Yesterday I sang in a concert, one of the last communal events at Temple B’nei Israel in Revere. The congregation had fallen on hard times and made the gut-wrenching decision to close its doors. In recognition of this transition, my friend Jake Harris, who is the Cantorial Soloist there, created a beautiful, heartfelt concert that acknowledged the ending and the loss but was resolutely optimistic. In his remarks between songs, he spoke of taking what people had learned and experienced in that community and bringing it forth as a light for the world. We sang of making ourselves the sanctuary for G-d’s presence to dwell in.
I notice that no matter how hard the circumstances, we Jews can’t help schmoozing. (I want the t-shirt, “Can’t Help Schmoozing” – who’s in?) Even at a protest vigil last Tisha b’Av, we were engaged in connecting with one another. Mind you, Tisha b’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year, a day on which we are forbidden even to greet one another. And last year its sadness was compounded by the reason for our protest: the deplorable practice of family separation at the border. Still we gathered, we prayed, we sang… and we schmoozed.
There is something in the Jewish soul that, despite everything, gravitates toward joy and connection. Our history might well have defeated our spirits, and yet the opposite seems to happen, over and over.
We are not the only people of resilience, nor the only people who have suffered brutality and persecution. But damn we know how to rise from the ashes.
After the concert for the synagogue that closed, I raced to my friend’s house to lead a Torah study. One text that we learned was this famous line from Song of the Sea:
עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה
(G-d is my strength and my song; and will be my salvation.)
As we studied, we explored the question of what we need, what we hold tight to, in anticipating salvation. The salvation is clearly in future tense here, so I asked my group: is it strength and song that tide us over until our deepest hope is realized, or something different? Is the line showing correlation or causation? If we could write the recipe for ourselves of what we need to hold us steady until that day, what would be in it?
For me, the ingredients in that recipe would probably be community, community, and community. And when the community is together in song and celebration, I feel ten feet tall and bulletproof.
We are living in serious times, and we need a lot of that feeling. I think I’m noticing that, in fact, we have a lot of that feeling, that despite everything we’ve been through and the collective sense of trauma and dread that many of us are experiencing, we power through and refuse to be defeated.
Tonight I attended a solidarity gathering in support of two local Chabad communities that experienced suspicious fires in the past week. With all that the community has absorbed in these past six months, from Pittsburgh to Poway, from vandalism to arson, from desecration to propaganda, nobody would begrudge us a somber mood. Yet the tone ranged from resolute to joyful, complete with singing and dancing.
There is a Yiddish song, Mir veln zey iberlebn, iberlebn, iberlebn – We will outlive them, that has an origin story worth repeating. In 1939, a group of Hassidim were backed into a corner by Nazis and ordered to sing to their own execution. One man started, at first, Lomir sich iberbetn, iberbetn, iberbetn? – Why can’t we get along? Nobody joined in.
Then he improvised, Mir veln zey iberlebn, iberlebn, iberlebn – We will outlive them, and the Jews began singing and dancing in a wild frenzy. That spirit, the one that dances in the face of annihilation, that cleans up and buries its dead after an attack and keeps going will hold us, together, as it always has done.
As Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav wrote:
כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוֹ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לֹא לְפַחֵד כְּלַל
The entire world is a very narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.