In Sarah’s Honor: Singing our Stories

Singing has had a strangely magical effect on me since I was a small child. Something visceral occurs.

For decades I didn’t speak to anyone about this. I believed that I was imagining the whole thing. Or, at least what happened when I sang.

But I repeatedly found myself helplessly giving in to That Thing That Happens every time I started singing. My surrender was especially marked when I was leading services. I could be cranky, exhausted, or even unwilling; as soon as the service began, I would succumb in the first tender notes of the first prayer.

During High Holy Days, the magical nature of that strange Thing That Happens turns into a kind of sorcery. It would have frightened me all these years if it wasn’t – every time – so beautiful.

Many years ago, I just reached the haftarah for Rosh Hashanah, the story of Hannah, who longs so desperately for a child. Before I began, I asked my congregants to name an ancestress. Predictably, I heard names like Miriam, Sarah, and Leah. My husband, Ralf, who is an expert in throwing intellectual and spiritual curveballs, suggested Lot’s wife.

I sang in Hebrew and then sang spontaneous English translations. At some point I no longer remember, I began singing the stories of all the foremothers my congregants had mentioned. All the trope melodies landed in the right places. Miriam’s joy and power, Leah’s sadness – I composed as I sang, but the text seemed given to me, rather than invented by me.

When I came to Lot’s wife, I sang of her looking back at children she had lost and the neighbors she would never see again.  I sang of how she became an inhuman thing – for looking, for longing. She lost everything — including herself.

This will read just as weirdly as it sounds: from the small windows at the very top of the sanctuary, I became aware of soft voices – all seemingly female. “Tell my story,” one said. “Tell my story,” said another. The voices were gentle enough, but they were insistent, clamoring. Countless Jewish women of some ages past were suddenly asking me to tell their stories. And they wouldn’t stop asking  –  even as I continued singing, inventing, telling the stories I knew from Tanakh.

At some point, I said (thought?) helplessly: “I can’t tell all your stories – I would never have the time to do that.” I paused. “But I will try. I will do my best in the years I have.”

And the voices were still.

Recently, I have realized that my whole life – all my academic research, all of my teaching, any activism I’ve engaged in – has been devoted to telling the stories of those whose voices have been lost or suppressed. The outcome saddens me. I have achieved so little. I have longed for so much.

Am I, in the end, a descendant of the unnamed Lot’s wife? Will I, too, turn into some form that even while it crumbles, can only leave behind near fruitless efforts to combat the toxic uses of power that continue to rain down upon the vulnerable?

But of course, that sort of sadness is a useless exercise. There is a deeper learning here. Whatever that Thing That Happens is, it is for the good and to the good and about the good. I plan to be grateful for that.

And to all those pleading voices, I say: Yes. I am still here, and I will tell your stories.


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