Finding My Neshama‘s Voice
by Aya Betensky
In the early ’80s, in New Jersey, we “converted” from Conservative to Reform Judaism (a story in itself) and started going to Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. At our first Friday night service, we were amazed to find a woman cantor with a beautiful voice, who welcomed us by stepping down from the bimah and teaching the congregation a new song that would be sung later in the service. Lee Coopersmith imbued us with an aura of Shabbat beauty and community that we had been missing before.
At these Friday night services I heard familiar melodies and learned new ones and sang with all my heart. People started telling me that I should join the volunteer choir. I was working full-time with two kids and didn’t see how I could fit it in, but after our older son, Daniel, became a bar mitzvah, I joined the choir instead of taking aerobics–after all, singing is aerobic too!
The choir had been together for 18 years, rehearsed twice a week and was really good, while I had never sung liturgical songs from written music, let alone with transliteration. At my first rehearsal they expected me to leave after the break and never show up again, like the previous newbie, but luckily we were all learning new Sephardic music together, and I stuck it out. I practiced at home every night on my new keyboard. For the first time I was grateful that my parents had made me take those years of piano lessons. Another soprano gave me her extra copies of the choir’s huge repertory and clued me in on choir lore. I learned a lot. I discovered that prayers like Oseh Shalom had more than one melody or arrangement, by more than one composer, and you couldn’t just say “I loved the Oseh Shalom,” you had to say which one! I realized that through the music I was experiencing the prayers– I had always loved the Hebrew phrasing and vocabulary, but the English wasn’t particularly meaningful to me. Music took them to a different level.
I couldn’t identify this feeling and felt desperately that I needed to share it with someone. I asked a few friends if they knew what I was talking about but ran into a brick wall. Finally I asked my mother (whose father had been a cantor and who had always sung to me) and she said, “Of course I know what you mean–why didn’t you just ask me? I’ve always felt that way!” At Temple Sinai’s choir, and in the Saturday morning group, I’ve found more people who know what I mean. The term “spirituality” has always put me off, and I find the concept difficult; I certainly don’t believe in heaven; but for me singing in a service is like flying–a soaring that aspires to the heavens.
Aya Betensky is a member of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.