We’ve come through the 10-day High Holiday period, kicked off by Rosh HaShanah, and closing with Yom Kippur, and we are now heading into the less known, but deeply meaningful Festival of Sukkot, ending with Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in a week.
I decided to spend the holidays at Beth Am, the congregation that I have joined in downtown Baltimore, rather than travel down to Rockville to attend services at my other synagogue home, Tikvat Israel. The downside to that decision was that I didn’t get to spend time with the boys, but the upside was that I didn’t have to worry about whether the boys were bored! My other worry was that I would feel lonely or forlorn, but the Beth Am community has been so warm and welcoming, that hasn’t been a problem at all. My final worry was that I would miss the melodies that I have grown used to at Tikvat Israel, with our magnificent Cantor Helzner who leads services with such beauty and precision in her melodies. The biggest adjustment for me the past few months in attending services at Beth Am has been their use of melodies written by their founding cantor, Hazzan Abba Weisgal, and also by Cantor Irv Greenstein, who leads services now. The melodies are a huge contrast to what I have grown accustomed to, and that has been a slight challenge to me, as it clearly changes my experience of Saturday Shabbat services. I had some anxiety that the different melodies would compromise my spiritual nurturing that I hoped for from the High Holidays.
Fortunately, I had been invited to join the Beth Am High Holiday choir (?!? – at least, that’s what I thought at the time in July). I’m always game to join a choir, and I said yes. Starting in September, I joined them for rehearsals, and learned the music with them. Many of the melodies that I have associated strongly with Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are replaced by unfamiliar compositions, some by composers I am familiar with (Lewandowski), and some are from Weisgal and Greenstein. The choir is very good (surprisingly good, in my very limited experience of synagogue choirs, or some small church choirs, for that matter). Everyone has a good voice, and there are some quite good voices. Many of the members do not read music, and learn everything by ear, and, as a result, some of what they sing doesn’t actually match what is written in the extensive notation Cantor Greenstein gave me. That was an extra challenge, since I am very literal about sheet music, and I wasn’t as good as I should have been about notating the changes in the music I had. Also, some of the music was hand-transcribed, and it wasn’t always easy to see whether a note was on a space or a line, so an A might be a B or a G. It forced me to rely on my ear more than my eye, which is probably good anyway.
But the fact that I was in the choir served two functions for me – 1) I got familiarity with the music and 2) I got a meet about a dozen members more personally and more quickly than the usual process of meeting people in a new community. It also facilitated my getting invitations for meals during the holidays, so that I wasn’t left eating alone in my apartment and feeling sorry for myself.
And, in the end, the services themselves were so lovely, and I felt so welcomed and included. Rabbi Daniel Burg’s sermons were spot on, and made me think about so many things in my life, and in the world. In many ways, although I had struggled with seeing the good in my new circumstances, at this point in time, I am seeing my new home (with it’s proximity to work which is so much nicer than my former daily commute that could consume up to 2 hours of my day every day), and my new synagogue community, I am recognizing that this change that I resisted, and than resented, may, in fact, be an opening to a much better chapter in my life. A better fit between my inclinations and aspirations, and my ability to control my environment and activities to allow me to live my values more fully.
What better outlook to enter the new year? Bring it on, 5777!