Kaddish: On the Road

Kaddish: On The Road
(finding community where you make it)

It’s taken almost a decade for me to write something of this account: I thought it a bit too personal to set out publicly. But the friends who know about it have always asked me to say something. Plus, I couldn’t resist smashing together the titles of two Beat Generation works for this account!
I won’t say much.
I can’t.
If you want to know more, perhaps we can talk in person (if you can catch me!)

My father died a little more than nine years ago.
In the Jewish Tradition, when a close relative dies, we have the practice of reciting something we call Kaddish. 
We recite it three times a day, 
for eleven months.

Without going into too much of the legal details, I should say that one can only say Kaddish in the presence of at least nine other adults. This minimum quorum of ten adults is called a minyan. 
Having to do it this way means that you cannot do it whenever it is convenient: you have to intentionally find nine other adults.
It's not always so easy.
If, for whatever reason, you cannot find nine other adults, intentionally gathered for the express purpose of consituting a minyan, well then you don’t get to say Kaddish.
I think the relevant acronym is: S.O.L.
(Shmutz Outta Luck, for our Yiddish speakers)

Often times, quite noble and good people will regularly show up at a given time and place, just in case someone might need to say Kaddish. These are known as minyan men, or minyan women. They have built their day around your potential need, and they don't seek recognition.

One of the reasons I have not wanted to express any of this publicly is that I am concerned about sounding like a braggart. But after much prodding by friends . . .

So I said Kaddish everyday (at least once, and many times thrice) for eleven months. I didn’t always find a complete minyan, thus: S.O.L.
And it’s a real pain in the *** to have to schedule your whole day around locating and making a minyan.
But, of course, “it’s not about you.”

Detroit always has good minyans.
But sometimes, you show up at a place, dead of winter, seven in the morning, and you find that you're one or two people short.
And you wait
And you wait
And you're still short
And eventually you all decide that there will not be a minyan
And you don't say Kaddish

You can really make your minyan odds worse (or more interesting) when you do a road-trip around North America for a few months. Which is what I did with my wife, and first son; who was not yet a year old.

In order to say Kaddish, we had to schedule our “On The Road” based on the location of minyans.
See, you can find good things on the inter-web!

Toronto was easy: plenty of Jews along Bathurst Road.

In Montreal, I got to say Kaddish at least a dozen times in the shul where the great Leonard Cohen davened, and where his father, and grandfather had been community leaders.

Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Kansas City: all fairly easy to find big-box synagogues on quick pass-throughs.

Getting deeper into Kansas: had to find Chabad: they can always pull together ten Jews: some of them ranch hands and cowboys: if a Kansas minyan were a movie, it might be called “The Good, The Bad, and The Lubavitch”

All day, Saturday, in Taos, New Mexico, it was a retired college Literature professor, who had a dozen or so Jews studying Torah in a rented storage container on the outskirts of town.

Flagstaff, Arizona: couldn’t make a minyan.

Bakersfield, California: the synagogue was locked, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around but me.

San Francisco: well, you see, I used to live in San Francisco; so I knew a few reliable places: the Sephardic synagogue Magain David, where the chanted melodies are totally Arabic. And Beth Sholom, where I have so many memories of so many good people, who changed me in so many ways, and which I will not write about on FB.

Going north, and into Oregon, sometimes Chabad. Often no minyans.

Boise, Idaho: maybe fifty people for Shabbos, outside of town, in an old log cabin, which first opened as a shul in the 1890s.

Salt Lake City: several days in a big-box synagogue which was very vibrant, with a dynamic Rabbi.

In Aspen, you can easily make minyan: in homes, out in the woods, in the mountains, etc.

Denver took more digging.

Omaha: couldn’t make minyan.

Ottumwa, Iowa, was very special: B’Nai Jacob was probably a synagogue in which my grandparents and great-grandparents would have davened, when they lived in Ottumwa, in the early nineteen-hundreds. Although we couldn’t make minyan on Saturday, it was nonetheless a moving experience.

Iowa City: minyan of college kids, leftover on summer break.

Chicago: lots to choose from.

Sorry for lack of detail, but I hope you appreciate this much.

One thing I could say: I witnessed so many different ways that people were doing Jewish. 
It was a real eye-opener for me: for I had, on the road, and for the first time, gone into Reform congregations, Orthodox shtiebels, totally experimental minyans, bais midrash, chanting and drums, outdoors, in the woods, totally reinvented . . .

