(Photo/Flickr-enki22 CC BY-ND 2.0)
(Photo/Flickr-enki22 CC BY-ND 2.0)

Together again! This High Holidays, our choir was truly magical.

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Before the 2020 High Holidays, I sang solo soprano into my iPhone, and I cried. I am a choral singer, not a soloist. Hearing every off-note and viewing every strange expression on my face left me distraught. Exasperated, I sent the best of several dozen attempts to my cantor and suggested that she destroy them.

In a choir, we are in the music, immersed in the harmonies as we absorb energy from those around us. In the process, we create an experience that surpasses the sum of our individual voices.

Last year our voices and our Brady Bunch squares came together in a choral video, which I watched from home. Was it acceptable? Yes. Was it a choral experience? No way. In previous years, we sang in big auditoriums like Cupertino’s Flint Center or San Jose’s Redemption Church. But in 2021, we came home to Congregation Beth Am for a once-in-a-lifetime choral experience.

Masked, vaccinated and tested for Covid, we sang in Beth Am’s outdoor chapel in Los Altos Hills, challenged by helicopters, hummingbirds and rutted ground that threatened to trip us up. Because we didn’t allow perfection to become the enemy of the good, we rejoiced at what went right, laughed at what didn’t and experienced an incredible High Holidays high.

During Rosh Hashanah services, my iPad overheated, flashing a thermometer icon instead of the sheet music I rely on. No problem. The professional soprano on my left graciously shared her low-tech binder. On Yom Kippur, the heat was less of a problem. But it was a long day’s journey into forgiveness. At the end of the service, the sun moved westward, casting reflections on my iPad and causing me to squint. I could neither read my music nor follow the conductor. Singing on automatic pilot, I nonetheless threw my soul into the music, hit a high A at the end of the day and left the chapel beaming.

While all this was going on, masked and vaccinated congregants sat in a tented, expanded outdoor area, while others caught the livestream at home.

In an email the next day, Cantor Jaime Shpall thanked the choir for surmounting the many obstacles. “We did it!!! In truth, I never really thought it would work. As the news of the delta variant got worse and worse over the summer, I was sure we would have to stream the whole thing once again.

“I have never been so happy to be proven wrong! The music was beautiful, intimate, heartfelt, heartbreaking and joyous and it lifted our prayers right up to the Heavens. Thank you for your grace and flexibility.”

Lisa Rauchwerger, a soprano, agreed: “When N’ilah began and the choir members were the only ones illuminated by the setting sun, the rest of the congregation cloaked in growing darkness, it really felt as if we were part of a Heavenly Court, helping to lift up the congregation’s prayers through that last Heavenly gate,” she wrote.  “Sitting inside, we wouldn’t have been able to experience that moment in quite the same way.”

Vera Shadle, another soprano, said that amid “a few small glitches and gaffes,” she thought of her “late father’s response to many a quandary: Just shrug and smile!”

“And we did, and the music happened.

“… We just laughed it off.  (Well, except for that one small fly that wouldn’t leave my face alone … ugh!)”

While I battled an errant iPad, a tree branch attacked alto Hildy Agustin, who asked that it be raised in the future. Meanwhile, tenor Allen Podell requested that the gnarly tree roots be removed “and the outdoor chapel paved with blacktop.”

But despite the obstructions, Agustin added: “This Yom Kippur was infused with meaning in a way that felt different and powerful for me.”

San Francisco music director Paul Ellison, who has directed Beth Am’s High Holiday choir for more than two decades, managed to keep his cool, despite the sun. He thanked singers and musicians, the clergy and staff, the sound crew and all who made the services happen, against all odds.

“In truth, they were an amazing achievement: from the very fact that they even happened to the care and beauty of their execution in the iconic location we found ourselves.”

While I, for one, cherished the experience of singing outside this year, the cantor is hoping we won’t have to repeat it. She prefers an air-conditioned venue.

“It’s likely that we will be back indoors next year,” she wrote, “but I will always cherish the memory of this year, when we created something truly magical.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].