When I was a child coming of age, I participated in choral singing in our synagogue, which provided much pleasure and a sense of accomplishment that no doubt aided my development in ways that cognitive neuroscience is just beginning to fully appreciate.
I can still picture walking up the block from 10th & Louden to 10th & Rockland to the side door of the converted church-to-synagogue building (long since converted back to a church – fittingly “Shalom” Baptist), and heading up the stairs to the main classroom on the left for rehearsal during the summer days that preceded the Fall’s high holiday services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Around the table we arranged ourselves into the same array as we would assemble around the bimah. Flanking our leader Chazan (Cantor) Unger: On his left, Sol (the baritone) Rosenthal; to his right, Bernie (the tenor) Lipton. And ringing he rest of the horseshoe on the perimeter were the alto voices in alphabetical order: Maury Bach, Arthur Berger, Yours Truly, and George Sokolowski. Rosenthal and Lipton were hired vocal guns, but the rest of us were members of the synagogue, including the Cantor’s two sons, Moshe & Eli, who joined at a later date.
Cantor Unger was originally from Vienna, and he insisted on practicing until we attained impeccable pitch, harmony, timing, rhythm, and cadence. Most of the compositions were imported by the Cantor, a mix from prior travels and of his own compositions. We had sheet music as supplementation, and he would ping the tuning fork prior to beginning as a cross-check, but we mostly perfected our craft by ear and all had good pitch to begin with. As much as we enjoyed group harmony, the highlight was when one of us would be selected do a duet with the Cantor, or be called upon to do a solo.
We were a cappella of course, no musical instruments being allowed in the orthodox synagogue on Holy Days – High or otherwise. Given that one never knew the condition of what one’s voice would be in at the moment, practice was just as much about the ability of the Cantor to swap out one voice for another if he felt that someone could not perform. There was no music to carry us, nor a microphone to boost a weak voice. Essentially these summer evening sessions were, for the Alto Boys, like Broadway rehearsals where we were standbys for one another’s parts.
My favorite solo to listen to was the one done by our tall, slim baritone with the rich, deep voice. He set the tone for the most solemn part of the service in the Musaf prayer, Unesaneh Tokef. It called for a signifiant range akin to the Star Spangled Banner that none of us could approach until at least a year or two after puberty.
It begins: U’v’shofar gadol yitakah, which means: A great shofar blast is sounded. But the choral begins on the deep “U” and as quickly as one ascends the vocal stairs to the “g” sound of gadol, back down the stairs by the end of the word, then a quick pause and up the ladder to yitakah with a lyrical and floating V’kol dimamah dakah yishama, which means: And a slender (or whispering) silence is heard – with the phrase V’kol dimamah dakah repeated twice while one goes back down the ladder and then drops to the bottom at the end of yishama, descending into silence on the exact note of which the solo began.
Although coming from a Jewish background, Paul Simon does not describe himself as a religious person. Nevertheless he has been quoted as saying that “Spiritual things are part of my thoughts on a fairly regular basis. I think of it more as spiritual feeling. It’s something I recognize in myself and that I enjoy, and I don’t quite understand it.” He expressed gratification that his music has had a spiritual impact, even if it mystified him, adding: “Quite often, people read or hear things in my songs that I think are more true than what I wrote,” he told me. “I feel I’m like a vessel, and it passed through me, and I’m glad.”
Owing to Dr. Jerome Groopman’s book review in the January 9 issue of The New Yorker of The Voices Within, I conscripted the translation of V’kol dimamah dakah yishama as The Slender Sounds of Silence. Perhaps it is less than a coincidence that, at age 23, the song that put Paul on the map as a lyricist concluded with the evocative words of V’kol dimamah dakah yishama, pouring forth like a vessel.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming
And the signs said,
The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence