On a Friday in December, when my Soviet Immigrant friends will be celebrating a Hanukkah Shabbat at a synagogue, I will be attending a concert of 16th and 17th century Christmas music, featuring viol consort music and carols from Bohemia, England and Germany. On any day, if you asked me how I would prefer to spend my free time and where I feel inspired, I would answer: in a large church, preferably in Northern Europe, listening to – or better yet, playing – baroque music by that ultimate Lutheran, J.S. Bach, on a nice pipe organ.
Is it wrong to feel more connected to the European Christian musical tradition? I am a Jew by blood, but I grew up with no religious identity, courtesy of the U.S.S.R. where “there is no God”. At the tender age of 12, while traversing the Vienna-Rome emigration pipeline with a wave of similarly apostate comrades, my family walked into Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The grandeur of the space made an impression on me, as I gawked at the Gothic arches and polychrome figures of saints peering at me from the columns. But then the doors were locked and everyone started sitting down in the wooden pews. We inadvertently ambled in just before the start of the Sunday service, and there was no escape. Resigned to fate, we took our place among the God-fearing Austrians. And then the organ resounded, resplendent and glorious.
I carried that impression with me to America, where I started to learn the pipe organ in college and am still taking lessons. The solitary and aspirational hobby, to which I devote many hours, while I live my life and earn my living doing things completely unrelated to music, sustains me and brings me joy, clarity and peace. My friends know that I prefer to vacation in cities, where I can experience beautiful churches and pipe organs, to lounging under the palms.
I tried to participate in Jewish traditions, celebrating holidays, fasting, praying over the challah. This doesn’t feel right to me. It might be the way of my people, but I think one needs to either be born into tradition or come to it as a willing adult. Participating in the Christian service doesn’t feel right to me either. I can’t in full conscience bring myself to say the Prayer of Confession or any other doctrine that has not taken root in my soul. I don’t belong in the pews. But when I play music of J.S. Bach on the pipe organ, in a majestic edifice built for the worship of the Christian god, that is my own way of communing with the Divine that needs no words or rituals.