Nostalgia| December 21, 2021
As individuals and as a community, are we doing enough to convey the richness of Yiddishkeit to our children?
I have just watched a profoundly moving clip, and it seems my experience was not unique. I have spoken to two others in my age bracket who have seen it and were moved to tears. Perhaps by setting my jumbled emotions and thoughts to words, they will coalesce into a coherent theme. Let me give it a try.
I viewed, as I’m sure many readers have, a kumzitz that took place on Zos Chanukah in honor of the celebrated choir leader, Yigal Calek, together with many of the “alumni” of London School of Jewish Song (only the Brits would think of such a name). It seems they gathered to be mechazeik Reb Yigal after he suffered a devastating stroke that left him effectively blind.
At the very beginning of the clip he says he does not have eyes to see, but he can cry... Then his former choir boys, now graying, upper-middle-aged men, interrupt him and break into song with the London School classic, “Mini koleich mibechi.” They go on singing London classics for over an hour, and the atmosphere is just electric.
But that is not the right adjective. I think the right word is “rich.”
The tunes are sophisticated and rich.
The way these words — so many from Yamim Noraim davening and from “obscure” haftaros — complement the tunes, is so rich. It is clear that the tunes were composed to convey the message of the words, and not that the words were slapped onto a catchy tune.
The harmonies are so rich. It is amazing to hear how these men remember from some 45 years ago the subtleties of these harmonies.
But the richness goes oh, so much deeper. The camaraderie among the chevra themselves, and between them and their beloved but stricken choir leader is so palpable — so rich — you can cut it with a knife. At times, Yigal is so moved that he stands up to lead these middle-aged men to as a true choir leader would, but his talmidim sit him down, presumably to preserve his strength.
He cannot see, so he asks the assembled to identify themselves and to sing their solos, and then he motions with his hands when the choir should join in, how they should pace the song, when they should drop their voice to a mere whisper — a trademark of the London choir — and when to explode into a crescendo.
All these grown men — men with extended families and generations, men who have experienced in their own lives tragedies and simchahs and all the vicissitudes of life — allow themselves to be led by his subtle hand motions, and I watch as they are transformed into little boys again. The innocence of youth — Elokim asah es haAdam yashar — springs back to life, and they coalesce once again into a living breathing organism called a choir. The depth of emotion, the joy and the sadness, is just so rich.
As the kumzitz ends, Yigal thanks the choir for coming, and he is at a loss for words as to how to extend his gratitude, but we all know that it is the choir who must thank him for giving them something invaluable almost a half century ago, when he gathered them together to teach them his songs.
He of course had taught them so much more. He gifted them with something that they, and we, all can see now… the full richness of Yiddishkeit. The richness of Tehillim, the richness of davening, the richness of connecting to other Yidden, and to Hashem. In a word, the richness of being a Yid.
Rav Eliyahu Boruch Shulman, in a beautiful essay on the connection between zichronos and teshuvah, notes that there is a particularly poignant kind of memory called nostalgia. It evokes a yearning for the past — that bittersweet feeling we have when we look at pictures from childhood, when we visit places that were important to us in earlier times, or when we remember old friends. The word nostalgia is a combination of two Greek words — nostos, which means to return home, and algia, which means pain (as in analgesic or neuralgia). And nostalgia is on full display when one sees those graying grandfathers being led by their choir leader. The joy and the throbbing ache to return.
Nostalgia can act as a powerful force to motivate us to return to the lessons of those experiences, to recapture the underlying message of those meaningful and beautiful moments. This is the essence of teshuvah. And it is the essence of what we as parents and melamdim seek to bestow upon our children.
Few of us are remotely as talented as Yigal Calek, but I ask: As individuals and as a community, are we doing enough to convey the richness of Yiddishkeit to our children? What ever happened to Pirchei and Tzeirei? Why are so many talented and creative bochurim not serving as role models in camps? Why are there so few choirs modeled after Yigal’s choir?
Yiddishkeit can be expressed in so many ways, in singing Hashem’s praises, in the performance of chesed, in the beauty of Shabbos table and in a beautiful sugya. B’chol derachecha da’eihu means that the beauty of Yiddishkeit can be found in every activity a person has. Are we providing our children with the means to find the beauty in so many varied experiences?
As Rabbi Shulman notes, Hashem too, has a feeling nostalgia for His people:
“Haben Yakir li Ephraim, im yeled sha’ashuim, ki midei dabri bo, zachor ezkereni od; al kein hamu mei’ai li, racheim arachamenu, ne’um Hashem. [Hashem says: Ephraim is a precious son to me, a child of delight, for when I speak of him, I remember him still; therefore I am stirred within, and I shall surely have mercy on him.]
Hashem remembers the innocence of our youth and He aches for our return — al kein hamu mei’ai li. We can return to Him as a nation, if we convey that sense of beauty to our children, so that they may one day have the power of nostalgia drawing them to experience… the richness of being a Yid. —
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger is the rav of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of New Hempstead and the author of Positive Vision, a Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation project (Artscroll/Mesorah)
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 891)
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