My Sacrifice

Everyone gives up something when he becomes frum. Some more than others, of course. Sometimes precious relationships are breached and, unfortunately, can never be repaired. Other times, people give up lucrative career opportunities or fame or one or another kind of social standing. These are the korbanos (sacrifices) that even the least learned baalei teshuva place on the mizbeach (altar) in their service to Hashem.

Now I, for instance, did not give up a particularly notable “party” lifestyle, including any of the elements you might associate with that; I was always on the square side. Is giving up three hours a day of TV considering giving up “something”? Hardly. As to food, I never liked shellfish. Okay, cheeseburgers, chicken parmigiana — but what serious person can reckon the loss of a particular kind of food, or even the convenience of being able to eat anywhere, serious sacrifices when offered the opportunity of personal and spiritual fulfillment in exchange?

Yes, more subtle sacrifices are the social things attendant to these physical pleasures — the inability to “go out” with friends and colleagues to restaurants, say on Friday nights. These return as momentary blips of the heart, but if a person merits the development of a decently normal frum life in a frum community and is blessed with a frum family, these are easily recognized as pleasures of dubious worth. You simply do not share the values of the people you are not going out with and as nice as all the restaurants and bars in the world look from the outside, they are — aside from the value of fellowship with any decent person, which I refuse to assign a zero value, as transient as it may be — easily recognized, also, as basically empty inside. (I do not even understand what married people are doing in restaurants at 9 PM — don’t they have families? My father was never in a restaurant on a weeknight, or in a bar, ever. Maybe that’s why I’m here with you today.) At least, I, for my part, have gotten past these, and do not struggle, even though there are pangs.

Now, I will tell you, if you agree not to tease me or make a big deal about it, that I used to be a very successful collegiate actor. You will, I hope, entertain me when I say that, back in the day, I could entertain you; that I reached a point in my college stage career that I could, and did, cause a thousand people to erupt in laughter by raising an eyebrow; that I shared the stage with a famous Hollywood star in those days and held my own, and then some. I held audiences in the palm of my hand. But do you think that is what I miss by virtue of becoming an observant Jew? It is not. In fact, even in my callow and “secular” state, I knew how preposterously unhealthy it would be to seek this dopamine rush regularly. This was so not only because the big bad world was not college, but also because I knew that almost no one makes it, or stays made, and that even those who come close get addicted to this sort of ego gratification. Most become — as we see on the gossip pages — horrid shells of people, attention and adulation junkies for whom happiness is always transient and who end up relying not just on greasepaint and hair dye but on the liquid, pill and powdered chemical substitutes for that rush. There’s no business like show business for a reason.

No, I do not miss the stage.

I miss the music.

I was not a successful singer the way I was a successful actor. Never solo quality, I also could not make it into the a cappella groups in college; my level of musicianship was simply not there. I was a lead singer in rock bands, yes, but this was more of a piece with the stage acting as was my decent enough “musical comedy”-type stage singing. But I was always good enough, despite my poor training — my voice strong enough, the pitch close enough, the lungs big enough, and the vocal range, by God’s grace, wide enough — that I was a welcome addition to any tenor section. In high school, in college; choir, advanced chorus, freshman choir; university choir — I loved to sing, to harmonize, to make my voice part of a totality of beautiful vocal sound. By the time I was singing in college, too, our choirs were frequently accompanied by the university orchestra. There we stood in a century-old Victorian hall, in white ties and tails, making classical music along with violins, oboes and, for Heaven’s sake, a harp. For someone of my relatively modest social background, this was as much “making it” (I felt at the time) as I could ever dream of.

To me, though, as nice as the setting was, it was the harmony that was a transcendent experience. Singing beautiful music so great it has withstood the ages, masterfully arranged, along with scores of talented singers, transported me. Forgive the clichés, but it is experiences such as these that create clichés. So, yes, I felt aloft in the soaring harmonies of the Mozart Requiem; suspended by the crescendos of Handel’s Israel in Egypt; levitated by Hindemeth’s Printemps . Even more, I truly lost myself in these experiences, and at certain moments became, I felt, part of the beauty of creation, of the brilliance of human creativity bestowed by God on His handiwork. I was not so spiritually numb that I could not fathom in these moments some opening into the Divine.