I don’t want to say too much.
What I can say is that I learned that community is where you make it.

With a handful of guiding laws, such as a minimum number of people to constitute the community, you can make community.

It’s good and noble and a mitzvah to make community.
Even for a few hours.
Even if you wouldn’t otherwise know the people in your fleeting community.
Even if they seem to be nothing like you.

They are like you enough.

They are like you perhaps more than you realize.

When you find them, you have a community with them.

And you can say Kaddish

For those who are no longer with us

I Once Put a Roof Over My Head


I once put a roof over my head.

(At this, my cynical friend, who knows me long and too well, will protest: “you never put a roof over your head! Much less a meal on your table! Your father, in all his great effort, has provided all for you!”
I cannot dispute this. I can only compound my friend’s protestation by agreeing: “yes, indeed I have been blessed in everything."

I once put a roof over my head)

It was mid-August, 2003.
I had been living on and off in my little cabin in Wiseman, Alaska, since 1998.
At that time, Wiseman was all of about thirty souls, nested and bundled and curled up into a southern valley of the Brooks Range, just inside the boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park.
As the village is located a seven-hour drive, one-way, to the nearest doctor, grocery store, electricity, indoor plumbing, etc, one could say that to live in Wiseman is to live in the 1850s.

Like everyone else in the village, I had to heat my cabin by wood-stove. The sixty-below-zero winters necessitated my collecting a sufficient supply of wood. For this I had to learn to use a chainsaw.
I recall the first day I went out into the hills to collect wood: I stopped at a neighbor’s cabin on the way, and he told me “Be careful out there.”
Assuming he was talking about bears, I naively responded: “I’ll be alright. I’ve got a chainsaw.”
He wryly smiled back and chuckled: “hmf, yeah.”
When I felled my first big Black Spruce, I realized immediately that he absolutely, positively was not talking about bears.

So as not to get crushed by a falling tree, I picked up about eighty feet of climbing rope on a subsequent trip down to Fairbanks; fourteen hours drive round-trip. When I got back to lumberjacking, I would tie the rope around the base of the tree, run the line all the way out straight in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, then I’d chainsaw part-way through the tree twice, on opposite sides of the trunk, at different heights, hike the rope up above these cuts, run out to the end of the rope, and oscillate the tree until it snapped off.
Felling trees this way took a lot longer.
On the other hand, I never got squashed by a crashing Black Spruce.

So I was putting in pretty good work to heat my humble shack. I put in a better wood-stove, and re-chinked the logs with moss; but I was losing a good amount of heat through an ad-hoc and ramshackle roof. Thus, in the summer of 2003, I decided to put a new roof over my head.

The first step was to remove the old roof, which was an odd collection of blue tarps, sticks, dirt, moss, flattened blazo gas cans, metal scraps, and more dirt, and more moss, and more dirt.
Next, I went down to Fairbanks, rented a truck, filled it with new blue tarp, two-by-fours, Guardian insulation (our old family company), blue aluminum sheeting, tools, screws, etc.
I re-used the old flattened Blazo cans for the spine.

In three days time we knocked out that roof.

It’s a bit cockeyed.

It’s a bit crooked.

Not gonna win any beauty contest from Architectural Digest.

But it keeps the heat in.

And it keeps me warm.

It keeps me warm: even from four-thousand miles away.

I once put a roof over my head.

Whadya Want?

I played my first paying gig in New York City, back around 1993.

New York was a different place back then.
(Well, the world was a different place)
Most of Manhattan was still pretty rough in those days. SoHo was just beginning to happen. Chelsea was still a few years away; let alone places like Williamsburg, Park Slope, or Astoria. 
Alphabet City, The Bowery, and Hell's Kitchen were still known by those names.

I was a bass-player, playing around the midwest and east coast behind my good friend Mary McGuire (from whom I learned so much about being out in front of an audience).
We were playing at the storied Bitter End, in Greenwich Village: a stage which has hosted everyone from Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Miles Davis, and Taj Mahal, to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Henny Youngman, and Cheech & Chong.
We played our set, and Mary of course had a full house.

After the show, we drove around Manhattan visiting friends.

In those days, we used to drive around in a forty-foot long, matte-red, 1971 GMC Superior Coach school bus, which we had purchased from a mariachi band.

