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A Summer of Singing

 

At the first official choir rehearsal for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, starting Sunday night, September 29th), I received a loose-leaf full of music from the choir director. Most of the other choir members have been there for years (some for over thirty years), so while they mostly had to show up at rehearsals and sing, I had to take my loose-leaf home and study. Even the songs I thought I knew had to be relearned, because I was used to singing the melody with the congregation, and now I was singing the harmony with the other altos.

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“Do you really have to sing that again?”

The music kept repeating in my head all summer long. I knew my brain was doing this to be helpful, so that I could learn what I needed to learn in a hurry, but it meant that I was drowning in melancholy music for months. I couldn’t even escape it while I was sleeping.

The dogs are probably sick of hearing about repentance and atonement, but they seemed to like finally being able to participate in synagogue services, in their own way, in their own home. When the summer rehearsals started, I spent a lot of time being mute and grumpy, because I couldn’t sing along. But after months of studying I’ve learned most of the songs, and even figured out how not to be completely distracted by the other voices around me.

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Except for Cricket’s voice. That still distracts me.

Starting in September we had choir rehearsals once a week, and by then I knew most of the music, though some things were still beyond me, especially the songs where the altos just sing the oohs and ahhs in the background (it’s so hard to learn the music without words to hang the notes on!). There are a few pieces of music that still confound me, especially one that requires us to sing ten notes on one word, over and over again. I get three notes in and then shut my mouth and wait.

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“I’ll sing for you, Mommy!”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed all of the progress I’ve made, even though I make a point of singing out when I know what I’m doing. Maybe they think it was as easy for me to learn all of the music, or they forgot that I’m new to the choir altogether. I was kind of hoping for some praise; you now, gold star stickers to put on my loose-leaf, something like that. Maybe someday.

One very lucky break is that our temporary conductor is one of the altos, so she has been able to help us out with finding notes and some much needed attention. She also has her own interpretive dance style of conducting that’s really easy to follow, so that even when I’m looking down at the music and can only see out of the corner of my eye, I can understand what she’s telling us.

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“I bet I could lead a choir!”

For the High Holidays, the choir will be sitting on a raised platform, in our newly redone sanctuary, and I am not looking forward to that. I’m used to being mostly invisible in the crowd at the high holidays, able to be grumpy or tired or whatever I am in relative obscurity. But this year I will be on public view, so I may have to put on a happy – or at least normal – face. This is also when I start to wish I’d lost more weight already, and bought a whole new wardrobe, and maybe had plastic surgery, because otherwise I just look like me. We don’t even get to wear robes to hide behind.

The biggest downside of being in the choir is that I can’t sit with Mom during the services. Hopefully she’ll be able to sit near the choir area, so that I can roll my eyes at her discreetly during the services. I think it might be frowned upon if I actually took out my cellphone to text my ongoing commentary during the services, but it might come to that. I mean, these are long services, and I have a lot to say!

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“Do you? We never noticed.”

I’ve made some friends among the altos, though, so I should be able to nudge someone and whisper when something especially ridiculous happens. Which, of course, it will. With a new sound system, and echoing acoustics, and everyone stuffed together in one big room trying to express all of the repentance and atonement and misplaced guilt of a whole year, laughing fits are inevitable.

I wish you all a Shana Tovah U’Metukah (a good and sweet new year) with as much laughter as possible!

Happy New Year!

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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?

 

 

Sing!

I finally decided to go to the every other Tuesday night choir rehearsals at my synagogue. They’ve been calling them Tuneful Tuesdays, as a way of separating them out from the formal summer rehearsals leading up to the high holidays, because they say that the purpose of these alternate Tuesday nights is really just to give people a place to sing together, and maybe to have a spiritual experience, or at least a communal one.

I had been considering going to Tuneful Tuesdays ever since I finished my second internship for social work school, but the clincher came when I went to services one day and the cantor happened to hear me sing and asked me to come for the Tuesday nights. I like praise. I could do with a lot more of that in my life, that’s one of the reasons why I have dogs: they love to show love, and to tell me that I’m special to them. It happens multiple times a day, especially if I leave the apartment for a minute and come back in.

