I’m just five years old, pumping my legs furiously on a swing set in Nashville, Tennessee and singing the blessings over the Torah at the top of my lungs. I’m probably the only kid in my preschool class who does this, although I don’t know that at the time. I can’t speak Hebrew yet; that comes later, but I know these words by heart. In some ways, they’re already nesting inside me. My mother, just 35 years old, has recently begun the job that would go on to define so much of our family’s life—she’s now a full-time Cantor at a conservative synagogue. As a result, my family is now a constant participant in synagogue life; my older sister and I have already internalized huge swaths of the liturgy. We can, and do, sing the blessing over the wine with the same fervor as we belt out Walt Disney’s ‘Under the Sea’.
A quarter of a century later, now almost the age my mother was when she first led a congregation in song, I found myself poring once more over the music of my childhood, preparing to lead my own congregation in prayer for the first time, during the High Holy days. Melodies I had abandoned along with my various breaks with religion, music I had never sung, it being reserved only for congregational leaders, harmonies that need to be taken apart like a fruit, finally ripe and ready to be tasted.
All throughout the summer of 2017, I was slowly taken by surprise. I know what you’re thinking—that surprise is a fast emotion, with people shouting ‘hooray’ and confetti flying, or a stranger stepping out of the darkness, or that one stair that you can’t seem to remember is just a little bit taller. All of these routine surprises are quick, over and done with in a matter of moments. This year I learned about a different kind of surprise, one that rose within me like bread in an oven, filling my mind with a scent so familiar I didn’t even know I’d been missing it.
It was months of studying before I realized the gravity of this experience. Realization can be sudden, like a shattering glass. This was not the case; I had no single moment of enlightenment or insight. My faith began to grow unnoticed, like a fetus in my womb. It took on arms and legs, a beating heart, a voice. By the time the holidays rolled around in the fall I was two people, and we had learned more than music. One of us belonged to the mundane, paying bills and worrying about keeping the house clean and the fridge full. The other belonged to some other realm, feeling an unseen presence in a room, serving as a lightning rod of music and prayer. Together we could now look God in the eye and sing the traditional words into the ether, “Hineni he-aniya mima’as, nireshet v’nifchedet…bati la’amod u’lehitchanen lefanecha” (Here I am, devoid of deeds, quaking and scared… I have come to stand before you and request mercy”), knowing that we are heard.
Faith is equal parts trust and conviction, and it comes, like inspiration, in bursts from within and from without. It would be cliché to say that I discovered my voice this summer, and anyway, it’s only half true. It’s more truthful to say that I learned that I have trust and conviction within my voice. At first when I sang the psalms and prayers I could only hear my mother’s voice, like a spirit haunting my vocal chords. But like honey spreading through my nervous system, the melodies and words have become mine. I know the places they go to reverberate in my skeleton. I know where they like to hide, to wobble, to be heard, to be whispered. They’ve settled down, made a home in my marrow. Standing in front of thousands of people I, who frequently choke on my stage fright when singing in my living room, can sing without qualms.
My voice is not the voice I’ve always known. Or maybe this courageous person always lived in me, and all it took was faith to set her free.
Mikhal Weiner is an Israeli-born alternative indie artist living and creating in Brooklyn, NY. She studied composition and songwriting at Rimon College in Tel Aviv, completing her degree at Berklee College of Music in 2014 with honors. Her works, whether text or music, are deeply influenced by her experiences as a middle-eastern gay woman and her love of poetry and all genres of music. Her published essays include 'What the World Needs Now', and 'Changing our Stripes: Why Women Artists may be Like Saber-Tooth Tigers'. She recently released her debut LP, Daughter of the Sea, in May 2017, and is currently co-producing events for Salomé ArtHaus, a community centered art-sharing venue in Brooklyn, as well as performing with her band around the East Coast.
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