March 8, 2010
Nachem was a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania--a second cousin, or maybe a third. He was medium height, stocky, some light patches of hair, terse and jaded. That's about all I remember. That, and isolated snapshots of family sitting in a beige carpeted living room. I see mostly needlepoint stitching on chairs, pillows, an ottoman, caches of fruity colors, lime green, tangerine orange--the essence of my great-grandfather's house in Brookline, Mass. I was 3 years old in a roomful of relatives sitting shiva for my great-grandmother, Gussie Katz. In my memory I hear conversation consolidated into murmurs. Allegedly, sitting on my knees on one of the small lime green ottomans, I asked the room a question.
An uncomfortable silence.
"She's in box," Nachem turned to me, "Under the ground."
Silence. My mother looked mortified.
Nachem's faded legacy dominates one of my first memories of my childhood. The blood that coursed through his veins survives in mine. I was raised Jewish, proudly. Judaism was the mold of my childhood.
But my father wasn't Jewish. He was an agnostic protestant from Lausanne, Switzerland. He grew up playing the cello in churches with his mother, a pianist and a violinist. Later on in life, he found his calling as a musician, traveling between local congregations on the weekends, playing with choirs and string ensembles. He performed Bach, Telemann and other masters of the Baroque era with colleagues in any sanctuary that would have them. In 1980, he attended a Baroque music festival in Bath, England, where he met my mother, a Baroque recorder player. In 1983, he left Lausanne for Boston with his Jewish American wife, yet his European Renaissance-charged upbringing remained deep seated in his mentality. With a child on the way, the couple moved to Ridgefield, a small town in the southeast corner of Connecticut, overcast in the shadow of Manhattan. There were enough congregations in the area--St. Stephens, Jessi Lee Memorial, St. Mary's--for my father to continue making a living. He was a musician, passionate and simple--a true bohemian.
To this day he lives by the skin of his teeth, teaching the cello and playing gigs that pay just enough for him to get by. Bach, Hayden, Baroque string orchestras, chamber music: these are the ornate ideas that painted my childhood in classical gold leaf music notes. As a result, I grew up attending Friday night Shabbat services with my mother, and attending church services on an almost regular basis in order to watching my father play his cello with harpsichords, pipe organs, and church choirs. For a while, my father also played in a trio with a married couple in town, a prominent pianist and violist. Almost all his performances with other stringed instruments took place in churches. Vacations to Switzerland were speckled with visits to century old cathedrals with ancient pipe organs and thick permeable air from medieval times. My childhood is as much a pastiche of mystical cathedral with high echoey ceilings as it is a collection of cozy off-white carpeted pavilions with stars of David and flickering candles.
Now that I'm older, I can reflect. I see my formative years as a mix of two spiritualities united by a third: music. My mother too, was an active member of our synagogue's sisterhood choir. No matter where I was, I sat silently taking in what words I could understand, and letting music fill in the gaps.
Blood is thicker than water: a simple saying, but what exactly does it mean? I think it means that the love of family is a stronger fuel than any other nourishment. The first truth a child learns is the faith of its parents. On April 27th, 2008, my mother was diagnosed with terminal brain and lung cancer. She died on October 6th, 2008. When it happened, I was afraid. I have no siblings. My father is agnostic, and most of my cousins had either married Christians or were also agnostic. I was afraid that I would lose my connection to Judaism.
By the time my mother's first yahrtzeit approached, I had moved to Brooklyn, New York. I was working as a freelance cellist, same as my father, and looking for steady work in the literary world. My days were wrapped in my efforts to find a job. October 6th, 2009 came almost unexpectedly, and I took the day off from an unpaid internship to reflect on my life. I sat in my room contemplating, candles lit, shades drawn. Suddenly the phone rang. It was my grandfather.
He wanted to plan a memorial concert for his daughter, my mother, to be held at Temple Sherith Israel, the temple where I grew up, indeed where I had had my bris--the congregation that knew my mother. He had already set the date for November 20th, 2009. The rabbi would speak of her. My grandfather, a conductor, would lead his small chamber orchestra in a few pieces that my mother had cherished: Bach's double concerto for violin, Saint-Saens' The Swan. He proposed that I would then follow with a solo piece for cello, an elegy in C minor by Gabriel Faure. After thinking about his proposal, I was no longer scared. This memorial would honor the way I was raised, in a household of music and religion. The music would have a Christian tone, especially the work of Bach, whose works had largely been written to be hymns and church music. The service itself would have a Jewish tone and be led by the rabbi that my mother and I had known. The duality of my upbringing would be upheld after all. Blood is thicker than water.
Beethoven is quoted as saying: "Music is the closest thing to hearing God's voice." Or perhaps he said the closest man will ever come to speaking with God is through music. The point is that music is a mediator in all religions. That is what I learned growing up in an interfaith household. Whether subconsciously or not, I observed God through sound first, and then through words. Music, to me, is a direct connection between God and man that transcends all other forms of observance. An open ear is an open heart--nothing more is necessary to understand music, or to hear God through it. Though I did not truly understand this until moving away from my hometown after my mother's death, now I understand how this message had been ingrained in me by both my parents since the day I was born.