That some of these moments took place in locations such as the university’s neo-gothic chapel enhanced this spiritual elevation for me. If you have never heard the voices of a chorus echo off of the thick stone walls of a gothic cathedral, you have missed out on something very special in olam hazeh. (Not that there’s anything with that.) But to make that music? Transcendent.

And I do not have that any more.

And there is simply almost nothing like it in my present life that can give it to me. Besides the fact that there is no value placed on fine arts, including music, in the frum world, or perhaps because of it, there are no musically serious choirs for orthodox men that I know of. (Because of the prohibition to listening to a woman sing, I can never again sing in a mixed choir.) I once heard of one kehilla’s famous choir and was eager to hear them sing at a wedding. On hearing, I realized that this was not so much a choir as people who sing together. This can be beautiful, too, but it was not what I was missing.

Last year I thought I had finally found a choir that I could perhaps join. They rehearsed only once a week and performed at times other than Shabbos. Rehearsals were in a church basement on the Upper West Side, yes, but perhaps there was a way around this? It never got that far; the director, eager to speak to a tenor (as choir directors always are) started to tell me the repertoire, and I realized … these are all songs about the wrong deity.

Now I can tell that I am losing it. I used to “vocalize” (work out my voice) several times a week in choir rehearsal, and I had a broad range that enabled me to sing most baritone parts and in my best voice reach a high C over middle C as well. No longer; I do not have the musical ability to practice by myself, nor the time or discipline; nor, hardly, the purpose. Now when I am called to the amud to lead the prayers, as I am from time to time, my vocal chords gradually constrict as I sing and I barely make it through Lecha Dodi without feeling an intense need for moisture in my throat. This happens earlier and earlier in my davening, and so I must sing lest robustly in the beginning in the hopes that something will be left by Vayichulu.

It hardly matters. Singing by myself is fun, and those who hear it do not seem to object; but it is not that thing I miss. Some special Shabboses, a good chazan who knows what to do in a shul with the patience to let him do it will return me, briefly, to that place during kedusha, and I am, for a few minutes, lost again. I improvise harmonies or latch on to ones being sung by others… thirds, fifths, sometimes maybe even sevenths over the melody note; perhaps a staggered syncopation in a complementary line and on those good Shabbos mornings I taste it, with what’s left of a tongue and a throat that feel older than they should, assisted by the remnant of technique that bides me “push from the diaphragm” and “keep the tone out of the throat and into the nasal cavities” … and then, just as it is getting good, it is over. My face is flush, my palate almost aches and, until a brief reprise at musaf, it is done.

I muse that people who leave things they love in their lives in order to serve God can bank on some amount of credit for having done so, and that perhaps this sacrifice remains as principal for them not only in the next world but even allows them to draw from that account in this one. Some of those things can be dear indeed, and when they seemed, prior to their loss, to actually enhance one’s spiritual existence, it can be hard to appreciate the sacrifice. Perhaps merely the knowledge that, despite the spiritual challenges and setbacks of life in general, one has made a stand and walked away from one or another sort of love to prove his commitment, however, can give one strength. And perhaps that is exactly the this-worldly benefit that is bestowed by such a deposit.

As for me, the harmony is my sacrifice, and while it is a trifle compared to what others have left, it is my personal bit of flour and oil. Just as we understand that the senses, in supernal realms, combine and intersect in ways we cannot understand in this world, I pray that my silence in this one translates into a pleasing aroma Above.

32 comments on “My Sacrifice

  1. Thank you for this summary of your korbanot. It’s always a matter of giving up something negotiable for something else, in your devotion, is not at all negotiable.

  2. In a way I’m glad I don’t have the problem of critical listening and therefore enjoy a lot of the Jewish popular music, especially the Chasidic style. Typically I try to connect with the kavana of the artist, if I can, through the music, and then it is usually quite elevating.

    BTW, I see that there is another Chana posting, and as there is no real difference in the way we post our names (no period at the end, for example) perhaps I will change to my full name, ChanaLeah, just for clarity’s sake. Welcome, Chana, if this is your first time posting.

  3. I have struggled with the exact same difficulties. I was a (female) music major (bassoon) in college, played in semi-professional orchestras for several years, spent 4 years in our city’s symphony chorus, and I can’t do any of that now. I struggle greatly with kol isha and shomer negiah – they have been the hardest to adjust to since becoming religious. I do chuckle though – in the arts world, hugging a gay male friend as a greeting was a frequent occurrence and completely parve. Now – assur!

