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 love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing along with heartfelt enthusiasm and only a little bit off key.

Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.

rhyming Hallelujah

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 Rednosed 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 a 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. It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher was Jewish 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 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 a church by a good choir.

little church 33

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 discovering I was Jewish should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Really, it set me on a much longer path on which I am still walking. Forever I am the seeker. Lucky thing I’ve I learned it’s the journey that matters.

My destination remains unknown.

Categories: #Photography, Marilyn Armstrong, Music, Religion

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4 replies

  1. I know exactly what you mean about church music. I think hymn writers knew/know how to create a memorable tune that ensures the words stay with you while the music stirs you.


    • Not ONLY that. They also wrote melodies that are easy to harmonize and don’t have a big range of sound so most people who can sing — even a little — can enjoy them. Choir directors know what the ranges of their singers are and compose appropriately for them. And a really good choir is just such a joy for a listener.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Marilyn, as you well know I grew up in a very Lutheran household (although there was some 7th Day Adventist flock in our extended family).

        I attended bible school classes as a kid and was proudly confirmed, having memorized big sections of the good book.

        I always enjoyed the German liturgy — the rhythm and cadence of the words. However, I’m not sure I completely understood the text as a young worshipper.

        The music: I really miss the old hymns of my youth. Even the songs we sang at Lutheran Summer Camp – like “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Jesus Loves Me”.

        I was a regular church goer through high school. Much of my social life revolved around church groups while I felt like an outsider at my predominantly White high school.

        I would cease to attend church services regularly as I grew older and worked crazy schedules in radio and TV news. I still felt a strong tug from my “faith” dealing with real life issues. TV news “ethics” often clashed with my religious beliefs. TV news usually lost when it came to ethics and morality but there frequently was a tug of war between faith and news scoops.

        Now, after more than 2 decades of retirement, I no longer have work as an excuse not to attend church services. I just can’t levitate my body for Sunday morning services.

        I still believe in much of the scripture I learned long, long ago. But, truth be told, it’s getting harder to believe with the craziness that envelops our nation and world.


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