My best post of the year
Posted by Ron Coleman on December 20, 2007
It was in June, and it was not written on this blog, or on Dean’s World. Tonight I was browsing friends’ blogs and came across this article, and it reminded me of what I’d written on a related topic last June. It was originally published on Beyond BT, a blog for “BT’s,” i.e., baalei teshuva — Jews who have adopted Jewish practice late in life. I have reprinted it here, changing some of the lingo and adding some explanatory links, but changing none of the self-obsession. If you don’t go in for that you can browse away now!
You can find the original post, and the extensive commentary that followed (some of it also laden with Yiddish-Hebrew terminology, however), here.
Everyone gives up something when he becomes a religious Jew, or frum. Some more than others, of course. Sometimes precious relationships are breached and, unfortunately, can never be repaired. Other times, people give up lucrative career opportunities or fame or one or another kind of social standing. These are the sacrifices that even the least learned baalei teshuva place on the altar in their service to God.
Now I, for instance, did not give up a particularly notable “party” lifestyle, including any of the elements you might associate with that; I was always on the square side. Is giving up three hours a day of TV considering giving up “something”? Hardly. As to food, I never liked shellfish. Okay, cheeseburgers, chicken parmigiana — but what serious person can reckon the loss of a particular kind of food, or even the convenience of being able to eat anywhere, serious sacrifices when offered the opportunity of personal and spiritual fulfillment in exchange?
Yes, more subtle sacrifices are the social things attendant to these physical pleasures — the inability to “go out” with friends and colleagues to restaurants, say on Friday nights. These return as momentary blips of the heart, but if a person merits the development of a decently normal frum life in a frum community and is blessed with a frum family, these are easily recognized as pleasures of dubious worth. You simply do not share the values of the people you are not going out with and as nice as all the restaurants and bars in the world look from the outside, they are — aside from the value of fellowship with any decent person, which I refuse to assign a zero value, as transient as it may be — easily recognized, also, as basically empty inside. (I do not even understand what married people are doing in restaurants at 9 PM — don’t they have families? My father was never in a restaurant on a weeknight, or in a bar, ever. Maybe that’s why I’m here with you today.) At least, I, for my part, have gotten past these, and do not struggle, even though there are pangs.
Now, I will tell you, if you agree not to tease me or make a big deal about it, that I used to be a very successful collegiate actor. You will, I hope, entertain me when I say that, back in the day, I could entertain you; that I reached a point in my college stage career that I could, and did, cause a thousand people to erupt in laughter by raising an eyebrow; that I shared the stage with a famous Hollywood star in those days and held my own, and then some. I held audiences in the palm of my hand. But do you think that is what I miss by virtue of becoming an observant Jew? It is not. In fact, even in my callow and “secular” state, I knew how preposterously unhealthy it would be to seek this dopamine rush regularly. This was so not only because the big bad world was not college, but also because I knew that almost no one makes it, or stays made, and that even those who come close get addicted to this sort of ego gratification. Most become — as we see on the gossip pages — horrid shells of people, attention and adulation junkies for whom happiness is always transient and who end up relying not just on greasepaint and hair dye but on the liquid, pill and powdered chemical substitutes for that rush. There’s no business like show business for a reason.
No, I do not miss the stage.
I miss the music.
I was not a successful singer the way I was a successful actor. Never solo quality, I also could not make it into the a cappella groups in college; my level of musicianship was simply not there. I was a lead singer in rock bands, yes, but this was more of a piece with the stage acting as was my decent enough “musical comedy”-type stage singing. But I was always good enough, despite my poor training — my voice strong enough, the pitch close enough, the lungs big enough, and the vocal range, by God’s grace, wide enough — that I was a welcome addition to any tenor section. In high school, in college; choir, advanced chorus, freshman choir; university choir — I loved to sing, to harmonize, to make my voice part of a totality of beautiful vocal sound. By the time I was singing in college, too, our choirs were frequently accompanied by the university orchestra. There we stood in a century-old Victorian hall, in white ties and tails, making classical music along with violins, oboes and, for Heaven’s sake, a harp. For someone of my relatively modest social background, this was as much “making it” (I felt at the time) as I could ever dream of.
