I Will Echo Your Tune

My grandfather’s singing voice irritated me so. I want to say it was endearing, his off-key yodeling, mimicking poorly the polished, operatic voices of the cantors on the cassette tapes he listened to in the car. But nope. Not one bit. Not one round of applause for his table-tapping, nasal-clearing arias, with all due respect. Perhaps I am no connoisseur in the cantorial genre, a fair point I anticipate in response to this soapbox rant. However, I can appreciate a quality arrangement of Hallel in the abstract, not unlike the way I relate to genres like country. Well, maybe country is different. Yeah, country is different. But anyway, his voice was intolerable.

Ayyyy…dee–dum, dyyyy… dee–dummm, nyyyy

I have a cassette tape of my dad teaching me the Alef-Bet in the classic sing-song melody. I babble off into the distance, half-full diaper and all, as he rebukes me, “Elizabeth, come back here and sing with me! Take those raisins out of your mouth and come back, Elizabeth!” I wrote my college admissions essay about this sentimental teachable moment. It’s pretty sweet, I must say. His voice is not remarkably impressive, but he could carry a tune. He enunciates each letter sharply – lahh-med, mem, nooon – and I would tease him about it these days if I could. His voice is somewhat warped on the tape; maybe the player just needs batteries. Maybe I should convert the recording to a digital format. All that for the Alef-Bet, and that tune.

His yahrtzeit was this week. His twenty-first yahrtzeit was this week and I ordered three baker’s dozens of assorted bagels, and completed thirty-one pages of Talmud and spoke for a little more than five minutes about vision and shortsightedness, supplicants and intermediaries. I listed the lineage of an illustrious Papa family in Twista-paced rhythm. It was my first time learning a full Tractate for the second time. My voice was raspier already by ten a.m.

It was also my first time leading Shacharit and Hallel (Rosh Hodesh). I brought with me a setlist of sorts, scribbled meticulously on a neon green sticky memo; I had prepared it the day before, humming too loudly to myself at a crowded table at Starbucks. The trouble with niggunim is that they don’t really have names to search for (“ayy–nyyy–nyy” does not yield helpful Google results, to no one’s surprise). And then, if I find out the name, like “Niggun Cracow,” I can’t possibly remember the melody automatically when it’s time to lead the service; I made myself a system of associations based on images of places I had been walking while singing that particular tune to myself. It works for me, anyway. I once spent almost three hours trying to crowdsource for the name and link to a niggun that had clung itself to me for several weeks. I believe in that idea, in melodies following you gently at times, the first to come to mind for no reason in particular. And then, at some point, it might become a different one, replaced with a new go-to tune that fits the mood of the moment. Eventually, friends supported me on my mission and collectively guided me to the song I had described in my seeking post as “looks sort of turquoise or seafoam green in my mind; has a lullaby-type quality,” and I resumed writing my senior thesis.

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I used that tune for Hallel, and my strained voice (I likely do not use proper breathing techniques for singing) cracked several times. I was shaky at moments, and swaying meditatively at others, as I led our praise. They never teach women these things, the whole routine, the ease I fake when I approach the amud (lectern). But that’s a matter for another essay. I consulted my little green setlist, like a rockstar. I sing the body electric. I sing in this new month, opened with that important and strange lowercase-M memorial day for someone important and strange to me. Marked with restrictions against haircuts and weddings, against listening to music, according to some customs (my custom prohibits live concerts, but others differ). “From the time [the month of] Av begins, we decrease in joy.” We still sing on that first day.

I listen to re-digitalized vinyl records on YouTube, of old, classic Jewish bands whose success is signified in part by their current near-anonymity. Their tunes are among those that “just are,” if not “from Sinai” then at least from Ellis Island; but not the real geographical Island – I mean the mythical one where everyone’s names were supposedly changed by the silly gentile guards (much recent literature points to the implausibility of many of these stories, so I am skeptical of the “history” but still reverent of its contemporary function). These tunes that sound just slightly different than they do at camp, or in your head, or than the way it sounded to you when your Bubbie taught you her version of a Yiddish song about a Sukkah. They evoke in me a nostalgia for a time I never experienced, though I love how my aunt tells me I would have fit in perfectly in the 70’s. I comment on the divergent pronunciations between the tinny, original version and the robust, if artificially preserved, one, and I notice the artful (perhaps even unconscious) homages to Elvis Presley, and the Monkees, the latter especially in the background falsetto harmony, the high-pitched voice I have claimed as my favorite. This is Daddy’s music, and Zayda’s, sort of. I mean, I don’t know if they liked The Rabbi’s Sons (or being one) or not. But there’s something there in that tinny, crackling yet rich sound. It feels innovative in its classic-ness, refreshing in its introduction of the materials for givenness. Someone had to start it.

It’s different when it’s my own voice. Well, it’s one thing when I trail off into my own backup singing, joining that sweet falsetto for the “ki gavar aleinu hasdo” harmony. It’s another thing entirely to hear myself take the lead. I hope my voice is at least tolerable. It’s certainly not remarkably impressive, but I can hold a decent tune. And besides, I can’t get enough.