Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

10 10 2012

A disclaimer for the frum and soon-to-be heart attacked readers of this blog: Judaism is a deep part of my soul and identity, and I am not compromising that connection.  Conversely, my Jewish connection is strong enough and secure enough to allow me to pull from the spirituality, teachings and gems of the world.

Just over a year ago, I posted a piece on the blog entitled “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!“. This post is about glory of a different kind…  :-)

I admire the way that black women hold themselves – specifically how many black women sing and easily become one with whatever music they are moving to.  In 2009, I rocked out with my little sister to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” (skip to 2:48 in the music video) for weeks and weeks, and wrote a bit about the power of black women’s voice and movement in a borderline controversial blog post over the summer.

Every now and then, I have thought:  Wouldn’t it be the most amazing thing in the world to join a black gospel choir?  Well, in the words of my Jewish ancestors and Ethics of Our Fathers: If not now, when?  So I have!!!

I did some research over the summer and identified the most energetic, talented and prestigious black gospel choir in central Texas…  conveniently located across the street from the co-op that I would soon be accepted into.  I called the church office over and over again until one day the choir president called back.

My Church... Across the Street!

My Church… Across the Street!

We had a lovely conversation and he instructed me to prepare my “favorite hymn” for the audition.  My in-head reaction was:  “Hymn?  What’s a hymn?  I don’t know what a hymn is!” and my “is this really happening?!” adventure was off to a start.

I selected three songs to sing for the choir’s musical director that showcased different parts of my voice (Encourage Yourself, This Little Light of Mine and Poor Wandering One).  When my little sister Jess found out that I was going to be singing Poor Wandering One (a Gilbert & Sullivan song that had become a joke in our family), she begged me to switch the selection and picked out a wonderfully soulful alternative that I added to my audition list:

At first, I was scared sh**less.  I’m pretty ballsy, but walking into a church as the only white and the only Jewish person to audition for the premier black gospel choir in town?  That takes chutzpah!

A Good Reminder - I Can Do This...

A Good Reminder – I Can Do This…

But then I couldn’t stop smiling.  I don’t mean for this to sound ignorant, but – with the little interaction that I’ve had with the black community and with everyone going “Hey brotha!” and “Hey sista!” and doing that snapping “mm-mm-mm” thing – my unfiltered reaction was:  Oh my G-d!  It’s just like on TV!

But on a more serious note, I felt loved and embraced by the choir.  Practice was opened with a prayer in which they thanked the Lord for having brought me into their lives and having allowed me to find them at this crucial time in my life.  If only they knew how true their words were – to find a community like this and be able to sing out to the universe, our spirits altogether… Wow.  I was very touched and – over the past month – have indeed felt very loved and loving of my brothers and sisters in the choir.

Oh, Man...  That Cross Took Some Getting Used To (But Don't Let It Freak You Out!)

My First Practice – The Cross Took Some Getting Used To (But Don’t Let It Freak You Out!)

Stay tuned for a couple of not-to-be-missed funny and powerful stories about my first Sunday service in the next post.  Details to come!

posted by ayo


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15 responses

10 10 2012
cyndi

I don’t comment much, on any blogs anymore, but I still read. Gotta say I’m still lovin’ your spirit, chutzpah and soul, Ayo! We met in Quartzsite, last year. I’ve had my new knees installed and am mobile, again (YIPEEEE!). Hope to be heading east, through TX, in a couple months and will be looking forward to catching up with you!

Happy trails, forever!

http://rvlyeverafter.blogspot.com/

11 10 2012
ayo

Cyndi, it’s great to hear from you! Congrats on the new knees and thanks for the lovin’. I’ll look forward to seeing you when you wander through. :-)

10 10 2012
Weston

Ayo

Hope you take this as an honest question and not an implied criticism but I’m having a hard time understanding this.

Your going to be singing songs about how Jesus is the son of God and your Lord and Savior… because you like the music. I’m wondering how you feel that expressing these views is not a compromise of your connection to Judaism? If you have changed your views or faith and believe that Jesus is the son of God and your Lord and Savior that would be one thing. Would you say those same words to other people if it didn’t have a catchy tune behind it?