  4. Dovid, LOL…… actually my rabbi of the month is R Wolbe, (may he rest in peace).
    He has profound and unique perspectives on stuff.
    And Eliahu Levenson, who seems to have a quite the steel structure system or unbendable tungsten like belief system.
    As for my “for the sake of G-d” funky downtown bar mystical makeover , you can sooo be part of the music too.
    Dovids Doubt Reducing Real Rhythm and Rons Voice of Real Reason – a whole new music group and reason to worship.

    Juggling Frogs- actually my belief based downtown bar will be way more hardcore than those kid like kiddush clubs.
    A sample summer work week :
    Strawberry Smirnoff Smoothies and Alei Shure Sundays
    Mugs of Jagermeister and Merry Early Morning Gemarah Mondays
    Absolut Citron Toasting and Neuroscience versus Torah Tuesdays
    Woodchuck Draft Cider Drinking and R Wolbe Wednesdays
    Southern Comfort Sipping and Theoretical versus Heretical Thursdays
    Raspberry Smirnoff Smoothies and R Soloveitchek Saturdays

    Half price Absolut Kurant Kegs for all kiruv coordinators and miracle workers that take a stand on the rocks without causing others to melt with cold skepticism and frigid doubt into a perpetual puddle of stone cold warmth.

  5. Now that we need more ethanol to be available for cars, we have a new reason to minimize our personal intake.

  6. That was most entertaining, JT. It seems to me that you paskin according to the opinions of Rav Yaakov Daniels, Rav Bud Weiser, Rabbi Schlitz, Rabbi Schaffer (He’s the one Rav to have, when you’re having more than one), and the Heinikiner Rav. Your ideas are clearly detailed in the Beer Halacha. I remember learning this in preparation for my BAR mitzva!

  7. Wow this stuff is definitely spiritual rays of iridescent èrudition artfully debuting on a whole new plane of sparkling brilliance. Powerful presentation included! Quite the quintessential inquiry ànd spiritual self query regarding past pastimes änd the subsequent juxtapositioning between past passions ànd current exasperations. Interesting interal spiritual audit. Your conclusions are distinctly disspassionate.

    If you tweak your passions to include gd in the equation it makes it that much easier to make sure your passions are of the for the sake of gd persuasion. Take for instance a seemingly seedy passion for owning ànd decorating your own funky downtown bar, this questionable passion could totally be instantly reclassified under “for the sake of gd “. Ànd subsequently spiritually fortified to include stuff like alei shure readings ànd mussar moments with your Martinis. Happy hour could include half price pirkei avos themed cocktails ànd shabbas ànd taharas HaMishpacha halacha themed two for one shots of any flavored vodka with Rons voice of reason choir in the background.

    This way you get to mix the quintessential spiritual cocktail of mussar, smirnoff (more than enough smirnoff is never enough) absolut ànd the crystal clear melodies of the Rons voice of reason choir to drown out all that doubt that’s getting you down. Änd best of all those funky colored crystal chandeliers, Christmas lights and bead curtains are enhancing the spiritual experience as are the pretty colored glassware and related floral activity.
    Its really that elementary.

  8. Thanks, Ron. I can’t speak for the downtown Chicago location, but Northwestern’s undergrad definitely now has kosher options that they didn’t have several years ago. The Hillel is a larger force on campus than it used to be, as is Chabad.

  9. Well, IJ, first of all remember that we’re talking about ancient times here. Also, I wasn’t so so Jewish at Princeton, though it was that experience that made me seek out Yiddishkeit. One more point: I was not in Evanston; the law school is in downtown Chicago.

    Having said all that, I think it was easier, from what I saw and what I still see, at Princeton, which has daily minyanim, a kosher dining hall, and proximity to major Jewish centers. Northwestern has none of those, except perhaps a small claim to the third.

  10. Ron, did you find it harder to be Jewish at Princeton, or at Northwestern? I have family ties to both and I’m curious.

  11. In the early 60’s (pre-Verrazano-bridge), there was an abortive attempt to start a Staten Island NCSY chapter. One day (a Sunday I think) they had an event at our shul featuring R. Shlomo Carlebach. He set up to sing and play guitar in the sanctuary. While he was very inspiring and entertaining, he virtually struck out as far as getting the kids there to sing along. Somehow, our extreme shyness did not make him reconsider his career.

