19 September 2008

Of the Not Christian persuasion

I went to a lecture given by a survivor of the Holocaust, one of the so-called "Schlinder's Jews".  I say so-called, because quite honestly, he would vastly be preferred to be known as a renowned Cantor than a Holocaust survivor.  As he explained to us, he lost everyone - - - uncles, cousins, his mother, his sister, ev-ry-one - - - during those horrible years, and it is painful enough to live with his own memories, he neither needs nor wants pity from the rest of us.

Ever since someone gave me a copy of Anne Frank's Diary when I was 11 or 12, I have been a voracious reader of everything I could get my hands on about the Holocaust.  I studied German in college for a few varied reasons; it was the closest thing to Swedish my Uni offered, it was taught by someone I admired....but also in the hope that I would someday be able to read historical documents of the time in the original German.

I'm also a complete language geek, but y'all knew that already.

Due in part to that language geekiness, I even know a few words of Yiddish.  He peppered his lecture with the occasional Yiddish word, and is it wrong that I felt exceedingly smug for knowing what the words meant without a translation?  Probably.

At the end of his remarks, he took questions from the audience, and they were interested in many things about his journey; but a dominant theme, asked several times and in several different ways, was this: how had he survived?  What gave him hope?  What made him able to get through each day, through the thousands of indignities foisted on them, great and small?

Perhaps not surprising, considering that he is a world-renowned Cantor, his answer was that his faith had sustained him.  His spirituality.  Or maybe that is surprising, because you might think that music would have helped him significantly.  After the war, he came to the US and studied at Julliard, and in that, I envy him.  There was a time when I would have killed for that honor.  But he said no, that he had not discovered his musical talents until after the war.

I waited until almost the end of the question-and-answer session to ask my question.  Since he had talked a whole lot about his work as a Cantor, (although he's retired now) and he made a point of telling us how he'd rather be known for his singing than for his survival, I wanted to hear him sing.  So I asked: "Do you still sing, and would you sing for us?"

"I'm retired!" was his immediate response; several people in varied places in the crowd called out (hilariously, completely in chorus) "We don't mind!"  He looked at me and said, "Young woman, you put me on the spot!"  I smiled, completely unrepentant, and apologized.  I was really surprised, though, when the crowd began to urge him along, and began to applaud.

So he did.  I had thought to ask him to sing something joyful, as a counterpoint to the tragedy and horror he spoke of, but decided at the last second that just might have been pushing it, a specific request.  

He sang of faith, how those of the faith never walk alone.  

It was, in a word, glorious.  

I'm always surprised when people's singing voices differ greatly from their speaking voices; I think I sound the same no matter if I'm speaking or singing.  His singing voice was deeper and richer than his speaking voice, and almost without accent.  While when he was speaking, his accent was thick and obvious.

In addition to my language geek issues, I'm also a music geek, so I appreciated what he sang for the sheer musicality of it.  Singing a capella, with no warm-up, no advance warning, on pitch and on key?  Damn near impossible.  And therefore, impressive.  Extremely so.  Moving, too, there was barely a dry eye in the house when he finished.

Mostly due to my sheltered upbringing, I've never run into anyone who was as fervent about their faith as evangelical Christians are.  While I know that there are plenty of people who are as zealous about their non-Christian faiths as the evangelicals, I'd never met one before.

I feel much the same way about his deep faith as I do about the Christians I know; I can admire their faith without sharing it.  It was a beautiful thing to see.

After the lecture, several people thanked me (!!!) for asking him to sing, saying they'd wanted to ask but weren't brave enough.  I waited in line to speak to him, and apologized again for putting him on the spot.  In the most Continental fashion, he winked at me, kissed my hand (which was incredibly cute) and told me he hadn't minded.  I thanked him for indulging me, and told him I felt very lucky to have had the chance to hear him sing.

I left the lecture feeling as if I'd had an epiphany; how about that?  There are other faiths that feel as strongly about their religions.  Who knew?


MotherMe said...

I totally love how you use the word "epiphany", the name of a Christian holiday, in your closing line. Deconstructionists would have a field day with that one, I'm sure.

Lucy Arin said...


Swedes actually celebrate Epiphany, sometime in early January, so I've seen those celebrations, surprisingly.

But I was thinking more of the definition of the word thusly;

a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

But you're right, my shrink would have a right good time trying to puzzle that one out!