Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Gift of Music: A Song from my Zeida

My Zeida, Rabbi Dr. Hyman Friedman, z"l
Music has always played a major role in my life. I have strong, fond memories of our family singing around the Shabbat table, both when my father was alive, and even after he passed away. It might not be an exaggeration to say that after my father died, music represented one of the few sources of joy in our family. At every family simcha, music played a role. I remember singing together with my brother Yair at my Bar Mitzvah, accompanied by my sister on the piano.
We were always a family that sang zemirot on Shabbat, and in my home we still do. It's sometimes delicate, as I don't want to force my children to sing. But we've gotten to the point that most weeks, they ask me to sing, and not the other way around. A Shabbat meal without zemirot just isn't Shabbat to me, and when we don't sing, either at my home or at someone else's, I feel a sense of lacking, that a critical element of Shabbat was something missing.
Music has the power to transport us, both in time and place. Somehow, it brings us closer to those we love, and connects us to memories we cherish.
The best example for me of this phenomenon is the old Shabbat tune for Yah Ribon Olam. 
That song - or at least the tune that we always sing to Yah Ribon Olam - belonged to my Zeidi, or as we called him, Zeida from Boston. (He lived in Winthrop, a suburb of Boston, when we grew up.) It's a relatively well-known tune, but has two unique qualities.
1. Because it's slow, it tends to drone, and on a late Friday night, can have a certain sedative quality, especially when intentionally sung in my Zeida's nasaly New England tone.
2. Also because it's a slow tune, it lends itself to numerous, multiple harmonies, and when sung passionately, is exceptionally beautiful and moving. I have quite vivid memories of many beautiful renditions of this song at my uncle Zvi's house, especially when his boys lived at home and I would visit for Shabbat in Woodmere.
There are weeks when we sing Zeida's tune (for reason b), and others when we skip it (for reason a - as my son often prefers a more lively beat to bang on the table). But, at certain times, when we sing Yah Ribon, I can literally feel Zeidi in the room.
That happened two weeks ago.
As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, my brother and I traveled to the States for the wedding of our eldest nephew. The wedding was beautiful, and the Kallah's gracious family invited us to join them for the entire Shabbat Sheva brachot, which was lovely. On Friday night, during a lull in the speeches, we began to sing, and being together with most of my siblings, immediately settled on Zayde's Yah Ribon.
Quickly, two of my brothers, sitting at a table at the other end of the room, came over to join us. Soon afterwards, all of the other neices and nephews - teens not always prone to gathering for Shabbat Zemirot - gravitated to our table, pulling their chairs closer to sing that old family melody together. One just got the sense that they knew that this wasn't any regular song.
As the song progressed, the feeling grew even stronger, as each of us sensed, I think, the pull of our family, our connection to the music, and the emotional power that the song held for us all. One image that stands out strongly in my mind, is my Uncle Lippy, who had joined us for Shabbat, with his eyes closed, head slightly tilted to the side, just enveloped by the song. It was as if he was there, singing with us, but in some other, distant place as well.
As all songs do, Yah Ribon ended that night. But, thinking about it even now gives me a feeling of warmth and a connection to my grandfather that the song somehow articulates. As the song drifted away into the Friday night dinner and the waiters served the soup, I remember feeling fortunate to have been raised in a family rich with the legacy of the power music has to transcend, and connect, in a way that no other medium can match.