Song of the Sea

Next Shabbat, during the Torah reading, I will chant the Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, pictured to the left. It brings back happy memories of cantillation class at JTS; this was one of the special things we were required to learn, in addition to the six trope systems. Preparing the Torah cantillation is one of my favorite parts of my role at Szim Salom; it keeps me on my toes, since I always have to prepare, even if I am familiar with the verses. I prepare in general as well–it’s always good to go over the liturgy, since something will through in a new way–but the Torah portion assures the preparation.

The Song of the Sea is often chanted responsively, but this time, over Zoom, that would be too cacophonous. I will just have to encourage people to sing along, while muted, at the appropriate parts.

It has now been nearly eight years since I began attending synagogue in general, and over three years since I assumed Szim Salom’s cantorial role. I hesitate to call myself the synagogue’s cantor, even though that’s my role; cantors are on a completely different level in my mind. When I think of the word “cantor,” I imagine not only the legendary cantors, but the ones known mainly to their own synagogues, who have brought the language and liturgy into people’s lives, year after year, generation after generation, with wisdom and feeling that can be conveyed only through the doing. But it’s also a responsibility, and it has been mine now for three years. I love the responsibility; sometimes I feel flat-out exhausted when the weekend arrives, but then when it comes time to lead the service, the language, rhythms, melodies, and togetherness take over.

It is exciting to see Szim Salom, after almost thirty years of existence, becoming accepted in Hungary’s larger Jewish worship community. For many years, the General Assembly of Hungary’s Federation of Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz) did not recognize Szim Salom or our sister congregation, Bét Orim, because as progressive (European Reform) congregations, we diverged too far from what they considered halakhic. To date, our rabbi is the only female rabbi in Hungary, as far as I know. But through the extensive, big-hearted efforts of individuals including Péter Árvai from our community and members of Neolog communities, we not only gained official recognition (In February 2020, the Mazhihisz officially welcomed Szim Salom and Bét Orim as associate members), but received gestures of extraordinary goodwill. Gábor Fináli, the rabbi of the beautiful Ohél Ávráhám on Hunyadi tér, has decided to invite us and Bét Orim to hold services there about once a month (once it is possible to hold services in person again). Over the years, we have had no real place of worship; in my three years here, we met in three different locations. So this gesture meets an urgent need and opens up possibilities of friendship and learning.

As I have often thought before, it’s essential to have different levels and forms of observance within Judaism, as within any religion. This opens up the possibilities, not only for individuals, but for long-term traditions. It also allows for resilience. People change over time in their relation to religion, worship, sacred texts, and so on. When the traditions grow too rigid or forbidding, any personal change can lead to a break. But when they do not, or at least when many varieties exist, a person can “hang in there,” so to speak. I find it important and exciting to hang in there. In the beginning of my Jewish life, I was intense with enthusiasm and commitment–not so much to the laws of observance as to the learning of texts and melodies. Hours and hours went into study and listening, evening after evening. Later, things slowed down a bit, but the commitment did not go away. I have started to find my own way, which is not anyone else’s, but which is not isolated either.

The returns remind me how much there is to come. Chanting the Song of the Sea and feeling the joy of it all over again—the image and sound of the sea parting, the phrases that bring up so many memories—I know that not only does the text endure, not only do I in some way, despite aging and mortality, but person and text come together, again and again, around the world, as time roars and crashes around us.