by Harriet R. Goren (New York, NY)
We belonged to a moribund synagogue in a stagnant neighborhood where the sermon was the same every Yom Kippur: “Please make your Kol Nidre donation so we can pay the mortgage.”
The shul president pronounced it “muggage,” and I waited every year in hopes that he would get enough money and wouldn’t need to say that word.
One year the man behind us, in his late 80s and one of the youngest members of the congregation, died of a heart attack during the Amidah. I dreaded the holidays more and more each year, their unpleasantness increasing over time at the same rate as that of the relationship in which I was enmeshed.
One year they introduced a new cantor. His last name seemed to be “from Israel.” He wore a funny cantor’s hat, and I was not impressed. For a few hours I listened to him sing with usual cantor bombast although, unlike the previous hazzan, it was loud enough to keep me awake.
Then we got to the Hatzi Kaddish, a prayer of pause in between parts of the service.
He sang a short melody just once, no repeats, but in that moment all his ice and artifice disappeared.
His voice became soft and lyrical. It was one of the prettiest, gentlest melodies I’d ever heard.
The service continued, but I kept hearing it in my head over and over again above the other mumbled words. I heard it in my sleep that night and again the next morning. Never before had I gotten to services so early (much to the surprise of my boyfriend). But I didn’t know when the cantor would sing it again, and I didn’t want to miss a second.
The service ended, and the relationship soon after, and I joined a new synagogue with amazing melodies of its own. But that first one always echoed, beckoning to me to continue to listen carefully until I heard it again.