11 Sivan 5774
For each person, prayer (and worship) means something a little different. For some people, davening means quiet, almost whispered prayers in Hebrew while swaying with the joy of prayer. For some it means the joy of creation.
For me it’s always been about using the power of song to praise G-d. My father was a church choir director for years and years, and man, was he a purist about liturgy. We did not have 70s “folk music” at the Masses he directed. We had Mozart. Bach. Beethoven. You know – the good stuff. And when he couldn’t find good stuff, he’d write his own and the choir would learn it off in nothing flat. When my father finished his master’s program in music composition and conducting, the main feature of his master’s performance was a Mass he’d written called “The Walk of Faith,” and based on the pain of doubt and the need to trust. A recording of it was played at his funeral, and as soon as I can get the CD that my brother gave me to cough it up, I plan to play it on my father’s yartzheit in January every year.
The main reason I kept going to the Catholic church, after I started doubting G-d, was the music. Even in my 20s, when I was in deep denial and pain about the existence of G-d, I still managed to write an entire congregational Mass for the church that I was the volunteer choir director and pianist for at that time. (I guess it runs in the family or something.)
I tell people that my father raised me to be a liturgical musician. If I’d realized I had a yiddishe neshama ten years or so ago, I might have decided to go to cantorial school instead of going through a doctoral program. Singing kept me going to church for a long, long time, and it’s a big draw for me in going to temple, too. Fortunately the congregation at the Friday services seems to have a good sense of song, and some of them even harmonize! (Once I’ve learned the melodies well enough I’ll do the same thing, I’m sure.) I have not yet been able to attend Saturday morning services at my temple, but I want to. I want to hear the cantor and see if that makes me feel the way I felt when I was twelve and singing in my father’s church choir.
I hope it does, because I love to sing. I feel most like I’m worshiping when I’m singing, and when I hear or sing good music is when I most feel G-d’s presence. Since starting on this journey, I’ve been using my handy Spotify account to find music that is both singable and uniquely Jewish. Some of it is in Hebrew, and some in English, but I’ve begun to memorize various songs by popular Israeli and Jewish artists. Some of them are close enough to prayer that I count them as such: Shomer Yisrael and Hu Elokeinu, by Neshama Carlebach, make my eyes sting with tears every time I sing them or hear them. Right now I’m listening to L’dor Vador by Josh Nelson, and it’s having a similar effect. Whenever possible, I sing the brachot over meals. It makes them mean more to me.
But it just occurred to me why it’s so important to have this music available to me. It allows me to feel the presence of G-d again. It allows me to worship again. Yesterday, singing along with Josh Nelson, I felt a presence I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. The hairs on the back of my neck and on my arms stood up with the overwhelming feeling of rightness and awe that washed over me as I sang “L’dor vador nagid godlecha/L’dor vador, we protect this chain…”
This music is another spiritual helicopter for me, telling me that yes, I’m on the right path, and that this is right for me and what I’m called to do. Maybe cantorial school is still in my future – who knows?
What does prayer mean to you?
One response to “Song as Prayer”
One of the things that convinced me I was on the right path in my journey to Judaism was when my friend took me to Rosh HaShanah services at Stanford’s chapel. Without ever having heard the words or the melody before, without really knowing what the words meant, I found myself singing along after one or two verses, as though I’d ALWAYS sung those hymns. (And I remember my friend, Esther, casting the occasional sideways glance at me with a look of astonishment on her face. That memory makes me smile.)