Would you sing lyrics from the radical right even though you might be a liberal? Would you sing misogynistic lyrics even though you might be a feminist? if you did, I would vehemently defend your right to do so, but would be perplexed as to why you would feel that doing so wouldn’t be compromising a connection to liberalism or feminism.

10 10 2012
Having a Go at the Inner Workings of Ay...

I think the difference is that Ay would not espouse a view that she thought had negative moral implications (such as the misogynistic lyrics you give as an example). While she might disagree with Jesus’ divine status personally speaking, it sounds like she also recognizes the beautiful things – the spirituality and positivity – that can come out of such a view and that is the thing that she endorses when she sings. In this way, it’s not just a catchy tune that she identifies with, but a positive message of love and humanity as well.

10 10 2012
Weston

Thanks “Having a Go” I understand your point and maybe my analogies weren’t the best available. However my underlying perplexity remains the same.

Is it all right to say something you really don’t believe just because you are singing it?

11 10 2012
ayo

Hi Weston,

Thanks for your direct and thought-provoking questions. My participation in the choir offers tremendous value and growth in several key areas including community-building and cross-cultural exchange, but I’ll leave those to the side for now to address your main point.

1- Like “Having a Go” surmised, I would not sing words that I find hateful or ideologically oppose. However, I am not “opposed” to belief in Jesus. Separately, many people who sing often are not singing to proclaim the lyrics. (This particular case is different, but let’s look to the general example for now.) Is it inherently wrong to sing something that you would not factually state? I don’t think so in light of the next point…

2- Songs and statements are worlds apart in their intent and execution. Statements are meant to be taken at face value, but it is not always this way with song. Song is an expression of the self, and I would argue that the meaning and spirit behind the words are just as important if not more so than the words themselves. The spirit of my choir members, I surely share.

3- There is a certain level of interpretation involved. Many of the lyrics that I sing are meant as words of solidarity and encouragement, and those I do believe. When we sing about the Holy Spirit, in my mind, I think of “Ruach HaKodesh” – the Jewish phraseology and understanding of the spirit of God. When the choir sings about Jesus, it gives me newfound appreciation and understanding of this figure in their theology and lives – and also makes me think historically about the person. Conversely, when I sing Judaism’s “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” profession of monotheism, I personally connect to the verse as a statement of “Listen up, all those who wrestle with God, the divine sparks in each of us are one and united.”

To put it differently, I recently saw a cutesy TED talk (http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=3393) that spoke of a world with universal spirituality and divinity until one day the devil came along and said “Here, let me organize that for you”. And so were born what we now call religions.

What I experience with the choir is on a shared and deep level beyond “just singing” and – hey – I don’t subscribe to all of the theology of Judaism on both a factual and historical level, but that doesn’t stop me from being a vibrant member of the community.

4- On a very practical level, we provide inspiration for one another. I often joke that I do not dance to the music. Rather, music dances me. I feel my entire being come alive with the singing of these powerful songs and my presence brings a new energy, rhythm and excitement to the choir that has been both verbally and non-verbally acknowledged.

By singing with the choir, I experience true kavanah (intention). By praying with the choir, I learn how to call out to the universe in a way less inhibited and perhaps more sincere than I have witnessed anywhere else. Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel once lamented that we have lost the spontaneity and magic of prayer and song. Well, Weston, I have found it again.

You weren’t expecting a megillah, were you now? :-)

11 10 2012
Susie

I am not commenting on your choice to join this choir, because I honestly believe that you should do whatever it is that makes you happy and fulfills you. In fact, I think that doing so was downright gutsy.

I do want to comment on one aspect of your decision, however. You wrote,
“By singing with the choir, I experience true kavanah (intention). By praying with the choir, I learn how to call out to the universe in a way less inhibited and perhaps more sincere than I have witnessed anywhere else.”
I find this to be rather sad. You have experienced so many Jewish communities throughout your life, in yeshiva and seminary and beyond. I just find it hard to grasp that you had to join a gospel choir, of all things, in order to finally find the “spontaneity and magic of prayer and song.” Perhaps this says something about the state of Judaism today… which is kind of a depressing thought.

