PERSONAL STATEMENT

     For my 16th birthday, I desperately wanted a guitar. My parents played along, gifting me an instrument they thought I would retire when I got bored or frustrated with my lack of skill. Within the first week I had taught myself five chords and written multiple songs. The guitar slowly replaced my cherished boombox, offering new ways to sing and play my most beloved melodies. Ten months later, when I attended the March of the Living, I carried that guitar strapped to my back through Poland, bringing it out every chance I had to make music where songs were no longer heard and the voices of Jews had been silenced.

     Ever since childhood, I have utilized music as my main tool of communication. Belting out the words to the title track of Michael Jackson’s Bad allowed for me to be brazen in ways young children are not always encouraged to behave. Or perhaps “The Way You Make Me Feel” enabled me to sing actual words about feelings that I couldn’t articulate at such a young age. “Man in the Mirror” gave me permission to, as a young girl, look in the mirror and ask myself what I wanted to change, what would “feel real good” or “make a difference?”

     By my mid-20s I began to sense a Jewish component to my musical journey. The divine was hiding within the strum of my guitar, the hum of a familiar melody, the caress of my fingers on piano keys, the sounding of my own voice. Looking back, I know now that I had a revelation on the steps of the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, singing a song I had just written. It was there that I tuned into something I had felt all along: these are my people and I can connect with them - and to God -  through music.

     The formative sounds of my Jewish musical soul echoed through the halls of my synagogue, the b’rachot cheerfully chanted together at B.B.Y.O. (B’nai B’rith Youth Organization) conventions and familiar folk songs shouted during a Camp Louise Shabbat. From these experiences I learned that we are each a part of something larger and when we sing, we connect to a greater Being. Maybe this is why the slow, drawn-out chant of a breath-by-breath Shema has always resonated so deeply within me: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad - Hear [the people] Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One. When we truly hear each other’s voices, we become one community and we clear a way to being one with God. My journey has led me to be a guide for the Jewish people, using our rich musical heritage to help them listen and connect, to celebrate, heal, learn, pray, motivate, and impact the lives of others.

     I recently received a personal, three-page, handwritten letter from a lay-leader of my congregation. In it, he offers the following anecdote: 

 

     I was in the back of the chapel attending to my ushering duties as a [lay-leader]. It had been a particularly difficult week after a particularly difficult few months and I was feeling very pessimistic about how things were going overall at [our congregation], and particularly despondent about what I was (or was not) achieving in my role. I was reflecting on this through the Amidah and questioning whether I was able to bring to the table what our congregation needed. I doubted my own capacity to contribute. 

    And then you transitioned us out of the Amidah with “Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi…” and your voice resonated so deeply, melding with the words so richly, and I felt transported by the prayer - and in that moment - the idea of asking that my words and meditations be acceptable, became deeply humbling. I felt in the most profound and cleansing way that’s what was important - what is important - is to bring my words, deeds, and notions - to bring them humbly before God and to trust they are acceptable because they represent the truth of my effort - not whether or not they are successful, but that the success lies in the trying. 

 

     This is why I am becoming a cantor: to create personal and communal opportunities for connection to humanity and the divine in a single instant. As spiritual leaders, we may not always know who needs prayer at any given moment. In fact, many people don’t know they need prayer when they do. Prayer - and music - are both expressions of the soul and ways to reach its unspoken, innermost depths. As a cantor, I feel privileged to use our Jewish traditions, rituals and liturgy as vehicles to transport us to the hidden parts of ourselves and break them open. 

 

     I still carry my guitar with me everywhere. It has become an extension of my being - a mechanism for communication, a symbol of my willingness to join in and create harmony. And I still belt the lyrics to my favorite songs to articulate my deepest truths. As I commit my soul to the supplications I sing, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to all who hear.

© 2016. Created by Shanna Zell.