Waves of love “for my brothers and sisters” carried me back from Philadelphia at the end of March. During the last week of the month, the good folks of Philadelphia heaped on the affection, and honored us with a tribute.
It’s not an easy experience to encapsulate; it was a wild ride. The Philadelphia Orchestra asked Tree of Life for a shofar blower a couple months ago. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers suggested me. I had been leading services when the shooter interrupted, and I blow shofar.
The music would be a new composition by composer-in-residence (and jazz trumpeter) Hannibal Lokumbe, this being his third and final year of residency. Titled Healing Tones, Hannibal had been working on it by communing with “life-givers and healers” of Philadelphia, and, according to the program, he tributes “the other living shamans known as midwives, doctors, artists, musicians, and all who work with passion for the spiritual liberation of humanity.” When the shooting in Pittsburgh happened in the middle of his work, he felt he had to include us.
Thus my shofar. I practiced like a fiend. My cat Taxi flew through the house maniacally at the sounds, frantic that I was blowing when it wasn’t even the month of Elul. They’d sent two pages of the shofar part as currently written, and I worked to try to hit those notes. The E flat came sometimes, the G and C not so much. The good folks of the orchestra assured me that I wouldn’t have to accomplish the impossible. We drove across the commonwealth, imagining what would be. I was ready for anything they could throw at me — I’d do whatever they wanted. And I was nervous.
And they greeted me with open arms. Everyone was so gracious and so generous and so accommodating.
The ensemble, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, consisted of members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with soloists Karen Slack, Funmike Lagoke and Rodrick Dixon, surrounded by both the Morgan State University Choir and the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, all of them brilliant. And me — I became known as the Shofar Player. The music is in three movements, which Hannibal calls “Veils,” named “Veil One: The Tones of Peace,” “Veil Two: The Tones of War” and “Veil Three: The Tones of Healing.” The soloists were in costume and makeup, and there were props as well.
This piece of music is monumental. There are many ways to take in — to absorb — the composition. It brings one through the primordial soup of the beginning of humankind, through the evolution of humanity with all the war, turmoil, peace, confusion, love, communication and so much more. In another vein, it is working through the gods and goddesses and shamans and other icons of our mutual beginnings. In yet another way, it is drawing the image of where we have failed and where we are headed — in the least-advisable direction, while the answer is right before us.
Hearing the work is a workout. It visits so many feelings, so many points of touch in one’s brain and instinct and emotion. And I had the privilege of being immersed in it as I counted a couple hundred measures of rests between my notes through rehearsals and three performances.
Traveling with fellow Tree-of-Lifer Joe Charny, we had lunch on Friday with some of his high school buddies (Central High School class of 1945), all just as sweet and humorous as Joe.
We also went to Saturday morning services at Beth Zion Beth Israel, in Center City, Philadelphia, a wonderful community. They were very welcoming, and after services we talked a lot about Tree of Life and how we are dealing with the circumstances, and that we are indeed determinedly positive, with a lot of work ahead of us. And sadly, we now reach out to others, even as we are still learning how to cope: It is a club that no one wants to join, yet we accept the responsibility of our membership and will pay it forward.
We found solidarity in our journey. It was the same wherever we went — even at a stop on the turnpike, recognized wearing my “Hazak Hazak” shirt made by the students at Allderdice. In talking with musicians, with orchestra staff and board members with random individuals in restaurants and stores, audience members, and so many others, people reach out to us and as we figuratively clasp their outstretched hands, together we are forming a network to stand solid against all sorts of violence, profiling, prejudice and other negative forces.
So many had questions, so many gave consolation, shared strength, reinforced our solidarity. We talked about what a shofar is, how it’s played, how it’s made. We got to know each other, if only briefly.
It was an immense honor, all the way around, for our community, and for our congregations. I found it very humbling. Of course, it was a constant source of fulfillment to be able to talk with so many about the very things we want to say: that violence, hatred, profiling, scapegoating and shooting are all wrong, and we have to stop them before they grow any bigger. We talked, we hugged, we bonded. Hannibal wants us to let him know when we reopen the Tree of Life building. He wants to come with his trumpet to herald the day.
In a very physical way, I got to blast the call to action that we so sorely need. A shofar blast is exactly that — a call to action.
So much beauty can come out of human beings, and so much expression and illumination about ourselves. We need only stop arguing and fighting, and listen, and create. PJC
Audrey N. Glickman is an active member and past board member of Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha congregation in Pittsburgh. She is the Rabbi’s Assistant at Congregation Beth Shalom, and is the author of the forthcoming book “Pockets: The Problem with Society is in Women’s Clothing.”