Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Soul Music

My students always surprise me. Not one of them turns out to be the person I thought he or she was at the beginning of the semester. This is one of the thrilling and fascinating things about teaching.

I gave my Music 101 students the assignment to write a brief “musical autobiography” explaining the role music has played in their lives. Most of these were boilerplate; five or six (all by young women) were practically interchangeable. Some were semi-literate. A few stood out, though: a young Haitian-American from East Flatbush wrote about the hip-hop music in his neighborhood, distinguishable from block to block; a black student from South Africa wrote about how reggae helped bring about the demise of apartheid; a Sikh young man wrote about music as a means of becoming closer to God, and noted that devotional songs had often kept him “from derailing my path in Sikhism.”

But the best paper of all was a heartfelt, beautifully-written essay by a student who was raised in but no longer practices the tradition of ultra-orthodox Judaism. In his paper, written with a kind of luminous modesty (if there can be said to be such a thing), my student details the proscriptions against secular music for the ultra-orthodox.

The community reacts with particular revulsion towards secular music,
he writes, partly due to its sometimes licentious nature, partly due to its subversive potential, partly due to the religious prohibition [against men listening] to a woman singing [he explains that this law of kol isha, meaning “voice of a woman,” stems from the notion that because of the inherent sensuality of the female voice, hearing a woman sing “can provoke a man to improper thoughts”].

Nonetheless, secular music crept into his life almost against his will. Away at religious boarding school, he was introduced by classmates from more permissive upbringings to the instrumental music of John Tesh and Yanni. This was the slippery slope. One day a friend put a song with lyrics onto the CD player. Horrified, my student leapt up and turned it off. His friend assured him, however, that what he was about to hear contained “no sex or immorality or any of that horrible stuff,” and that, moreover, it was not sung by a woman, so it would pose no moral threat.

I knew that this was a line I must not cross, my student writes. It was bad enough that I had rationalized my listening to non-Jewish music with no vocals; my conscience would never allow me to get away with this sort of thing.

But curiosity won out.

When it was over . . . I realized that I had just heard a most wondrous and beautiful thing. And at that very moment, unbeknownst to me, a foundation of my faith began to crumble inside of me.

The song my student heard for the first time, the one that opened the floodgates, was Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.” I was deeply moved by his account of a life-changing epiphany brought about by a song that many would consider trite. I love the way that what is mundane, even banal, to one man can be the cause of another’s metanoia, or complete change of heart. I feel lucky to have this young man in my class.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem with almost any form of fundamentalism is that many simple joys are off-limits.