The BEST: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

Dalya Koller Tradition Online | February 24, 2022

Summary: Blue,” Joni Mitchell’s most famous album (released June 1971), was written while the Canadian singer-songwriter was traveling alone through Europe. She recounts stories of adventure; she sings fondly about her trip and the people she encounters. She is famously candid, honest, and intimate, especially regarding the homesickness which was her constant companion, and which is most clearly expressed in her song “California.” What is interesting to note is that she seems to yearn for multiple places at once, while simultaneously enjoying where she is now. As she prepares to leave Europe, Mitchell sings, “Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here / But it’s really not my home.” It is unclear, however, what she considers her home. She breaks out into “O, Canada” in the middle of a song. Mitchell famously croons to California on this album, expressing her love for the state and her excitement to return, but in the same song she sings “Will you take me as I am? / Strung out on another man / California, I’m coming home.” Mitchell is infatuated with Europe, “strung out” on another land, but still planning on returning to California. The album is filled with contradictory emotions; it seems like Mitchell doesn’t even know what she herself feels. Is she content where she is or yearning to be somewhere different? She feels a connection to multiple places at once; it seems like she can’t quite figure out which place, if any, is her “true” home. 

Why this is The BEST? Feeling ties to many places at once is an historically Jewish sentiment. Moshe is the blueprint of this feeling of duality, as he expressed when he named his son, Gershom, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22). It is unclear whether he meant he felt discomfort as an Egyptian, living in Midyan, and later leading the Israelites, or whether he meant he felt out of place as an Israelite, growing up in the Egyptian palace. Regardless, he is expressing a sentiment similar to Mitchell’s: simultaneously feeling connected to multiple places, multiple groups of people, unsure of who he truly is and what is truly his home. 

Moshe was the first to express this sentiment, but it has manifested throughout the history of the Jewish people. Diaspora Jews keep Israel in their thoughts and prayers while still considering their current residence their homeland as well. The Jews of France, Iraq, Germany, Syria, or America, to list just a few of the vibrant Jewish communities of the diaspora, past or present, all feel strong ties to Israel, but notably are deeply immersed in the cultures of their diaspora homelands. These Jewish communities maintain strong local identities, influencing their food, speech, dress, music, and culture, while simultaneously praying daily about Israel, and often upholding customs to demonstrate their connection to the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Sometimes these simultaneous identities can cause both internal and external conflict. Sometimes we feel as if we have one leg in two different worlds; and it is difficult to determine if we are even fully immersed in any culture or country. 

Yehuda Halevi was deeply immersed in the Muslim intellectual world of Spain, and enjoyed the privilege of wealth, status, and prominence throughout the country. He left to live in the Land of Israel after years of yearning over his people’s homeland: “My heart is in the East and I am at the end of the West.” 

“Blue” is filled with confusion and contradiction regarding the concept of “home.” Mitchell seems to be attempting to give voice to the feeling of simultaneous pulls in multiple directions and towards multiple homelands; what it feels like to have one leg in multiple countries at once. This theme of a dual homeland is an integral and historical aspect of the experience of a diaspora Jew.

“Blue” teaches that this feeling of duality isn’t exclusive to Jews. People of all kinds, from different backgrounds, can relate to this feeling of dual loyalties between homelands. Increases in travel and migration have shrunk the world for many. Jews aren’t the only people experiencing diaspora. Constantly traveling and moving to new places has blended backgrounds and cultures. The world has become a melting pot of sorts, with people jumping from country to country, establishing new homelands while still maintaining homelands of their past. Mitchell shows us that many people are going through what we as Jews have gone through for centuries: juggling multiple homelands simultaneously. Perhaps at this point, as it has become more widespread, we should accept that we don’t necessarily need to align ourselves to one country or one background. Humans contain multitudes and contradictions in so many different aspects, and it is just another part of the human experience to feel conflicted when determining one’s homeland.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik found meaning in the contradictions that emerge from such displacement:

Our approach to the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character. We cooperate with members of other faiths in fields of human endeavor but, simultaneously, we seek to preserve our distinct integrity, which inevitably involves aspects of separateness. This is a paradoxical situation. Yet, paraphrasing the words of our first ancestor, Abraham, we are very much residents in general human society while, at the same time, strangers and outsiders in our persistent endeavor to preserve historic religious identity (Reflections of the Rav, vol. 2).

R. Soloveitchik offers a solution to this complicated situation by referencing Avraham’s statement when attempting to negotiate a burial plot purchase for Sarah: “I am a resident-alien among you” (Gen. 23:4). We may live in foreign countries, and we should work to maintain relationships with the foreign people we live amongst, following their rules and ways of living. But we should maintain an aspect of separateness as well, and remember that we come from a different land and simultaneously work to maintain that homeland and heritage. 

Dalya Koller, of Queens, NY, is currently in her first year studying at Brandeis University. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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