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From Song to Song

January 27, 2011 | by Robin Ramon Silver

On stage I hid behind my mike stand. Until I discovered the music of my soul.

Floods, spots and stage-lights glance off my glitter; I’m under scrutiny downstage-center in front of the band while a college-aged crowd of four-hundred strong dances and parties at my feet. I’m wearing skinny beige jeans tucked into six-and-a-half-inch platform alligator-skin boots; my jeans are studded from waist to ankle with silver rivets, black mesh glove running up to the elbow, red silk scarf tied to my wrist – my rock’n’roll look. Bordering my right eye is a fiery glitter rose, stem and leaves trailing asparkle down my cheek, the glitter glued on with clear nail-polish. I’m singing Janis Joplin’s Cry, Cry Baby in a passion. And in my mind I'm hiding behind my mike stand, diameter: one-and-a-quarter-inches.

That was a full generation ago. I was about 24, and had been singing professionally for six years, graduating from fraternity-party bands to this group. The talent, the music, the show, the swelling fan base… a group on the edge of making it. We were in demand, and I threw whatever talents I had into moving up, up, up...

Niggling at the back of my brain during the ascent was the semi-consciousness of an inverse fall.

Niggling at the back of my brain during the ascent, however, was the semi-consciousness of an inverse fall. My compatriots, brainy and interesting in earlier college days, had morphed into something less wholesome. The culture was now one of license, noxious lyrics, and ear-punishing sound. Yes, I did after all sing the stuff, but I’m happy to say (in retrospect!) that I was ridiculed for being just too straight, too “soft for rock 'n' roll.”

Only rarely would the picture of my life harden into pitiless focus: I was jetting toward success while slogging through quicksand. Like light from the next room sneaking under the door, nano-seconds of clarity kept interposing, finally breaking through to frontal-lobe consciousness. They implored, "What are you doing?"

I answered the question by quitting and going back to school. The idea was to learn something about the music I'd been creating by instinct for the better part of a decade -- and I'd be earning a degree to boot. It was a great decision. I discovered to my delight that music is as logical as it is other-worldly, and Heaven knows I was in need of some logic.

Marrying one of my teachers wasn't such a great decision. I'd been so immersed in quicksand for so long, that he looked good. The truth was, however, that his quiet manner, which I confused with refinement, masked a quiet, constant hostility toward himself, toward the world, and toward me.

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Jewish Butcher Shops

While we were living in Miami I had an odd pulling to things Jewish, perhaps because Hostile Man was not Jewish. I'd occasionally drive to South Miami Beach on a Friday morning (this was before it went art-deco posh) for challah and kosher chicken, the makings of a Shabbos dinner. I hadn't grown up with Shabbos and hadn't a clue as to what it was all about; in any case, it was enough for me to feel Jewish-y by entering the little butcher shops and bakeries on the beach.

The Sabbath holiness would be punctured by the football game Hostile Man would be watching next to the candles. Something just didn't feel right.

On those Friday nights I'd light candles when I figured it was sunset. I still remembered the Aleph-Bet from Hebrew school, thus would manage to work out (torturously) the pronunciation. The Sabbath holiness would be punctuated – or punctured – by the football game Hostile Man would be watching on the TV next to the candles. Something just didn't feel right.

And who knows why, but there were other Friday nights when I'd turn up at the local JCC where Jewish students from U. Miami would be seated on the floor, singing along with a folk guitar player. Someone would hold up a challah and make some kind of blessing, and everyone would tear off a piece. I'd drive home hungry.

I even went to a Yom Kippur service in South Miami. After the service I asked the rabbi a question: "Do you believe in God?" I don't remember her answer but do remember heading for the door. I might not have known much about Judaism, but I knew palaver when I heard it.

And most assuredly I can't explain why one Friday night I drove to that synagogue on the beach. Oh why had I parked right in front of the shul? I knew better! Outside, a sweet-looking, grey-bearded little fellow, early-fifties approached without a scintilla of judgment concerning my own poor judgment, approached and invited me for dinner. That’s it, I thought. The guy is trying to pick me up. Get me out of here. (He was inviting me to join his family for a Shabbos meal, as I was to learn by experience – much later.)

Hostile Man and I moved to California, and after three years of marriage, we divorced.

In LA I enjoyed some success singing with "big bands" (sort of like mini-orchestras sans strings), which claim a sphere in the music world more dignified than the one I'd abandoned. I traded the glove and glitter for gloves and gown. It was in LA that I began the earnest pursuit of an acting career: improv groups, headshots, agents, acting classes, auditions, industrial-film roles, bitsy movie roles, workouts, hair coloring, tanning salons, looking-good-looking-good-looking-good, me-me-me-me- me-me-me-me… until I got sick of ME.

Again, I went back to school – this time for a masters in theater.

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Dating Seminar

Oddly, it was while studying Ibsen, Lorca, and Ianesco that my having no Jewish friends began to grate. I wanted to meet Jews like me, if there were such animals. How would I do that?

One fine spring day a flyer appears in my mailbox. Coming: A four-part seminar on love, dating and marriage, the Jewish way. Jewish way? Hmm. The fellow I was currently dating wasn't Jewish.

Ironic how I'd sung at least a dozen times in the Crystal Ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and here I was in that same room attending a Jewish seminar. A 30-something rabbi, slight of build, in a yarmulke, beige polyester suit and a really, really red tie gets up and speaks about dating. I listen, comfortable in a conference-room chair at the back of the room. Then I listen leaning forward in the chair. Then I listen leaning forward in a chair a few rows closer, then move closer again... He's saying that "casual dating" is an oxymoron. An impossibility. He's saying, in short, that intimacy is not casual. It leaves its imprint on the heart and soul, and especially on the heart and soul of a woman. How non-PC!

