Remembering My Grandmother on the Sabbath of Song

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We buried my grandmother last week, and as I sat and grieved with my aunt and uncle in services at their synagogue this past Friday, I thought that it was terribly fitting that the first Sabbath after my grandmother’s passing was the Sabbath in which Jews read the Song of the Sea, known in Jewish tradition as the Sabbath of Song. From a combination of hypertone and questionable talent, I can only really sing in a very loud full voice.  Anything else is a very subdued, flattened rendering of a melody, incapable of reaching a broad range of notes.  For those who pray with me regularly, you know that, in those synagogues that I choose to call home, I sing freely in that voice, confident that the command to love God with all of my heart, soul, and being requires that I sing in a way that allows me to actually pray, rather than to struggle to contain tone, missing the melody and straining to keep up.

I didn’t always do this.  I had done it as a child, but somehow, a combination of family censure and self-consciousness had slowly quieted me down as a teen.  I was told that it was rude.  I was told that it was showboating.  I was told that it was not very good, and who did I think that I was fooling?  (This assessment by my siblings may have been accurate.)  I lacked the understanding of self, let alone the self possession, to realize that working so hard to contain the voice that God had given me, and the joy that I felt raising it in prayer, was wrong.

There were many factors to learning otherwise.  I gravitated towards the more traditional Jewish world where a great premium is placed on those who sing and pray with enthusiasm, whether they do it well or not.  I learned Hasidic ideas centered on the notion that we all have our own way to pray and that, in a community, we build upon each other.  I finally learned to accept to those voices that told me that who and what I was, though different, could add to beauty.

My grandmother, with her love of music, was one of the earliest such voices.  Grandma was a talented musician in her day, and may have, at one point, been a talented singer, I don’t know.  What I do know is that by the time that she was in her 70s, and I in my teens, both of us sang in such a way that departed from the ideal.

Yet, Grandma loved the harmonies of Jewish music, and she loved sitting with me and services so that we could sing them together.  Then, at some point in my mid teens, she noticed that I had stopped raising my voice to join hers.  That I was muted, swallowing as best as I could that explosive tendency of my diaphragm, avoiding harmony, because I couldn’t even gather the range for melody at the volume at which I was singing.

She asked me why, and I demurred, and she shook her head, no doubt thinking it was some sort of teenage thing, and just told me quietly that she loved making those harmonies with me, and that I should consider bringing them back.  That quiet love, that appreciation of my sincere intent and enjoyment of what we could create together was the first quiet seed of embracing my unique voice.

I learned that from my grandmother, the idea of embracing who you are, of celebrating were you are and living life on your own terms.  In a few weeks my movement of Judaism will publish a piece where I discuss the value of people with disabilities celebrating their own voices and their own unique contributions, but today I share with you that it was my grandmother started to help me embrace my voice.

Normally, when I’m in an unfamiliar place, I retreat to the quiet, lest I be an inconsiderate presence in a place that has not yet come to know me.  I believe that there’s a difference between evolving a place for your unique voice in a community that you’re going to call home, and bulldozing into a community where you are just passing through.

Last week, though, I raised my voice in full in that Sabbath of Song, in my aunt and uncle's unfamiliar synagogue.  I mourn my grandmother, whose memory blesses me every day, but I think her for her wisdom and support, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to honor her memory on the Sabbath of Song.