I was hoping that there would be a lot of people at the rehearsals and I could hide in the crowd, but so far there have only been six to eight people on any given night. I was also hoping for low stress singalongs, but instead we’re doing the three and four part harmonies that I dreaded. The discipline of singing my own line, while others sing in opposition, is not fun for me. It’s actually the opposite of what I wanted, because it separates me out, instead of joining me together.

I am one of the only Altos, which means that they are happy to have me and have already decided that I have joined the choir, rather than trying it out, which is what I thought I was doing. I want to sing more, but I am still uneasy performing in front of an audience. I’m much more comfortable singing within the audience, but it’s a limitation that I feel the need to push at. There are so many things I want to do that require being front and center instead of hidden in the back.

The Tuneful Tuesday group is led by the Cantor of our synagogue, and by the band leader, who is now a rabbinical student. They have similar facility and expertise with music, which is intimidating. They can both sit down at the piano and play whatever is in front of them exactly as written, or change keys at a moment’s notice, and they can both sing whichever part of the harmony doesn’t have enough singers. When I listen to them I feel like a dodo for ever thinking I knew anything about music. But then I remember singing for my oldest nephew when he was a baby, and how he would reach out to touch my lips, in awe, to see where the sound was coming from, and then he’d make a big O with his mouth to try to imitate me. He doesn’t remember any of this.

Each Tuneful Tuesday session has been overwhelming, so far: either because a song is in 7/8 time, which seems to mean that the next note comes up much faster than I expect it to; or because a song is so crowded with notes that I can barely breathe until the whole thing is over; or because we only do a couple of sing-throughs before we start adding harmonies, and I can’t keep track of which notes I’m supposed to sing.

I ask for help whenever I’m struggling, which makes me feel like a moron, but the cantor and the rabbinical student are always kind and understanding; they answer my questions and offer explanations when I’m confused. But I wish I could bring Cricket and Ellie with me. They could help me feel less self-conscious, unless Cricket decided to bite someone, which would make me even more self-conscious.

 

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“I only bite people when they deserve it.”

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Ellie’s hiding, just in case.

My goal was to force myself to go to the Tuneful Tuesday sessions at least four times before deciding whether or not it’s right for me, but on the fourth session I found out that there’s a performance coming up, with only two more rehearsals, and all new songs, and the only other Alto isn’t sure she’ll be there. Maybe it would have been okay if we’d started rehearsing these songs months ago, or if someone had responded to any of my concerns with actual concern instead of a patronizing pat on the head. But what I kept hearing in my head for the whole hour and a half was: you’re a loser; you just don’t have the talent; you don’t try hard enough; you’re letting everyone down; it’s all your fault.

The first two songs were taught without written music, and there’s no recording available, so we can’t practice on our own even if we wanted to. The third piece of music is a complicated four part harmony, so complicated that when I looked down at the page I had no idea what I was looking at and I wasn’t convinced it was actually music.

This was not fun.

I wanted to be excited about singing again. I wanted to warm up my voice and learn some new things. I didn’t want to scare myself to death. But now I’m afraid to let people down, because they’ve developed expectations of me that I didn’t want them to have, and they are going to be disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people.

I haven’t decided what to do about this yet, but I do know that, no matter what happens, I will get to come home to Cricket and Ellie and their kisses and cries that I’ve been gone too long. I really don’t know how anyone gets through the tough days without having a dog (or two) waiting at home.

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“She’ll be here any second.”

I want to thank everyone who wrote a review of Yeshiva Girl on Amazon, or read the book, or thought about reading the book, or told a friend about it, or encouraged me along the way. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl, and if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, I’d be honored.

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Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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 Choir

 

I joined the choir at my synagogue a few years ago, when I was still a one-dog-woman, battling wills with Cricket, and needing somewhere else to be every once in a while, preferably with humans. At the first choir rehearsal of the summer, the cantor handed me a loose-leaf filled with the High Holiday music, and then he had to rush off to answer someone else’s questions. I didn’t even know where to sit.

I wandered around until the musical director introduced herself. As soon as she told me her name, I recognized her as my elementary school music teacher, and started to panic. She was a bit of a… let’s just say she had a tendency to be critical. She didn’t really remember me, but reminisced about other students she really liked over the years. When she asked if I was an alto or a soprano, I said, “somewhere in between,” and she sat me with the altos, because there were only two of them.