Now the adventure:

At about 4am, somewhere in 1993 Harlem, we pulled our full-size school bus up behind a blue Crown Victoria, at a red light. The Crown Vic had the look of "your grandma came to New York, rented a car, and got lost in Harlem in the middle of the night".
When the light turned green, the Crown Vic didn't move.
So dumb twenty-three year-old me, I start honking the horn.

I see the shadow of the driver's head turn towards the passenger.
The passenger door opens.

And a gargantuan, orange-haired Italian in a track suit unfolds himself out of the Crown Vic.

He lurches and lumbers through the night up to my bus.

His beefy and deliberate knuckles pound heavy and most slowly on my bus door.




(Of course, I don't open the door)
Like a jerk, I shout: "whadya want?"

So, he reaches the full enormity of his right claw down into the neck of his track suit.

And . . .

. . . He pulls out a New York City Police Shield.

Now, the thing I haven't told you is that I used to spend a lot of time in Colorado. And I knew this guy out there that sold all kinds of curious things. I'm not sure who his customers were or what they were into. 
Some of the things I was most interested in, at my friends place, were his counterfeit police badges. I bought all kinds: Texas Ranger, Detroit, DEA, and, of course, New York City Police
I still wear some of these badges on my guitar strap (although I believe I gave one of my New York badges to my friend Alex Radus).

Anyway, on this 4am street, in 1993 Harlem, when the brontosaurian, orange-haired Italian reached down into the neck of his track suit, and pulled out his New York City Police Shield, making a show of it through the door window of my forty-foot long, matte-red, 1971 GMC Superior Coach . . .

So, I see his badge.


So, I show him my New York Police Shield.

(My gosh! I wouldn't do any of this today!)

I yell: "I'm still not openin' the door. Whadya want?"

He shouts: "I want you t' stop f*ckin' honkin' the horn! Dat's what I want!"

And he stomps back to the Crown Vic.

I pulled the bus around passed them.

Totally blew their cover.

I've felt like a jerk ever since.


I used to hike up to thirteen-thousand feet, everyday.

Out in the Elk Mountains, of western Colorado, with my friend Jason Charboneau, and others, I'd strap my skis to my back, and climb.


Climb into back-country areas looking for untracked snow, an unexplored couloir, a tentative avalanche chute.
Nowadays, they call this "extreme skiing".
We just called it skiing.

In any event, back in 2003, we took a break from the constant touring, to write and rehearse a new album, out in Aspen, Colorado (the album turned out to be "Free The Ethan Daniel Davidson Five"). For about forty days, everyday, we woke up early, tied our skis to our backs, climbed, climbed, climbed for several hours, and skied back down. 
One run took all day.
At night, we drank aged tequila and recorded demos in an old barn.
Didn't sleep much.

When we went back on tour, I developed a heart arrhythmia. I was briefly hospitalized, but thankfully it resolved.
The doctors put me on a treadmill, and had me running uphill for quite a while. They said "apart from your heart, you're in excellent condition".

When I spoke to my good friend, long-time PISTONS Strength and Conditioning Coach Arnie Kander, he told me: "you're overtrained. Only professional athletes get this. Most of the guys in the NBA have the same thing. You can't just climb mountains everyday and then go back to sitting in the tourbus. If you're training at an elite level, you can't just suddenly stop. You've got to step your way back down gradually. If you don't, there can be serious consequences."

Having a heart condition at thirty-three -even if temporary- really put the spin on my psychology: I was afraid to ski. I was afraid to move. I was afraid to push myself physically.

I didn't ski for five years.

Eventually, I got back on the horse.

Now I do family skiing with my kids.

I had to learn to slow down.
I had to learn to not be an extremist.

I'm not sure what the message is here, other than to say something like: 
life is pretty exciting living out at one extreme edge . . .
And the other extreme edge is debilitating . . .

Don't stop moving.

Step down gradually from the extreme edge.

The middle way is always better.

Dead Straight

I once took the helm of a giant ship.

Must be about fifteen or sixteen years ago, I took the wheel of the four-hundred-eight foot-long MV Matanuska, of the Alaska Marine Highway fleet.

We were in Frederick Sound, between Kupreanof and Admiralty Islands, in the north-east Pacific.
My friends worked for the Marine Highway, and invited me to steer the iron and diesel-choking leviathan (so long as we were at least a mile from land).
I relieved a twenty-five year-old Tlingit girl from the helm.