I mean sure, I have been to my share of Jewish services that focus more on saying-the-prayers-as-quickly-as-possible than on capturing the magic of the moment. But I have also been to Jewish services with amazing, heart-pounding, uplifting singing and dancing, and I was just struck by the fact that you turned to a gospel choir to “find” this sincerity in prayer. As you venture on with the gospel choir, I just hope that you don’t forget that your own religion can provide just as much spirituality and meaning, if you know where to look.

(I would be happy to recommend some places for you, though I obviously lack familiarity with the Jewish communities in Texas.)

(Also, this sounds like such a kiruv post, but it isn’t! I promise! I really mean what I said in the beginning – have a great time with all of your gutsy endeavors!)

11 10 2012
ayo

@Susie: I have indeed experienced many Jewish communities, and some services and environments “hit home” more than others.

I loved experiencing yiddishkeit during my time in yeshiva in Israel. The Alon Shvut intensity of Judaism was powerful and deep. At the same time, it was still restricted and regimented in the ways in which it is appropriate for people (and specifically women) to express that depth of emotion and connection.

Separately, the Ikar-style drum circle of Judaism is expressive and joyful, and comes close to the rousing spontaneity of the choir though perhaps (just a guess) its congregants are less theologically homogenous and fervently believing.

But it’s not a competition. Though I think we could learn a lot from this community, my end message wasn’t that we in Judaism are lacking. It’s more that I have experienced the strengths and offerings of our community and don’t feel bad about finding external sources of inspiration to bring back and infuse. Kind of a super weird take on Modern Orthodox and finding value in the outside world to synthesize into our own.

11 10 2012
Steve

I’ve been a reader of the Yair and Ayo show for a while. I don’t recognize my Ayo anymore. You seemed so grounded before. Especially at the beginning and now you seem lost and confused. I hear that chicks can go schizophrenic up till they are 40. After that you just have menopause to deal with. This seems like a midlife crisis WAY too early. Really, living in a commune and a transformation to a jewish white, black gospel singer? Why not drop some acid and go to India to search for a swami mentor while you’re at it?

I miss the episodes of the practical insightful Yair contrasted With the equally intellectually gifted, yet spontaneous and spirited Ayo. I loved your shared stories and experiences. You can’t deny there was true love at one time. You were like Dharma and Greg. Dammit Ayo, No hippi chicks! Get ahold of yourself and get away to somewhere where there is no outside influence or distractions and ground. Stop this nonsense and whatever you do, don’t go turning into a big ole ho.

I considered not saying anything but hey, this is a blog. It’s out ther for me to add my two cents. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you two. I just liked it better the way it was. What the hell are you doing?

11 10 2012
ayo

Hi Steve,

You’re upset. I get that. You might be interested in reading my super long-winded response to Weston in the comments above. If nothing else, perhaps it will at least show you that my decisions are eminently well thought through.

I’m not in a mid-life crisis of any sort, though admittedly many things in my life are changing right now. I’d like to offer you some insight into my decisions, but first I’d like to call you out on a few items:

1) Hyperbole – It may be fun to make outlandish statements for shock value or to drive home a point (e.g. your comments about schizophrenia and menopause), but I can’t imagine that this is a very effective way to either convey a message or dialogue with others. Something to consider.

2) Judging – You may not have made the same decisions as me, but I wonder if you try to understand people and – for just a moment – live through their eyes, rather than casting judgments upon them. Your comments make me wonder when the last time was that you stepped outside of your comfort zone or tried something radically new. Perhaps you had parents that discouraged a goal of yours or an interest in travel at a young age, and this left a chip on your shoulder?

I’ve never been a big fan of substances, am fairly straight-edge and don’t anticipate finding myself on an Indian ashram any time soon. However, I also don’t trivialize the experience of others and don’t cast aspersions on those who choose to mindfully experience LSD and who search for meaning and spirituality abroad. Your perspective seems rather fixed. Not quite grounded, but more “stuck”.

