It’s worth noting “Byzantine” here does not refer to the ancient empire nor is it being used as you might hear it as an adjective meaning something like “complicated.” It’s referring the Byztanine Rite, i.e., the rituals of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Of course, our Jewish music wasn’t part of the Byzantine Rite, we were providing an interreligious counterpoint for our hosts, a Greek Orthodox seminary.
It was also my first time singing tenor in a choir. Which is harder than bass, not only to hit the higher pitches, but because my instincts are to sing the root note of the chord and my muscle memory from years ago still makes me want to look at the bottom staff of the system. It was good a challenge for me!
It was a great opportunity to learn, sing, take risks, and celebrate Shabbat in a different way in a supportive community.
Like any retreat or conference, the question at the end is, how do I take my learning and inspiration and bring it back to “real life” and my regular communities? I get that what happens at Isabella Freedman isn’t everyone’s cup of (organic, Kosher, gender-pronoun-aware) tea. It is, as we’d say at a synagogue where I spend a lot of time, a “gate”; one of many gateways into Judaism. But this bothered me: it’s not enough for people to just be happy doing their own things, there is value in learning and sharing together.
As my wife Cheryl recently wrote, “I was taught to sing… [and] those songs would make the world better.” I don’t know if there is really more discord than ever these days, but with Trump, #blacklivesmatter, ISIS in the news, it sure feels like it. And music can be a way to bring us together. Music makes humans respond in a way that is more universal than words and less individual than pictures. It’s a bridge, not a gate.
So, I struggle with how to be a bridge between the different gates I find going through. One weekend it’s with progressive, renewal type of community that you find at Isabella Freedman. This Shabbat, I’m teaching and leading among the deeply committed, adult community who comes to shul in all weather. And this year I’m also part of the community of b’nai mitzvah parents who, each in their own way, finds something sacred in the complicated challenge of becoming a teenager.
At Let My People Sing, the lead teachers were the bridges. Each of them brought experience, talent and songs that could engage people anywhere. I’ve noticed that great religious leaders bridge the gates—often it’s a rabbi or other leader that can bring people together across the different groups and circumstances that make up a larger community.
The truth is, a city isn’t built with only bridges or only gates alone. You need both. (And lots of other things.)
At the closing circle of the retreat, one of the organizers spoke about how we had worked at unearthing parts of our tradition we might have been disconnected from. Certainly the theme of this blog, “Finding My Voice,” is about returning to something I had become disconnected from.
I hope that I will make music that is a bridge and, may it be God’s will, many voices will sing along.
For most of my adult life I’ve worked behind the scenes. I’ve done things with computers, written a lot of code (that you may have, without knowing, directly or indirectly used), and been able to do things like buy a home and start a family along the way. I’m thankful (not often enough) for all that.
I used to see people who could get up in front of a classroom, conference room or sanctuary—or down on the floor with kids for that matter—and think: They’re doing an important job; I wish I could do that, too, but I can’t. Some people are born with charisma, being a “people person,” and I wasn’t. My place was behind a computer screen.
How I came to limit myself that way is hard to say. It might have been an experience early in my career, a relationship early in life, a random firing of neurons in my brain, or some combination of these.
But, eventually, with a lot of support, I volunteered to teach something. It actually didn’t go so well the first time, but I tried volunteering to teach other things. Sometimes in my professional life as a software engineer, but most often teaching other adults in Jewish education which is a field I had been in but left at the beginning of my career. And I loved it, and got positive feedback, and started building up my confidence. I took an amazing online graduation class in Jewish education. Through it all, I learned I don’t have to be like anyone else and it’s okay to fail sometimes.
And then I remembered: I liked to sing. I liked music. Some of what I’d been doing behind the scenes, behind the computer screen to make a difference in the world related to Jewish liturgy. But the really useful technical skill related to liturgy was not editing it on a computer, but using one’s voice to lead a prayer community. And I could do that; in fact, I used to do that. (Maybe it could even be a good synergy with my skills on the computer?)
I’m Finding My Voice. Where exactly this will go, I’m not sure yet. Thanks for joining me on the journey.
Rabbi David Paskin, who I’ve heard of over the years although I don’t know him personally, is an experienced rabbi and musician who is now looking for a job, which may or may not have something to do with his activism at the AIPAC conference. Although his story is not exactly the same as mine, this piece about “a rabbi’s voice” resonates with some of the reasons I started this blog, and I appreciate him sharing his thoughts for us to learn from. Click through to read the whole thing.
As a rabbi, one of the most powerful tools I have is my voice. For reasons I, to this day, don’t fully understand, many people are willing to listen to me drone on and on in divrei Torah on Shabbat, bulletin articles, adult education classes, public forums and online. A rabbi’s voice is perhaps the most important tool that we have as clergy to inform, teach, persuade, convince, question and debate.