I was 20 years old the first time I entered a synagogue. I was hired to sing in a High Holiday choir, and I was nervous. Hebrew was completely foreign to me, as were the rituals and customs of Judaism. I was raised in an unaffiliated Jewish family, and I had little understanding of what being Jewish meant. I was hoping that my musical skills would be enough to get me through the thick book of music that was placed in front of me. I had no idea that by the end of those holidays, the trajectory of my life would change.
I had always loved to sing, and my teachers encouraged me toward an opera career. I found, however, that I was missing human connection as a performer. The space between the audience and the stage felt vast to me. I had always feared that I wouldn’t be competitive enough to make it in the opera business. On my first Rosh Hashanah service in the synagogue, the cantorial soloist, who was beloved by the congregation, walked off the bimah and began to sing Carlebach’s “Oseh Shalom.” People got up and joined hands with her and danced - hundreds of them, dancing in a circle around the sanctuary. I saw the connection that I was missing in my opera work. There was such a sweet joy in the room, such community, and such trust, and the music served that. I wanted my music to do that, too. By the time the holidays were over, I knew that although I had a lot of catching up to do, I was meant to be a cantor.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of helping to guide a young family through the process of conversion. Their youngest daughter was afraid to go under the water, so they had delayed their trip to the mikveh. Naomi was only three, and after some coaxing and bathtub practice, she was finally so excited to “go in the pool.” As we waited in the mikveh’s preparation room, big tears of fear welled up in her eyes. I opened my arms to her and she climbed into my lap. I very quietly sang “Hinei Ma Tov” into her ear while I bounced her on my knee. She smiled and tugged at my hair. Moments later, she emerged from the mikveh, dripping wet. Beaming with pride, she squealed, “I did it!” and she ran to me and wrapped herself around my leg. It was a small moment, but it left a profound impact on me. To me, being a cantor is about finding ways to empower people to pursue their Judaism fearlessly, and using music to support that mission. That night, I blessed Naomi and her two siblings on the bimah, and our congregation sang “Shehecheyanu” together. Those words had never meant more to me. I was so grateful to be a part of welcoming this beautiful family fully into the folds of Judaism, and I felt blessed to have found my own way to this moment and this calling.
My first class of b’nai mitzvah was a difficult one. They were not particularly interested in studying Torah or trope, preferring to spend their time joking and laughing together. I loved their sense of community but struggled to keep them on task. Recognizing their love for crude humor, it occurred to me that they might really enjoy studying Parshat Metzora. It describes tzara’at, a Biblical skin disease, and the strange ritual by which one could become purified after contracting it. This ritual involves isolating the metzora from the camp for a period of time, and then a ceremony in which the blood of a bird is placed on various parts of the diseased person’s body by the priest. My students were mesmerized. They could not believe that such a strange story was a part of the Torah. After mapping out every gory detail, I asked them what this story could teach us. After a few joking answers, one of my students said, “I actually think they sent the metzora out of the camp to be nice, so that he could have time to heal.” Suddenly, my students were talking about kindness. They discussed how this could teach us to help people who were ill. They shared stories of people they knew who were sick, and together, they thought of ways to help. I found connection with them by meeting them where they were. They were turning our ancient words over and over, drawing their own meaning and relating them to their lives. These words guided them toward kindness and led them to learn about each other. Their insight brought me new perspective. When I left that night, I had a greater understanding not just of the parsha, but also of my students and of my role as their cantor.
When these same students learned that I had never had my own bat mitzvah ceremony, they were horrified. They decided that I must have one. They formed a committee and, with the help of our religious school students, their parents, and our rabbi, worked for months to plan it. Sadly, just five days before my bat mitzvah, one of our young religious school teachers died suddenly. Though they were devastated, the children insisted that we must have the ceremony. In the midst of our mourning, we came together to celebrate. We lit a candle for David, our teacher and my dear friend, and pledged to move forward in his honor. I was moved to tears by what transpired. The religious school children bravely sang the music that I had spent years teaching them. My b’nai mitzvah from years past all returned, leading the prayers I had taught them and ushering me through the service as I had ushered them through theirs. My Torah portion happened to be Metzora. Once again, I delved into this portion for the wisdom to guide us through troubled waters. My students had already taught me that there was kindness and healing there. This time, I found holiness. I spoke of how, perhaps, God commanded the Israelites to make sacrifices for these healing rituals because we need to feel God a little more closely at the moments when life and death meet. In community, we can feel holiness in these liminal moments of mourning and celebration. The bat mitzvah ceremony was very powerful for me, as I came to understand that my students were using tools I had helped to give them to heal each other, to heal our community, and to heal me.
It has been twelve years since those first High Holy Days. I am grateful every day that I have found the opportunity to use music to empower people to find their own Jewish paths, as I have found mine. I have seen the holiness that exists within our Jewish rituals, teachings, and relationships, and it is an honor and a blessing to share these each day with my community.
Photo Credit: Shulamit Siedler-Feller