Monday, September 29, 2008

About that Jewish part

L'shanah tovah, everyone.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

It's all in the name

The first time I went to practice with the choir, my mom insisted on going with me because Richmond is like the gangbang murder capital of the universe or something, and she's decided that carjackers and murderers will be thwarted by the presence of a fat old lady. Actually, let's be real: Pretty much everyone is scared shitless of my mom so she's a good weapon.

Anyway, my mom went to Richmond with me to go to practice. And right off the bat, we got lost. Not totally lost - not yelling at each other and feeling really creeped out because OH MY GOD WE'RE IN RICHMOND IT'S LIKE DETROIT BY THE BAY and where the hell are we and would you just call someone and have them Google map it lost. But still a little lost: We drove around the same block three times, wondering where this church could possibly be, since all we saw were the Safeway and the WaMu - both landmarks I'd been told to look for - and a bunch of houses. In fact, if I hadn't seen the "Welcome to Richmond" sign just a little ways before on San Pablo, I'd have wondered if we were still in El Cerrito. It certainly didn't feel like Big, Bad Richmond.

Deciding to give it one last shot, we crossed San Pablo and went to the only church we could see within a multi-block radius: Church of Christ. I felt a little tightness in my chest: The only other time I'd sung in a choir before was at Glide Memorial in San Francisco. While technically a United Methodist church, Glide was decidedly... un-Jesus-y. OK, fine, we sang plenty of songs with the JC in them and more than one sermon focused on the words of Christ and every once and a while I would look over at the other Jewish member of the choir and mouth that Jesus liked her better than me. So Jesus was there, but just not as there as he (He?) might be in the Church of Christ. I mean, Jesus is right in the name of the church.

Plus, wasn't Church of Christ, like, super Christian?

It seemed like it was going to be a lot more than I'd bargained for. I got nervous. Maybe this was a bad idea.

We parked the car, and both of us got out. We walked down the street, toward the church, along a row of houses. As we passed a fence, I saw a sign and pointed to it, telling my mom I should get one for her to post near her driveway: a line drawing looking straight down the barrel of a gun, next to the words DON'T EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE. It was very welcoming.

The church was located right on a corner, across from the WaMu parking on one side and a carwash parking lot on the other. The freeway overpass soared above the unassuming building, which thankfully wasn't one of those hideous churches from '80s, awkward and ugly and looming. It was on the smaller side, sort of stucco on the outside painted a pale pinkish color. The steps lead from the block's corner up to a set of double wooden doors, a nice sunny wood, not heavy and dark and forbidding.

Sitting on the steps of the church was a young white woman, holding some sheet music in her hand. I was surprised to see her there. I'm pretty sure she was surprised to see me there, even if she had a better poker face than I. The group I'd seen perform, Joyfull Noize, had been all black. That was the group I had thought I was coming to sing with, given the conversations I'd had with the group's leader. This girl was definitely white. Then again, so was I. But she definitely wasn't Jewish, so she was one up on me.

I walked up to her. "Hi. Is this practice for Joyfull Noize?"
"I'm sorry?" she said.
"Joyfull Noize," I repeated. "Is this where they practice?"
"No," she replied. "This is Bay Area Mass Chorus."
"Oh. Thanks."

Feeling slightly relieved that I wouldn't have to go in to a Church of Christ, and then sort of guilty for feeling relieved, I got back in the car.

Later that week, the leader of the choir called me and asked where I'd been. I told her my mom and I had driven around - making sure I emphasized the mom part, for guilt purposes and for references if necessary - unable to find the church. She was so surprised, telling me how easy it was to find. And then I told her:

"We did see one church, Church of Christ. But when I asked a girl sitting on the steps waiting, she said the practice at noon was for some other group."

With a big sound of surprise, Efeann explained, "I work with two different groups. That's the choir you were coming to sing with: The Bay Area Mass Chorus. I'm so sorry for the confusion." Confusion indeed: Not only had I gone to the right place and missed the practice anyway, I was joining a totally different group than I'd signed up for. Did I even want to do this?

Yet somehow, there I was, agreeing to come try again the following Saturday. "You'll love it," I heard her telling me again. "It's a really diverse group."

Church of Christ? I had a week to prepare.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'd like to talk to you about Jesus

I have kind of a secret: I spend my Saturdays singing about the Lord.

It shouldn't feel like a secret, but it does. I mean, when a person says she has a secret, it's usually a big deal, something embarrassing or scandalous or off the wall, something she'd want to keep hidden. You know, like spending an inordinate amount of time in an opium den or having a whole separate family besides then one you know about or even thinking Two and a Half Men is quality television programming.

So I wouldn't call my secret embarrassing or scandalous or off the wall. It's not something I want to keep hidden. But the moment I go to tell someone about it, I hesitate. My heart beats quickly for a second, I feel my breath catch, and my brain races and pauses at the same time: Wait, I say to myself, what if this person thinks you're really, really into Jesus?

Saying something like that is totally double-edged. There's the the hand-wavy, explanatory, caveat edge, the one that says very loudly: NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, I MEAN I LOVE THE MUSIC, RIGHT?

But there's also the other edge, the one that made me think it in the first place. In the social circles in which I usually find myself, there's plenty of "spirituality," and lots of discussions of how much people dislike organized religion, and plenty of dabbling in religious and mystic traditions and practices from around the world. But Jesus doesn't hang out all that much. I'm not sure why. Maybe he's too... white?

Anyway, I admit there's something uncomfortable with someone immediately assuming you're going to want to talk to them about Jesus. Especially when all you want to tell them is that you sing gospel music. Sure, it's a reasonable assumption, but it's still awkward. There are those pesky connotations, that to anyone but a devoted Christian sound, say, a little pushy and a little intrusive.

Yet here I am, fumbling my way through countless conversations, telling everyone that I sing gospel music, and yes that means it's very much about Jesus, but no I'm not a part of the congregation, and hey isn't it funny because, did I mention? I'm Jewish.

By the time I've tripped my way through some poorly-executed introduction to my chosen activity, I've often raised more questions than I've avoided. But I'm finding that for the most part the questions aren't awful and judgmental, they're not uncomfortable or barbed. People are curious, supportive, surprised.

I guess I would be too: How does a little white Jewish girl end up singing alto in a mostly black acapella gospel choir in Richmond, California?