The rehearsal started inauspiciously, with a song I had never heard before that required the altos to sing something entirely unlike a melody. The next hour and a half was pure panic and confusion, for me, and boring repetition mixed with endless criticism for everyone else. When I tried to stand up at the end, I couldn’t balance and fell back down into my seat, and when the musical director came over and asked if I was okay, I started to sob.

Partly it was the adrenalin let down after my 90 minute panic attack, but also, I’d been having seizure-like episodes and walking problems for a while by then, so my balance was unreliable. Mom was there to drive me home, and as she walked me out of the sanctuary, the musical director walked out with us, talking non-stop. She said that I was brave to have tried, but choir isn’t for everyone, which made me cry harder. I tried to suck it up and smile and pretend I was fine, but she kept talking to me and the tears kept coming.

When I got home, I was determined to show her that I could stick it out. I put my new loose-leaf full of music on my bed and took out my guitar and picked out the first song in the book note by note. Cricket jumped up on the bed and pawed at the guitar strings. The sound stunned her, but she pawed again, and seemed to think she had discovered a monster hidden inside of the guitar. She is not a fan of monsters, other than herself, so she jumped off the bed in search of safer adventures.

Cricket's suspicious face.

Cricket’s suspicious face.

I practiced the High Holiday songs every day, with Cricket nearby but suspicious. None of the music was familiar to me, and I wasn’t used to four part harmony at all, but I pushed myself to go to the next rehearsal. The people who recognized me were surprised to see me again, and when the musical director came over, she looked at me like I was a fourth-grader who’d just peed on the floor. She said she was glad to see me, and I chose to believe her.

"You pee on the floor too, Mommy?"

“You pee on the floor too, Mommy?”

I thought I would be better prepared this time, but of course we only sang the songs I hadn’t practiced yet. I didn’t cry after the second rehearsal though, that was my big triumph.

I went to the next rehearsal, and the next, but I never seemed to catch up. There were different altos at each rehearsal, so I didn’t get to know anyone very well, and the row of bases behind me was completely filled, and loud, so I could barely hear my own voice to figure out what I was singing.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the bases behind me.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the other singers.

In between rehearsals, my neurologist was testing me for everything under the sun, but finding nothing. I was having a lot of trouble walking Cricket, even around the block, and the butterflies in my stomach during choir rehearsals were turning into pterodactyls and trying to rip me open from the inside.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me with her.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me behind her.

By the end of August, the Neurologist was convinced that my problems were all psychological, and that I should try anti-depressants because he saw no physiological cause for my symptoms. He wanted me to see a psychiatrist from his group, but my insurance refused to cover it. They would, on the other hand, cover a hospital stay.

At first I was adamant that I would not go into a hospital: because I didn’t want to be away from Mom and Cricket, because I didn’t want to be watched all day, and because I did not believe I was crazy. But the choir rehearsals were setting off long forgotten pockets of dread that I could not squash, so, when Mom asked me, for the 72nd time, if I would please go to the hospital, I looked at the looming dates of the High Holiday services, and finally said yes.

That was more than two and a half years ago, and my neurological problems are still undiagnosed, though the anti-depressants have made other things easier. Butterfly arrived after my attempt to join the choir had ended, and after the guitar was zipped in its case and hidden in the back of the closet, and I wonder sometimes if I would have handled things differently if I’d already had Butterfly at home. But the fact is, I don’t sing to Butterfly at all! I’ve always thought that the one kind of singing I’d be able to do is to sing to my children, and yet here she is, big floppy ears at the ready, and I don’t sing to her.

Butterfly's big ears.

Butterfly’s big floppy ears are ready.

I do sing, but only when everyone around me is singing too. I look forward to the special Friday night services at my synagogue, when a full band comes to play, because with all of the singing and clapping and drums and amps, I can sing full out and not worry that everyone will hear me.

And it feels wonderful. It really does.

"Don't worry, Mommy. We're ignoring you."

“Don’t worry, Mommy. We’re ignoring you.”