Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Loudest Voice

I just re-read the Grace Paley story "The Loudest Voice," about a Jewish girl in 1930s New York who, because of her clear, loud voice and expressive reading, is chosen to narrate the school Christmas play. Her mother is against the idea at first, but her father reassures his wife:

"You're in America! . . . In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms . . . Here you got Christmas . . . . What belongs to history, belongs to all men. . . Does it hurt Shirley to speak up? It does not."

So Shirley Abramowitz is allowed to continue with rehearsals. The day of the performance comes, and her voice -- as the voice of Christ -- booms from the wings as the actions she describes are pantomimed on the stage.

"I remember, I remember, the house where I was born . . . "

Miss Glacé yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house -- an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester, and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father's prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered around Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to the famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The soldiers . . . grabbed poor Marty . . . but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city -- in this world -- now knows, I shall have life eternal."

Later, the Jewish parents discuss the paradox of their children taking the lead parts in the play. One mother opines that the teachers showed poor taste in assigning the major roles to the Jewish children, while the Christian children got cast in small parts if at all. But Shirley's mother explains: "They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler?"

Shirley listens from the other room to the talk of the grown-ups, then

I climbed out of bed and kneeled. I made a little church of my hands and said, "Hear, O Israel . . . "

. . . . I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passers-by, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.


dreshny said...

Yeah, well, I am singing the descant on "Mary Had a Baby" at my concert this weekend, since I'm one of the very few who can sustain "my lord" on a high g pianissimo.

But what I'll never forget was that in high school, my friend Eric Yanoff, who later became a rabbi, had the solo in "Lord of the Dance." And there he was, in his really high tenor singing:

I danced for the scribe and the Pharasee
And they would not dance, and they wouldn't follow Me
They whipped, and they stripped, and they hung Me on high
They left Me there on a cross to die.

And this was the same kid who wouldn't eat the cake I baked for a French class party because it wasn't kosher enough.

Pentimento said...

Dreshny, I'm so glad your choral director had the sense to give you a solo in that piece.

As for your high school friend - I suppose it had to do with loving the limelight, probably a useful trait for a rabbi of a congregation?

dreshny said...

Then there was my colleague in the chorus who told me last spring when we sang a program of gospel music that she was secretly substituting "Moses" in her head every time we sang, "I'm praisin' my Jesus."