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Jewish congregations, in my experience, often chant prayers in a beautiful, dense, enharmonic chorus. This confounding density seems almost mandated by the loosely gestural and contour-based nature of our melodies. It’s often unclear which pitches are even supposed to be hit, so we tend to hit them all, together. Every time I hear this mass of voices — many of which seeming that its owner can hardly be bothered to sing — I am taken back to childhood and to my earliest experiences with music: in the synagogue, reciting syllables in a language I did not know, bowing and raising to my toes to melodies I did not understand with words I knew by heart.

Because of these early experiences, I presume, I find my own singing voice inescapably bound to the shaky sprechstimme croaks and moans of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan (not to mention the campy yowls of Tuli Kupferberg, Randy Newman, Barry Manilow). I’ve met the mold. This wavering, impressionistic delivery seems to be an apt tone of voice for what I will identify as a secular Jewish struggle to find a coherent self. In this, it is worth noting that Reed, Cohen, and Dylan showed a much greater fascination with Christian themes than many of their gentile contemporaries. Their idiosyncratic voices entered a secular canon of balladeers carrying valuable torches to light the way for remnants of a certain broken-apart, lost and rambling, disempowered generation. Like the congregation at the temple: so many trembling voices that won’t find the pitch. Brought together, I find its denseness wonderful, a murky shallow body in which one can swim.

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