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Apr 18 2014

My Conversion Prayers Were Answered Through An Orthodox A Cappella Group

By at 10:16 am

concert-Kol-Shira

I love music. I’ve been singing all my life. I belted out an elaborate rendition of “Old Macdonald” in my yellow bathing suit for the cable guy when I was 3 and sang on stage throughout adolescence and college. So much of my life has been set to music; every year a different show, a different song. It is how I built an inner confidence and poise. I have always felt that my voice was one of the things that brought me closest to God. A gift I was blessed with and never took for granted.

But marriage and careers and babies and more babies made it very hard to fit singing into my life.

I remember the first time I set foot in a temple for services. While it was a Reform congregation, the service and songs were primarily in Hebrew. Everything felt foreign to me. I knew that Judaism was calling to me but in that moment I couldn’t hear it. I felt lost, confused and disconnected.

And then something happened. The Rabbi picked up his guitar and began to sing Debbie Friedman‘s version of Miriam’s Song.” The beautiful melody instantly connected with me and I held onto that tune and feeling of connectedness throughout my conversion. I wanted so badly to learn how to chant and worship in Hebrew. I wanted Jewish songs to ring familiar in my heart and bring about memories and experiences. I considered studying independently with a cantor, or listening to CDs. But instead, I prayed about it. I prayed that Jewish music would find a way into my heart and I came back to that prayer many times over the past eight years.

For Rosh Hashanah I wrote about my resolution to nourish my soul and search for parts of me that have taken a backseat to motherhood. One week after writing that post I found out I was pregnant with our third child. The following week I auditioned for a local Jewish women’s a cappela group.

A friend who I had randomly met at the park one afternoon posted on Facebook about a vocal performance she was involved with. I was so intrigued that I emailed her to ask more about it and she told me about a group of women who meet on Wednesday mornings surrounded by their children and create music together, she actually described it as “an oasis of creativity and collaboration.”

I auditioned and was welcomed to sing alongside nine other incredibly talented Jewish Pittsburgh women who make up Kol Shira (‘the voice of all song’). The group has been around for over a decade and we are evenly split between Reform, Lubavitch, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and secular Judaism. Our audiences and music choices reflect both the diversity and unity in our faith. One of my co-members recently said so beautifully, “We represent, in essence, what Jews around the world should be: inclusive, loving, and respectful of each others’ choices and level of observance.” Another member added, “The love of Judaism and the beauty of music blurs the differences and allows us to create unified and inspired music.”

We do our best to obey laws of tznius (modesty) when performing and do not schedule gigs on the Sabbath. Our concerts are open to women and girls only to honor Orthodox members of our group who uphold the halachic prohibition of kol isha, where Jewish men are not permitted to hear women sing. We arrange our own songs by working collaboratively to embrace each others’ talents and vocal range.

But something else happens every Wednesday morning when we sit around the table to kvetch, kvell, nosh and sing. We have created an intimate sisterhood where we laugh, cry, parent and learn about one another. I’ve learned more about Judaism in the past six months with these women than in the past decade with my Jewish husband. With over 40 children between us (Bli ayin hara, pu, pu, pu), I’ve probably learned more about motherhood too. I’ve made wonderful friends that I may have never encountered because they cover their hair and I don’t. I am inspired as a Jew, as a mother, as a singer and as a woman.

Kol-shira-kids

My prayers were answered in immense proportions.

While we perform small private gigs throughout the year, this past Monday was our annual “Spring Sing” concert at the Jewish Community Center. As one of the newest members of the group I’ve spent the past six months learning an enormous amount of music in preparation for the concert that attracted almost 300 women.

We ran out of tickets and programs as women sat on the floor to hear us sing.

Two or three unknowing men were turned away. Our husbands weren’t there.

A practice that as an outsider seemed so prohibitive, from the inside felt so incredibly feminine, powerful and intimate. Women supporting women in a safe space for song and expression.

I stood alongside these women and was able to share a piece of myself that had been lost in the life shuffle of marriage and motherhood. I sang Jewish music on stage almost nine months pregnant with my first daughter. Even before she is born, she hears the music of our faith resonating from my body embracing hers.

It was “Miriam’s Song” that first whispered to me in shul (synagogue) that evening and affirmed my connection to the Jewish people. One modern Jewish interpretation of Miriam’s role as a matriarch is that, in Exodus, Moses chanted the “Song on the Sea” for the men; and Miriam chanted the same song for the women.

A song for women; by women. Baruch Hashem, indeed.

Kol Shira members are Gila Moritz, Jeanne McHale, Lynn Berman, Chantal Belman, Leah Herman, Miriam Shaw, Beth Jacobs, Jessica Neiss, Amy Schwartz and Tamara Reese. Find out more about appearances and upcoming CD at https://www.facebook.com/KolShira.

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