Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
It happened at the first service I attended after my father’s death. I sang along with the others and heard my dad – instantly, singing harmony.
I don’t know how to explain that musical memory. By rights, I shouldn’t have it. I grew up in a mostly secular Jewish home with rare and brief bouts of synagogue attendance. I had about three months of Hebrew school, all told, and my bat mitzvah was potchked (Yiddish for “pasted,” “fiddled,” the product of messing around) together at the last moment. I was given a tape from the rabbi singing my haftarah portion and accompanying blessings without the slightest hint of inspiration or joy. After I memorized it, we had a perfunctory service in the basement of a local elementary school. The temple was then under construction. I have no real memory of where the congregation was meeting otherwise (surely not that dank and terrible basement?) because we almost never went to services.
So why, to this day, can I hear my father singing certain prayers alongside me in that oh-so Ashkenazi accent with every kamatz the dialectical offspring of a marriage between “ah” and “oh”?
And why is it that prayer comes naturally to me as long as I am singing? Other avenues have been known to fail me.
When did I make that unspoken agreement with the Presence-Sweetness-Mystery that as long as I could sing I was oh-so-surely at God’s service, especially when I often think that making God a noun is about the deadliest thing we humans can do to religion?
I don’t understand it, really. I don’t know why I feel healed and whole when our congregation’s lay cantor, Angela Hodges, magically spins harmony over and under any melody I sing. I don’t know how my husband, Ralf’s, percussion becomes the heartbeat of the earth itself in all its manifold variations at every service. I do not know what is coursing through my feet and hands. I can’t explain why music and Hebrew and the two intertwining makes me feel like the world is clean and clear whether the prayer is joyous, plaintive, or thankful.
To be truthful, the sound of prayer is in most every song I sing. It’s something about longing and joy, I suppose.
It made no sense, I suppose, but I feared the effects of my recent thyroid surgery on my voice more than I feared a cancer diagnosis.
My history is riddled with relatives who battled cancer. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My aunt survived premenopausal breast cancer and thyroid cancer and lived until her nineties. My sister, Suzie, died young after a virulent premenopausal breast cancer exploded in her right breast and ripped through her body in less than a year.
Cancer took Suzie’s own extraordinary capacity to find a harmony to any melody I sang away so violently that I thought I’d never know what it was to sing together like that with anyone ever again.
To sing – and to dance – is to be. That has been true for me as long as I can remember. To be, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, is a blessing. Just to live is holy.
I can’t imagine how I would live without singing. If living is holy, then singing is one of the sweetest manifestations of holiness I know.
My surgeon took great care to spare the nerves to my vocal chords. He is proud that he was able to protect my voice so beautifully. There appears to be no change in timbre or quality.
Today he told me, “I was just glad to hear there was no cancer.”
He reminded me, of course, what was important. I do know what mattered most. I do.
Still, I hope to be forgiven for my gratitude for the chance for a future in which I can sing all my prayers in my own voice. I will sing my thanks for life itself. I will sing my hopes for a world that is clean and clear.
I will sing, for that is my own holy blessing.