When I first began the process for my conversion in early 2020, I was in the depths of the darkest depression I had ever experienced. I could hardly get out of bed, I found little interest in anything that had given me joy over the previous decade, and I was just going about my days to get through them. I was not living by any means. I know I’m not alone in these types of experiences. They can cause people to turn to various coping mechanisms; mine, as it has always been, came in the form of music.
I am a musician first and foremost. Most of my daily life now involves oscillating between that of a professional classical musician — teaching private lessons on bassoon, whittling on reeds, and getting ready for the next concert — and that of a color guard instructor — worrying about marching band shows, choreographing the next 8 count, and making uniform choices. But even before I joined band in sixth grade, my parents found a way to infuse music into our everyday lives. Mom would cook dinners after school with Shania Twain on the radio in the background. Dad, ever the drummer, would find a way to make a cadence out of a car’s turn signal. I found my way through my own spirituality through singing and movement; I could always find a way back to myself through a song’s lyrics or by making beautiful sounds through my instrument. There wasn’t really a moment of silence in my childhood, but that came to be my normal.
My conversion journey and my healing journey are so entwined, it is nearly impossible to tell them apart. I will never forget the first time I ever heard the Shema, the prayer declaring the power and oneness of G-d. As I was sitting in my first evening Shabbat service in a small synagogue I’d only ever been to once before, I can only describe feeling this déjà vu of sorts, a recognition and an ownership of a melody and a prayer I’d never experienced before. It was like a part of my soul had awoken and felt at peace for the first time in my entire life, and it was the catalyst of my journey to true self-discovery and self-acceptance.
After this first Shabbat experience, I became hyper-fixated on researching everything I could about Jewish music, both sacred and secular. The output of music from the Jewish community, particularly that of American Jews, is vast. From Aaron Copland to Barbra Streisand to George Gershwin to Bette Midler to Debbie Friedman to nearly every Christmas carol of the 20th century, the range of music produced by Jews is incomparable and encompasses nearly every known genre of music. I started to find these little pockets of Judaism in my musical studies as I was finishing my doctorate. I even wrote a research paper on Aaron Copland’s Jewishness, and it was bringing me back to life after nearly a year of darkness!
And then I lost Patches.
This senior dog I’d adopted in my first year of grad school had moved with me all four times — from Kentucky to Ohio to New York to Michigan (twice) — and become the bedrock upon which my early twenties were built. He was the first true loss I’d ever experienced, and my life fell silent.
It was deafening.
I turned to the only place of peace I had at the time, my Shabbat practice. This first Shabbat after Patches’ death included Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach. This song, whose words offer the hope of refuah shlema (complete healing), hit me like a two-ton weight straight to the chest, and I cried so hard throughout the rest of the service. It played on a loop on my Spotify account for at least four full days afterward. In the wake of Patches’ passing, I could have easily slipped back into that dark depression, but I was able to find peace and healing through this masterwork of Friedman’s, and self-soothe in a healthy way that I likely wouldn’t have been able to two years prior.
The idea of refuah shlema is one that particularly struck me, as its literal translation is “complete healing.” But as Mi Shebeirach, the prayer, asks the Creator for individualized healing of both the soul and body, I think refuah shlema should be individualized as well. To a person going into surgery to treat a life-threatening illness, it may mean a physical healing to pull through to a full recovery. For me, complete healing in the wake of depression meant I felt a sense of belonging, I felt a sense of peace, and I was playing again.
When people participate in music, research has shown that it “activates cognitive, motor, and speech centers in the brain…therefore positively influencing quality of life and overall functioning.” Studies have also shown that music therapy provides short‐term beneficial effects for people with depression, and when music therapy is added to normal depression treatments, the symptoms improve better than regular treatment alone.
While I am not equating what occurs in the synagogue to the training needed to provide a quality musical therapy to a patient, the idea that music can soothe the soul is a universal one. For many, the religious contexts of music have an added benefit: it gives a little of our worry or suffering to something else.
About three weeks after Patches’ death, I adopted Stella, a one-year-old pit bull mix with huge ears, tiny little legs and a skin condition that would require round the clock care for the next six months. In caring for and getting to know her, I started to embed music back into my life. She required three baths a week, so I would put on some Aaron Copland in the bathroom to help calm her down. She would sleep in my studio office while I played; I was finally practicing again just to get her to go to sleep. As we headed into Purim season, Stella and her ears became the star of the show on the Zoom calls. I tried many times to do activities with Stella that Patches used to love, but she had no desire to just sit and watch the river go by from the banks down the street from our house. She much prefers to live in the world around her, and she wants me to experience it with her.
I moved back home to Kentucky in the wake of my divorce last summer, and I feel much more at peace with who I am and what I’m meant to do in this world. I’ve found a love for playing again, and look forward to performing again soon. My Shabbat practice now involves taking Stella for a walk, lighting the candles, and listening to whatever music comes up first on my playlist — Daveed Diggs has become a staple in my library most recently.
All in all, my world is a lot less quiet now. And that’s the way it should be.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
R’fuah Sh'leimah, ReformJudaism.org
Jewish Prayer for the Sick: Mi Sheberach, My Jewish Learning