This week I launched my very first song on my father’s birthday, August 31st. I thought it was an apropos date to share my music, which I have dedicated to his memory, and what better day to launch it than on a happy day, a day that represents birth and new beginnings. It also happened to be the second day of Elul, and Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month of possibilities, opportunities, and self-reflection, and the month that carries us into the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I have been singing for as long as I can remember, but to truly understand my relationship with music we will have to go back to the beginning. I can still remember my very first performance. I was in first grade. That year for our Passover recital my class had a model Seder on stage. I remember a lot of foil, stale matzo and sweet grape juice that had been used as props. By the time the real Passover came around, my palette was depleted of any desire to participate after several hundred takes of “ma nishtanah” were enforced on me. Although I was concerned that the stage lights would burn a hole in the foil and glare in my eyes causing me to squint in front of the entire parent body, I still loved the idea of singing with Morah Music in front of my parents. Morah Music was a young woman in her early thirty’s and one of the most beautiful women I had ever laid eyes on. She smiled like a refined queen. Even her legs, which rippled of purple varicose veins, markings of her body carrying eleven children in her small frame were beautiful. She wore a well- coiffed chocolate brown wig that highlighted her high cheekbones and framed her face perfectly. She was a petite woman with a strong constitution. I had never met anyone before who looked as ravishing as she did with so many children!
Morah Music became my icon, and a person I would look up to for many years to come. Upon her suggestion, I was chosen to sing a portion of the Ma Nishtana, the famous Passover song meaning “Why is this night different from all other nights” solo. Although I had been in several dance and piano recitals, I had still never sang in front of a crowd by myself before. For some reason, none of the other children were asked to sing solo. I was of course over the moon, thinking my chance at stardom had finally landed me the most important role and I was going to take it very seriously. I tried to hide my overwhelming excitement, and make it seem like it was the most natural event in the world. Even though Valerie the jealous Russian glared at me every day during reading time and threatened to have her sixth grade sister beat me up during recess, I just figured that was the high price one paid for fame. I was willing to take it on. Most importantly, I didn’t want to let Morah Music down. And seeing her smile as I belted out my line was worth every minute as I sat frozen in my first grade tiny chair thinking about Valerie’s sister mauling me on the blacktop.
Four short years later, at ten years old I was sure I caught a serious illness that required a call into disease control ordering masked nurses to sterilize my room with plastic. I had a serious case of Chicken Pox. Serious- because it happened to me. I only had four sores on my whole body, but the one that landed on my belly kept me up all night and caused so much anguish, my poor parents spent a week catering to my beck and call. It hurt more than an infected planter’s wart with puss. I thought this would be the worst disease that ever landed in my wake. I never showered, and kept my nightgown on for six days straight. I was feverish with a high temperature of ninety-nine degrees and was sure my days were numbered. I cried all day and begged my mother to get me a specialist. I screamed, writhing in pain, and was delirious.
I managed to milk this illness with great pride, and got my parents to wait on me hand and foot while I scarfed down Haagen Dazs bars as my mother slathered my entire body with Calamine lotion. The fact that my little brother caught it from me and didn’t have a clean non-pox’d spot on his entire shape, never really fazed me. I missed my friends in fifth grade. I missed Morah Music, and I missed the fact that I could finally tell mean Valerie that she was infected with a serious disease, and I was the one who gave it to her. One day while I was in between my channel seven soap opera series, after Erica Kane left her sixth husband, and Palmer divorced his seventh wife, I heard wretched screaming coming from downstairs. I turned down the T.V. and could hear my mother’s screams that had frightened me to my core. Her screams turned to tears and her tears began to ascend to my quarters. My mother had her hands out as if she was in a trance as she entered my room. As tears took a ride down her delicate cheeks, I shivered a fear within me that I hadn’t even recognized from my younger years. These were tears that were agonizing and told me a story of jolting heartbreak and distress that would rock my very existence. These were very different tears, and I was about to absorb an uncharted and alien pain and sorrow that would teach me the very fragility of life. As feeble as I felt from having Chicken Pox, I was no longer feeling sick, I felt my body take on an odd strength as I was about to be thrust into the reality of news that filled me with many questions that I would spend my lifetime looking to answer. That day the news my mother brought me was that Morah Music, at the age of thirty- six, had suddenly died from a heart attack, leaving eleven children, of which the youngest were a pair of eleven month old twins. Her last gift on earth was spent with thirty beautiful children who had sang to the tune of her keyboard during their First Grade recital- the very recital I had been in only four years prior.
Six weeks after eleven small children buried their mother, the high school put on a musical play that was meant to be a tribute to Morah Music. I remember sitting in class one day, when a lovely twelfth grade girl entered our class and made this announcement:
“Many of you know, we are creating a Musical Play in honor of Morah Music. Our choir needs more singers. Normally we don’t ask fifth graders to participate, but this year, we are making an exception. Ava Shallman, would you please come with me, we need your voice?”
At that point, I was still known to the world as Ava Shallman. I know what you’re thinking, that is such a cooler name than Chava Tombosky. Shallman is my maiden name. Ava is my BFF name- Before Frum. Frum is another word for religious. Although I think Frum has become a whole other genre of Jews that have way more issues than I think I even have. But that’s another essay.
