Well, it happened again; I went back to singing for High Holy Days, although not in Deal this time.
Now that I have a Germanic last name, I figured I wouldn’t have to change it to something more Semitic this time, but one of the first things the cantor brought up with me was the “problem” some people might have with me being a gentile. I foolishly told the cantor about how they changed my name to Montebini in Deal, and I think it gave him ideas; he other day he asked if he could call me Miriam in front of other people.
I told him that he could call me that…but I might not answer.
Anyway, the whole situation has made me start thinking about the role music plays in religion. Obviously, music and religion have been inexorably linked since the beginning of either. But more pertinent to a person in my line of work: when did religions start hiring ringers to “improve” their services?
I know the Catholic church (and later, the Protestants) has always been a great sponsor of music. The first music conservatories were orphanages run by the church. And how many great, monumental works were commissioned by the church? So I’m very, very grateful to organized religion in general for being such a consistent sponsor of the arts throughout the centuries. But sorry, folks, I’m not going to buy into your way of thinking just because you sign my check.
Many religious pieces have been (and continue to be) written by believers, from Palestrina to MacMillan, but some really beautiful sacred music has been written by composers leading decidedly secular lives, like Mozart or Schumann. I personally don’t believe that a piece of music is only sacred when someone who believes what the listener believes writes it. So what is the big deal when someone who doesn’t believe performs it, as long as they perform it well?
Being a gentile in the middle of High Holy Days certainly made me feel very much an outsider, especially considering the fact that most of the services were conducted in Hebrew. And the fact that I had to hide my religious affiliation to the point of changing my name also rubbed me the wrong way. Are appearances so important that you have to make everyone believe that the 4 singers you hired to be there also are Jews? Because if it’s THAT important, then you should just never hire gentiles at all.
The irony really struck me while rehearsing for Kol Nidre, when the cantor explained that this service started back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews went underground and had to pretend they were Christians. Kol nidre is the prayer that renounces all false oaths those Jews made to their oppressors. And yet I have to pretend to be Jewish.
And lest you think my frustration is only with the Jews, most churches require their choir members to bow or reverence the altar during procession to the choir stalls, and some higher forms of Episcopal and Catholic churches require you to bow to the cross on the altar whenever you pass by it. It’s a part of the ritual, and I do it out of respect for the people worshiping around me. But I don’t take communion, nor does anyone expect me to, since communion is reserved for baptized Christians only (for Catholics, it’s reserved only for Catholics).
The problem may lie with me. After all, if I didn’t want to do what the folks at the synagogue expected of me, I could have just not taken the job. And I’m sure some of you think that by running from synagogue to church in the same day I’m no better than a religious strumpet, stripping off my cotta and slipping on a kippah. And certainly there is a meretricious element to what I’m doing, because this particular gig, by its very nature, is deceptive.
I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this, at least not one where I don’t offend somebody. I am a working singer, and there are certain organizations of varying religions that feel they would benefit from my services. If somebody feels closer to God when they hear me sing, then that makes me happy, and it brings me closer to God(dess). Music is my church, and I am constantly worshiping there.