By Larry Gordon
During the year of mourning—the year of aveilus—after the passing of a parent, one of the things we try to abstain from is listening to celebratory or frivolous music, or actually music of any kind, if you can manage that. It does not take a giant effort not to listen to music; it’s quite simple—just don’t pop CDs into your car player or tune the radio to music stations.
There had been a huge interval since my last stint of adhering to this practice, as my dad passed away more than 27 years ago, when I was obviously much younger and with a young family. That experience of two and a half decades ago was my first foray into abiding by these halachic customs, and thinking back now, it was relatively natural and possibly even simple to do.
Back in 1989, I was driving into Manhattan daily, which meant that I had about a 90-minute commute every day to listen to some kind of audio information. Those were the early years of the scholarly and erudite presenters who were able to lecture on Torah subjects in either a contemporary or historical context. It was before Gateways and before Rabbi Yissocher Frand was so accessible online. (Back then, being “on line” meant that you were literally standing on a line somewhere.)
My big purchase that year was a handsome case of Jewish-history tapes narrated by Rabbi Berel Wein. I think the entire collection was about $150. I enjoyed the cadence and the rabbi’s voice and the tone of his presentation. I learned a great deal as I inched my way back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan, moving ever so slowly through the Battery Tunnel day after day.
Spending so much time in my car and not listening to music, I could not subsist on a diet exclusively of Torah tapes of one kind or another. So it happened that 1989 was also the year that all-sports radio was inaugurated on the airwaves in New York. And so it was that when I wasn’t listening to Rabbi Wein during that year, I was listening to repetitious analysis of all kinds of sports, but mostly baseball and football by Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN, the sports radio station in New York.
It takes time to adjust to the intellectual numbness that sets in as you listen to people on the radio repeating the same ideas over and over again. At least the philosophical exploration of sporting events tends to change from day to day. As unimportant as that is, it is still an improvement over “traffic and weather together every ten minutes” on the news stations.
So here I am all these years later at least not burdened with driving to the city every day as I was doing in those days, turning and punching in the various talk-radio stations to find something compelling or at least minimally interesting to listen to. Back then, Rush Limbaugh was just starting out. If I recall correctly, Bob Grant and Barry Gray were at the zenith of their broadcasting careers.
Shortly after my dad passed away in 1989, I had a phone installed in my car. In those days, it was called a car phone and it could not be removed. I think there was a hands-free mode, but it was a thrill to pick up the receiver, hold it to your ear, and talk as if you were on the phone at home. It was still legal then; that is, you did not run the risk of being stopped because you were on the phone.
Let me digress for a moment and say that over all these years I was only stopped once for holding my phone to my ear while driving, and that was about ten years ago. Actually, I wasn’t really driving, in the technical sense of the word, as I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Emmons Avenue in Brooklyn making my way ever so slowly toward the Belt Parkway. It was a Friday afternoon and I thought it was an opportune time to call my mother and say Good Shabbos.
So I’m idling, when all of a sudden a police officer steps out onto the street from between parked cars, points at me, and asks, “Who are you on the phone with?”
It’s warm outside and my driver’s side window is open, so I say to him, “Who am I on the phone with? What do you mean who am I on the phone with?” At the moment I was taken aback just a drop, wondering if the right answer to the question would mean that the officer would just let me go.
“I’m on the phone with my mother,” I said. That appeared to be the wrong answer and cost me $100. As he was writing the ticket, I asked the police officer what difference it made who I was on the phone with. He then said that he thought I might be a doctor on the phone with a hospital or a patient, and if that were the case he would have let me go without a summons.
Anyway, with that said, these days I drive less than a mile to work, so the crisis about what to listen to on the radio has abated significantly. But that doesn’t mean that I do not drive to other places further from home. Just this past Sunday, I drove into the city to the JPost Conference and had to deal with a citywide bicycle event that clogged up a few of our main traffic arteries, notably the Long Island Expressway.
So most of the time these last few weeks, since I abstain from listening to music (and by the way it is also sefirah), I am pretty much focused on Fox News on Sirius/XM Satellite radio. While I used to only listen to channel 114, which features the identical broadcast to what is being presented and transmitted on TV, there is now also Fox News headline news on channel 115. This station features the constant repetition of news, the same stuff over and over again. It’s kind of like the traffic-and-weather-together variety but of a national scope.
Up until recently, my favorite music stations on satellite radio were The Pulse, The Blend, The Bridge, and ’60s on 6. If you do not know what kind of music these stations feature, then it’s really not important. The ’60s station is obviously music from that period in the 1960s. It is mostly an indulgence in nostalgia, as music has a way of transporting us with an unusual clarity to different times in our lives.
When I’m not on satellite radio, I have a collection of CDs in my car to listen to—everything from Avraham Fried to Yaakov Shwekey to Benny Friedman. They produce some pretty good music and I used to enjoy the balance between the CDs and the satellite radio stations.
Over the last few weeks, since I’ve been following the aveilus guidebook, it’s pretty much been a full dose of Fox news and talk radio. I’m trying to resist switching over to the sports stations—just for the purpose of variety—though I became aware recently that I do not recognize even one name of anyone currently on the New York Yankees and that there seems to be some kind of jinx or misfortune plaguing the New York Mets with so many young players going down to injuries so early in the season.
Unlike two and a half decades ago, there is no Mike and the Mad Dog. Chris “Mad Dog” Russo has his own satellite station today, and Mike Francesca is still on WFAN but I understand he is scheduled to retire over the summer. So for now it is steady diet of Donald Trump, with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as well as Jay and the Americans on hold for a while.
I have a great collection of Rabbi Manis Friedman shiurim based on Torah dissertations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the parashah of the week, and when I am driving long distances—an hour or more—I also enjoy the lectures of Rabbi YY Jacobson.
The other day, while channel-surfing on my car radio, I heard Mad Dog Russo say something about the Jets and Giants. I listened, but then thought to myself, isn’t it a little too early for that?
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