The shock on my face was quite evident. I have no idea what made this twelfth grader choose me out of my whole class to participate. The high school choir seemed more than robust, and yet they had chosen me to be in the choir that year. I was the shortest girl in the entire cast, and they decided, so I wouldn’t look out of place, to put me dead center in the middle of the choral group- ya that didn’t look funny. I practiced my songs after school diligently. I sang every day and took my role very seriously, forever being reminded, that my singing would help elevate the soul of our dear Morah Music. I was determined to honor her through my voice.
The big day arrived and I was pulled out of class to rehearse in the rented out theater. I took my place on the stage during rehearsal and realized the magnitude of this event that I had become a part of. The red velvet drapes suspended behind our choral group, and the pain of singing to the tune of a foreign musician’s piano began to hit me harder than I had realized. Rehearsal ended, and the room began to fill with hundreds of women. I peeked through the curtains and scanned the auditorium. There she was, one of Morah Music’s daughters sitting in the front row. She was nine years old and was supported by Morah Music’s niece, a beautiful dark haired girl with white satin skin like Morah Music had. I stared at their beautiful dark eyes, and thought to myself, who am I? I am not worthy to experience these orphans’ pain. I am not a person who understands what it means to lose a mother at such a young age. And yet I was chosen to sing a tribute to Morah Music. I stared deeply into their bulging brown eyes, who only six weeks before, had only discerned joy and delight, but who had quickly become accustomed to desolation and sorrow. The vacancy in their eyes said so much. In many ways, this was the community’s tragedy, but it felt as though it was too soon to be acknowledging someone else’s pain for whom, it had still not become tangible or real yet. This was not my narrative to sing about, this was their narrative, this was their pain, and they deserved their privacy to bear their wounds without an audience seated behind them. I was not the right person who was chosen to stand in the middle of a towering junior high and high school student body while chanting “Tangled up in memories, the years gone by.” Yet here I was. I had been chosen. The room could barely get through the song, and I stared at Morah Music’s daughter, and little Dina as their eyes mushroomed with emotion. I promised I would one day apologize for using my voice to make sense of this senseless pain that I could never truly grasp. Because, who was I?
Living Bird. My Hebrew name means Living bird. Chava Tziporah Chaya Feiga was my God given name. I had transformed into a living bird. A free agent called upon to use her voice as a testimony to life. Living bird. I am living bird.
The truth is, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to share this story. I was plagued with terrible guilt for feeling as though this was a tragedy I had no right to recount. After all, I had not been directly hurt by this event, except by my association with my teacher. My life had not really changed. I had not lost a parent. I had not lost a mother. I had witnessed my friend lose her aunt, and my other friend lose her mother. I was a witness. I was a witness like a bird who flies above the earth observing it from yet a distance. An onlooker, a bystander who saw another’s devastation yet had not truly lived through the nightmare herself.
That night I sang the song with the choir. There was not a dry eye in the house. I wept with great passion, and after the show could barely compose myself backstage. I cried and I cried. I cried for the orphans who never got to see their mother come home that day from the recital. I cried for the young father who was the head of our school who lost his wife. I cried for the students who lost their teacher. I cried for my own innocence that God stole away that night, which taught me that life is a fleeting journey that does not last forever and for the guilt I felt that I had not been chosen as the orphan but only as the girl who could sing for them. And then I looked up through my tears, and I saw my own mother. Her familiar crinkle of the nose that tells me she is smiling. “Why are you crying?” she asked. She took me home and I lay awake for many hours plagued with guilt in between the warmth of my mother and my father. The two people who promised to never disappoint me and who would always make my own sadness whither away. The two people I trusted with my life. My superheroes. I closed my eyes and dreamt of the young girls sitting in the front row, and I prayed for them and wished that all pain for all children would end forever.
Although this story was a tale that I was very hesitant to relay, I realized I needed perspective before adding it to my narrative. After discussing it with my sister in law, she made me see this was a story that I had to include. She taught me that witnessing someone else’s pain, although it may not have been my own to bear was the experience that promoted my compassion, empathy, unconditional love, and yes, even my music.
Living Bird. Chava Tziporah. Living Bird.
If I have borrowed some else’s pain do I have any right to it? It is true- I had not experienced it like the family who was struck with this tragedy had experienced it. I will never truly know what their lives were like or how they coped. My own humble translation of how I witnessed this tragedy is what I am testifying, and in no way would I dare try to express their experience. I was eleven years old when I lost my teacher, the very first woman to inspire song inside my soul and my sister-in-law reminded me that it was my duty to testify her gift as an adult. By retelling this story, she assured me I would be memorializing Morah Music’s life through the written word. Morah Music’s memory would stay immortal, and I could share in passing on her light, even if only as a mere witness.
Only she could have given me permission to write this story, my beautiful sister-in-law who married my brother and birthed my beautiful niece and nephews, my sister-in-law with the chocolate brown hair and the milky snowy white skin like her aunt. My sister-in-law, Morah Music’s niece from the front row who sat next to her cousin on that fateful day many years ago whom I sang for.
My sister in law’s name actually means, “Console the Judgment”. Console harsh judgment on yourself Living Bird. For through dispending your own judgment, you will let your voice pacify the ones around you.
I hope you enjoy my song. And may our space be healed by the music that fills our souls. With that I will say I am Eternally Hopeful that all pain that permeates this world will one day be assuaged and pacified and most importantly transformed forever.
*this is an excerpt from Chava’s upcoming memoir “Falling From Eden”