Flash: I had known this, somewhere in the benthic depths of me.

The rabbi continues. He talks about why Jews should marry Jews… common sense reasons. The biggest question he addresses, however, is whether anything important inheres in being a Jew. I'd never, ever heard anyone ask, never mind address, such issues – not in the Hebrew School I'd detested in my youth, nor at home, where the refrain had been simply, "Don't marry a gentile." Uh…

The 150 singles in the Crystal Ballroom break into groups to discuss the rabbi's comments – discussions led by youngish men and women sensitive to those like me who don’t know much about Judaism . Each of these monitors guide the colloquy toward Jewish thinking. It's exhilarating.

I show up the next week for Part II, and the next day I bid adieu to the guy I've been dating. It’s the day after the second session, and I’m resolved from here on in to date only Jews.

I clearly remember the fourth and final meeting. The rabbi speaks, and once again he's smart, funny, sincere, engaging and honest, and this time his tie is really, really orange. We break up into groups for the last time, ours led by Manny, a seasoned Jew in his early 30s. The discussion is lively and challenging – and over. I corner Manny and say, "Now what? Is that it?” He excuses himself (turns out he consults with the rabbi) and in a while returns and invites me to join his Monday night Torah class – that he has put together in the last five minutes, unbeknownst to me.

The evening has ended, but I want to talk to the rabbi. He's sitting on the proscenium bordering the stage, so I sit down beside him, yanking my skirt down to what I deem an acceptable length, and ask, "Why do women have to sit separately in synagogues as if they're pariahs?" I wax further indignant, insulted, and self-righteous for a good half a minute. He's very calm as he looks at me straight on with a quizzical almost-smile, and asks, as if he truly wants to know, "What's really bothering you?"

What bothers me is that I really want my religion, this Judaism, to make sense to me.

Perhaps it’s the caring tone of his voice, or maybe it’s his directness, but I cannot vocalize an answer to his question. Instead, my eyes well up. After a moment or two I manage an, “I don't know.” I realize I have to think about it.

And think I do. Thoroughly. What bothers me is that I really want my religion, this Judaism, to make sense to me. I don't want to be seduced by something because it's sweet and homey, and welcoming. It's got to be real.

With all these caveats, I move toward things Jewish. I show up at an LA synagogue for Shabbos prayers. I accept a few Shabbos dinner invitations, although I'm baffled that these strangers want me to stay overnight. (You want me to sleep here? But – why? I’ll drive back tomorrow!) A few months pass and I'm back at school. Manny encourages me to attend a Discovery seminar, a weekend program focused on the logic of Jewish belief. I can't. I have to start my thesis. I have to work (sing) at a luncheon on Saturday, and from there drive to my evening gig. So even if I do attend, I'll miss all of Saturday. Manny and his wife argue, successfully, that my missing Saturday doesn't mean I won't get something out of the rest of the program. I go.

And I get something out of it all right. I get that things Jewish are not just sensible and stimulating, warm and sweet. Nor is it just a pleasure to hear the brilliance, intensity and logic of the lecturers and lectures. When the final speaker pulls together all the arguments for the truth of the Torah, symphonic cymbals crash directly above my head. My whole being reverberates.

It's not a fairy tale.

It’s real. Real.

Then and there I decide to visit and explore Israel – and maybe learn a little about being Jewish. Chalk up another good decision.

That night the guitar player on the gig, Gary, remarks that I look like the cat who swallowed the canary. Well, that's how I felt: stuffed – with relief. Life actually has meaning. Well what do you know.

Onstage Again

Two interesting, personal truths declared themselves subsequent to my Jewish re-education. I'd always wanted to write and perform my own show, but no theme had ever gelled. I might have had the talent, but I'd nothing to say. That and the bewildering compulsion to hide behind the mike stand while performing conflated to forge an insuperable barrier between me and creative ability. Now I do have something to say -- that life has meaning! – and the spigot of inspiration is open wide for the flowing.

Now I do have something to say -- that life has meaning! – and I'm no longer hiding behind mike stands.

But the second realization was even more central. I'd no conscious idea that under the glitter and gowns had been a soul that balked at being … well… being viewed the way men view gussied-up women onstage. The intrusion had resulted only in a disconnected discomfort. I know no such discomfort performing for women, who view me impartially as I entertain them. Wait. That’s not quite right. Most women view me lovingly. Thus I’m free to sing, to be silly, serious, confident, and even to be giving. Onstage I can be who I am (actually, a hyperbolic version of who I am); performing has thus become a joy. In other words, I no longer hide behind mike stands.

Nor do I hide behind personas: Musician, Performer, Wife, Actor, Writer. My connection to Judaism, and thus to God, has, in a sense, unified the parts. And that connection has introduced me to another of my “parts”: a soul. A soul hidden in the shadows, waiting to be recognized and sustained. Disparate parts and an atrophied soul? Who was I? That soul has since wrapped all my abilities into the oneness of a real “self.” Perhaps even in its weakened state my soul is what pressed me to the sorta-kinda, sorta-not Shabboses, the synagogue hopping, and a cataclysmic response to the Discovery program.

I thank God every day for shepherding me toward what I could not articulate – the need to connect to God Himself, to my Jewishness, to a freed creativity…and to a soul to embrace it all.


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