Dona Go There(Brought to you by Simon)
Though I never went to temple except to go to my friends’ Bar Mitzvahs, I did regularly attend the local Jewish Community Center, as well as Jewish summer camp (yes, our parents voluntarily shipped us off to camps – it’s amazing that they didn’t come up with a different word, come to think of it).
We’d do arts and crafts, have our meals in a big mess hall, order candy from the canteen and probably engage in some other activities that I’ve blocked out. But I do remember that we spent a lot of time singing.
Thanks to the predominance of hippie counselors, we sang a lot of tunefully mellow pop songs by Joni Mitchell and John Denver alongside the occasional vigorous round of “Shabbat Shalom,” which was fine by me; unfortunately, the necessity of including other explicitly Jewy numbers meant we had to warble our way through a little ditty called “Dona Dona.”
Although it received some mainstream attention back in the day – due to an inexplicable rendition by Joan Baez – and remains oddly popular in Japan, where awards are given out for "best achievment in sadness," most non-Jews don’t know this song nowadays, which is just another of the myriad social advantages enjoyed by Gentiles. So let me school you: over a minor-key melody that can only be described as doleful, we dutiful campers crooned thusly:
On a wagon bound for market
There’s a calf with a mournful eye
High above him there’s a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky
How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer’s night
Dona dona dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don …
Over the course of this lugubrious composition we hear the farmer chastise the calf for being born a calf and therefore destined for slaughter rather than for the fabulous life guaranteed to "the swallow, so wild and free."
It will not surprise you that this song was written during the Holocaust, and that it is not much better in the original Yiddish. Suffice to say that singing it at camp always struck me as some kind of penance.
You see, the calf is the Jew, bound for the ovens! The farmer lugging it to market is the Nazi! The swallow is the rest of the world, indifferent to the Jew’s suffering … or perhaps it’s the Jew’s spirit, flying free despite worldly woes! However the allegory lines up, it sure is a bummer – presented in that overwrought, funereal Jewish style that has always made me want to go on a Manson-eyed shooting spree.
How does a self-conscious little Jew – with pale countenance, large proboscis and mournful eye – navigate the turbulent waters of puberty, amid his/her confident, tan, blonde and blue-eyed peers, those graceful swallows whose own childhood singalongs were invariably redolent of chestnuts roasting rather than the blood of sacrifice? Why must the junior Hebrew steep in such melancholy brine, that dark-ringleted brow heavy with existential knowledge, even as his confreres are discovering oral sex and the life-affirming cadences of AC/DC in the back of a Camaro?
In addition to cementing the morbidly low self-esteem of tiny Jews – who could not help but see their kinship to the mournful-eyed calf and therefore spend their lives implicitly viewing themselves as doomed hunks of veal rolling toward the blades of fate – "Dona" committed the equal crime of making us think Jewish music sucked ass.
Only later would I realize that Bob Dylan and Randy Newman and KISS and David Lee Roth and Carole King and Paul Simon were all Jewish, and take refuge in their rockin’ goodness, far from that fucking awful song.
Much as we decried the too-early Holocaust indoctrination routinely foisted on the moppets of Judah, we denounce the dreary solemnity of all calf-to-market recitations at summer camp, when wide-eyed youngsters ought to be yelping along with “Yellow Submarine” and gamboling in the noonday sun.