3) Misogyny – I strongly object to your phrasing of “big ole ho”. First of all, I have no idea where it comes from or what would lead you to made such a sexually overt comment. Secondly, though I was raised quite conservatively vis a vis sexuality and still maintain many of those core values, it is fundamentally patriarchal and misogynistic for you to deem a sexually active woman “a big ole ho”. Should all women come to you for permission to act like grown adults? Then you could tell them what sexual boundaries should be set – “hand-holding for you, kissing for you, okay you – you’re ready for more now”. You could even set curfews lest a woman overstep your boundaries.

Steve, there are enough women haters in this world and enough people who put women down while holding them to unfair double standards. We don’t need more of these, so please be more conscientious in your choice of wording.

Since this comment is already so long, I will close by just mentioning that each part of my current life was deliberately chosen and has tremendous value. I don’t see myself living in a co-op forever, however I am gaining practice at building community, living in partnership and challenging my ideological viewpoints in a healthy way. I address the value of choir participation in the comment above. I am physically challenging myself through acroyoga play and acrobatics training. I am mentally challenging myself through launching new social and educational projects. And I continue to volunteer and be an active and loyal friend. What you see as distractions, I see as opportunities.

I wish for you that – when you find yourself judging and inching toward condescension – you possess the strength of character and flexibility of mind to walk in the other’s shoes.

PS- Out of curiosity, if you were re-designing my life, what would it look like? Would the “only difference” be that I would be married to Yair, but still on the road? Would I be back in New York, working a management consulting job? You make clear what parts of my life you find objectionable, but you don’t make clear what values you espouse and what “grounded” actions you would have me take. Not a rhetorical question, by the way.

11 10 2012
Joselyn

Steve,

I appreciate the fact that you must be very invested in Ay to have come up with such a passionate response. However, you must not be well acquainted with anyone who actually suffers from schizophrenia, as you so casually and flippantly throw around the term. But then again, it makes sense that you would reduce a woman’s life to (an inaccurate, unscientific range of)
0-40: potential schizophrenia,
40+: menopause,
considering that you seem to have such a reductionist and thoroughly inaccurate view on what it is Ay is doing with her life.

“I considered not saying anything but hey, this is a blog. It’s out there for me to add my two cents.” Freedom of speech does not mean that because there is a venue that allows you to say something, you therefore should say it. Yes, Ay, opens up her life to criticism as well as praise by having a blog and in doing so, she must accept whatever commentary on her life comes her way, but that by no means justifies incredible insensitivity on your part. Free speech and being as this is a blog allows me to go further in insulting you, but I will refrain from doing so and I hope in the future you’ll consider doing the same when commenting on other people’s lives.

11 10 2012
Steve

Joselyn

The schizo/menopause comment was my obvious attempt at humor. Your desire to capitalize on it and turn it into something far more sinister solidifies your self-designated role as an enabler. Enablers can be positive or negative influences in a persons life. The knee-jerk venom with which you respond to criticism of Ayo may place you with the latter. Please re-examine your motives. Ayo, if you get to the point in your self examination where you find it necessary to exclude toxic persons from your life, consider Joselyn.

I don’t feel my view of Ayo’s life is reductionist or inaccurate. I looked at the entire detailed picture painted throughout the past couple years and noted the progression or regression in content, character, and tone. My intuition told me there may be something amiss. Something in the story seemed to be saying “hey everybody, I will soon walk off th edge of the metaphorical pier.” i’d much rather speak than remain silent during such times. Unwavering approval in the wake of an aberrated change in character is not my preference. Again you interpret the criticism as insensitive and insulting when my intent was quite opposite-a call to wake up. I would rather stop that step off the edge of the pier than throw in the life preserver after the fact. What would you do Joselyn, give a little push?

You are right in one respect. I may have become, not only invested in the Yair and Ayo show, but I may have become over-invested. They represented something right in this often chaotic and hectic world. They were good and true and beautiful together. They were beating the system and living outside the bounds of conventional wisdom.

