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  • Ariella Frenkel RISD '25

Judaism, a Sonic Public

Updated: May 2

Author’s note: I would like to add that this essay was written in December of 2022, prior to the insane rise in antisemitic rhetoric following the atrocities of October 7th and the accompanying war. Since originally writing this essay, I have experienced more antisemitism than ever before. This is my new normal. Read the rest knowing this.

“I’m never dating one of those again.” What does it mean to be “one of those?” In this specific context, one of those was a Jewish person, and the speaker was my most recent ex-partner discussing religion and relationships with someone in his major. This was not the worst antisemitic thing that has ever been said to me or about me, but it stung just the same. I would imagine that antisemitism sounds different to every individual who experiences it. To me, antisemitic remarks resonate and reverberate through my head. Once heard, I find that there is no escaping the inevitable drop of the stomach and nausea that follows. “I’m never dating one of those again” sounds like dropping a nice plate on the floor of your kitchen and the immediate shame that follows. “Jewish rat” sounds like hot, screeching tires, and “go back to the ovens where you belong” sounds like the horrifying popping noise I heard when I tore my ACL. While all are varying degrees of terrible to say to/about someone, these phrases all share something in common. Each remark comes together as one sound, and together, their hatred becomes almost deafening. 

Over the past few months, antisemitic ideology has been on the rise globally due to the spread of negative misinformation in the media. Recently, Kanye West has garnered a lot of attention for declaring in a now-deleted tweet that he’s “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE” along with making other insensitive, harmful remarks. Adjacent to Kanye, former President Donald Trump has also played into the rise of antisemitism lately, and even dined with and entertained neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers at his table. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to ADL.” Furthermore, the ADL noted that this “represent[ed] the highest number of incidents on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.” These statistics are shocking to me, but I am not surprised. Throughout history, oppression and fear-mongering have always been used interchangeably to quell thriving civilizations and societies. “Othering” tactics have been used verbally in rallies and speeches, and remain constant within the history of the Jewish public. 

Back when I was thirteen, I was bat mitzvah-ed in front of my entire Jewish community. Instead of having my bat mitzvah at the local synagogue that my family was a part of, I decided that I wanted my service to be run by a less conventional prayer leader. There was nothing wrong with the rabbi at my synagogue per say, but at that point in my life, I was more interested in skewing off the path of tradition that I associated with my conservative synagogue. My bat mitzvah service went great, and I ascended further up the ladder towards Jewish adulthood and womanhood. My service included a lot more singing and musical elements than the service typically officiated by my synagogue because it did not have to fit into a style of Judaistic prayer. 

Judaism is divided into many practicing sects, and these denominations are distinguished from one another based on their philosophical approaches to Jewish traditions and their adherence to Halacha, or Jewish law. In modern times, the three major branches of Judaism are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Under these sects, smaller groups exist as well, but these three remain relatively dominant throughout. According to an article by Jewish education website My Jewish Learning, Reform Judaism is the largest sect of Judaism. Its movement “emphasizes the primacy of the Jewish ethical tradition over the obligations of Jewish law.” Conservative Judaism serves as the midpoint between Reform and Orthodox denominations. Many Jews who are part of the Conservative movement believe Jewish law to be obligatory, yet practice ranges in intensity from person to person. The same article discusses the nuances of modern-day Conservative Judaism, stating that the movement “adopt[s] certain innovations like driving to synagogue (but nowhere else) on Shabbat and gender-egalitarian prayer (in most Conservative synagogues), but maintain[s] the traditional line on other matters, like keeping kosher and intermarriage.” Lastly, Orthodox Judaism is the most divided of the three. Within its movement, different sects of Orthodoxy follow varying sets of rules, lifestyles, and traditions. One thing remains common throughout all sects of Orthodox Judaism, and this commonality is their adherence to rabbinic authoritative rule-setting, which includes strict observance of Shabbat and the laws of kashrut (keeping a kosher home/lifestyle). 

In my own family’s practice, we have blurred the lines of our Conservative Jewish faith. Both my parents were brought up Conservative Jewish, so naturally, I was too. We attended synagogue a lot more when I was younger, and I have now realized that as my brother and I grew older, our family’s faith changed with ours. My parents had us both in Jewish schools for our entire lives, and my first major time stepping out of that bubble was attending RISD for college. I never wanted to go to a Jewish school for higher education, and I am very content with my decision to leave my personal Jewish bubble. Doing so forced me to define my own identity in regard to religion away from a slew of people just like me. My own Jewish identity is tied to spirituality, some traditions that I admittedly like to cherry-pick, and Jewish prayer. Prayer has always stuck out to me in my own history with Judaism because I feel that it is the one uniting feature of all Jewish practices worldwide. Prayer is interesting, oftentimes beautifully lyrical, and involves a community of people around you. In fact, some Jewish prayers are not even allowed to be practiced if a certain number of congregants are not present. This phenomenon is called a minyan, and it calls for a minimum of 10 Jewish adults to be present for prayers to be exclaimed. Minyanim (the Hebrew plural of minyan) exist because of the fundamental Jewish belief of shared community. Prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish (for mourning), the Sheva Brachot (for blessing the bride and groom), and the Birkat HaGomel (for recovering from tragedy) all need a Minyan to be proclaimed because Jewish values require the people saying or receiving these prayers to not be alone. Understanding the communal mindset of the Jewish people is key to identifying Judaism as a “sonic public,” which is otherwise defined as a community revolving around sound. While certain sonic publics come together through music or dialect, Judaism exists as a sonic public primarily through prayer and the reading-out of ancient cultural texts. 

