On the Supreme Court's recent ruling on religious services: an interview with Nomi Stolzenberg, law and religion scholar
We talk about law, COVID, and religious liberty; also, heartening sounds from the Taiwanese Grammys.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious organizations in New York that had challenged Governor Cuomo’s restrictions, which decreed that in areas labeled as red zones—where the risk of coronavirus transmission was highest—no more than ten persons could attend a religious service. In orange zones, attendance was capped at twenty-five. The plaintiffs, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, argued that Cuomo’s orders violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty.
The case has garnered attention in part because it’s the first ruling to involve Justice Amy Coney Barrett. But also because it reverses rulings from earlier in the year: in similar cases filed in May and June in California and Nevada, the Supreme Court ruled against the religious organizations.
We asked the brilliant Nomi Stolzenberg, a professor at USC Law School and a scholar with three decades of experience studying law and religion, to help us understand the Court’s decision. The conversation turned into a primer on the First Amendment and religious liberty claims, the conservative legal movement, and the paradoxes of liberalism. Her book, American Shtetl (Princeton University Press), co-authored with her husband David Myers, comes out in 2021.
Michelle: I have to start by saying I read the opinion and dissents and found myself tugged in multiple directions.
Nomi: What did you find persuasive from the majority opinion?
MK: I wasn’t so convinced by the legal arguments, but I kept thinking of one of my dearest friends. She’s from a working-class background and is religious, and her church is her only real community outside of a fatiguing job. This has been an especially isolating year for people who live alone.
It seems bizarre to me that large corporate stores and a huge Amazon factory can stay open but a small church community can’t. I understand that this isn’t a legal argument; I’m also less sympathetic to megachurches, which are more dangerous in terms of infection rates. I’m not very religious, but I feel for people in small churches who need religious community.
NS: Brecht wrote, “In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.” It’s an absolute tragedy that in these dark times there will be no singing—or, rather, no singing in public places of assembly, in fellowship with lots of others.
I first encountered that Brecht quote in synagogue; every year on the holidays they put it on the wall on a large banner. So every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I read those stirring words. They were powerful to me even before COVID—and as soon as COVID came, those were the words that came to me. These are the dark times.
You know, COVID started just a couple of months after my father died. In the tradition of mourning in Judaism, you go to synagogue every day and say Kaddish. You’re supposed to go not only during the first seven days of mourning, but for an entire year. I’m not super observant, but after my father’s death I said to myself, I think I’d like to try that. And it was amazing. It was very meaningful to me. Because of COVID, I had to stop. So now I’m not just in mourning for my father; I’m in mourning for my mourning. I don’t think anyone underestimates how terrible a loss it is to not gather together.
And that’s precisely what disturbs me about the Court’s opinion. The plaintiffs want to make the claim that they have a monopoly on respecting the value of religion and religious liberty. They assert that only some people recognize the tragedy of disruption to religious life, and accuse secular people of underestimating the value of their religious faith. That’s groundless. There’s no evidence that public officials arrived at a determination to impose restrictions because they underestimate the value of religious services.
In fact, there’s lots of evidence that the opposite is true. The vast majority of religious people—of Catholics, of Jews, just to refer the faith traditions represented in this case—support the restrictions and object to the demand for exemption. Being against the exemptions doesn’t make you anti-religious. I think this is part of a very deliberate strategy to make many people, including you, say to themselves, “Oh, these must be secular people who devalue religion, and that’s why they’re subjecting churches and synagogues and other houses of worship to these restrictions.” It’s fallacious.
Albert: What about the Court’s argument that people attending religious services can abide by strict rules—masks, open windows, no singing, and so on? Do you think that’s harder to regulate?
NS: I don’t see any way to look at this other than as a pretext—or denialism: the refusal to accept the fact that standing still, next to other people, with voices raised (whether in prayer or in song) is objectively more dangerous than a situation like a grocery store, where individuals are in motion, passing each other and not projecting their voice and breathing onto one another. The plaintiffs’ claim that they are adhering to the safety standards is disguising the fact that they don’t want to have to meet the safety criteria restricting how many people can attend church at one time.
There’s a telling line buried in the Diocese’s brief to the Supreme Court. It’s a quotation from a Sixth Circuit opinion that states candidly that the real problem with the restrictions is that they privilege “life-sustaining operations” over “soul-sustaining” ones. This is an honest acknowledgment of what the real claim here is.