My friend, my Master (whose name I will not mention, to protect the innocent) told me: "Don't look at the land. Don't look at the water. Don't get distracted. Just look at the compass. Just keep the compass on my mark. My mark is your only concern. My mark is your life. Only move the wheel to find my mark. Do not move the wheel except to find my mark. Do not take your eyes off my mark. My mark is everything."

I did as I was told.
I held the wheel. 


And the compass began slowly to drift away from my Master's mark.

I almost imperceptibly adjusted the wheel to compensate and rediscover his mark.

I found his mark.
And passed his mark.
I slightly shifted the wheel back the other way.

I found his mark.
And passed his mark.
I slightly shifted the wheel back the other way.

I found his mark.
And passed his mark.
I slightly shifted the wheel back the other way.

The monstrous chugging whale-truck began to zig-zag, back and forth across the ocean.

The twenty-five year-old Tlingit woman relieved me and found our Master's mark.

The four-hundred-eight feet immediately fell in line with her hand and remained true.
Dead straight.

Dead straight.

Small adjustments can have profound effects.
Probably they can make people sea-sick.

Be a good pilot. 
Don't get distracted.
Try to hold the mark as best you can.
Trust the steady hand of a twenty-five year-old Tlingit woman.

Do What I've Always Done


I argued with my father, for the last year of his life.

He had recently asked me to move back to Detroit, to help with a charitable foundation he was starting. Of course, I didn't hesitate.
When I got here, I recommended that we develop a Mission Statement, to articulate his philanthropic vision.
"Na!" he dismissed, "just do what I've always done."
Me: "But this foundation could last for generations. Without a Mission Statement how will your grandkids know what you believed in?"
My father shook his head: "No, no. Just do what I've always done."

I argued with my father, for the last year of his life.

"Do what I've always done."
What does the heck does that mean? 
He wouldn't explain that to me either. Should "do what I've always done" mean that we should only give to those organizations to which my father had always given, regardless of how they might evolve or whether they lose their relevance? For example, let's say my father had always given to charity X, which has a certain mission; if their mission changes dramatically, or they become less effective over time, or the need for charity X no longer exists, should we continue giving to them because of "do what I've always done"?
Or does "do what I've always done" refer to broader philanthropic themes or fields, such as education or entrepreneurship, rather than relationships with a specific organization?
Or might "do what I've always done" represent the way in which we "do" our giving: i.e. learning and listening before we give, be responsive to needs in the current landscape, anticipate changes on the ground, and take educated risk for a greater philanthropic impact; write a smart cheque rather than a dumb cheque, as an entrepreneur would, as my father always did.

Do what I've always done.

By way of advice, to find out what the heck "do what I've always done" could possibly mean, I asked a few folks at his old company Guardian Industries what they thought.
A friend, who had been with Guardian a long, long time, told me the following story:
"when your dad first hired me, he put me in an office, and didn't tell me anything. He didn't tell me what I should be doing, he didn't tell me anything! He just left me alone. So, after two or three weeks, I went to see him and I said 'Mr Davidson, what do you want me to do?' And your father said: 'that's why I hired you! Figure it out. If I wanted to do it, I wouldn't have hired you."

Maybe that's what "do what I've always done" means: "figure it out, that's why I hired you."
My father asked us to do the work. He hired us to do it. If he wanted to do it -even from the grave- he could have named all his favorite charities specifically in his will. He didn't have to leave a perpetual foundation. But the fact is, he established a perpetual foundation which will be directed by those who come long after us. This is like hearing him say: "I don't want to do it. I hired you to do it. Do what I've always done and figure it out."

I still argue with my father everyday. 
Although he's been gone nearly nine years. 
More and more, in these arguments, I can point to successes in our "figuring it out" in our "doing what he always did."
And I do think he would be pleased with our progress. 
He asked us to figure it out. 
We've been figuring it out. 
Like him, we have hired recognized professionals and leaders to help us see William Davidson's vision through.
He would be pleased that we are run by a top-notch professional staff: lean on internal population, tough on diligence, courageous in their pushing back, non-static, collegial, and with a high degree of ownership in their work. A professional team that I would put up against any in the business. 
We've come a long way since a few of us were sitting alone in empty rooms at Guardian or the PISTONS, wondering what the heck my father wanted.
We've been figuring it out.
I'm sure he would be pleased that we are quietly making major impacts with the highest quality people. 
After all, that's what my father always did.