Sunday, January 17, 2010

888. Gospel

So I was at a meeting with a bunch of people last week at the office of my synagogue. Suddenly one of the rabbis walked in.

"Are any of you going to be at services this Shabbat?" he asked.

I raised my hand, and looked around. No one else had their hands up.

"Are you sure?" asked the rabbi. "Are you reading [Torah]?"

"Yes," I answered, "so I'll definitely be there."

"Great," he said. "I have something for you to do. Come find me later." And then he left.

Very mysterious. We all shrugged and continued the meeting, and afterwards I knocked on his office door.

"Come in, come in. This is very important, and you can't tell anyone." And he proceeded to fill me in on the top-secret plan, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a 40-voice gospel choir from a Harlem church was going to end the service with spirituals. (Kind of like in "Keeping the Faith," but without the Hebrew lyrics.) Not a soul would know about this until the choir actually got up in their seats and started singing—and my job (by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time), should I choose to accept it, was to help sneak them in.

Not accepting it wasn't an option—I'm not good at saying no to rabbis. Besides, it was cool. He gave me the instructions, and then gave them to me again later—and again and again, many more times over the next couple of days. He was a bit nervous, which I could understand. Unfortunately, he made me nervous, too. I didn't even want to imagine the guilt level that might result after screwing up a rabbi-imposed task. One unexpected side benefit, however, was that I didn't get at all nervous during my Torah reading about boils and cattle disease, which seemed easy compared to what I had to do immediately after grabbing my yad from the scroll.

(Although it wasn't as immediate as planned. The next reader came up to the bima when I finished, and she wasn't wearing a tallit. The gabbai, aghast and not wanting to halt the proceedings, turned to me and said, "Give her your tallit." Another situation where I didn't really have a choice; I gave it to her, but pulled F. over to the side and explained that I needed to leave for awhile, and asked him to get it back for me. When I asked him for it later, he told me he sold it. Very funny.)

The choir arrived and tiptoed into the back of sanctuary, and I told the director when they were supposed to stand and make their way to the front—and the coreography was perfect. "Trust in the Lord!" they sang, running up to the bima. I suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase "raise the roof"—I half expected the honest, passionate, heartfelt force of their sound to blow it into the heavens. The kids from the children's service crowded around the bima as well, the littlest ones dancing to some of the loudest gospel ever. The couple at the end of the row, guests of the Bat Mitzvah girl, turned to me in complete confusion. "Who are these people?" I was tempted to say, "Oh, we do this every week," but was too busy holding back tears. There was really no difference between their music and ours aside from the way it sounded. Chanting Torah, singing Hallel, singing a spiritual—it's all for the exact same purpose.

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