“There had not been a marriage at B’nai Israel Synagogue in 20 years, but I always knew I would return to get married there.”
Growing up in the 1950’s, the only synagogue in my hometown of Shamokin, Pennsylvania was the B’nai Israel Orthodox Synagogue. Never heard of Shamokin? Shamokin is in the central part of PA where coal mines could be found within walking distance of most neighborhoods and tunnels mined thousands of feet below the surface served as the city’s foundation. B’nai Israel was built by Jewish immigrants who took great care making sure the synagogue was welcoming to the 150 Jewish families that had made Shamokin their home after WW II.
The sanctuary itself was embraced by Tiffany stained glass windows that depicted the twelve tribes of Israel and hand carved collapsible book holders (which I have yet to find elsewhere) held the siddurim (prayer books). The matching darkly stained hardwood pews is where I spent much of my Jewish childhood. The built-in Sukkah was a real selling point for any Rabbi who chose to accept the pulpit in Shamokin.
My first introduction to Jewish music was as a child listening to a cantor preside over High Holy day services. This cantor, a widower with a young son from Brooklyn, New York, was hired by the congregation every year to preside over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services alongside our Rabbi. I must have been eight or nine years old when I was first moved to tears by the soulful sounds of this man.
The unique sound of a man singing as if he were crying to G-d for both help and forgiveness has always stayed with me. It was a sound I had never heard any other man produce. As my good friend Ettie Councilman pointed out to me, in the 1940’s and 1950’s after World War II people were fearful. The knowledge that millions of Jewish men, women and children had been murdered at the hands of the Nazis had begun to surface, and well-trained cantors, some survivors themselves, began dedicating their lives to help their wounded congregations. Jews, scarred by the Holocaust and war, found that music was able to help them cope with their religious and spiritual doubts. Cantors all over the world were able to elevate Jews to a place so high that they were able to remove some of the pain and sorrow the Jewish people were experiencing.
Even as a young girl I sensed the urgency around me of a people traumatized and wanting to heal. I never forgot that sound in my cantor’s voice; that cry of grief and longing. Now with every song and prayer I learn, whether it is in Hebrew or Yiddish, my voice reflects the tears I grew up hearing. This Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I pray we all hear the tears within the music. Tears that can transform our own suffering and pain to provide healing for all.