From the state’s perspective, the real basis for exempting “essential” services is not whether an activity is secular, but whether it’s life-sustaining. That does privilege the value of life and the satisfaction of basic material needs over non-material needs and values.
Most religious traditions, including Jewish and Catholic faith traditions, share this elevation of the value of life over other values, and justify the abrogation of normal religious duties when necessary to save life. But some do not. This is the real heart of the matter. The real claim is not that the government is privileging secular over religious activities, but rather that it’s privileging life over spiritual practices that threaten it.
That doesn’t mean the plaintiffs aren’t sincerely willing to abide by the rules and the safety criteria that govern them. But whenever it comes to a particular restriction they don’t want to follow, they conveniently decide they know better than the health authorities and the scientific experts what’s safe and what’s not—and that they have the right to act accordingly.
In other cases, it’s not the numerical restriction but the ban on singing that’s been the subject of legal challenge. It’s a shifting target. One has to ask what the Court would do in a case where the plaintiffs asserted that they had the right to sing or to not wear masks or to keep the windows closed. Is the Court really going to decide these cases on the basis of its own judgment about which violations of an executive order are safe and which are not? The real issue here is who has the authority to make these determinations, public health authorities or the courts.
MK: Can you talk about the constitutional issues at play? What was SCOTUS’s reasoning here?
NS: These cases appeal to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In a 1990 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that this doesn’t mean that the government can’t pass laws that burden the free exercise religion—so long as the laws are neutral and of general application, meaning they’re laws everyone has to follow. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing Haredi Orthodox Jews, are arguing that the regulation is not neutral and not of general application. They’re arguing that they’re being subjected to disparate treatment—that religion is being “targeted” and “singled out” for disadvantageous treatment. In essence, it’s an intentional discrimination claim, which boils down to accusing Governor Cuomo of having discriminatory motives—of disfavoring religion and houses of worship for no reason other than his supposed bias in favor of secular activities.
The problem with this argument is that it’s factually false—and it rests on a logical confusion. On the factual question, the assertion that attending church is no more dangerous than grocery shopping is highly dubious, if not flat-out wrong. The governor’s view is supported by medical research that concludes that groups of people standing still, indoors, and, worst of all, raising their voices in unison are substantially more likely to spread the virus than people not staying stationary and not projecting their voices, like people entering a grocery store or a private office.
Suppose we granted that the factual determination is wrong. In other words, we say, fine, the science isn’t completely settled and we don’t know whether religious services are more responsible for the spread of the virus than grocery shopping. But that still has no relevance to the question of whether the government is violating the right to the free exercise of religion, unless the (supposed) falsity of the government’s factual claim is a sign of its discriminatory intent. That’s the real bone of contention here. The plaintiffs argue that there’s bad faith or bad motive on the part of the Governor, as a result of which they’re subjected to disparate treatment. But there is no evidence to support this claim, other than the supposed falsity of the government’s assertion that unlimited numbers of worshippers are dangerous.
If the exempted secular activities are less dangerous (and/or more necessary to sustain life, which is the legitimate purpose of public health regulations), then the fact that they’re treated differently from religious services is not reflective of discriminatory treatment or intent. If religious services are in fact more dangerous, and in need of numerical restrictions to minimize the danger—or even if the Governor just sincerely believes this to be the case—then the claim of a discriminatory motive fails.
Churches say they want to be treated the same as secular businesses, and that the principle of equality demands this. But by asking to be placed on the list of exempted activities, they’re implicitly acknowledging that most activities, including secular ones, are subject to restrictions. Movie theaters and fitness centers are all closed; compared to them, religious congregations are favored.
What this shows is that the plaintiffs are not actually challenging the restrictions—they’re challenging the system for deciding who is eligible for an exemption. They’re saying that system is discriminatory. What they’re really seeking is an exemption from the safety criteria, which supply the real and constitutionally legitimate basis for determining which activities should be subjected to restrictions and which should be exempt.
The fact that this is what they’re really seeking is masked by their claim that they satisfy the safety criteria. But neither they nor the Court has the authority to make this determination; only medical and public health authorities have the competence and the authority to do that. You can’t just assume the falsity of the scientific judgment that unlimited numbers of people standing still inside at one time are a public health risk and make that the (sole) basis of your conclusion that the people imposing that judgment have discriminatory motives. But that’s exactly what the Court is doing. They’re buying the cover story—that all the plaintiffs want is to be subject to the same safety criteria that govern exempted secular activities. The evidence to support that story is completely circular.
