Wednesday, February 2, 2011

moved by the music

Rick Recht and Susie Miller in concert

I have a very strong memory from five years ago: I stood in the hallway outside the Pediatric ICU at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, talking on the phone to our rabbi, George Gittleman, in Santa Rosa. At that point my eight year old son Ben had been in the hospital for several weeks, maybe even a month, having endured more than one brain surgery and was spiking a fever that was baffling the doctors. Rabbi George was so good during that hell to call me regularly, to mention Ben’s name at services and ask for extra prayers of healing, to let us know that we had our community circling the spiritual wagons.

But that day, as I leaned up against the wall, my stomach flip-flopping, the ever-present vague nausea creeping up into my throat, I asked him how to pray. What words could I say to give myself some solace? George was honest and said that the typical prayerbook prayers rarely were the answer for him in this kind of circumstance. Talking straight to the One, asking for Ben’s healing, or finding the words that worked might be the key and that was challenging for me. I didn’t really know what I believed in God-wise and it’s always seemed rather cheap to me to suddenly ask for a favor from Someone when you had pooh-poohed the that same Someone on previous, less weighty occasions. Anne Lamott says she has two prayers “Help. Help. Help.” And “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Those worked. I used those a lot. Maybe even George reminded me of them, I don’t recall.

But I remember getting off the phone and standing with my eyes closed and quietly singing Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach, the Hebrew prayer for healing, over and over and over and over that day and the following days and nights that Ben spent in the hospital (40 in all).

Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M'kor habracha l'imoteinu
May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen.
Mi shebeirach imoteinu
M'kor habracha l'avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with refuah sh'leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit
And let us say: Amen.
A year ago, when Ben’s scoliosis surgery was looming and our friend James was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma I carried around a little slip of paper with Craig Taubman’s Mee Shebayrach in my pocket. The words were essentially the same, but simpler and all Hebrew, and the melody was so beautiful and haunting. I sang them out loud in the car whenever I could and cried. I sang them silently in the pasture, in the shower, waiting in line at the market. I sang them and felt closer to a universal power, the Known/Unknowable, the Source of Being.

Jewish music is rich for me. It is the conduit between my self and consciousness and the universe. I have millions of questions, in fact, I sit through services questioning, questioning, questioning. (I guess like Anne Lamott I have a prayer and it seems to be "What? What? What?") But give me a Hebrew prayer in song, a harmony, a piece of poetry and a melody and my spirit floats. I stop questioning and settle down. I accept a little more. It’s a feeling and it’s all about the music.

I was raised on folk music, rock music, and classical, but it’s Jewish music that grabs me the most and the deepest. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to attend Hava Nashira, the conference for Jewish songleaders and cantors in Wisconsin, and I came home a transformed soul. Debbie Friedman was one of my teachers there. Craig Taubman, too. Being in their presence, singing Jewish music with 250 gorgeous voices was beyond amazing for me. I had gone with the question “Am I a Jewish songleader?” and I came home with the unequivocal answer: “Yes.”

When Debbie Friedman died suddenly last month (way too soon, she was only 59) I sang her Mi Shebeirach. I woke up in the middle of the night singing it. Yes, she, the composer of that beautiful, tear-provoking melody for the Mi Shebeirach, had sung it to us one evening in Wisconsin and then we sang it back to her. I’ll never forget that.

People credit Debbie with having changed the face of Jewish music, especially in the Reform movement, but I credit her with having significantly changed the Reform movement in general. Bringing people back to the fold with her music. Debbie turned the liturgy into a participatory experience and with music that channeled Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and other folk musicians from the 60’s she reformed the Reform synagogue experience. She brought people in. People who were leaving. She also inspired a couple generations of Jewish musicians and they are continuing her legacy by creating amazing Jewish music for prayer services and camps and Shabbat dinners and bopping along to in the car.

So that is why I wanted to share an experience I had this past weekend. I got to sing with Rick Recht at my synagogue, on the bimah (stage), into a microphone, in front of lots of people, including my children and husband. I got to sing something Jewish with a Jewish Rock Star.

Rick Recht is the hot Jewish singer in the Jewish music circuit. He tours constantly, looks like a rock star, plays electric guitar, has a band and many cd’s. And did I mention he’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Louis? He recently started Jewish Rock Radio. He inspires new Jewish Songleaders at Jewish camps all over the country every summer. He’s a mensch. A really down to earth guy.

(Why me, you ask? I suppose because I have been a songleader at our synagogue for the past six years as a music teacher in the religious school, at women's retreats, and at a few services. It was a wonderful acknowledgement and I'm so thankful it happened.)

I tell you this because 1) I want to gloat for a minute. Yup, I got to do it!! Me an’ Rick. Uh-huh. And 2) because it solidified the feeling I have that yes, singing Jewish music is something I really I love to do. And I need to do it more.

I’ll post a video link as soon as I have one, but for now you’ll just have to imagine the beautiful music Rick and I made together. La la la.


Penny said...

Beautiful post, Susie!

Rona said...

What can I say? You moved me to tears again. I, too keep Misheberach in my wallet. It is the prayer I go to. Can't wait to hear your debut, you Dovenin' Diva.

mmiller said...

You've always been my rockstar.