I’m standing in a song-leading class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cantor David Tilman is leading us in “Ozi V’zimrat Yah” (“You are my strength and my song”). My body is beginning to relax. Natural concerns of middle age — “All four kids will be home for Shabbes, I have to order the chicken, pick up the bok choy” — are beginning to recede. We’re belting it out. The sounds are reverberating with wonder. I am beginning to breathe. The Hebrew word to breathe is linshom. Neshama is at its root. The soul. To give life to the soul.
Power singing. Call and response. We are each expected to teach a song to the group. Mine is a Yiddish folk song “G’vald tze Brider,” “G’vald, brother.” I had spent time preparing it with my voice teacher, Metropolitan Opera diva Atarah Hazzan, yet, to my utter astonishment, I’m beginning to have rapid heart beat. As my turn is approaching, my fingers are cramping, my mouth is becoming dry. A week earlier we introduced ourselves and the same panic sensation overcame me. The students are accomplished musicians and vocal majors, aspiring cantors or rabbis. After hearing one soprano student, I heard myself uttering, “My name is Dvorah, I have no formal musical training, but my love of Tefilah brought me here two years ago and in a way I’ve been rehearsing my whole life.”
What a surprise to be overcome with dread. This is actually one of the benefits of returning to school at a later age. You are thrown in with the wolves. Forced to be challenged and stay current. So, how does one package a lifetime into a few sentences?
How do I explain that in all my literary wanderings (being a poet, a memoirist and storyteller, having worked for Isaac Bashevis Singer for 14 years as a translator and editor), the only place I have felt at total peace, was in shul. Surrounded by sacred music. Immersed in Hebrew prayer. Any synagogue where the emphasis is on singing the liturgy always brings me enormous tranquility and an inexplicable sense of purpose.
Natan Sharansky was often deprived in prison of his Book of Tehillim (Psalms), given to him by his wife, Avital. Once he went several months in his cell until they returned the book. “I took my Psalm book,” Sharansky wrote, “and for days on end … recited all 150 of King David’s psalms, syllable by syllable.” Even after being released, he refused to board the plane from Moscow until they gave him back his Psalm book. He dropped to the snow yelling for it. “I long ago stopped asking myself,” he had written, “whether G-d gives us a mission or we give ourselves a mission, in an effort to be worthy of G-d.”
I wanted to know this place of unbroken hope. I wanted to answer to a higher calling.
Today, more and more people in midlife are returning to school. Some of us feel we have not yet lived the life we were meant to live. Going back to study is a way of reclaiming those years. With medical advances, people are living into their 90s. This can be a time to re-immerse ourselves in learning. Discover something in the field of healing or the arts. Reimagine ourselves.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud at JTS, told me once, “My middle-aged students are my best students. They come on time, they hand in their papers, they have been well trained.”
“Hava Nashira,” Franny Goodman is leading her song. “Come let us sing. Shir Halleluyah, A song of praise.”
I relax a bit and give time for my heart to stop pounding. Breathe. Listen. “This is an oral tradition,” says Cantor Jacob Mendelson, one of the pre-eminent chazzanim of our time, who teaches our class on High Holy Day nusach. I do manage to breathe now, and begin inhaling the melodies. It reinvigorates me to lead my folk ballad. We go on to modern Israeli, and decades’-old songs. “Zemer lach mechorati” (“A song to you, my birthplace”). “Elef Prachim L’fetah Yifrachi” (“A thousand flowers are suddenly blooming”). “Y’chasu et Eyn Hamidbar” (“They will cover the wadis in the dessert…”).
I feel transformed in some small way by the end of the class end. Uplifted. A clarity of mind accompanies me through the hallway of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School. Past the office door of Yiddish professor David Roskies, whom I have known for over 30 years. I am stepping through these hallways as if stepping through a tunnel of time. Unbounded, overlapping and never-ending time.
Dvorah Telushkin is author of “Master of Dreams,” about her 14 years as assistant and translator to Isaac Bashevis Singer. She is preparing to launch her one-woman-show, “In Search for the Perfect Pocketbook.”