“It’s about the voice …”
The first founding principle of ReadTheSpirit, 2007
Sometimes at services, voices “touch me as usually only something I haven’t seen coming can touch me or feed me as if from another’s hand with something that I hadn’t realized I was half starving for.”
Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home
“GUT SHABBOS MAMMELEH,” Mrs. N. greets me in Yiddish each Saturday morning. The literal translation—Good Sabbath, little mother—is but the thinnest veneer over a meaning whose depth is rich with history, love, community.
It’s not just the words. First, there is the accent. Mrs. N.’s native Hebrew is brushed with the non-native accent of her parents, Russian immigrants who came to Israel well before Statehood in 1948. Gut Shabbos, Mammeleh embodies decades of tradition, safety lost, terror and pogroms, lives rebuilt. Mammeleh gets me every time, for it is an endearment of the deepest affection.
Shabbat services are replete with voices—naturally the voices of the congregants around me. But even more, I hear in my mind’s ear the voices of those with whom I have worshipped over the years, cantors who have led me in prayer, my children whose sweet voices return to me each week when we get to certain passages. I find myself praying amidst a chorus composed of people who are no longer alive, children who are now grown, friends with whom I have lost contact, but whose voices are right beside me for a moment or two while reciting certain benedictions.
There is the recitation of several blessings thanking God for clothing the naked, for opening the eyes of the blind, Who gives strength to those who falter, and more. The cadence of these many verses is regular as a heartbeat. Reciting each one I am surrounded by the memory of schoolchildren, mine among them. With the ease of the young, they mastered the words so much faster than did their mom, who came to this more traditional service in adulthood. There is Cantor Stephen Dubov, of blessed memory. The minute I read the words Retzei Adonai Eloheinu… Be gracious, O Lord our God…his voice comes alive, rich and resonant. I see his hands, raised in an expression of longing to feel the Divine presence. That image, and the memory of his voice, carries my spirit higher. His voice was silenced decades too soon. (If you click on the link above, go to track 10 to hear Cantor Dubov’s beautiful interpretation of Retzei.)
Bar and Bat Mitzvah impart additional voices. The verses of the Torah are chanted; each word, each phrase is assigned a specific cantillation, or trope. These tropes have been passed down through the centuries. Melodies chanted by a thirteen-year-old in 2013 are auditory links in an unbroken chain of instruction and learning. One of our congregants teaches students using a cantillation distinctly from the standard one used in this country. The rabbi who taught Jeff was Hungarian, born early in the 20th century. A Holocaust survivor, he learned the trope from a scholar surely born in the late 19th century. When a child chants using Jeff’s melodies, this chain of learning is palpable, its sounds resonate down through generations — teacher to student to student to student. Jeff will forever remain alive in the voices of those whom he taught to chant. Undoubtedly, one of those students will become a tutor and the melodies will then journey forward, having crossed centuries, oceans, historic upheaval, starting over in the goldeneh medinah*.
Every once in a while, at the close of services, there is a melody that catapults me back to childhood. My mother is beside me. I see her hands and her smoothly filed nails as her fingers turn the pages of the prayer book. I am impatient for the service to end already. I cannot comprehend how in the world she finds this interesting, why on earth it gives her comfort. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. In mymind’s eye, I see her lips move as she sings softly with the choir. Then I was squirmy and impatient. Now, I sit in stillness, singing along with the memory of her beside me. And I am comforted.
There is a push in some corners away from organized religion. Such advocates say we can find our own paths to spiritual meaning at our own pace, in places of our own choosing. It’s the American way they say, evoking the cowboy on the range. This Marlboro Man analogy ignores the other part of the myth — cowboys gathered around a campfire, seeking out human connection after a day spent solely in equine company. The cowboy analogy also ignores America’s bedrock reality: our country was founded by those who yearned to be free to worship their God as they saw fit. They didn’t want the silence. They, too, wanted the voices.
* Yiddish term for America, meaning the “golden land.”
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Up for more voices? You’ll find dozens in the stories in my book, This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. Fifty-four voices, each telling their own story, unite to portray a year’s worth of Jewish experiences, celebrations, holidays and more.