  12. Ron,

    During the initial BT days I was moved on many occasions by Shabbos Zmiros that were probably executed in a mediocre fashion music-wise. If you have Shabbos guests in a similar situation al achas kama v’kama the impression you might make on them.

  13. This was a wonderful, well written piece that expresses a condition that many BTs experience to some extent. The sad thing is that most Kiruv organizations and the frum community in general tend to devalue and disregard all of the accomplishments in a BT’s life BK (that’s Before Kiruv). This not only demeans the very real sacrifices that people like Ron make to become Torah observant, but it also deprives our community of their talents. Far too many of our newly observant brothers and sisters have been made to feel (or have been told outright) that their pre-frum life and deeds are of lttle or no value. “Harvard Law Review? Feh! MacArthur Grant? Shtus! Westinghouse Scholarship? Hevel v’rik!”

    So all of those wonderful folks who could be using their G-d given gifts to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim are instead stuffed into black suits and hats and hustled off to the Beis Medrash. Not a real one like Lakewood or Telshe or Ner Israel but one “geared to their level”. Torah with training wheels so their 150+ I.Q. brains won’t be too severely challenged.

    Ron, keep singing. Don’t give up vocalizing. don’t quit. How about organizing and leading a real boys choir (not one where the lead sounds like someone is squeezing his head). How about writing and arranging choral music. My Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav HaGaon Rav Y.Y.Ruderman ZTL has said that all melodies were kosher(with the exception of those easily recognized as being of a religeous nature, like, say, Silent Night).

    Ron, der Eibishter zol helf’n that you and all Jews, BT and FFB (and the rest of the alphabet), be able to use ALL of our gifts, talents and abilities to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim.

  14. Dovid,

    Been there, it is a beautiful park. WC’s taste more like oniony beef rendering. MMMMMMMM. But haven’t been to WC for about 7 years.

  15. Thank you for your comments! I think David Linn hit the nail on the head. At this point I can seek substitutes… favorable halachic rulings… new friends among hasidim! But I don’t actually believe that in my case, that is what Hashem wants from me.

    I also agree with Sephardi Lady: It is probably not true that every talent can be channeled in a satisfactory way into Yiddishkeit, at least not unless you are prepared to put yourself and your loved ones into the category of eccentrics, or worse — and let us not pretend this is not an issue.

    More idealistically, the Torah tells us what sort of priorities are appropriate for a Jew. When pursuing our “outside interests,” we at least have an obligation to ask ourselves, is this what the Torah expects of me, here and now, in my life?

  16. This might be called “my un-sacrifice”.

    Nearly the whole time before I began moving toward Torah observance, I felt like a lonely stranger in a strange land. With occasional exceptions, one boredom after another. No transcendent mission. No lasting satisfaction. I could see and describe the emptiness and stupidity around me but was still caught up in it.

    If I had felt more at home in the basically Torahless society, I might have felt more conflicted in leaving it. So whatever alienation I experienced in my early life, whatever missed connection or shaky relationship, was really all to the good, a blessing in disguise.

  17. I am not convinced that one can channel all of their talents in a perfectly frum way that really satisfies their love for their art, sport, etc.

  18. White Castle at 3:00 AM after an all night Poker game. (OK so I’m not the most refined person in the world)

    PS never touched the cheeseburgers there.

  19. Juggling Frogs said “If you have a talent, I bet there’s a way to use it l’shaim shamayim.”

    I know some people will jump on me for this but I wonder if Ron’s refrain from actively persuing his singing IS l’shaim shamayim.

    That being said I still am a proponent of the position that G-d gives us talents to use them. It may be that Ron could channel his talents but from the passion of his post, I would bet that it is unlikely that he would find something that would quench his thirst.

