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Songs of Life: Music, rituals harness the power of memory
March 22nd, 2002
Jerusalem — For the past few months, until this week, I have lived on the third floor of an old home in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. My landlord lives on the second, and on the first floor resides her 93-year-old father.
On warm afternoons, I often pass his front yard and see him watering the grass and surrounding shrubs. Although we exchange an occasional “Shalom,” the language barrier (he speaks Yiddish and German) has prevented us from really conversing.
Yet, every Sabbath afternoon, I come home after services and look forward to seeing him. If it’s not too cold or rainy, I usually find him watering the yard and singing, in a gruff yet audible voice, what sound like German folk tunes.
Reclining comfortably on my porch, I smile and listen as he sings. Though I do not know what the words mean, they exert a palpable emotional force, not unlike an opera aria that grabs you by dint of its haunting passion.
Listening to him sing reminds me of what religious studies scholar Lawrence Hoffman has written about the power of prayers, like the Kaddish, that evoke an automatic response even if we do not know what the words mean. We find it difficult to explain our attachment to such rituals, yet the emotional pull is unmistakable.
For many music is the catalyst for such feelings. Despite the anachronistic purpose of its words, few people are unmoved by the opening lines of Kol Nidre. In the wake of Sept. 11, the familiar refrain of “America the Beautiful” evokes feelings words alone cannot.
Our sages understood the power of music, and that is why they devised an intricate system of hand signals and notation for chanting the Bible. They also understood that the emotional force of music helps to maintain a tradition l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation.
Our sages, for example, codified the precise songs to be sung after the Sabbath meals with the hope that their children’s children might continue to recite them. The Jewish tradition is filled with similar illustrations of our ancestors’ ability to harness the power of nostalgia and memory.
Without a means of transmitting concrete memories from generation to generation, traditions wither and die out. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tradition, masoret, is from the same root as the word limsor, which means “to transmit.”
As I watch and listen to my 93-year-old neighbor, I understand that maintaining a tradition is not only a responsibility, but a blessing. His mournful yet resolute voice shows that traditions can strengthen our will to persevere, especially when it is most difficult to do so.
In these difficult times, singing those German folk tunes does more than rekindle my neighbor’s past. It strengthens him (and me) as we walk steadily into the future.
Evan Moffic, a graduate of Nicolet High School and Stanford University, is in his first year of rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which serves the Reform Jewish movement. He returned this week from spending this academic year in Israel.