A Fine Act of Insurrection

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.”  ― Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

During my undergrad years at McGill, I was a member of a Faculty of Music choir simply called University Chorus, which at that time was under the direction of an amazing conductor named Iwan Edwards. It was a mixed choir of about 100 voices, mostly music students. I sang with them for three years and had some of the great musical experiences of my life. We learned and performed all kinds of repertoire – lots of classics, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Orff’s Carmina Burana, but also many things that were more off the beaten path. One of these was Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) – a setting of the Jewish (reform) Sabbath morning service, for baritone cantor with full choir and orchestra. Bloch wrote it on commission for the congregration of Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco, and it premiered there in 1930. The whole work is just under an hour long. When University Chorus learned it, we performed excerpts from the first five movements, and the sixth one, the Benediction, in its entirety. This last short movement was my favourite, and I still listen to it often, 20 (!) years later.

I hear it differently now than I used to, though.

Y’VAREKH’KHA (Benediction)

Yevorechechoh Adoshem veyishmerechoh. Omein. 

[May the Lord bless you and keep you. Amen.]

Yo’eir Adoshem ponov eilechoh viychunekoh. Omein.

[May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. Amen]

Yisoh Adoshem ponov eilechoh veyoseim lechoh sholom. Omein. 

[May the Lord turn his face unto you and give you peace. Amen.]

I’m not a religious person, and I don’t come from a church (or synagogue)-going background, so my understanding of “amen” has always been vague at best. I know it’s what you say at the end of a prayer; it means “so be it”, and I’ve always thought it was about acceptance, about letting go of the thing you’ve prayed for, leaving it in God’s hands. And the first time the chorus sings it in the Benediction above – that is how it sounds. It’s beautiful and peaceful, like the congregation is saying “yes, we agree”.

But then, when next the choir sings, the “amen” (repeated twice this time) is different. It has yearning in it; a plea, a cry for answers. It’s not an ending. It sounds uncertain.

The cantor sings again, and on his last word – sholom (peace) – the melody hangs in the air for a few seconds, and then takes a slow, inexorable fall down into the depths. The choir responds with “Amen” repeated four times, rising higher and falling again each time.

There’s a long held note for the women, steady unison on middle G as a rumble starts in the depths of the orchestra, like distant thunder. Then a fanfare from the brass and strings, and then the choral voices layer in from low to high: basses, tenors, altos, sopranos. “Amen, amen, amen” …this last time, the word rolls up from the depths, fierce and resolute, striving for the heights.

I used to hear this part as a triumphant, joyful statement of faith. But now, I hear steely determination in it; maybe even anger. It’s not acceptance; it’s exhortation. It sounds like the people praying are saying “it WILL be so, it must be so, we have to make it so”.

The fact that this is Jewish music is important here. I would not presume to go farther than the most surface-level interpretation, but to me, this music has the weight of that history; of what it costs to keep faith across centuries of prejudice, violence, genocide and diaspora.

I still think it’s a statement of hope. But it’s hope with clenched fists and a stiffened spine and unflinching gaze. Hope that acknowledges anger, and exhaustion, and the sheer scale of injustice in the world. Hope that comes with critical thinking attached; clear-eyed optimism that bears witness, that takes in all the facts and acknowledges the impossibility of certainty, and still demands the best from humanity, knowing that we may (will probably) fall short, but also knowing that in the striving for a higher standard, we might at least move the needle a bit.

It’s not a stretch to assume that I am hearing it this way now because I need to, given the state of the world.

As I’ve said, I’m not a religious person. I’m inclined to think that we’re all we’ve got, in this world. This life is all there is. We can’t leave the outcome in someone else’s hands. We make our own light, and the only way we find peace and safety is if we build it for ourselves and for each other.  Like the people in Bloch’s choir, we have to sing it into being.

But how? There’s so much to do, so much that seems to be going wrong, so much to fear. It’s paralyzing. But I try to remind myself that we humans have the capacity to hold more than one thing in our minds. We can be afraid and also have hope. Hope can exist in full awareness of, but in direct opposition to – in defiance of – fear. Living life from a position of hope is in itself an ongoing act of resistance. It prompts us to reach out, to open doors instead of slamming them shut. To have faith that there’s room for everyone. That positive change can happen; that standing up for other people’s rights doesn’t threaten our own; in fact it makes us all stronger and safer.

Fred Rogers once famously said that his mother used to comfort him when he was a child by encouraging him to “look for the helpers” when tragic, terrifying things happen. To seek out the evidence (and it’s always there, if sometimes buried deep) that dark times bring out the best in humanity right along with the worst. I have felt this way in recent years about the water protectors at Standing Rock and the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protesters and Greta Thunberg …the volunteer lawyers who set themselves up in airports all over the US in the aftermath of the immigration ban…Emma Gonzalez and the other Parkland kids…everyone who stood vigil after the Quebec mosque killings, and especially the folks who joined hands to make human shields/rings of peace around other Canadian mosques (Toronto rabbi Yael Splansky called this “prayer in motion”)… the list goes on, and I haven’t even mentioned my own lawyer friends A and M, who stand up every day for marginalized people in their own communities, or any of my brave activist theatre colleagues, who are stubbornly, angrily, persistently pushing the art form and our professional community towards greater equity and true diversity. I look at all these people I admire so much, and I am so grateful to them – for the actual substance of what they are doing, and for the hope it brings me to know that they are out there fighting back against the darkness.

I think of my friend Ruth, who said (in the aftermath of the US election in 2016) “We have to hold the space we have, and radiate outwards.”

And I think, okay. Yes. So what am I doing to help? What can I do that will make any kind of difference?

I don’t know, really. I have a lot of vague thoughts about history and theatre and music, my chosen fields, and how they connect people and foster empathy and help us to greater understanding. I think many of the projects that I’ve been lucky enough to work on in recent years are making important contributions on that front; they’re holding space for necessary ideas and stories and conversations, and their impact does radiate outwards. But it doesn’t feel like enough, somehow – or maybe, what I really mean is that I feel I am not speaking up enough in my own voice, yet. I have not properly stood up to be counted in this fight – and it does feel like a moment where that’s necessary.

I’m still figuring out what form that might take. This post is a first step, anyway.

“Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that, yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant of our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.”

– Rebecca Solnit again, in The Guardian