As a child, I grew up listening to music on my father’s prized possession, our stereo system, which consisted of a record player nestled deep within a richly oiled mahogany cabinet and two huge speakers that dominated the living room. Sunday mornings were dedicated to classical music, the afternoons were filled with Broadway musicals and the evenings were a potpourri ranging from classical guitar and folk to calypso and big band. It was during these wonderful forays that Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews taught me that “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plane” and John Gary wooed my heart with “This Is All I Ask.”
But one of my all-time favorite songs was sung by Burl Ives, with a sugary voice that elicited images of delight in my 7-year-old heart. The song was originally recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, and described an imaginary hobo’s paradise. (Ives sanitized the version and substituted peppermint trees for cigarette trees and deleted all references to alcohol.) The chorus in Ives’ children’s version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” went like this:
“Oh the buzzin’ of the bees in the peppermint trees near the soda water fountain, At the lemonade springs where the blue bird sings on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
I would fall asleep dreaming of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, imagining where I would live. My house was made of chocolate chip ice cream that you could eat as fast as it would melt, only to be replaced by another house in strawberry or chocolate. I swam in a swimming pool filled with ginger ale, picked gum drop flowers and talked to squirrels named Squeaky, Squoogy and Scrumpy.
Fast forward to the summer of 2011. My husband, Ray, and I were returning from a month-long stay in Montana, driving to Tucson on the back-road of Highway 89. As we followed a winding turn, a magnificent golden peak loomed large, taking us totally by surprise. And when I read the sign, I literally screamed with delight.
“Wait, pull over, right now!” I squealed.
“What?” Ray answered, road-weary after seven straight hours of driving.
“Look where we are!” I repeated as if it was obvious.
It was then that he noticed the sign. The Big Rock Candy Mountain was staring us in the face.
It’s not often that one arrives at her childhood paradise, so of course we had to stay the night. It was a bit disappointing, however, to learn that our hotel room was made of stone and wood and no squirrels answered to the name of Scrumpy.
Paradise is a complex and intriguing idea that has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time. In many cultures and religions, paradise was imagined as a garden, a place of extreme beauty and perfection like the Garden of Eden. (The word paradise in Hebrew comes from the same root word as pardes, which means orchard.) Paradise has most often been identified in world religions as the physical place where righteous souls ascend after death to dwell with God.
But it’s not as clear in the Jewish tradition, where ideas about the afterlife are varied and somewhat difficult to define. There is no mention of Heaven or the afterlife in the Torah, although there is reference to a place called Gehinnom or Sheol (Hell). The Talmud, the Zohar and later rabbinic teachings refer to an afterlife and Olam Ha Bah, or the World to Come. This is viewed as both a place in time and a physical place; an era in history heralded by the coming of the Messiah as well as the place where righteous souls will be rewarded after death to “feast on the brightness of the Divine Presence.”
I was only 7 when I first began to imagine my own personal paradise as a rock candy mountain, where I could feast on an ice cream house and talk to animals. But as my needs and desires have changed, as my age and health and family makeup have evolved, my concept of paradise has too. In my earlier years, it was related to what I didn’t have, to what I hoped to achieve, to what I wanted to see in my future. At this point in my life, paradise is more about what I do have – the blessings of good health, family and friends, a community that I value and work that is meaningful. Paradise is here and now.
Each one of us may have our Big Rock Candy Mountain and not even realize it. Perhaps that’s why we took the longer route through Utah, so that I could find mine once again.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.