This reality is obscured by confused arguments and denialism—denial that the religious activities are unsafe, denial that the Governor’s real intent is to contain the danger, denial that most activities have been subjected to restrictions and that therefore religion is not being unfairly singled out for disparate treatment.
AW: You mentioned earlier that this type of denialism was a deliberate strategy. How did this strategy come into being? How do we understand it historically?
NS: What we’re seeing is the culmination of a decades-long battle to reframe questions of religious liberty. This history is complicated, but you really can see this as part of the larger story of conservatism in America, and more specifically the conservative legal movement, a movement that has several components. There’s the economic libertarian (or, I would say, pseudo-libertarian) faction; there’s the racial politics piece; and alongside those, the mobilization of the religious right to become a central part of the American conservative legal movement.
In the 1960s, the landmark case that defined questions of religious liberty was Sherbert v. Verner (1963). In that case, a Seventh Day Adventist, Adell Sherbert, was fired because she refused to work on Saturdays. The Court ruled in favor of Sherbert. They found that the state’s denial of unemployment benefits—it had deemed her termination as “for cause”—imposed an unjustifiable burden on her free exercise of religion. The Court recognized that the burden was unintended. The problem wasn’t that the regulation was motivated by the intent to impose a burden on Seventh Day Adventists. To the contrary, the regulations were adopted without thinking about people who observed the Sabbath on Saturday at all. The problem, in other words, was a matter of unintentional discrimination manifested as a failure to consider how a law that unthinkingly reflects majority cultural practices will affect people with nonconforming beliefs.
A broad consensus emerged after Sherbert uniting people on the right and the left over the issue of protection for religious minorities. Religious conservatives, people of faith, and secular liberals all supported a broad interpretation of what constitutes religious discrimination, and the idea that people deserve to be protected from unintentional religious discrimination.
And I just want to note the inconsistency here: on the same issue with respect to race, conservatives have always resisted the idea that anti-discrimination laws should be interpreted to protect people from unintentional race discrimination. In cases of racial discrimination, they insist on what we call discriminatory intent. But when it comes to religious discrimination, they believe that religious minorities need to be protected from systemic cultural biases. No discriminatory intent required.
But there was a sea change in 1990, the year the Supreme Court handed down an opinion on another unemployment case, Employment Division v. Smith. It didn’t overrule Sherbert v. Verner,but it—seemingly—curtailed the application of the doctrine and replaced it with a new rule. A couple of things happened with this case. First, it introduced massive confusion into the doctrine. (I think the case represents a misinterpretation of Sherbert and has itself been subject to misinterpretation upon misinterpretation, but that’s all I’ll say about that for now.) Second, it drew a distinction between two types of laws or regulations: those which are neutral and those which are not, and said that (save for a couple of exceptions) only the latter would be recognized to violate the free exercise clause. In so doing, the Court effectively installed a discriminatory intent requirement.
A law that’s not neutral in general application is a law that intentionally targets a group and treats it differently. So, in essence, the Court says you can only challenge state action that intentionally discriminates against a religious group. If the burden on the free exercise of religion is inadvertent or unintentional, you don’t have a right to a religious exemption.
This is a radical reversal. Prior to 1990, the focus was exclusively on laws that inadvertently, unintentionally discriminated against religious groups. But this case seemed to say we no longer care about unintentional discrimination, and the free exercise clause is only meant to protect religious groups from intentional discrimination.
The case that inaugurated this new era—and this is where the political story gets really confusing—was authored by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who, as you know, was a hero and exponent of the conservative legal movement. This was a rare case where conservatives reacted with horror to a decision handed down by Scalia. They were like, “What’s going on here? We thought you were our friend.”
AW: How did Scalia end up writing a decision that upset so many religious conservatives?
NS: Every political philosophy has deep contradictions. Here Justice Scalia was upholding a law-and-order conservatism, saying, “Hey, if we give every person a right not to follow a law whenever they object to it for religious reasons, that’s anarchism. That means every man is a law unto himself. We need law and order; we need to uphold state authority.” By the same token, it was very much in keeping with Scalia’s commitment to a conservative view that courts need to be deferential to political branches rather than engage in judicial activism.
