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.

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4 Responses to “Finding My Neshama‘s Voice”

  1. avatar

    Aya Betensky said, “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!”
    Presumably the choir has access to the sheet music, and accordingly knows which one. But those of us in the congregation just plain don’t know, and have no way to find out. (We can’t Google Oseh Shalom — the one the choir at Beth Shira sang last night. There’s a challenge for you, Larry and Serge.)
    Our music directors and cantors do a disservice to us, and even more to our composers, whether contemporary or mi sinai, when they don’t provide us with a play list, so we know whom to credit for helping us all find our neshama’s voice.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    As someone whose primary synagogue relationships during the first half of my life were Conservative, and in the latter half Reform, I prefer to think of my path as a transition rather than a conversion.
    During my transition, the neighboring synagogues of the two movements were also transitioning musically. The Conservative shul had a wonderful chazzan, to whom the congregation was expected to listen respectfully; whereas the Reform temple was moving away from an audience mode to a participatory mode.
    I can’t claim, like the author, that singing in a service helps me soar heavenward. But it does help ground me in a community that ignores my musical limitations and lets me sing along.

  3. avatar

    I grew up in an Orthodox congregation. Singing along as part of the service wasn’t just an option, it was mandatory. Rarely did the Chazzan change the tune. While the men chanted the service, the women listened, learned to chant and participated. We were yelled at for conversing, but never for chanting even though women were not supposed to chant.
    My love of singing during services started then. I felt I was not praying if I was not singing. When I first chose to join a Reform Temple, few people sang along with the Rabbi, and later with the Cantorial Soloist. Now, 10 years later, everyone sings.

  4. avatar
    Former Reform Jew Reply July 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t believe in Heaven either. It’s a Christian concept, and has nothing to do with any Jewish understanding of the afterlife.
    That feeling of exhilaration, of feeling immensely purposeful and connected in a short span of time – that is known in our tradition as dveikut ba’shem – connecting / clinging / cleaving to G-d. Cherish it, enjoy it, and keep reaching for it.
    Rejoice with the greatest pleasure than a human being can possess. If the “S” label doesn’t resonate with you, call it whatever you like;
    but may I suggest that when we humbly accept that there is a power greater than ourselves, and that we are able to experience connection with that power, we allow ourselves even greater access to that dveikut which you are describing.

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