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The Melody That Binds: singing as connective spiritual practice

“Zum gali gali gali, zum gali gali…”

That’s the first song I ever remember being taught to sing, as a nursery school student at Shellbank Jewish Center.  As a grade school student at P.S. 194, we played outside after lunch, but if it was cold or rainy, we sat in the auditorium and sang.  The songs were chosen to teach us something:  “Sixteen Tons,” where we learned about what a company town was. “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” The Three Dog Night song we sang was a current hit then…”the ink is black, the page is white, together they learn to read and write.”  Mrs. Chernick played the piano; Mrs. Bromberg taught us and led us.  Everyone sang.  As much as I enjoyed jumping rope or playing punch ball, I was just as happy to sing with a full auditorium of kids.

Since then, I’ve sang with glee clubs, choirs, and bands. I sang in bars, with one or two other singers, and in a church basement coffeehouse. I was a chorus girl in local productions of musicals. I now sing with the congregation, whether leading or harmonizing along with the rabbi.  I sing with my jam friends, and occasionally at an assisted living facility. After all that zooming, it’s a balm for me to join our voices face-to-face again, to hear our harmonies soar, to echo each other, to dance and play with sound.  Singing live is risky—I might get choked up if a piece of liturgy hits me hard.  I might fumble the chords on my ukulele (well, that’s not “might,” it’s pretty well guaranteed).  I might lose my place, or my focus, or hit a sour note. Somehow, if it’s heartfelt, nobody seems to mind.

Back at Shellbank Jewish Center, we had a hazzan (cantor) to lead us in prayer.  His highly trained and dramatic voice was good, I guess.  I never remember him interacting with the Hebrew school kids in any way. What I remember is the chorus of old men at the front.  Their voices ranged from high to low, warbly to steady, robust to thin.  They were not really a chorus, more of a jazz combo of voices.  During Avinu Malkenu, a central part of High Holiday liturgy, one would do a rising chord on the “nu” of Malkenu; another might throw a harmony on that; a third might plaintively wail “Avinu Malkenu” at random times.  My shul buddy and I keep the rising chord tradition alive (I guess her old men did it, too); maybe it’s time to add back the random wailing.

By the time my kids went through the New York City school system, there was no more singing in the auditorium.  The PTA bought a large TV and DVD player, and the kids watched movies if it was too cold for the school yard.  Watching together is not the same as singing together.  The piano at the front of the auditorium sat unused.  The kids sat passively, a bit more screen time in their day.  The rabbi at their Hebrew School taught them many fun songs in addition to davenen.  He gathered them all into the sanctuary and everyone sang. The sukkah rang with kids singing, loudly and boisterously, in joy. I think this might be their best memory of him.

Last week, at a wedding, the bride walked in to an obscure indie song with a catchy hook.  The grandma, with advanced dementia, picked up that hook and continued to sing it, until someone took her out of the chapel eventually.  I found it deeply moving that she was singing.  Singing remains after talking has become jumbled and disordered. She participated in the wedding in the way she was able. Perhaps she understood more than we could know about her grandchild’s special day. 

Singing binds us; it releases a burst of positive neurotransmitters in our brain, including the one you get when you fall in love, or give birth.  As a species, maybe we sang and made rhythms before we spoke. (Some argue that language must have derived from song.)  I push back on the idea that only the best singers should sing.  Everyone should sing.  With other people, and with gusto, as often as you can.  Singing is medicine.  Singing lifts your heart to God and reaches your heart out to your neighbor. 

If anyone told you that you can’t sing, or should not sing, they are wrong.  True tone deafness is quite rare.  Take up the space you deserve. Maybe start with Zum Gali Gali.

 

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz is an associate professor of Communication Disorders and a speech-language pathologist. She serves as a lay service leader and trustee at Temple Beth El of City Island, NY, also known as “your shul by the sea.”

Artwork by Kathleen Tyler Conklin, shared under a Creative Commons license.

What our prayer shawls carry

Right now there are 15 tallitot in my house. How did I get here?

One tallit is my son’s bar mitzvah tallit; one is the “girly” tallit I sometimes wear; one is the giant wool tallit I sometimes wrap couples in under the chuppah.  The stories these tallitot tell are clear and known. 

Ok, what about the other dozen? I brought these tallitot (or talesim, or tallises if you like–we can pluralize the word in Hebrew, Yiddish or English respectively) home from our synagogue for some TLC.  We have newer ones at shul now, sponsored by a board member a few years back, but these older, threadbare, sad tallitot were still in rotation.  After over a year of storage due to covid, it was time to take a discerning eye to these talesim.

I brought the Dirty Dozen home and promptly gave them a bath in the tub. I did not want to agitate them in a machine due to the tzitzit and decorative fringes, and my apartment building has only big commercial washers.  The tallitot had a lovely spa day, with all appropriate treatments, carrying away the dirt and stale perfume and stains of all the humans who had worn them.  They emerged, much better than they started…but still shabby.

As I washed the tallitot, I thought about their useful lives.  What prayers had been said, by how many, wrapped in these tallitot?  Prayers for healing; prayers of gratitude; perhaps a baby wrapped up at a naming ceremony is now a grown up; perhaps tears fell on the fabric and I had just washed those tears away.  If only that were how it worked! Wash your tears right down the drain! Was I re-sending those prayers up with the fragrance of soap and humanity?

Well, sometimes a spa day is not enough for a full rejuvenation.  I trimmed the loose threads, and neatened up each tallit as best I could. Even so, of the dozen, only one remained fit for synagogue use.  

A tallis is mostly just a way to wear tzitzit, in fulfillment of the commandment  (Numbers 15:38).

But a tallit should have a discernible front/back up/down. This is often accomplished by putting an atarah, a neckband, on the tallit.  To beautify the commandment (a practice known as hiddur mitzvah), the atarah is often embroidered with fancy metallic thread, and might contain a name of God.  So, both tzitzit and atarah should be handled with respect.  My rabbi said they should go into a genizah, a sacred repository, at the end of their useful life. Many sources suggest a genizah and/or a Jewish cemetery

A little lightbulb went off in my brain and I recalled that the Hebrew Free Burial Association was looking for tallitot for burial of indigent Jews a while back.  I wrote to them, and they confirmed that they would be happy to have 11 shabby but freshly washed tallitot.  So now the prayers bound up after so many years on so many shoulders will go to their rest, accompanying someone who truly needed comfort in this life.  

Is it too animistic to think about the tallitot entwining and remembering the prayers they heard and felt? OK, let me have my little flight of fancy. I’ll focus on that rather than think about kneeling at the bathtub up to my elbows in dirty water. 

If you are the person who is in charge of things like this at your shul, it’s time to give your tallitot (and kippot) a good looking over.  And a sniff. Also, it’s time to take a peek at your own tallis.  Is this the year to buy a new one?  Is this the year to give one as a gift?  The board member mentioned above and I have each given six new tallitot to the shul this year.  

The mitzvah of wearing a tallit is not something I grew up with, but something I am growing into. Every time I touch a tallit, I can feel myself twirling my father’s tzitzit as a tiny child in shul. I like to think that maybe our tallitot do hold things in their threads, including our prayers and our memories.

 

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz is an associate professor of Communication Disorders and a speech-language pathologist. She serves as a lay service leader and trustee at Temple Beth El of City Island, NY, also known as “your shul by the sea.”