Scalia’s conservatism in Smith is completely at odds with another version, which has become more prominent. That version is anti-government and distrustful of governmental authorities; it repudiates the government’s authority to prescribe and enforce rules. It’s a kind of radical libertarianism that, as Scalia recognized in that decision, is really a form of anarchism. So ever since 1990, there’s been a relentless campaign to overturn Scalia’s decision, which adds further confusion to the story, as it was initially backed by both liberals and conservatives. In recent years, however, overturning Smith has become the exclusive cause of the religious right and there's a case on the Supreme Court docket now that’s asking it to do that.* Meanwhile, all the claims are framed as intentional discrimination claims rather than unintentional ones.
MK and AW: That’s so clarifying. So, it’s baked into the law now that groups can’t win unless they accuse the state of intentional discrimination. And that ratchets up the tension and entrenches polarization. Religious groups now have to pit themselves against a “secular state” intent on discriminating against them, even if there’s little evidence to back up that claim. Do you see the current makeup of the Supreme Court as the victory of this radical libertarian wing within the conservative legal movement?
NS: One hundred percent. It’s the culmination of a decades-long campaign to install people on the bench who will overturn cases that the religious right perceives to be inimical to their radically libertarian view of religious liberty. The goal is to portray any imposition of limits as devaluing religious life—as disregard and, even worse, hostility. That’s become the conservative movement’s favorite word to use to describe limits on the right to religious liberty—as reflecting hostility to religion, or similar words to that effect.
In fact, people who believe the free exercise of religion is subject to limits are deeply committed to the value of religious liberty. But religious conservatives have an effective rhetorical strategy. It’s a war of words, a propaganda campaign, that has been highly effective. Think about how effective a label like “pro-life” has been. It implies that people who support abortion rights are anti-life. Similarly, the right explicitly says its opponents are “anti-religion” and “anti–religious liberty” and “hostile to religion.” Well, that’s false. Many people on the left, like myself, are pro–religious liberty. We just recognize that if everyone has an equal right to religious liberty, the right to religious liberty is inherently limited by the obligation not to exercise it in a way that causes other people harm.
AW: So you think the whole argument about essential versus nonessential services is a red herring?
NS: It’s another example of the war of words and the use of rhetoric. I’m sorry to say it, but conservatives have been masters of language. Progressives and liberals in the political arena, you know, have been pretty sucky with the use of language. (Sucky—that’s a great use of language, right? I’m so eloquent!) [Laughter.]
As Justice Scalia himself insisted, words have different meanings in different contexts. You have to look at the surrounding words to see what a word means. And in the context of COVID regulation, it’s completely clear and explicit that what essential means is essential for sustaining life; in the paradigmatic instance, it means being able to obtain food and medical services. Those services are deemed essential because if we didn’t make it possible for people to access them, the whole purpose of COVID regulations—to preserve life—would be defeated.
I wish it were the case that people recognized low-paid, low-status jobs like working a cash register or stocking shelves in a grocery store as “essential” in a broader sense. But that’s not what the word means in the context of the regulations. Essential means essential to securing compliance with regulations to prevent the virus from spreading in order to stop mass death, and essential to secure compliance with regulations.
Determining whether an activity belongs on the list of exempted services is a risk-benefit assessment. On the one side, how essential are these things to the overall goal of preserving life, minimizing spread of the virus, and getting people to comply with the restrictions? On the other side, how dangerous is it? How much risk is associated with shopping at a grocery store, or attending a religious service, or going to a protest, or getting your hair done? These aren’t legal questions; these are scientific questions.
So to answer your question, yes, the question of whether religious services are “essential services” is part of an egregious word game that works by ripping the word essential out of its context. I don’t know if it’s disingenuous or if people sincerely believe their B.S., but it’s part of a strategy, a playbook that precedes COVID, which is to say, “if you don’t allow us to do what we want, that means you devalue religion. You say we’re not essential! This is the proof!” In fact, there’s no proof, no evidence, that these regulations are motivated by the devaluation of religion or a preference for secular activities.
MK: Now I feel a bit naive for having been susceptible to these conservative word games. Even though I’m not very religious—and obviously I’m well-aware of and opposed to the conservative legal movement—I was worried about mental health and loneliness, and I know religious services provide comfort and support in disenfranchised neighborhoods.
NS: So far I have been highly critical of and, one might say, uncharitable towards the conservative religious movement. But there’s more than a grain of truth—really, there’s a big bag of flour of truth—in some of what they say. Thirty years ago, when I first started writing about religion and law, I castigated liberals for failing to recognize this big bag of flour. What motivates conservative attacks, and lends it more than a grain of truth, is the perception that liberal society is profoundly biased against traditional religious groups as well as non-traditional and non-religious groups that reject liberal values. And that’s true: living in a liberal society does challenge and threaten to undermine non-liberal cultures. It really constitutes a threat to survival to non-liberal ways of life.
