For a woman who is essentially religiously neutral, firmly clinging to my position of “no opinion” like a limpet on a wet rock with the tide coming in — I really love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing (croaking?) along with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.
My parents neglected to mention I was Jewish. They failed to mention religion at all for the first 8 years of my life. I knew we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew my mother didn’t eat ham or bacon, but the rest of us ate it and my father cooked it.
I wanted Christmas and felt deprived every year when my friends had millions of presents and a big tree and we had Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, two electrified plastic statues in our front window — the family’s nod to the holidays.
No menorah. No synagogue. No indication of any kind of holiday in progress except for our two plastic friends.
I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew what a Catholic was because several friends went to St. Gerard’s, the nearby Catholic school. I knew what nuns and priests were. I could say the rosary, because Mary taught me.
I knew what Lutheran was, because Carol got time off every Wednesday afternoon to go for religious instruction. I had heard about Sunday School. And Mass. And services.
One day, at school, they showed a series of films designed to teach us to not be anti-Semites or racists.
*”Don’t be a shmo, Joe.
Be in the know, Joe.
Religion and race just don’t count in this place.
So be in the know, Joe, wherever you go, Joe.
Remember that, Joe, and you won’t fall on your face.”
(originally from Uncle Joe Sayles, Junior Frolics TV Show, 1949)
It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher, clearly Jewish because he had a big star of David on his chest, was the catcher. But Joe, a blatant anti-Semite, wouldn’t take Joe’s hands and fell to the floor. Splat.
“Don’t be a shmo, Joe.
Be in the know, Joe.
Be in the know, and you won’t fall on your face.”
Then we got a lecture on being nice to Jews. I went home and asked my parents, “What’s a Jew?”
Mom turned to Dad and said these immortal words, “Albert, we have to do something about this.”
Shortly thereafter, my peaceful Sunday mornings were interrupted by boring classes at the nearby synagogue. I would come home pumped up on bible stories which my mother, the atheist, would promptly debunk. It wasn’t long before I was allowed to stop attending. It was clearly not “my thing.” If they’d let me out on Wednesday afternoon at 1 pm like the Christian kids, I’d have gone with more enthusiasm, just to get off from school early.
That being said, my enthusiasm for church music remains unabated. I love hymns, the organ, choirs. The blending of voices tugs at my heartstrings. I sang my heart out in the glee clubs of childhood and the All-City Chorus (Mozart’s Requiem — I was an alto) in High School. And of course, in college I was a music major.
It made my mother more than a little nervous as I wandered around the house singing the Mass in Latin. I did explain to her that the history of Western music is church music. From plainsong, to Hayden, Bach, Mozart and all the others who have followed.
Organized religion is the primary consumer of choral music. I am by no means the only person who can be lured into church by a choir.
If Sunday morning services were all music without the rest of the yada, yada, I’d be there. From gospel to the local children’s choir, it’s all beautiful to me.
I suppose finally discovering I was of Jewish origin should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Not really. It set me on a much longer path that I am still walking. Forever the seeker, I have learned it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.