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The Choir is Back

            I recently found out that my synagogue’s choir will be singing in-person at High Holiday services in September. Up through most of June, we thought we’d be recording one or two more videos (to add to the collection we made last year) and using them for services – both online and on screens in the sanctuary. But with the changes to the protocols in New York, our plans have changed.

“Am I singing?”

            In-person choir performances mean rehearsals all summer, starting right away, and also early morning services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which I’m really not looking forward to. Instead of waking up late and eating breakfast and leisurely strolling with the dogs and then getting to synagogue for the 11:30 AM service, the way Mom and I used to do before I joined the choir, I will have to be up and dressed and ready to sing by 8:45 in the morning.

            I’d actually gotten pretty comfortable with the distance singing – making the videos and singing along to a voice in my ear – and now I will have to re-acclimate to four-part harmonies, and ignoring what someone else is singing (loudly, next to me).


            I’m also anxious about what to wear for services, and which shoes to wear for all of the standing; and I’m worried that I won’t have enough time to get all of my planned writing done this summer, with my Hebrew classes and choir rehearsals and doctors’ appointments and on and on.

            Before the first choir rehearsal could take place, though, a former choir member (whose wife still sings with the choir) died, at age 95. It wasn’t unexpected, given his age and overall health, but it was still a shock. He was full of life, and jokes and opinions, and participated in all of our study sessions and services over zoom during Covid. Almost as soon as the congregational email went out, letting us know of his death, the Cantor wrote to the choir members to ask if we’d want to reschedule our first choir rehearsal and instead go as a group to the first night of Shiva, to sing for our friend. And we all agreed.

This was our first communal funeral since Covid began – the first time we could fill up the sanctuary and sit side by side to mourn one of our own. And it was very sweet. We were able to hear from the children and grandchildren of our lost friend, and share their memories and jokes and tears. And then at Shiva that night, the choir members gathered around his wife, arm in arm, to sing Oseh Shalom (a prayer for peace), which we sing together at the end of every choir rehearsal.

I’d forgotten the power of this, I think, in my fear of the social obligations that come with returning to an in-person world. And maybe I hadn’t even realized what a big part the choir played in these connections – these physical, in-person connections, where we sing to each other and come together.

Sometimes I worry that my social anxiety, and the holes in my social skills, mean that I can’t be a real part of a community, and can’t be a good friend. I worry that I don’t have the gregariousness or the generous instincts other people have by nature. But these are the times when I feel the power of ritual, of having a scaffolding to hold me up as I figure out how to be of use.

It shocks me every once in a while that I’ve found this community, and that I can find a place in it for myself, despite my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I’ve learned, slowly, over a long period of time, that everyone says or does the wrong thing sometimes, maybe even all the time, and the world doesn’t end as a result. I still keep a mental list of all of my gaffs and awkward encounters and missed opportunities, but I’ve also collected enough memories of others doing the same things that I’ve learned that it’s okay. We’ve survived a bad joke, or a social misstep, or an inappropriate story, or a missed connection thousands of times, and we are still here.

“How bad are these bad jokes?”

Community can be a fragile thing and requires a lot of work and commitment, and a willingness to speak up when you feel hurt, and to apologize when you are the one who hurts others; but I’ve learned that communities are the safety nets that keep us afloat when our jobs and families and friendship groups can’t quite catch us.

“I will always love you, Mommy!”

When Mom and I first joined the synagogue, nine years ago, I felt the power of going to Friday night services every week and hearing the list of people who had died over the past year, even though I didn’t recognize any of the names. I felt the sanctity in the idea that we mourn together; that these deaths matter to all of us and not just to the close relatives and friends. Over time, more of the names have become familiar, as people I knew, or the loved ones of people I knew, or people I’ve heard stories about from way-back-when have been added to the list. In a way, it feels like an honor to be able to help create a container for the grief, to be able to take on a small part of the weight of memory for someone else, knowing they will do the same for me.

So, I will listen for my friend’s name every week for the next year, and remember how much he valued this community and would want it to survive after his death, if only so we can continue to tell his stories to the next generation. And, as long as the current vaccinations can keep the Delta variant at bay, I will try to embrace the shorter than usual choir rehearsal period, and the earlier-than-heck morning services, because being an active part of this community means that I can help create a safe container for so many different feelings, including joy.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

56 responses »

  1. Am sure practice at 8.45 will go smoothly, take care be safe

  2. Well, good.. We, on the other hand have banned singing with new Covid-19 Regulations that came into effect yesterday – no hugging, no kissing, no hand shaking and NO singing. As you probably know, singing i and we would ned to make arrangements to alter all the pews to comply with the 1 person pre 2 metre rule – so we closed the church and will see how long these new regulations are to last.

  3. I’m not familiar with much of the Jewish rites, I was raised Baptist, but I was deeply honored when my wife and I were invited to Passover Seder by a friend. Honored, humbled, and quite emotional. It brought me closer to Him than I thought possible.