  20. Ron, beautiful post, so well articulated. We can all feel your pain and we can fill in the blank — our form of music that we gave up. Your struggle reminds me of this teaching. When we see or smell some delicious looking non kosher food, we are not expected to turn our noses away in disgust and say, “not kosher, so it’s disgusting to me!” (Although thankfully that does happen for a lot of the foods we’ve walked away from). Rather, we should smell the food, let ourselves drool a bit, and then say to ourselves or others, “I wish I could taste that, it looks so delicious. But because it’s kosher, I will not.” It’s a simple moment when we remind ourselves that we place our allegiance to Torah before any momentary pleasure the food could have given us. What is beautiful about your post is that maybe in real life, there aren’t always substitutions. I can make beef stroganoff with parve sour cream. And maybe you’ll find a Jewish singing group that will work. And maybe, you’ll never replace that loss, and as you said so well, this is your sacrifice, and G-d feels your pain and appreciates the sacrifice all the more.

  21. For a time during the late 1990’s, I was working in NH and commuting home to MI monthly at best. I would often spend Shabbos at the Orthodox shul in Lowell, MA. Their rabbi at that time (typically my Shabbos host) had an “ask the rabbi” web page.

    Lo and behold, one query came in from a Satmar summer camp counselor or administrator in the Catskills! This led to more interaction, and eventually a group of Satmar counselors and supervisors made it to Lowell to stay over a Shabbos, in Satmar uniform. They sang zemiros and some Jewish golden oldies in great harmony, and we all really enjoyed the whole occasion.

    That Sunday, I was doing some food shopping in Brookline MA at Beacon Kosher. I half recognized a group of young men in the store. It suddenly hit me that these were the same Satmarers, but in summer camp clothes! They were gathering food for the long shlep back to NY.

    To me, it appears from the above and other evidence that the chassidic courts like Satmar, Bobov, Modzitz, etc., have maintained what’s left of the Jewish choral tradition.

  22. There’s a group of guys (at/around YU?) who sing on Shabbat at simchas – I think they’re called “the Hummers”. It is a shifting list of names – whoever is available for a given event is chosen from a list of names.

    We attended a bar-mitzvah lunch in Boston last year at which they performed, and they were excellent.

    They made the roomful of people sing zmirot TOGETHER, they sang for us, they put zmirot to harmonies and fun (but appropriate) tunes, etc. I think they had a lot of fun, too.

    If you have a talent, I bet there’s a way to use it l’shaim shamayim.

    All the best,

  23. I also was in choir in high school and we traveled around and performed. Obviously is wasn’t on the level of Ron’s univ. choir,but it was great. Then I went to a college with vibrant vocal music groups as well, but I missed the satisfaction Ron describes bec. the great groups were all male. Oh well, but I enjoyed listening!

    Ron, do you know in fact that there is no room in a Torah life for this kind of music? Have you asked and been told it is bittul Torah? Have you ever considered forming a choir yourself, and hiring a choir director?

  24. Thank you for your elegant description of your musical struggles, Ron. I believe that I share many of the same feelings regarding the giving up of a musical career. I have been frum for eight years now, and am thankful to Hashem for leading me to where I am. Still, it has been difficult and frustrating to have walked away from the music. Having been part of a successful recording group for years, along with all of the accompanying activities that come with being part of a rock group..touring, fans, perks (both good and bad)…it has been a difficult withdrawl to say the least.

    To make matters more frustrating, the frum music scene is in a sad state of affairs. The boys choirs or male vocalists whose CD’s are found in the Jewish stores are photocopy’s of each other, and after a while are more or less indistinguishable. Most FFB’s that I know have no musical reference from which to understand the lack of style and form. I have yet to find a frum band or artist who is not attempting to apply the sounds of secular music (mostly of the tasteless variety) to Jewish lyrics. And I can only imagine what Reb Shlomo would think of the many bands butchering his once simple and spiritual melodies. It seems to me that, at least for now, there is little or no Jewish music that has the impact on me that secular music once did. It is probably one of the more significant frustrations that I live with…the loss of the music. Really, the lack of anything to fill the musical part of my life. Perhaps you and I can get together and do some harmonizing one of these days…someone’s going to need to come up with some music soon, or I don’t know what we’ll all do…

  25. I just spent last shabbos at the Jewish Center in Munich, where the service is conducted in a classic Yekkish style. They have a great chazzan, who was accompanied by an all-male choir (with a conductor!) who sang in harmony. I’m usually a fan of small shtiebels, so it was an unexpectedly moving experience for me to go through the tefila with well-organized harmony, often in a major key.

    I believe there is something similar in Washington Heights as well.

Comments are closed.