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Songs that heal

by Michele Gelboin

The extraordinary story of a set of Shabbat songs that travelled continents, traversed generations, healed hearts... and brought inexpressible joy.

In ancient times, the Tribe of Levi was assigned the sacred task of singing and playing music in the Temple – work that was considered an integral part of the holy service. Even today, it seems many Levites have a natural affinity for music – an ear for melody and a voice for expressing it.

My father, Tzvi Hersh, of blessed memory, was the last Levite in his line. He was his father's only son, and his father was an only son, and my father had no sons and four daughters. I am the eldest of them.

My father's parents were young when their peddler fathers likely arranged their marriage. My bubbe was raised in Sochaczew, Poland, and was the only child of six in her family to grow up to have children of her own. Her brother had been denied entrance into North America and died of tuberculosis, alone in England, where he was sent. My zaide was a Rizhiner Hasid from Ukraine. My grandmother was actually five years older than him, a family secret. Around the time of World War I, a fraught time for the Jews of Europe, my grandparents sailed for Chicago, one of the American Jewish centres.

Both of my father's parents had beautiful voices and loved to sing on Shabbat. My bubbe had a special niggun, or tune, for the ancient zemira [Shabbat song], Yah Ribon, that had been passed through her family for generations. My zeide brought home a special niggun for Asader L'Seudasa, a kabbalistic song also sung by Lubavitcher Hasidim. My grandparents’ marriage lasted only about 20 years, but my father always said the best time of the week was when the family sat together at the Shabbat table and sang zemirot.

So that was my father’s family. My mother, Sheindel, whose parents hailed from Warsaw, had a much less observant upbringing. All of her Jewish experiences centered on the local JCC in the small town of Gloversville, New York, where her father had his own glove-making business, continuing a trade he and many others had practiced in Poland before the war. His own father had been so religious that he put his 14-year old son in charge of the family income, while he would study Torah day and night. He died when my mother was 15.

My own parents married young. Like my father's parents, both my parents had beautiful voices. When my father would sing at the Shabbos table, my mother would ask, "What do these songs mean?" He would reply that you were just supposed to sing them, even if you didn't understand them. He himself didn't understand every word. Eventually, she left him, taking my sister and me with her. This, understandably, upset my father a lot.

Several years later, my sister and I went back to live with our father, and with our stepmother and their two daughters. I will never forget the joy that radiated from my father's face as he sang Mizmor l'David [a poignant zemira traditionally sung at the third meal as Shabbat ebbs away]. I can still hear his beautiful voice ringing out. I felt he was expressing his love and gratitude to G-d for bringing his children back. We used to sing for a full hour and a half on Friday nights, and another hour and a half on Shabbat afternoons.

My father knew that these songs, these zemirot, were holy, because they honoured Shabbat, which he said was G-d's greatest gift to humankind.

My father taught us all of his special zemirot and wonderful tunes. In turn, I have passed them to the next generation, teaching them to my daughter, who recently graduated from medical school and began a residency in Minneapolis.

But the irony is that the story of these zemirot has come full circle. It has borne out what I believe in my heart to be true – something I experienced personally all those years ago, sitting with my sisters at our father’s Shabbat table, his face radiant with unadulterated joy and love – that these zemirot are blessed with Divine powers of healing.

I am now a primary caretaker for my mother, who turned 91 the day that Rosh Hashanah began this year. And we have a regular routine for Shabbat: together, we sing those same zemirot she complained about so many years ago.

She sings them all: U’vayom – an old zemira that my zaide used to sing in; Mipi El – one of my father’s old favourites, about which he would say, “Simple is best”; Yom Zeh M'chubad – “Honoured of Days”, a wonderful song traditionally sung at Shabbat lunch; and of course, Mizmor l'David – which we sing together in Hebrew, after which she leads me in reciting it in English.

After leaving my father, my mother wanted to stop being a Jew, something she now denies ever happened. These beautiful, holy songs are slowly restoring her identity, and for a little girl – me – devastated by my parents' split, they are a balm for heart and soul.

This is the thread of music, like birdsong, binding generations of Jews together; an ongoing dialogue between the World Above and the world below. And it is something we sample uniquely on Shabbat – a taste of heaven.

Michele Gelboin

Michele Ida Gelboin is a teacher and single mother who lives in San Diego.

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