  4. I am so glad that you and your Mom have found a good community! Rachel, another great post of yours. Thank you!

  5. Rache…I love this way of thinking about what we do together: “it feels like an honor to be able to help create a container for the grief, to be able to take on a small part of the weight of memory for someone else, knowing they will do the same for me.” It is a beautiful expression. I’m glad you are in the choir and even happier that being there might begin to feel like home for you.

  6. Yes, we all makes mistakes from time to time, and we all have times of self-doubt. Embrace your welcoming community, Rachel, and sing with joy!

  7. I can absolutely relate to your reluctance to leave the convenience of Zoom to return to “normal” activity, especially when it requires a change in routine. Returning to in-person Rotary meetings has been a challenge for me and still feels risky. Even more so was the memorial service I attended this afternoon for a fellow Rotarian who died last July. I was one of the few in the sanctuary who were masked, and I slipped out of the reception (many tables laden with the goodies the church ladies had prepared) after a quick word with the widow. The couple’s son-in-law, who sang a hymn, commented that it was the first time in a year and a half that he had been among so many unmasked people, and he didn’t know how he felt about it, and I agreed. Alabama is THE most unvaccinated state, and although most people I know have been vaccinated, any kind of communal activity seems very risky, even with a mask. And yet I would not have wanted to miss this service, and I was glad I attended.

    • The vaccination rate in New York is high, but there are still concerns that the delta variant, or others, will overcome the vaccine, or that the vaccines themselves will lose their power at some point. We’re still guessing at a lot of things.

  8. I had my first experience of singing in church while wearing a mask a couple of weeks ago. We were under instruction to wear masks; although with no cases, there was no prohibition to worship together nor to sing corporately. We were expected to sing with masks on. I didn’t mind it. I still felt I could worship God. He is our song and our strength.

  9. A beautifully crafted, thought-provoking piece of writing. Thank you! And, if I may add my mite … You’re not alone in feeling awkward and uncomfortable in social situations. But I believe that simply showing up is what counts – far more than innate gregariousness or a lack of “holes” in one’s social skills. You do that … and then you sing. What a gift for you to bring!

  10. You’re a vital member of a powerful and loving community Rachel

  11. Amazing how a true community grows to become part of you and you grow to become part of it. I’m glad you’ve found a good fit.

  12. Wishing you many happy songs in your wonderful community! Dogs included!

  13. A lovely post full of positivity. It sounds like you have come a long way, and I am so glad you are feeling the benefits of community. Treat by proxy for Ellie and Cricket ❤

  14. Fabulous! With your words you’ve given us all a glimpse of the power of ritual, the blessing of being in community, the healing compassion of song. I particularly like the way you help hold another’s grief knowing that they too will hold yours.
    You’ve reminded me of the importance of showing up. Thank-you.

  15. Our choir is back in person again, too, Rachel… and like you, “… I hadn’t …realized what a big part the choir played in … connections – … physical, in-person connections, where we sing to each other and come together.” It is such a joy to be back in community – and to feel safe hugging one another and fellowshipping after church. I sure missed it during that long, social-distancing winter! I’m glad you are able to resume singing in the group, too. The early morning is worth the joy of sharing your blessing of collective voices. God bless you! ❤

  16. Ellie, or is it Cricket, says, “She’s a worry-wart.” 😉

  17. So eloquently put, Rachel. I think the rituals make it easier for me to be amongst people. I try to hang for the informal coffee time, but I’m never comfortable. I now have the fortune to be able to continue church via Zoom, since we live three hours away from our Massachusetts church since we moved out to New York State. Before COVID, we didn’t zoom, so we,had no church. Now we do. But I still have more control over how I interact.

  18. Your open and introspective posts always deliver something to think about, ideas that go further and hang closer. Also, always love the dogs’ participation. They’re sweethearts. Stay safe, stay positive, test negative, wear a mask when needed. But mostly, stay positive. Stay you. Cheers

  19. Sorry for your loss. But I am extremely jealous of your ability to even sing in a chior, my anxiety won’t let me do that. Something about singing just feels so personal that I find it difficult to share with others… I’d much rather do an interpretive dance 😉 Love seeing Cricket as always.

  20. That’s awesome about the choir being back! What you say about community really resonates. It’s been odd during the pandemic to have some sense of community through online, but to be missing the main benefits.

  21. It’s so hard not to run the mental tape of mistakes. What a gentle, lovely post 🙂 ❤

  22. That is such a beautiful reminder about how essential and powerful community can be. 🌷

  23. I hope all goes well for you and we can continue to do more group things.

  24. Fascinating post on Jewish culture + music! As both a musician + someone who has Jewish friends, I enjoyed this. 🙂

  25. There are 365 fear nots in the Bible, one for each day, and Jesus said, “Be anxious for nothing.” So you’ve got it made! Just turn your anxieties over to God and let Him go before you. May He bless you and help you in all you do. You will be sensational!


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