Sing!

Anna Braverman, University Health Services

Honorable Mention

2018-2019 Staff Essay Contest

 

Zamru means “Sing!” in Hebrew. Not a milder, suggestive “Let’s sing,” but the imperative “Open your heart and sing!” It is also the name of a small Jewish community that meets monthly to sing their way through the Friday night Shabbat service prayers. We come from all walks of life. Some of us are more observant; some pray only when they come here. Some keep kosher at home, and some do not. Some are grandparents, and some are young parents. Young children always weave their way through the circle of praying adults and insert their own whimsical commentary into the fabric of the service.

Each service begins with light refreshments and mingling. Chairs are set up in a circle at one end of the large room, and round tables await diners at the other end. A lone guitarist quietly strums his guitar in the middle of the praying circle. Soon he will be joined by the rabbi, the inner circle of congregation leaders ready to lead us in song, and the rest of the congregation. But for now, people are slowly pouring in, making the room hum with quiet grace. They drop off the vegetarian dishes they’ve brought for the potluck dinner that will follow the service, find someone they know, and maybe introduce themselves to someone they do not know. Some people get here right after work. Some had to wrangle small children into the car to get here and have not had a chance to breathe yet. The rabbi takes the temperature of the room, and when it seems that the flow of people coming in has slowed and the energy has grown expectant, she signals for people to make their way into the circle and opens the service with a quiet song. It starts softly, gently, with only a few people signing, but soon it rises, picking up new voices and new meanings, until it becomes an earnest, joyful prayer. It is followed by another and another. Some of the songs are canonical Shabbat prayers, but interspersed among them are simple songs, some only containing a few words, that speak to the congregation’s simple hopes, for peace, for harmony, for safety, for a glorious day. I immerse myself into the service, weaving in and out of the rhythm of prayer as I take turns with my husband chasing my young daughter and her friends around the perimeter of the praying body of people, and I reflect on what all of this means to me.

I know that some people here have grown up with a community like this. I know that some know all these prayers by heart and have learned them from their own parents. I expect that for some this service means stability, inevitability, normalcy, the way things have been, are, and should be. Not for me—at least, not exactly. I was born in the Soviet Union to parents who were forced to give up their Jewish traditions due to government persecution. The delicate thread, which prevailed for generations, of traditions being carefully nurtured, observed, and passed down from parent to child was broken in my parents’ generation. My grandparents, growing up in the shadow of war and persistent discrimination, did not feel it safe to hand the thread to their children—my parents. Therefore, I grew up with only a vague mention of Jewish traditions and without a Jewish community like the one I found at Zamru. As a child, I learned no prayers, attended no services, and the calming, steadfast rhythm of the Jewish calendar was foreign to me. So what does it mean to me now? Not my family’s tradition, not a habit, not what I’m used to, and not even what I practice on a daily basis.

But it means this: It means that oppressors who have themselves already faded into history will not have been able to rob me. It means that something my ancestors have succeeded in carrying across centuries of untold struggle will not fail with me. It means that my parents will be absolved. My having found my way here means that even if they didn’t teach me overtly, they must have nurtured our shared history, our precious thread, quietly, and they must have given it to me in secret, so expertly that I didn’t feel myself picking it up. But most of all, it brings joy to my heart to see my children starting to recognize these words and melodies.

It thrills and humbles me to think that my children will grow up with the cadences of the Shema (one of the holiest and most basic of Jewish prayers) stored in their implicit memory—which is how generations of my ancestors grew up. Maybe what was broken and squelched in my parents’ generation will be repaired in mine.

Meanwhile, the service draws to an end, and after the final blessing on the bread and wine, the congregants turn their attention to dinner, accompanied by the usual final announcement: “Clockwise around the potluck table! Clockwise please!” Actually, this little injunction is fitting somehow. Clockwise—round and round, this is how the Jewish calendar flows. This day of rest we’ve just welcomed is both special and not special at all, because every week, no matter what, no matter how hard the week has been, and no matter how hard someone has tried to take it away from us, this day of rest and peace will come again.

 

Listen to Anna Braverman read her essay here.