Singing the Passion

"Confronted with the Gospel of John, I could not hide behind metaphor..."

"Confronted with the Gospel of John, I could not hide behind metaphor..."

When my current choir first started rehearsing Bach’s St. John Passion, I didn’t know what to expect. In spite of my years of choral singing, I knew little more than most Jews know about Jesus. I knew that he was a Jew, and I knew that the Last Supper was a seder, but I didn’t know the special meaning of the word “passion” in this context. A first look at the text revealed one source of what my mother always told me: They think we killed their man.

Now I know that “Passion” is the name given to the story of Christ’s betrayal and death; the story told and sung in churches everywhere during the week before Easter. In Bach’s Passions, the choir plays the collective role of the crowd, with choral parts introduced by the narrator, or Evangelist. In St. John’s version, the narration consists of phrases like “The Jews gave an answer,” after which the choir sings, in turn, “Crucify, crucify, crucify,” with a lengthy string of repetitions centering on the accented syllable “cru.” In one of the hymn-like chorales that are interspersed with more complex choruses, that same crowd is referred to as “a godless throng.” We would not have done much better in German, as “Die Juden” certainly carries its own distinct historical reminders.

As we rehearsed, I became obsessed with this representation of the Jews and uncertain about continuing to sing the piece. My choir, the Oratorio Society, operates out of a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia’s Main Line, a historically WASP enclave. I joined because I like the big choral sound, because so much great choral music is from the Christian liturgy, and because the conductor, Jeff, is a really nice guy, a rarity among notoriously egocentric choir directors. In other choirs I’ve always been able to identify at least a handful of Jews, but in this one it seems to be just me and the paid mezzo soloist.

Jeff ends every rehearsal (and begins every concert) with an improvised, rambling prayer. It might start with something like, “As we let the music sing us let us not forget the message…” and end with “in Christ we pray.” I always try to tune out the C-word. However, etiquette seems to dictate that, in his (or His) house, Christian conventions apply.

Jeff generally schedules 20th-century music for the fall concert — a risky venture, but he’s got a loyal audience. In the fall preceding our spring Passion, we sang Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (in Hebrew) and Bloch’s Sacred Service (in English), thrilling choices for me, and brave ones for Jeff. He took me up on my offer to coach the choir in Hebrew punctuation. My hardest task was to reinforce the importance of the guttural “ch” sound, in both soft and hard versions. With this lesson I received unexpected support from the church’s bass-baritone soloist, who moonlights as a cantor on the High Holidays. Nevertheless, I was not especially sympathetic to complaints from the choir about phrases like “Hu asanu, v’lo anachnu.”  How do you pronounce an apostrophe? Hadn’t I perfected their “Gloria’s” and “in excelsis deo’s” in my 30-odd years of choral singing? Didn’t I know all the parts of the Mass?

After the “Jewish concert” came our annual crowd-pleasing Messiah in early December. As always, it was a joy to sing, but the performance was undermined for me by a confrontation with another singer. She knew me as a Jew from my earlier efforts, and she claimed to be Jewish as well. That night I learned she was a Jew of a different (ersatz) messianic sort.  She asked rhetorically, as if I was bound to agree, “Isn’t it wonderful the way Christ’s birth is prophesied in the Old Testament?” Her face was suffused with the inner glow of the true believer. I mumbled something about taking the supposed prophesies as metaphor and left to greet my friends in the audience. “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word,” I reminded myself, and the symbolism of darkness, light, and rebirth is universal. The solo air, “He was despised,” which speaks of “a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief,” always reminds me of my father.

But confronted with the Gospel of John, I could not hide behind metaphor. I drove all my non-Jewish friends crazy with questions. They reassured me that nobody believes anymore in the collective responsibility of the Jews for the crucifixion. Still, the words seem to say otherwise. And there was some question about the extent to which the Romans were really culpable. When the men sing, “We have with us a law, and by this our law he must perish,” who constitutes the “we,” and whose law are they citing? It is certainly true that making a God out of man would be heretical to Jewish practice as I have learned it, but I don’t know whether such heresy would be punishable by death. I felt compromised and confused, but I didn’t drop out, and I’m not sure why. I told myself and others that this would be my last Passion.

Famous last words! Scheduling constraints dictated that our second annual trip to the Berkshire Choral Festival, an adult music “camp” in Sheffield, Massachusetts, would have to be the week in which the choir would prepare the St. Matthew Passion for performance in German. I hemmed and hawed, telling my significant other that maybe she should go herself, that I’d had enough Passion for one life. She reminded me that, as a lapsed Catholic, she was no more a believer than I was. In the end, and for the sake of my relationship, I went along, with assurance from my theological support group that Matthew’s “take” would be more palatable to me than that of John.

By the time we got to Sheffield, I was prepared for the story line and took relative comfort in the vague pronouns. The only use of the word “Jews” was along with “king of the” as another moniker for Jesus. I was less alone as a Jew at the Berkshire Festival than I was in Main Line, perhaps because of the large New York and New Jersey contingents. One new Jewish “choir friend” talked about not wanting to sing the words “His blood on us and our children,” interpreted by many as a statement of collective Jewish guilt and used to perpetuate all manner of atrocities. But I sang our lullaby to Christ, which is musically much more lush than John.

That is,  I would have, had I not come down with laryngitis three days before the performance, in addition to an attack of shingles. I hope my ailments were not God’s gift for participating in this venture, but who knows? I doused myself with lidocaine for the shingles, mouthed the German words from the stage, and was swept away by the deep sadness of the music. I was much happier with Matthew than with John. I guess that’s a good thing for a Jew to know.

After my Berkshire summer, I sat out the November Oratorio concert because an ear, nose, and throat specialist prescribed vocal rest for my inflamed cords. Had I been silenced by the Old Testament God for switching sides? With Rosh Hashanah coming up, it was a good time not to go to church. I never wanted to be anything other than a Jew, though well into middle age I’m still not quite sure what kind of Jew I want to be. I’ve spent more time in the past few years in a church than in a synagogue, but I’m no defector. For me, as a Jew, the coming of the messiah is more archetype than received truth, like leaving the door open for Elijah at Passover. I guess I believe in open doors.

Sue Russell is a writer who lives and sings in the Philadelphia area. Her essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Poets and Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books, and her poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. By day, she edits medical journals.