The Soundtrack of My Spiritual Life

by Roselyn Allen, September 26, 2019

When I was a little girl, growing up in the synagogue to which my parents and grandparents belonged, I always felt at home. It wasn’t just that most of my relatives were there – aunts, uncles, cousins – but everyone felt a little like family and our shul felt a lot like another home to me. I always bolted from my parents to sit with my Great Aunt Ethel and Mrs. Perlin – elderly ladies who indulged me with candies and helped me follow along in the siddur before I could even read. When I tired of the services, especially the long, drawn out services of the Yomim Nora’im, I would go to the basement with my brothers and sister, cousins and Cheder classmates and twirl around the pillars in the dairy dining room, or play hopscotch on the shuffleboard courts in the larger hall.

And why were those High Holiday services soooo long when I was a school girl? Well, my brothers used to complain it was because of the choir, and would ask the director, our mother, if she couldn’t shorten things up a bit. But my mother would explain that people expected the choir, those Ashkenazi tunes and minor harmonies, and would miss them if they weren’t there.

My mother was the first girl allowed in her synagogue choir – her hair was cut short so people wouldn’t catch on too quickly, and she was there with her father, uncles and brothers, all Levites who, in the long past days of the Temple, would accompany the service of offering by singing the Psalms of David. She sang in that choir every year thereafter, eventually leading it.

When I was a little girl, the choir was large enough to sit in their own room – and my mother would shoo us out into the main sanctuary. As I grew older, I was sometimes allowed to sit next to my grandmother, and I would sing along with her alto parts. My mother wasn’t sure about this as 2 of my siblings took after my father and couldn’t sing at all and I think she was afraid that they would want to join in as well.

As time went on, and the congregation shrank, the choir moved out of their little room to sit in a portion of the sanctuary. Later as the choir diminished in size, the whole synagogue joined in, perhaps not as harmonious, but just as dedicated to the tunes that had always been a part of our High Holiday services. Even my brothers, and my sister and father, who couldn’t really sing, joined in, because those tunes were part of what defined the Days of Awe for us.

One of the reasons I have treasured my days at Solel is that first Rabbi Englander and then Rabbi Pollack, have shown the same reverence for Jewish liturgical music with which I was raised. It’s not always the same Ashkenazi tunes of my youth, and I have discovered I like learning Sephardic pieces and more modern versions of prayers I thought were familiar. The music of the synagogue helps define the sacredness of the space for me – evokes Torah and teachings from long ago, keeping them not so distant. I never tire of familiarity and long to hear the tunes at the next service – which also draws me to prayer, to introspection, to hope, to G-d. I see little children singing along and recognize their connection to prayer through music, which has kept me close to my Judaism for my whole life, as I hope it will them.

One of the questions that plagues us in synagogue leadership is “What draws people to services?” I would argue that praying together, and singing together as a community is a form of spiritual connection, of goodness and morality, of friendship and healing and love and hope that is unequalled. So during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I urge you not only to listen to the music or sing the prayers, but let the melodies connect you to Torah, to your Neshamah, to the sacredness of your own past, present and future.

L’Shanah Tovah

Filed under: President's Message

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