To me, though, as nice as the setting was, it was the harmony that was a transcendent experience. Singing beautiful music so great it has withstood the ages, masterfully arranged, along with scores of talented singers, transported me. Forgive the clichés, but it is experiences such as these that create clichés. So, yes, I felt aloft in the soaring harmonies of the Mozart Requiem; suspended by the crescendos of Handel’s Israel in Egypt; levitated by Hindemeth’s Printemps . Even more, I truly lost myself in these experiences, and at certain moments became, I felt, part of the beauty of creation, of the brilliance of human creativity bestowed by God on His handiwork. I was not so spiritually numb that I could not fathom in these moments some opening into the Divine.
That some of these moments took place in locations such as the university’s neo-gothic chapel enhanced this spiritual elevation for me. If you have never heard the voices of a chorus echo off of the thick stone walls of a gothic cathedral, you have missed out on something very special in olam hazeh. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But to make that music? Transcendent.
And I do not have that any more.
And there is simply almost nothing like it in my present life that can give it to me. Besides the fact that there is no value placed on fine arts, including music, in the frum world, or perhaps because of it, there are no musically serious choirs for orthodox men that I know of. (Because of the prohibition to listening to a woman sing, I can never again sing in a mixed choir.) I once heard of one congregation’s famous choir and was eager to hear them sing at a wedding. On hearing, I realized that this was not so much a choir as people who sing together. This can be beautiful, too, but it was not what I was missing.
Last year I thought I had finally found a choir that I could perhaps join. They rehearsed only once a week and performed at times other than Shabbos. Rehearsals were in a church basement on the Upper West Side, yes, but perhaps there was a way around this? It never got that far; the director, eager to speak to a tenor (as choir directors always are) started to tell me the repertoire, and I realized … these are all songs about the wrong deity.
Now I can tell that I am losing it. I used to “vocalize” (work out my voice) several times a week in choir rehearsal, and I had a broad range that enabled me to sing most baritone parts and in my best voice reach a high C over middle C as well. No longer; I do not have the musical ability to practice by myself, nor the time or discipline; nor, hardly, the purpose. Now when I am called to the lectern to lead the prayers, as I am from time to time, my vocal chords gradually constrict as I sing and I barely make it through the Lecha Dodi song early in the Friday night service without feeling an intense need for moisture in my throat. This happens earlier and earlier in my chanting of the prayers, and so I must sing less robustly in the beginning in the hopes that something will be left by the Vayichulu prayer at the end of the service.
It hardly matters. Singing by myself is fun, and those who hear it do not seem to object; but it is not that thing I miss. Some special Shabboses, a good cantor who knows what to do in a synagogue with the patience to let him do it will return me, briefly, to that place during the recitation of the Kedusha prayer, and I am, for a few minutes, lost again. I improvise harmonies or latch on to ones being sung by others… thirds, fifths, sometimes maybe even sevenths over the melody note; perhaps a staggered syncopation in a complementary line and on those good Shabbos mornings I taste it, with what’s left of a tongue and a throat that feel older than they should, assisted by the remnant of technique that bides me “push from the diaphragm” and “keep the tone out of the throat and into the nasal cavities” … and then, just as it is getting good, it is over. My face is flush, my palate almost aches and, until a brief reprise at musaf, it is done.
I muse that people who leave things they love in their lives in order to serve God can bank on some amount of credit for having done so, and that perhaps this sacrifice remains as principal for them not only in the next world but even allows them to draw from that account in this one. Some of those things can be dear indeed, and when they seemed, prior to their loss, to actually enhance one’s spiritual existence, it can be hard to appreciate the sacrifice. Perhaps merely the knowledge that, despite the spiritual challenges and setbacks of life in general, one has made a stand and walked away from one or another sort of love to prove his commitment, however, can give one strength. And perhaps that is exactly the this-worldly benefit that is bestowed by such a deposit.
As for me, the harmony is my sacrifice, and while it is a trifle compared to what others have left, it is my personal bit of flour and oil. Just as we understand that the senses, in supernal realms, combine and intersect in ways we cannot understand in this world, I pray that my silence in this one translates into a pleasing aroma Above.