a decade. The fact that it also initiated a friendship between a reclusive musician and an admiring fan is indicative of David’s sensitivity; in response to my letter, he had to explain himself. Rereading my typed letter years later, I’m embarrassed by my confessionary and hyperbolic tone. In hindsight, however, I realize that David called me in response to not only clarify his political position, but to also express empathy for someone struggling to make sense of her spiritual connection to a place so hotly contested. 

Prior to getting to know him personally, David had always been a voice of poetic reasoning for me. His lyrics offered hope disguised as skepticism, and kindness masked as incredulity. No music had adequately captured the complacency of the predominantly white, middle-class suburb I grew up in in the 1990s. David’s sympathetic imagination for his subjects’ failings helped me wrangle with my adolescent resentment about where I came from. With his straightforward affect and questioning impulse, he delivered paradoxical insights verging on the mystical. Like a talmudic thinker dressed in hipster attire and croaking like a country boy, David unexpectedly reaffirmed my sense of Jewishness. The film only enhanced that feeling for me as David, who had ironically sang about the land of club soda and hot middle-aged women with biblical allusion, curiously examined every nook and cranny of Jerusalem’s Old City. 

Watching him wander the maze-like, limestone streets of the Old City was disconcerting for me, as it intimately resembled my own religious journey there.

Dear David, 

I just finished watching Silver Jew. It was hard to watch, emotional actually. I felt like Jerusalem was looking back at me, and wondering what had happened, where I went, and why I deserted her. She’s blind to that knowledge, I suppose, like a Mother who can’t see her child’s full self. I wonder, should I forgive myself and the city just as I did my mother?

In my letter, as much as I celebrated David’s renewed sense of spirit post-rehab, I also conveyed my surprise at how easily he fell trap to the romanticized idea of Israel as an American Jew traveling there for the first time. My critique was self-reflexive, of course, as I had spent years processing my own anger and shame that the triumphant Zionist ideals I grew up with were untrue, and certainly not received by the rest of the world with the same fervency. On my last trip to Israel, I had witnessed up close extreme right-wing ideology at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. After a terrorist bombing in central Jerusalem, close to where I walked everyday, I left Israel early believing that I could escape violent conflict by returning to the States. Two weeks later 9/11 happened and I was plunged back into political reality. While David appears spellbound by Jerusalem’s charm in the film, I felt he lacked the critical insight that I had come to depend on with his sharp witticisms about American hypocrisy. 

During our initial phone conversation, David made clear that the joy which had entered his life through Judaism was something worth protecting. Anecdotally, he also explained that the 2006 Lebanon war had affected the making of the film. Though the documentary did not include that aspect of his experience in Israel, he was attuned to the political contradictions and the documentary’s lack of representation. In the film, David walks the streets of Tel Aviv, candidly speaking about his drug addiction, near-suicidal overdose in 2003 and return to Judaism during rehab. With self-reflective amazement, he muses on the cyclical perversity of naming his band Silver Jews, “It’s actually a punishment I gave myself in 1990 that turned into a gift I gave myself in 2004, whenever I decided that I wanted to be a Jew. And I realized that this thing that had been a millstone for me for years was actually my ticket out of my hell-hole life because I already had a relationship with Judaism started just in the silly name.” Towards the end of the film, an orthodox man invites David to wrap tefillin at the Western Wall. As David recites the prayer, he chokes up, his face reddens, his voice cracks and he begins to hyperventilate. I cannot watch this scene without crying. David’s trembling voice reading the words of V’ahavta, the commandment to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and might, is agonizing. For a brief moment, it seems that David’s belief, whether in himself, an unknown entity, or a 4,000 year old religion, held him tightly to the ground. 

Years ago, David shared with me a story from Rebbe Nachman about a king who dreamt that whoever consumed the grain harvested that year would go mad. Realizing that to survive the king and everyone else would have to eat the grain, he and his prime minister resolved to mark their foreheads with a sign that would indicate to one another their madness. In his analysis ot the story, David explained, 

there are two souls, the king and the prime minister, I and Thou, looking for the impossible solution, they find one of sorts… a solution (through writing really, or the mark on the forehead)… 

As he expressed it to me in his email, David found genius in this parable. In hindsight, I realize that he also found hope. Though all of us are forced to eat the poison grain, some of us mark ourselves publicly to acknowledge the insanity of our circumstances. 

A month after his suicide, I returned to a recording David made for me in 2011. At the time, I had just started making video art and asked David to record himself repeating the phrase, “I don’t know, Adonai.” The Hebrew word Adonai is one of 72 words used to describe God, and the one most often vocalized in Jewish prayer. I had always heard in David’s lyrics an inherent Jewish inquiry. In layman terms, he could encapsulate abstract Kabbalistic concepts with simple lines like “What is not, but could be if?” or absurdly envision the mystery of life as “just some hard equation, on a chalkboard in a science class for ghosts.” Though I had originally intended to synchronize David’s vocals with my images, at the time, I was too intimidated to complete the task. Only after his death, and eight years after he made the recording for me, did I finally find the footage, and confidence, to adequately carry David’s voice hypnotically chanting uncertainty in the face of God.

Over the course of our penpal friendship, David became a confidant for me, a spiritual advisor offering constant words of encouragement and support. By 2014, we no longer talked about Jewish issues; he had turned away from belief and our conversations mainly focused on personal loss and artistic integrity. In 2015, I tried entangling David into another one of my video projects, asking him to make a new recording for a large-scale video installation I was preparing for in Los Angeles. Though David immediately responded yes, two months later he reneged, explaining that after all these years, it was important for him to preserve his artistic silence. A few months later, David congratulated me on the success of my exhibition. After that, I never heard from him again.

Of the many Jewish rituals honoring the dead, there is a phrase one uses when mentioning the deceased person’s name, “Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing.” For the rare individuals among us who effuse kindness and goodwill, one adds the word tzadik to indicate the righteousness of the person, “Zecher tzadik livracha.” For me, David was a tzadik, an insightful artist and generous friend, who in his particular kind of way, shared with the world his vision of justice. When saying his name I follow it with this Hebrew phrase, to not only acknowledge his memory as a blessing, but to also indicate how David’s memory continues to evoke compassion in my life. On the one year anniversary of his death, I offer this video and David’s never-before-heard recording to commemorate all that he inspired in me. David Berman, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.

Julie Weitz is a Los Angeles based artist whose work spans several media including video, film, performance and installation. Her practice is grounded in Jewish folklore, mysticism, humor and ritual. Weitz also works as a writer, educator and activist. Follow her at MyGolem_is_Here and view her work at http://www.julieweitz.com/.