The cacophony of voices brought together words on different notes and different keys. Some could never keep the right rhythm. Others stumbled over the words. My brothers, with beautiful voices always thought louder was better. As I sat amongst them I felt one with my family. One with my faith. The lyrical notes coming from my vocal chords sounded beautiful in my ears. They were singing their own song, the song of belonging. Every Friday night as we ushered in the Shabbat and each Saturday afternoon after we returned to my Father’s house from the morning spent in community in worship, in play, in greetings over the Kiddush wine, we celebrated the Sabbath in song.
Through song I felt a unique connection to my soul. The depths of my emotion were carried out in words thousands of years old. The very same tunes sung around the globe in Jewish households like my own. I loved to sing. I loved to pray because prayer was singing in community. I loved community I loved feeling like I belonged.
My most poignant memories are those of singing. Singing with arms wrapped around my peers as we marched through the gates of Auschwitz. I was 17. I didn’t know that day would shape my life. Singing at the stones of the last remaining wall of the second Jewish Temple. The Kotel and raising my voice in Shma Yisroel. I asked G-d to listen and I always knew I had the ear of the creator. I stood on stage in High school and sang with my choir. I stood on stage in college and sang on my own. In the depths of moments of despair I stood on my balcony, 19 floors above the bustling New York City streets and sang on the top of my lungs for all the world to hear. I sang my sorrow. I sang my joys. I sang because it was the thing that always brought all of me together.
And yet, it was singing that first started my crisis of belonging. This one thing I enjoyed over all other, this one thing that made me feel part of a unit this singing started my isolation, my confusion, my sorrow, my anger and my fear.
At the same table of singing and joy my first moment of separation took place. I was just shy of 12 years old, the age of Bat Mitzvah. The age when continuing the traditions of observing the laws the Torah sets out for us would be mine to observe and mine to watch over. We returned from synagogue, enjoyed a joyous meal and my father began his post meal tradition of setting out all of his favorite liquors. He toasted us with a L’chaim, wishing us a long life, and he opened his small song book, bencher, and began with his favorite D’ror Yikra, translates to: He will proclaim freedom.
As my heart engaged with my body I began singing the mellow melody he chose along with him. My step-brother rose and left the table. I didn’t understand what was going on, or why he left and I didn’t choose to take note until he did not return. Later that day I would learn that at 11 years old himself he no longer felt that he was permitted to be in the same room with me if I was to sing. He would be violating the laws of Kol Isha. Literally translated to “Voice of Woman,” the law states that it is not permissible for a man to listen to a woman’s voice in song.
My body contracted in embarrassment. My heart bled. In one fell swoop I was no longer a part of this singing family. If I wanted the family to be together at the table I had to be silent. The next Shabbat I spent with my father I noticed that the women’s section was silent. I had never noticed that before. Had I been the only one singing on the top of my lungs as I prayed to G-d in this community? I sunk into my seat waves of nausea and embarrassment washing over me.
At NCSY conventions, the youth group for orthodox Jewish children, I asked every Rabbi about Kol Isha. I challenged them on the ruling. As the group sang together was I really obligated to be silent? While there were certainly variations on the theme for observing the law the generally accepted following, in the circles my family was traveling, was that a woman was to pray in silent devotion so as not to cause the violation of this rule that became so vile to me. I should note that at my mother’s home I was welcome to sing to my heart’s content but as my family became more and more religious following the general move to the right of the entire community there were fewer and fewer places that I could open up my lungs and belt out my passion. My voice no longer became my connection to my family and community. My voice became the great divide.
By High School I was no longer going to Yeshiva. I chose to attend the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts where I could sing and act every day. To do so, to fully access this part of me that so desperately needed attention, I had to make a choice. Religious Jewish observance or not. I chose not.
My decision was not easy. My decision was painful and I would vacillate. There was so much I loved about being observant. I loved to pray, I loved to sing zemirot. I loved the tunes of my family. On my path to Jewish belonging the tunes were different. The styles of prayer were different. None of them spoke to me the way the songs and prayer style of my youth did. But when I went to my old synagogue I felt like an outsider. Everyone knew my choices. You can call the way we live today far different from the days of the shtetl but it is no different. When something happens in the community everybody knows and wether it was real or not I felt a big red A emblazoned on my chest. A for Anarchist.
As I grew older I kept trying to fit myself into the mold of Orthodoxy. I attended Stern College for Women instead of accepting my invitation to the College Conservatory of Music. I went shopping and bought long skirts and modest blouses. Within days I was cutting my skirts with scissors, thanking my grandmother for teaching me to sew, and hemming my image to reflect the authentic me. I don’t know what I expected choosing to be a music major as the Torah Activities Council objected to my recitals to which I invited my father and boy friends.
Following my college years I married and joined an Orthodox congregation. I became very involved and continued beating myself into the round hole but I would never stop being a square peg. The music died inside of me. I stopped singing during my pregnancy with my first child. During my voice lessons I would spend most of the time throwing up in my teacher’s toilet. My body was telling me that disconnection from my source was needed. My source of spirituality. My source of soulfulness. My source of my own divine connection was put to rest.
The only song I sang anymore was the Shma Yisroel as I sang my babies to sleep. It was my secret singing. My solace and my connection to myself and to my babies. I still sing my babies to sleep 13 years later.
Throughout my journey my mother always pushed me to try new synagogues, new communities, surely, she felt, there must be a place where I would feel I belonged. I tried. I tried every denomination. I tried every offshoot of denominations. I tried the open tent. Frankly, I enjoyed them all but there was nowhere that opened my soul and opened my spirit and gave me a glimmer of that youthful blissful ignorance I once felt singing my heart out to G-d.
Yesterday I attended my first service with Shir Hadash. A newer community being formed at the synagogue at which I am a member. I have always admired this synagogue for it’s educational initiatives and for always being a leader in Jewish communal life, but even here I never truly felt like I belonged. I had been hearing about Shir Hadash for a while and while I was always intrigued I lacked the confidence to check it out. I don’t know that I can articulate why, but I was afraid. I was afraid of one more experience feeling like I didn't fit.
My life has been challenging of late and my calendar impossible but when a woman I respected tremendously reached out and said “I’d like to meet” we magically found a synergy on our calendars. It was Friday afternoon. It was a powerful meeting. She invited me to come see for myself this new community, perhaps, she felt, it might speak to me as it has to her.
I committed to going. I told my husband I would be going so he would not let me back down. When I woke the next morning I was nervous. Who would I know? How would I feel? Would I fit or once again feel like the outsider I always try not to be? I tried to convince my kids to join me. It’s always easier to go places with my children because then I have to behave like an adult and not an awkward adolescent. They said no. So alone I went.
I took a seat near the front and on the inside of the room, harder for me to bolt from there. As the service began the soulful melodies spoke to me. The feeling in the room was warm and inclusive. The tunes, while new to me, pulled the spirituality out of my body and poured themselves into the words of the liturgy. I recognized the feeling. I knew I had felt it before. There, lying dormant in the depths of my being was the source of my connection, and, in this room, in this space, it began to wake from slumber.
Will it be the be all end all? I don’t know. Will this be the catalyst for healing my connections and my ability to feel part of community again? I don’t know. Will my voice heal and be able to carry my prayers as they did before? I hope so. And so I begin the next phase of my journey. We are continually on a path as human beings, aren't we? Here’s to the next corner turned.