The wackiness of the past many posts prompted me to respond. (perhaps too cheeky) . I have also come to the conclusion that this will be my last post here. It is time to erase this blog from the favorites list and just be thankful to Yair and Ayo for sharing their beautiful time together.

Ayo, no offense intended. Like Joselyn said, I don’t “know” you. I really don’t. My intuition spoke. I’ve learned not to ignore it. Bad things happen when I do that.

Yair and Ayo, good luck in life and love.

Steve

11 10 2012
Steve

Well okay, so this will now officially be my last post. I wrote the previous post to Joselyn before i read Ayo’s response above. Ayo, I’ll post here to give this closure.

Steve,

Thanks for your note.  Just one last thing.  I am actually interested in how you would answer the questions below:

Question: Out of curiosity, if you were re-designing my life, what would it look like? Would the “only difference” be that I would be married to Yair, but still on the road? Would I be back in New York, working a management consulting job?

Answer: Ayo, I am not a life re-designer. My place in this scenario was “blog follower”. Like I said, I enjoyed the Yair and Ayo show immensely. By way of analogy, there have been many a good show in the entertainment industry where the characters had split and gone their separate ways. Not many fans like it when this happens and those fans may call or write in to producers complaining. Think of me more in that sense. Later on down the road, the behind-the-scenes story comes out in some “True Hollywood” special. I think the difference here is that this is not TV, it is real. You and Yair are real, as are consequences of life’s decisions. Thus the responses can be more personal and personally taken. In the Blogosphere there is point and counterpoint, message and response. I responded, not in the positive (more on that later) and not in a positive way either (that too). I wrote my response and hit the submit button. I own it. Thinking back, I recall a couple of posts after the “Get” where the negative poster was given a good old fashioned blogosphere beat down. If only glowing and warm responses are allowed, so state it.

That said, and a re-clarification that I do not seek to command your life with my blog response, I do have a “wish” for you and Yair. Be happy, nothing less.

Question: You make clear what parts of my life you find objectionable, but you don’t make clear what values you espouse and what “grounded” actions you would have me take. Not a rhetorical question, by the way.”

Answer: I don’t think I was “clear” on this at all. My assessment was based on the lengthy and timely photo journal of your lives and thoughts on a myriad of subjects and predicaments over the course of time. My conclusion was derived from a heuristic evaluation of the variables leading to more doubts than certainties about you in particular Ayo. I arrived at a conclusion through INTUITION. The value which you decide to assign my intuition is up to you. Ask me to explain it and I will tell you I can’t. You can call that a cop out on answering i know, but It’s 100% intuition. It’s something outside of me, speaking within me. It has saved my life in the past. It has been an ally to me, so when it it speaks up I speak out. If you don’t like it feel free to print out the response, fold it into a paper airplane and chuck it out the window. However, If there was any flash in your mind when you were just reading that last part STOP and rewind.

Lastly, i did not read your response until after i had responded to Joselyn’s. The points you made were all good and valid points. I will take them to heart.

Steve

15 10 2012
Diane

Hey Ayo,
I’m sorry have not been keeping up lately…I applaud your decision and courage. If I could ask for one more gift in this life, it would be the ability to sing. Some members of my family have it. I, sadly, do not. This in no way impairs my ability to enjoy it, however. My public singing experience has been limited to anyone-can-join type of community choirs, but singing in a group is a powerful experience. Good for you. Lots of thought-provoking comments posted here, which I will study at a later date. Regardless, I applaud you for making decisions from deep in your heart and acting on them.

I am sad to hear about the end of your marriage. As one door has closed for you, one has opened for me. At the ripe old age of 54, I have found my love and we got married on 10-11-12. Funniest fact: yes, he has an RV and we plan to use it as soon and as often as possible. Now you know why I’ve fallen behind in my blog reading.
Your Blogosphere Pal,
Diane

P.S. Loved the “Unwritten” clip. I’d never seen it. Will share with my husband tonight.

16 10 2012
ayo

Diane!

A hearty mazal tov! I am so excited for you and glad that you found someone worthy of your heart.

Do let me know if you find yourself in Austin and we’ll sing together. I don’t judge. :-)

xo,
Ayo

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