by Erica Goss
At age eleven, I have my last piano lesson. Things in our house have become so chaotic that I can no longer concentrate on memorizing the circle of fifths or practicing for the next recital. Soon after my last piano lesson, my parents separate, and my mother abruptly moves herself and us three kids across the United States, from Southern California to Lexington, Kentucky.
Two years and five moves later, we’re back in San Bernardino, California, the town we’d left when my parents had broken up. For the time being, they’re back together, even though their marriage is clearly damaged beyond repair. I look on a map and try to add up the miles we’ve traveled — east across the United States, back west to another town in California, then to the Mojave Desert, and then to Oakland — only to return to San Bernardino — and to a house only a few blocks from the one we left.
Coming back to San Bernardino throws me into an emotional tailspin. I cringe at the possibility that I’ll run into a friend and have to explain why we left so suddenly two years ago. I’m not able to do much. I stay in my room, paralyzed with anxiety. At night, I can’t sleep. I will eventually miss all of seventh grade.
Shortly after our return, I start singing. I listen, endlessly, to my parents’ Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Judy Collins albums, and imitate the women’s high sopranos. Hearing me, my mother gets the idea for me to join the choirs of a Christian church a few blocks away and a nearby synagogue, Congregation Emanu El.
The Christian church doesn’t work out, but I find an unexpected community at Emanu El. I’m accepted, even though I’m not Jewish, because I can read music and they need a soprano. Every Friday evening, my mother drops me off at the synagogue a few miles from our house, and, after the service, one of the other choir members brings me home.
At Emanu El, I’m the tallest person in the choir, so I stand in the back row, where no one notices the hole in my shoe. The robes we wear hide my shabby clothes. The cantor, a woman about my mother’s age, with stiff sprayed hair, hands out copies of the hymns, with phonetically transcribed Hebrew lyrics below the musical lines. I quickly learn the mournful, old-world melodies.
Congregation Emanu El is a historic synagogue. Established in the 1850s, it sits on a full city block. It’s the only synagogue in the county, a big, blocky building with a soaring ceiling. Inside, our voices reverberate and rise up into the rafters. “Adonai aleichem,” we repeat after the rabbi.
I look forward to my Friday nights with the choir. When I sing the ancient hymns, I forget about the tension at home, our chronic lack of money, and my parents’ constant bickering. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand the Hebrew words. For me, the music is what’s important. The voices of the choir create the chords I used to make with my two hands on the piano.
The singers are all older than me and mostly female. I wonder what they must think of me, a skinny teenaged girl, almost six feet tall, who dresses in patched jeans and men’s work shirts — but when we sing together, it doesn’t matter. I feel safe in their presence and appreciated for the small contribution my voice makes. Back in my room at home, the melodies we’ve sung play over and over in my head.
Only a few months later, my parents break up again, and my father moves back to Oakland, while my mother and us three kids head north to Santa Rosa, where an old friend of hers has offered to help us start over. We find a place someone is willing to rent to a single mother on welfare, a house on the outskirts of town surrounded by fields. It’s early summer now, and the green hills just south of our new place are turning gold.
I later learn that Congregation Emanu El has moved from San Bernardino to Redlands, in response to reduced attendance and increasing crime in the neighborhood. (Its attendance had fallen from a high of 500 families decades earlier to only 200 families.) Today, however, the synagogue is thriving in its new location, and attendance is increasing.
I never take piano lessons again, but, as I move through adolescence, singing opens doors for me. I take a cappella classes in my sophomore and junior years. My teacher signs our class up to participate in the school’s annual musical performance, which this year includes songs from The Wiz. The night of the show, I look out from the stage and see my family, my teachers, and a few friends among those in the audience. As we sing the last verse of “Be a Lion,” my voice blends with the choir’s and rises above the crowd.