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Lonely man of musical faith

For me, music is like Torah, and they're both like drinking sea water: the more I drink, the thirstier I get
Illustrative: Djembe drumming on the beach. (iStock)
Illustrative: Djembe drumming on the beach. (iStock)

People ask me why I went to music school. I’ve given all sorts of answers, but really I think I wanted to morph into the notes. I wanted a voice to contain my soul. I remember being taught in school as a kid that if you listen closely at synagogue, you can hear the angels sing along with the congregation. Intermittent, hidden harmonies reverberating. I remember leaning toward the Aron Hakodesh, close to the flame — Ner Tamid, always searching for those voices, achingly straining my ear for a sign of them. Once or twice, I could have sworn I heard them.

Every now and then I do hear their echoes — in Bach’s inventions, through my classical harmony teacher’s fingers on the piano and Yael’s strong trembling voice. I hear the echoes in Roni’s precise accent with every drum stroke, and Omer’s fountain of theory knowledge spilling over excitedly in the late hours of the night.

Music school is much like the intensity and pulse of seminary. You make music “chevrutas,” and sometimes break musical hearts — “It’s not you, it’s your genre.” You find your music rebbe, only to find that she is too machmir (strict) for your way. You sit in on a class and every now and then gasp at the glimpse of kefirah (heresy) your punk drumming teacher just uttered: even he doesn’t enjoy sitting through long-winded drum solos!

At night, you sneak into the library, the music beit midrash, no earlier than¬†8 p.m. — when most of the other students have gone. Only when it is quiet, when most becomes hidden, are you able to see and listen. You sit for hours with your tutor, leaning into the comfort of letting your questions and doubts fall into kind, confident hands and minds. They are not afraid to understand and question, to struggle and thirst. They sit there with you in the dark, describing their musical frustrations and hopes much like an evening Gemara seder. You demand of God, or music, to bare itself to you, to turn to you, that you may hear it, just once.

And at the end of every night, when you climb into that empty roaring bus to Tel Aviv, your eyes heavy, you wonder what, if anything, just happened back there. You hold no proof, no tangible souvenir. Funny how the most transient ventures leave you empty, yet full in heart. Your heart knows the pleasure of that idea you finally broke through in that long-winded sugya (passage). Your soul swells when your rebbe finally sees you. Your heart knows when just the right consonant notes resolve after the tense, winding journey of the composition. Your fingers know when your hand flew by the drum, your wrists know when you let go and spoke your rhythm. Your voice knows when you were heard.

This year has been the hardest on my soul. I have laid my soul bare to the instruments and their critics, reaching thirstily to cling to the notes, channel them. I wanted to make order of chaos, for music brings order to the ear. I sought a drumming rebbe. I found music chevrutas — little musical startups that pop up here and there, otherwise known as bands.

Yet studying music — or Torah — is like drinking sea water. The more I drink, the thirstier I become. The more I dip my vessel into the sea of music, I barely manage to hold a drop before it falls back into the stream. I run from one love to the other — from jazz brush strokes to inverting chords on the piano, composing through counterpoint, straining my voice to sing, achingly holding my fingers to the violin neck. I run from Soloveitchik to Hirsch, Sanhedrin to Rambam. It all evades me as I sip from the mirage. “How can you hold the sea in a cup?” my harmony rebbe always asks. I barely climb a step. Yet it becomes more beautiful by the minute, and at times my heart cannot contain it.

I see others — they seem content with their share in music. And yet I am never content.

You can go to all the musical shiurim (classes) you want. You can be taught the “how” of any cadence and measure, every chord and rudiment. They can teach you the Halacha, the dry guidelines that lie there whether or not you pick up that instrument. Each rebbe with his own shitah (approach). Some more machmir than others. Some warmer like Beit Hillel, others restrained like Beit Shammai. Some teach you musical Halacha (law) with no Hashkafa (philosophical approach), no warmth. Some barely see you, others glow at the slightest note. Yet no one can teach you to care. No one can teach you to thirst. And no one can find your music for you.

You beg to learn a language your heart already knows, to reclaim the Torah the angel tugged away from you in the womb, leaving the cleft above your lips. Is it better to remain detached than to always thirst? You go out into the world and others ask what you do. When you answer, they nod politely, a lightened glaze in their eyes. “I once played guitar.” “I once took a Torah class.” Then they more quickly move to ask: “What episode did you watch of that show?” They’ve learned, yet they do not thirst. When you listen, do you feel? Or did the music pass you by.

Music — it breathes. Harmony is not made in dry, sterile parallel motion, with backs turned, but by confrontation and friction of voice. It sways as a pendulum between order and chaos, intimacy and distance, dissonance and resolution. Tender, yet unrelenting. One cannot be without the other. To resolve, we must tense. In counterpoint we call this counter motion. When one melody line goes up, the other must go down or remain. It takes shape in the form of an hour glass. The best harmonies are made that way. Curves in together, apart, nearing, apart. Again and again. Repeat. The Torah learning system has gone in similar motion. The texts were uttered quickly, warily put in writing, acronyms. Then they were expanded, debated ad infinitum. We get lost in the disorder. Comes around a rebbe, distilling the sea into succinct glossaries. Then a couple generations later, we lose his intention. We distance, go off on our own, only to return again. Expand and distill, wander then resolve.

Then you have Humanistic Torah learning — jazz and blues — which embraces the open-ended chaos. Never to resolve. You release your anchor and direction. Only the boldest of hearts keep their footing there.

To thirst alone is one of the most isolating journeys. Lonely man of musical faith walks steadily to the distant horizon, to the sound of how things could be, to the voice of beauty and order. It is a lonely journey.  As your heart consumes itself, your peers check off more familiar thirsts our circles know to fill more quickly.

The pain in the journey is the unmet thirst. Yet if we never hunger, we never quench. If we never wander, we never rest.

About the Author
Arella studies drums and composition at the Rimon School of Music. When she's not at school or working at a start-up, you can find her drumming on the Tel Aviv beach. She is also a connoisseur of Jewish food (for thought).
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