And there are certain modalities of liberalism and liberal discourse that have been totally obtuse to this fact. Particularly the emphasis on liberal neutrality: it’s still the case that many liberals deny that laws and state actions that embody liberal policies have a profoundly negative impact on groups that oppose them. Liberals like to say, “Oh, we’re not doing anything to you; we don’t affect you.” But look at the debate on same-sex marriage, one of the things that most animates religious conservatives. Surveys show that younger generations in evangelical and conservative communities are much more open to gay rights than older generations. Why did that happen? Is there no causal connection to the fact that legal policies have evolved in a direction that’s protective of LGBTQ rights? Of course there’s a causal connection. So why do liberals deny that they burden traditional communities? That’s bogus too.
Both sides would benefit from being more candid and more self-aware about what they’re actually asking for, about the demands they’re placing on other groups. I think it’d be far better for liberals and progressives to admit that there’s denialism on both sides. Stop denying that you’re doing anything injurious to conservative religious communities; own it and say, “Yes, we are burdening your ability to perpetuate your religion, to the degree that the implementation of progressive policies will erode commitment within your own community to traditional values. But we believe it’s justified.” Instead of denying it, justify it.
So you’re not naive for having some sympathy with the conservative argument against liberalism. Your perspective on liberalism is really a critique of liberalism, as is what I just said. It’s somewhat congruent with the conservative critique of liberalism—and that’s one of the ironies here. So don’t apologize for feeling confused. I’ve spent literally decades thinking about this, and I’m still figuring it out. There’s a real predicament here, and the discussion has descended into such a degree of toxicity that it’s all the harder to understand the other and even hard to understand ourselves.
AW: Tell us a little bit about your new book coming out in 2021, American Shtetl. Congratulations, how exciting!
NS: My husband, David Myers, and I have been working on American Shtetl for like two decades and it’s going to be published by Princeton University Press next year. It’s very much about the sort of paradoxes of liberal assimilation that I was just talking about. The book is a study a community of Hasidic Jews, strictly observant Jews, who succeeded in forming their own municipality and their own public school district. It’s a separatist community that has, we argue, benefited from a liberal legal regime. So that’s the opposite side of the paradox. While it’s true that liberal law can have a very atomizing effect on traditional religious or other non-liberal communities, it turns out that liberal legal regimes give these communities space to thrive. Liberalism allows the thickest forms of non-liberal separatist communities to not only separate themselves and establish private enclaves, but actually to convert themselves into legally recognized public entities.
MK: What drives you to study religion?
NS: I’ve also pondered that question, and I’m not 100 percent sure of the answer. My mother has posed it to my brother Daniel and me, because he’s a historian, an early modernist at UC Davis, and he ended up studying religion too. We both grew up in a very secular family, very Jewish but not at all religious, in the very secular community of Cambridge, Mass, in the sixties and seventies.
For a while I kind of resisted writing about religion, even after my very first article, a somewhat sympathetic reconstruction of fundamentalist Christians and their objections to secular and liberal education. They claimed public school policies requiring children to be exposed to liberal education undermined their ability to transmit their values to their children, and I thought, Oh, they have a point, and this should be part of the analysis. As I said earlier, I think we should own it when we impose burdens rather than doing the dominant thing and saying, “There’s no burden, nothing to see here! It’s just mere exposure.” That’s bullshit.
I wrote that article almost thirty years ago, and thought I wouldn’t ever write about religion again. And even though I did write about other things, I kept coming back to it. I realized I’m broadly interested in the paradox of liberal society, but I didn’t recognize myself as a scholar of law and religion until, like, I swear to God, at least twenty years in. [Laughter.] We’d have to psychoanalyze me for a while to figure it out. I don’t know. It definitely has something to do with my upbringing. I’m just confused all the time and I try to figure things out.
I was a second-generation child of Jewish immigrants. The whole story was a story of assimilation: Eastern European Jews shedding their religion and embracing secular culture. My grandparents swapped religion for high culture—classical music, fine art, literature, poetry, that’s what they worshipped. I totally value that too. But I was also sensitive to the time during which I was growing up, the sixties and seventies, and had a growing understanding of the dark side of assimilation. What is lost amidst the homogenizing effects? Religion is just one particularly vivid instantiation of that larger set of questions about cultural assimilation into modern, secular, liberal society. And that’s not specific to any particular religious group or to religious groups—it’s a story of every group with its own distinctive culture.