All over the world, Jewish congregations come together in collective prayer. A Pew Research study found that “one-in-five U.S. Jews say they attend services at a synagogue, temple, minyan or havurah at least once or twice a month, including 12% who go weekly or more often. One-quarter (27%) say they attend a few times a year, such as for High Holidays.” I participated in this practice with my family throughout my childhood and teenage years. We frequented synagogues on Jewish holidays and for countless bar and bat mitzvahs, and I have many memories of long services and kosher luncheons afterward. During my time spent at services, I heard many different types of prayers. While many prayers are just chanted in spoken Hebrew, countless others contain beautiful melodies and harmonies. Niguns, for example, are composed of deep melodies and sounds made just by the human voice. Niguns are usually sung leading up to prayers and are often used as a tool for separating one set of prayers from the next. Another musical element of Jewish prayer is a practice called davening, which is a rhythmic form of personal prayer that involves the whole body and voice in harmony. Depending on the person praying, all forms of Jewish prayer can transcend from just vocal exclamations to full-body movements and expressions. Individuals pray on their own, but the whole congregation moves and chants as a collective body; a sonic public. Another form of prayer, called shuckling, is the practice of ritually moving one’s body in a swaying motion during prayer. The word derives from the Yiddish version of “to shake,” and shuckling itself often occurs during long, standing prayers with lots of meaning and weight. When I think about the times I went to synagogue with my family, I can easily recall seeing both davening and shuckling in action. I find it powerful that entire congregations of people are so compelled by the messages behind these prayers that they feel it necessary to move their bodies in response. 

In my own practice as a Jewish adult, I too have incorporated both body and voice into my prayers. The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement, is an example of when these two actions meet synchronously for me. Because Yom Kippur is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, each and every prayer has more serious weight to it than on other days. Themes of repentance and forgiveness lend to long, haunting melodies and loud chanting with full-body movement. Specific prayers like the ones included in the Kol Nidre service, which opens the observance of Yom Kippur, have always been my favorite. The Viduy, a confessional prayer that includes beating one’s chest in response to past sins, utilizes the power of the voice in conjunction with the body to create a larger impact on those confessing and those witnessing the act. Personally, like many other Jews, I find Yom Kippur to be taxing both physically and mentally even without the added factor of fasting all day. Reciting prayers of such high importance with one’s entire physical self and soul can be draining, and I’ve come to realize just how much these difficult prayers actually affect the Jewish community around me.

While many High Holiday prayers are all-encompassing and significant, I still find a remaining awkwardness that lingers in spaces of communal prayer. Maybe it's the unreliability of the human voice, or maybe it's just that communal prayer is not always entirely communal. Even though the idea is there, communities are still made up of individuals, and individuals are often prone to exercising their own rights to autonomy. Regardless, I find beauty in the clumsy nature of trying to get a collective voice to resonate as one. The audio recording linked above demonstrates that while any Jewish community can come together as one during prayer, the individual voices of that community can still be heard. The shakiness of my recording (i.e., my individuality) and the words of the cantor still stand out above all. The Viduy itself is a confession, and there are many other melodic prayers like it within the Jewish canon. While Judaism is so community-centric, each different sect of Judaism has its own prayer melodies and traditions. In countries outside of the US, the ways in which Judaism is practiced can be entirely different. However, the global Jewish public remains connected through its use of sound and voice in prayer. While the melodies and harmonies might change from one community to the next, the meanings remain intact, and that in itself is what solidifies Judaism as a sonic public. 

In times of hate, communities come together as one. Jews have been the targets of antisemitism for many millennia. The resonance of the horrific words and phrases that I have personally heard has not changed, even though I have changed. I carry their significance with me each and every day, just as I carry the weight of prayer and melody in my life. The burden of holding onto antisemitic comments is a negative one, and yet, I find that it metaphorically punches me in the gut the same way that prayers on Yom Kippur do. How is this fair? The resemblance of the two does not make them equals; instead, it shows me just how much my faith is impacted by sound, words, and movement. While antisemitic remarks obviously lack the beauty that communal prayer inhabits for me, I find the emotional aftereffects of the two to be close in some ways. Experiencing verbal antisemitism is horrible, and the words said to me will resonate negatively in my head for as long as I let them. Similarly, the resonance of communal prayers takes up space in my head long after they have been recited, but the space they inhabit is welcome and enjoyed. As much as I would like to give antisemitic remarks less mental space, it simply does not work like that for me. Words and sounds as horrible as those are hard to forget. 

As a member of the Jewish sonic public, I am driven by sound and movement when engaged in communal prayer and in my daily life. The next time you pray amongst others, I hope you take a minute to open your ears to the sounds of your community existing alongside you. Let yourself deeply listen, and the magnitude of it all will begin to reveal itself to you. It certainly has for me.

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