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The Power of Song

Rokhl’s Golden City: If you can’t sing together in person, sing together online

Rokhl Kafrissen
October 02, 2020
CBS via Getty Images
Belle Baker, 1932CBS via Getty Images
CBS via Getty Images
Belle Baker, 1932CBS via Getty Images
I call God as He wishes to be called. Like this: I open my mouth and as a means of calling Him let a sound escape me. This sound is simple and it involves the vital breath. The sound limits itself to being only this: Ah …
(Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva, 1973)

You know what feels really good? Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. You know what feels even better? Taking hundreds of deep breaths in sync with a hall full of your new best friends.

As some of you will recall, in the summer of 2019 I fulfilled a longtime dream of being a student in the YIVO Yiddish summer program. The program is notoriously intense, with little time to eat, sleep, or socialize. Between schlepping to Chelsea in the unbearable heat and breaking one’s teeth on grammar and literature for hours each day, even breathing can feel like a luxury.

But on Friday afternoons, breathing was mandatory. For our last class of the week, the wonderful folks of the YIVO sound archive (Lorin Sklamberg and Eleonore Biezunski) would meet us in the auditorium for an hour of intensive (everything at the summer program is intensive) group singing. The combination of exhaustion, emotional connection, and the extraordinary repertoire Lorin and Eleonore taught us regularly brought me to tears. I wasn’t just breathing, but breathing life back into body and soul—a mekhaye (miraculous revival).

Half a year later, the novel coronavirus arrived and stole the breath from hundreds of thousands of Americans. Carried on invisible droplets, it creeps into mouths and noses without warning. “There is no terror in the bang,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “only the anticipation of it.” The virus is an airborne vector for stochastic terrorism, turning mere existence into the world’s worst psychological thriller, with no end in sight.

How many night’s sleep have I ruined, wondering, “is it allergies or is it finally the virus?” Our bodies are constantly on high alert, tightened in reaction, as if a clenched jaw could keep out a microscopic assault.

Breathing isn’t simply the way our bodies exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. How we breathe impacts mood, spirit, and physiology. How we breathe has a direct connection to our parasympathetic nervous system, (i.e., the “rest and digest” part of our autonomic nervous system). Deep breathing activates the longest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve in turn stimulates the parasympathetic response. (The vagus nerve is named so for its “wandering” nature, coming from the Latin root for wanderer. I’m convinced that the Yiddish word vogln, to wander, shares the same root.)

The sympathetic nervous system responds to stress and hypes us up with cortisol and adrenaline. And with the aforementioned low-level horror movie playing in the background every day, our bodies are being flooded with too much stress reaction and not nearly enough “chill out.” But just 20 minutes of deep breathing meditation, for example, has been observed to increase brain wave activity associated with relaxation and parasympathetic dominance.

Deep breathing and singing are hardly esoteric practices. Most of us are capable of expanding our breath beyond the functional minimum. But even in the best of times, we still need reminders. At the beginning of September, my klezmer-world friend (and multi-choir leader) Clara Byom posted something I found extremely useful on social media: “Remember to sing for fun today/Sing in the shower/Sing while doing the dishes/Sing while milking the cows …” It didn’t make me sing, but it did make me laugh, and reminded me to take a number of much needed deep breaths while I contemplated the charming thought of Clara singing to her family’s cows.

Ironically, our greatest weapon against the virus right now, isolation, is itself a physical and mental danger. Polina Shepherd is a choir director for Yiddish and Russian singing groups both in “real life” as well as within virtual space. As she told me in a recent interview, whether it’s yoga and meditation practice or singing, without the encouragement of friends or teachers, many of us fall into inactivity. As she’s observed, when singers don’t use their voice for many months, not only do their voices become less flexible, but they experience a diminishment in the life force needed for singing. And yet, after only one singing session, that diminshment can be reversed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, choirs of all kinds were fingered as potential “superspreader” events. The science is still mixed on the question. Singing seems to produce a large amount of aerosol and droplets, but it’s not clear if those droplets necessarily carry a dangerous viral load, perhaps because of where they are produced via singing, as opposed to coughing or sneezing. Nonetheless, in-person choirs are a risky proposition so long as physical mitigation is still our greatest weapon against the virus. That means that those who want to sing together must take it online.

The idea of an online choir may seem strange at first. Even stranger, each participant in Shepherd’s choir can only hear him or herself and Shepherd, and Shepherd generally only hears herself. Somehow still, a simple breath makes itself heard across a soundproof wall, or around the globe.

Describing recording with her frequent artistic partner, Lorin Sklamberg, Shepherd told me, “When you’re in the studio, with headphones on, in two different rooms, the only way you can sing together as a duo is to hear each other’s breath. We take a breath and we start the phrase together. In the way I hear his breath and his phrase and his sound changing, I know for how long he will be holding his note. … It’s such a subtle connection, you’re breathing together, you’re sensing each other on such a level, I can’t explain it … it’s more than professionalism, it is profound.” I’ve had Shepherd and Sklamberg’s latest project, 150 Voices, on repeat, and their blend of duo and choir harmonies is nothing if not beautifully profound (and features many of the songs that brought me to tears last summer).

