Fall in Austin has been vibrant and full. There is much to share on the blog, yet life here has kept me so busy that I hardly have time to write.
Much to the delight of some friends and the consternation of others back home, I have been part of a local church’s black gospel choir for just over two months and have been having a wonderful experience. Ironically, my first Sunday singing with the choir was the morning of Rosh HaShana (the Jewish new year) so – as I went to synagogue that evening – it was a very prayerful day!
At the Rosh HaShana service, a text study packet was distributed which included a quote from 20th Century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the packet, Heschel lamented the utter predictability of the Jewish prayer service of the mid-20th century, and its lack of magic, life and spontaneity. Though spirited Jewish services (like Carlebach minyans) certainly exist within the Jewish community, it has been uplifting and powerful to be surrounded by people who so joyfully and uninhibitedly call out to the divine through song and prayer, and easily open up about what is going on in their lives.
Even two months into this experience, I can’t imagine shouting out “Amen!”, “Yes, Lord!”, “Praise!”, “Hallelulah!” or even Hebrew equivalents in a Jewish service… but I kind of want to be able to. The intensity of the fervor is both uniting and liberating, and I’d love to bottle some of it up and bring it back home.
I have a ridiculous Ayo-style first Sunday story that I am eager and delighted to share with you. Let me set the scene:
It’s 10 AM and I’m up on the church’s bimah (stage). I spot Yair and my friend Grant sitting on the sanctuary benches. The choir rises, and we sing a few rousing songs. The pastor then comes to the podium to greet the congregation and proceeds to welcome the visitors… by name. (Yair and Grant had each filled out a visitor’s card and little did they know that the visitors would be publicly acknowledged and asked to stand.)
My seat was toward the very front of the stage next to our Costa Rican organ player, Esteban. As I wonder whether or not Yair wrote down his English name “Jay”, the pastor calls out “Welcome to Mr. Yair Horowitz – guest of our newest choir member, Ayo Oppenheimer!”
Mind you, at this point, I haven’t told a soul that I am Jewish!
Esteban turns to me and says: “Ayo… Horowitz is a Jewish name. Is your friend Jewish?”
My breath catches in my throat as I wonder if I’ve been caught already and if this is the end of my short-lived stint in a black gospel choir.
“Yes”, I respond as nonchalantly as possible.
“Me, too”, says Esteban.
“Wait. What do you mean?”, I ask incredulously – thinking that he might be one of those “Jews for Jesus” that still consider themselves to be Jewish.
“I’m Jewish. I was raised in the Jewish community in Costa Rica.”
My mouth drops a little – all of this conversation happening in hushed tones as the pastor continues on – and I ask, almost accusingly: “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a job. They hire me to play organ. I’ve been working here for almost two years.”
“Woa. Are you celebrating Rosh HaShana tonight?”
“Yes, I’m going to Chabad.”
I look up with a smile and a mischievous twinkle in my eye and say: “Shana tova!”
At this point, Esteban becomes the one with the shocked and incredulous look on his face and asks: “Wait, are you Jewish, Ayo?”
Cognizant of being on stage in front of everyone (and aware of the fact that the choir section is very well microphoned), I turn my head toward him and whisper “Yes”.
“Ayo, what are you doing here?!”
“Shhh!” I motioned a finger to my lip. “I’ll tell you later.”
So where do I go to meet a nice Jewish guy? Church! And that is the story of my first Sunday. (I have since spoken with the choir director about my Jewish background and reasons for joining the choir. I have also started telling the choir members one on one as I strongly prefer openness, but still what a wild story!)
In other church news, I have been learning from the preaching style of the pastor! Sermons in the black Christian community are so different from our divrei torah – less content, but more power. I shared a d’var torah on Breishit (Genesis) with our pastor and he was quite pleased. It was fun for me to think about how to communicate my exegesis of the text in a culturally relevant way. I know that I’m contributing here, and I think I’ll be able to come back and share a lot of wisdom (and fascinating oratory techniques) with the Jewish community.
Lastly, an outstanding singer from the choir has agreed to take me on for voice lessons. Though I haven’t risen to the level of “singing like a black person” yet (quite a feat in my book!), my voice is definitely getting more saucy and soulful. I know that I’ve started to be accepted here as the kids will run over, take my hand and start playing with me. Sweet kids. Wild kids. Well, both sweet and wild depending on when you catch them!
More on life and Ayo adventures to come when things settle down enough to write again. Til then, happy Sunday, lots of love and enjoy the highlights reel! (We didn’t have full choir attendance that day, but you get the gist of it! Props to Yair for capturing the songs on video. :-D )
posted by ayo