“Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life" is Andi Rosenthal's monthly column about "the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage."
I had wanted to visit Prague for years. Many of my friends came back with stories about that beautiful city, its magnificent architecture, its fascinating history--and best of all, how cheaply young college students could shop, travel--and drink copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell. But I had a very different reason for wanting to go. Since I had taken a number of Holocaust studies courses, I knew that Prague was a city rich in Jewish history (my father and his side of the family is Jewish, while I had been raised Catholic), and I couldn't wait to see the famous synagogues, the ancient cemetery, and to finally pay my respects to those who been imprisoned at Terezin, which was just north and west of the city.
I had the opportunity to travel to Prague as a member of my university's choir, which had been invited to a three-week concert tour of Czechoslovakia in 1992. For the tour, the choir chose a program which consisted of half sacred music, and half American secular music. Included in the sacred half of the program were songs as diverse and ecumenical as a Russian Orthodox setting of "Ave Maria," and Leonard Bernstein's interpretation of the Kaddish prayer. We also sang a number of American spirituals, and six-part church vespers from the medieval period.
The Kaddish featured a soprano solo for which I auditioned. I knew, as an American child of an interfaith marriage, struggling to reclaim my Jewish heritage, what it would mean to me to sing those words in a place where people had been persecuted and murdered for their beliefs. My recent tonsillectomy, however, had done too much damage; I could barely manage the lowest of the high notes.
Nevertheless, I was disappointed that I didn't get the solo; and even more disappointed that my friend Regina, who did get the solo, was a born-again Christian. In terms of Jews in the choir, I was as close as it got--and I was merely a Catholic child of interfaith parents, not that anyone had ever asked me my religious history. Yet, it didn't seem right to me that the sacred words of Jewish mourning were being sung by someone who might not have any idea of their context. To be sure, I was aware of, and also slightly ashamed of, my own prejudice, and so I kept it quiet. And perhaps I was being unfair. After all, I had been born and raised as a Catholic, and yet I knew what the words of Kaddish meant.
When we arrived in Prague, our first concert stop was the Old-New Synagogue, where we were to sing that evening. This synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe that is still in use as a house of prayer. What we didn't know, however, was that it is currently a religious center for the Orthodox Jews of Prague.
When the choir emerged from the bus, travel-weary but ready to perform, we were escorted inside, and the women were instructed to stand behind a wall, in the women's section, while the men were allowed into the main sanctuary. Our director protested vehemently, but our host remained firm; the women would not be allowed to sing in the sanctuary. We tried some warm-up pieces, but the sound was all wrong, and the two groups of singers could not see nor hear one another.
Our host offered an alternative: we would be allowed to sing as one group if we performed in the synagogue's basement conference room. Thus, we picked up our black music binders, smoothed out our concert attire, and made our way down the narrow steps. The room was not large; there was no stage, no risers, and so we did the best we could, forming a semi-circle at one end of it. After we were in place, about fifty audience members--mostly members of the synagogue, we were told--took their seats in folding chairs at the other end of the room.
The Kaddish came in the middle of the first half of the program. When Regina took a step forward from the rest of the choir to sing the first lovely notes, there was a sudden outcry. The audience stood abruptly and began to yell at Regina. To her credit, and to our disbelief, she went right on, singing the sacred words. After two or three minutes, the members of the audience, en masse, departed. Only our host remained.
We continued singing to that empty room. At the intermission, our choir director turned on our host, furious, demanding to know why the audience had left. In a low voice, he explained the Jewish law that prohibited a woman from singing prayers, and that Regina's solo performance of Kaddish was considered tremendously offensive in an Orthodox setting. Then he asked the director why he was unaware of this; weren't there any Jews in the choir?
Our choir director turned and motioned angrily for me to come forward. "You," he hissed, as he jabbed a fat finger into my shoulder. "Miss Rosenthal," he said, with a sneer in his voice. "You're Jewish. Why didn't you tell me this was going to happen?" His eyes narrowed. "Was it because you didn't get the solo?"
I blanched, absolutely mystified that I was being accused of having sabotaged the performance. "But I'm not Jewish," I stammered. "I didn't know."
He eyed me for a moment. And then he finally spoke. "Sit down," he said, his voice still simmering with anger. "You're not singing the second half."
And so I sat, among those empty rows of seats, listening to my friends perform the second half of the concert. When we got back on the bus, some of them asked me what had happened. But I didn't want to talk about it. I was sad and confused; it was another moment, among many, when I didn't know how to define myself. I had a Jewish parent. I was fascinated with Jewish history and music and culture. But I had been taught to pray and to worship as a Christian. I knew I wanted to convert, even back then, but I didn't know how to begin the process.
Moreover, to survive the predominantly Christian choir (we even practiced in a local church), I never gave any sign that I was different from them--mostly to keep myself safe from many of the members' well-intentioned attempts to proselytize. And yet, in this instance, accused of knowing rituals and laws with which I had never been acquainted, with my name leading before me like a banner, I had been marked as a Jew just the same.
My director did not let me sing with the group for another week, as punishment for, as he called it, "withholding information and sabotage." I watched six concerts without singing in any of them. And every time Regina stood apart to sing the words of Kaddish, I admired not only her powerful, graceful voice, but also her courage to stand up to those who would have silenced her.
In the end, I remained silent for the next ten years, letting the gift of my voice lay fallow, always remembering how sad and alienated and confused I felt following that concert tour, believing that I would never feel quite at home among singers again.
And yet, as hope springs eternal in the heart, so does music never quite leave the soul. The next time I found the courage to finally lift my own voice in joyful song was three years ago, a few months before my conversion to Judaism, as a member of the Larchmont Temple choir, Shir Ami.