Shepherd and Sklamberg have collaborated and toured together for years, so it’s not surprising that they would have such an intimate connection. But Shepherd finds it with her online choir, too. “I don’t know if it matters whether I hear my singers on the other side of the globe, in Hawaii or Iceland or wherever. I know that they’re breathing at the same time as I am and that they are singing and vibrating at the same time as I am and that sense of being together in the world is profoundly healing.”

Group singing is well established in traditional (and modern) Jewish life. It can be found in both prosaic and ecstatic modes. But what is rarely found is the idea of speaking in tongues, or spirit possession. Or, when it is found, in something like The Dybbuk, spirit possession is an event out of Jewish time, something to be mitigated as quickly as possible. But in other contexts, spirit possession is itself the point, a welcome healing, a thrilling transcendence of the mundanity of a single point of view.

Alex Minkin is a colleague of mine from the Yiddishist world in New York. But for many years he’s been busy as an independent researcher in the temples of Brazilian Umbanda, a syncretic, polyphonic, Spiritist religion born in the 20th century. Already fluent in Russian and English, Minkin learned Portuguese and has created an extensive ethnography of his travels through the many worlds of Umbanda. He now co-leads an organization called Ticun Brazil, which offers cultural and volunteer opportunities for travelers to Brazil.

Ticun Brazil has also been offering cultural activities in New York and just recently Minkin presented an absolutely fascinating lecture on the intersection of Jews and Umbanda for the Queens Public Library. Even though the Jewish aspect of Umbanda is itself a tiny portion of the spiritual activity overall, there’s way too much to adequately cover here.

Minkin played a number of songs by young artists involved with Umbanda. One of those artists is a Brazilian non-Jew named Bia Schneider. Schneider identifies as a medium and she sang a song inspired by the spirit of a Yiddish-speaking rabbi with whom she is in contact. The song, “The First Star in the Sky Has Six Corners,” is in Yiddish and Portuguese.

What I found so compelling about the song is probably what many will also find challenging. If you don’t share Schneider’s Spiritist belief, then her synthesis of cultures, and her use of Jewish language and concepts, may prove problematic. Someone from my corner of the world, where materialism reigns and most of us play by the one body, one spirit rule, may not be open to a performance like this. At the same time, questions of cultural appropriation, and who may speak and for what, are incredibly raw. The very concept of Spiritism, of making room in the body for contrasting voices, speaking with many breaths, feels like a gentle push against our own zeitgeist, which is why I very much enjoyed it.

Though Jewish tradition isn’t terribly friendly to spirit possession, divine breath is prophesied to play the most important role of all: sounding the shoyfer that will announce the arrival of Moshiakh.

We are traditionally impatient for that day. After all, what is the messianic age but the most perfect healing of all? The father of Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfaden, expressed it in his song “Shoyfer Shel Moshiakh” (Shofar of the Messiah):

Az Dovid vet derhern shoyfer shel moshiekh
Vet er zikh oyfkhapn fun keyver gikh on

(If only King David would hear the shofar of the Messiah
Then he would rise quickly from his resting place)

Goldfaden probably never anticipated that the song would one day be sung with the power, and dare I say, divine inspiration, of the legendary Red Hot Mama, Belle Baker. Along with Baker, I wish us all perfect healing in the new year, and the collective lung capacity to blow whatever size shoyfer is needed to heal our broken world.

LISTEN: We recently observed the first yortsayt of poet Steve Dalachinsky. His reading of Clarice Lispector inspired my inclusion of her quote here. Alex Minkin was a friend and collaborator of Dalachinsky and I appreciate him bringing this video of Steve reciting Lispector’s work to my attention.

SING: The Workers Circle is offering a number of fall classes for learning and singing Yiddish songs. Polina Shepherd will lead the Sing for a Better World choir, starting on Oct. 7. Cantor Jeff Warschauer will lead a class on Hasidic and Yiddish Nigunim, with a focus on soulful melodies, starting Oct. 15. Zisl Slepovitch will lead an online Yiddish song workshop starting Oct. 5 at noon. Zisl’s class “will provide an insight into Yiddish songs from different periods and regions, as well as those coming from folk tradition and composed by notable Yiddish authors.” … The Yiddish Singing Society continues to meet virtually every Tuesday evening. The society is open to singers at all Yiddish levels, and aims to learn songs “from the inside out.”

ALSO: If you’re ready to do outdoor, in-person activities, the Lower East Side Conservancy goes uptown on Oct. 18 for their Jewish Harlem walking tour, spaces very limited … Miriam Hoffman will be leading a six-week conversational Yiddish class as part of the Yiddishkayt Initiative. Starts Oct. 18 at noon … If you’re ready to go back to the theater, Shane Baker, Allen Rickman, and Yelena Shmulenson are bringing back their crackling theatrical tribute to Sholem Aleichem, Tevye Served Raw: Garnished with Jews. Oct. 22-25 at the Centenary Stage Company, Hackettstown, New Jersey … Oct. 22, Montreal’s own YidLife Crisis (Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman) will do a fundraiser performance for some of the most vital Montreal institutions, including the Jewish Public Library and Segal Centre for the Performing Arts … The Medem Centre in Paris announced a full slate of Yiddish language courses online, starting at the beginning of October.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.