* Nomi is a signatory to an amicus brief in this case, formally titled Brief of Church-State Scholars As Amicus Curiae In Support of Respondents.
What we’re listening to this week: the Taiwanese “Grammy” winners of 2020
Albert: I was thrilled to see an acquaintance of mine, Min-yen Terry Hsieh (謝明諺), win several awards at the annual Golden Melody Awards—the Taiwanese Grammys—in October. I met Terry in Taipei almost twenty years ago. I had just come home from college for the summer. I went to play guitar at a jazz club that gave new players a chance to jump on stage with older musicians. Somebody called out “C Jam Blues,” and the bassist, drummer, and I started playing together for the first time. We were struggling. Then Terry jumped in, directed the tune, and smashed the solo, making us all sound much better than we actually were. I was in awe. As soon as I heard him play, I knew he had it.
He also turned out to be the most gracious, generous soul. We hung out over late-night dumplings and I told him about the jazz I was hearing in New York. He told me his dream was to go abroad and study jazz. We traded album recommendations and he gave me a ride home. He was the first Taiwanese musician I met who was my age and aspired to play jazz for a living.
We fell out of touch, but I’ve kept tabs on his career. He went to study jazz in Brussels and returned to Taiwan in 2011. Since then, he’s been an indefatigable presence in the burgeoning improvisational music scene. I’ve seen him play a couple of times, and I’m constantly amazed by how his musical palette keeps expanding. It’s not hyperbole to say that Terry is the most exciting saxophonist working in the East Asian jazz scene. Along with a couple of other jazz musicians who studied in Europe and America, all in their mid- to late thirties, Terry built the growing Taiwanese jazz scene. He’s a mainstay in jazz clubs around the island, playing in various combos, and his inclusive and generous spirit infuses his music; besides his straight-ahead jazz work, he collaborates with people who draw inspiration from hip-hop, R&B, rock, funk, and folk music. He also released two excellent albums. As Good as Water, which came out in 2018, was a collaboration with legendary Japanese jazz drummer Sabu Toyozumi:
Last year, Terry formed the group Non-Confined Space (非／密閉空間) with the experimental electronica artist Ge-Chun Cheng (aka Sonic Deadhorse), and their album Flow, Gesture, and Spaces won the Golden Melody award for best instrumental album. Among other influences, it draws on free jazz, electronica, psychedelic rock, and chiptune, and its winning such a major award testifies to how the experimental and indie jazz scene has broken into the mainstream in Taiwan.
My favorite tune off the album is the opening track:
Terry also shows up on Misa’s (米莎) Ship of Fools, this year’s winner of the best Hakka-language album award. (The Awards have a controversial practice of giving awards to different ethnic and language groups.) Misa has been hailed as the female version of Lin Sheng Xiang, the folk-rock artist who wrote the paean to tofu we featured last week. But the comparison is facile—their music is nothing alike. Misa’s album is part Norah Jones and part spoken word, inflecting an eclectic influence of jazz, reggae, and R&B. It’s soulful and great. My favorite track is “1984,” the year of Misa’s birth. I can’t understand Hakka, but in her voice I hear yearning, pain, and a desire to grapple with moments of sweeping historical change.
The river stretches, exhausted from flooding
I sit in the big washbasin
Driven by the water
Watching the day’s first light
Climb over the hill
Is this world
Is this world born anew?
In case you were wondering, the big winner of the night was Aljenljeng Tjaluvie (Abao). Abao is from the Paiwan tribe, the second largest indigenous group in Taiwan. In 2014, she switched from singing in Mandarin to Paiwan, which UNESCO has put on its of list of endangered language—fewer and fewer Paiwanese youth speak it. This playful song teaches you how to count from one to ten in Paiwan:
Michelle and I loved the video almost as much as last week’s tofu video. This line is especially great: “Three sweet potatoes are enough for us, but four taros would be too much.”
We loved your responses to Michelle’s piece on motherhood and Miyazaki’s spunky girl-heroes, and to our interview with Asian-American jazz musician Victor Lin. We’ll share reader responses in next week’s issue, along with Albert’s reflections on the jazz scene in Taiwan.