Millennial Mishegas

Steven Chaitman

Steven Chaitman shares what's on his Millennial mind and brings some re-Jew-venating perspective to contemporary issues in our rapidly evolving world.

The Kvetching Intellectual

Taking myself to church

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This past Sunday, a gorgeous and sunny Easter morning, I put on my Sunday best and went to church.

Almost my entire family is Jewish, so this was completely voluntary. The gist of it is that Mollie and I were invited by her friend Lauren and her husband Jon to come to church and then have Easter brunch at their apartment. They had even gone so far as to prepare kosher-for-Passover options. Kosher-for-Passover Easter brunch? That kind of gesture you don't turn down.

In truth, I had been to a Sunday church service once before. During my final year of undergrad in Missouri, I had a friend who played keyboard in her church worship band. I could never come see her because every Sunday I was also busy leading music - for the religious school at the local synagogue. She had seen me leading services on Friday night before, so I wanted to complete the exchange, so to speak.

If you've never seen a church band before, it's like going to any popular concert - only much less rowdy and all the songs are about God and Jesus. The vocalists and instrumentalists are usually very talented, and they play a variety of catchy tunes, in between which the pastor offers words of prayer and later a sermon.

Before my first church band experience, my only frame of reference for this music was those TV infomercials for Christian rock compilation CDs and the occasional surprise while scanning F.M. radio stations. Praying in the form of popular-sounding songs in English that celebrated Jesus as the Son of God was not in my comfort zone, but I sang along when I could, mumbling through or pausing when certain lyrics conflicted with my beliefs. I couldn't bring myself to pretend that I wasn't Jewish for an hour or sing these words as if they had no meaning. Feeling all that, however, it still didn't take me long to realize that this easily could've been my life.

If I'd been born to a Christian family - something I had no control over - yet otherwise grown up the same person, I would be up on that stage, passionate and humbled to lead my community in songs of praise, believing these words with all my heart and soul. Faith is not genetic - but it is usually inherited. We can ultimately choose our religion and beliefs, but they often try to choose us first.

I remembered having this epiphany five years ago as I stood in church on Easter Sunday. I still whispered over the many lyrics declaring Jesus' divinity and celebrating his resurrection, but I also felt something stirring inside me as this passionate, emotional music and singing filled the room. I knew this feeling. I experienced it in synagogue growing up, at Jewish summer camp, at Friday night minyanim in Chicago. It's what happens when people get together and sing. When a community gathers - united by the same values, everyone looking for the same connection - and makes music, it is powerful. It is moving. Theology, customs, observance - these are just details. They mean nothing in the face of the raw spiritual energy created when people sing together.

So I didn't sing all the words, but I sang. I added occasional wordless harmonies and otherwise admired the beauty of the moment.

Even though I wasn't truly connecting to their music, I could see and hear and feel their spiritual passion. I know what this feels like. I feel the same way when I'm with my community, singing the songs I know with words I believe in. We both use music; we channel its energy for spiritual purposes, just with different words, and with different instruments. All faiths have this in common, even when we disagree about the details. It is only when we share with each other that we can discover the similarities amongst the differences.

I am grateful that my connection to music allows me to reach over the walls that divide people, to connect with others I would otherwise just identify as very different from myself. Next time someone asks me to come with them to their church, mosque or whatever kind of temple, I won't refuse the invitation - but I will ask if there will be singing.

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