I love religious music of all kinds. My Jewish tradition is rich with music; prayers are sung, Biblical readings are chanted. Growing up in New England I delighted in simple Shaker hymns and rounds, and loved trudging through the snow singing Christmas carols with my neighbors. I learned the alto lines for Catholic masses with my high school choir and warbled away in our town’s annual community sing-a-long of Handel’s “Messiah.” As an adult I discovered Hindu kirtans and the devotional music of the Sufis. Settling in Humboldt County three decades ago I encountered the powerful chanting and drumming of Native American rituals.
How could we worship without music? It is the sound of the soul!
Several years ago I visited Bulgaria, a fascinating country with a shore on the Black Sea and the Balkan Mountain range for a spine. The capital city Sophia has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. It was wonderful to wander through the old streets, admiring architecture spanning many centuries. The great cathedrals were awe inspiring, but I most enjoyed going into small churches to gaze at the beautiful icons: richly colored portraits of the Madonna and Child, both of them with the beautiful dark-eyed, dark-haired appearance of the Bulgarian people. One of the oldest buildings in the city, the Church of Saint Petka is partially submerged below street level and surrounded by a shopping mall and subway line! It was wonderful to leave the bustling city behind and be lost in the quiet atmosphere of a medieval church, under the penetrating gaze of revered figures in the paintings.
I was staying in a busy area right near the Sophia Synagogue, an imposing structure built in 1909 in the ornate style of the Ottoman Empire. Although the Bulgarian church leaders, Tsar Boris lll and ordinary citizens protected their Jewish population of 50,000 from deportation to Nazi concentration camps, the Jewish community did not fare well under communism; when I visited the Sophia Synagogue, it felt like a museum, a small group of worshipers gathering to celebrate the Sabbath in an ante-room, the main hall standing empty most of the time.
A short distance from the synagogue was the Banya Bashi Mosque, which the sign told me was designed in 1576 by one of the great Ottoman architects. The large stone building was set in a busy downtown park and I was intrigued to see many people going in and out several times a day for prayers. I longed to slip into the group and go inside, but didn’t know if it would be appropriate.
One evening my son Berel was with me and we paused outside the building to listen to the singing. Such a beautiful sound! When the people came out, someone noticed us standing there and to my surprise and delight gestured for us to come inside. We removed our shoes and someone gave me a green hooded cloak, which was not uncomfortable to wear, in fact I was glad to have it because I wasn’t dressed as I would to enter a house of worship.
The solid simplicity of the exterior hadn’t prepared me for the other-worldly atmosphere inside. Devoid of furniture, the great empty space had an expansive beauty. The walls were covered with hundreds of gorgeous aquamarine tiles with amazing designs which I assumed to be calligraphy, probably verses from the Qu’ran. Above us rose a domed ceiling, also covered with exquisite calligraphy. I felt embraced by this intricate, elegant beauty all around me.
My son and I were directed to seats on the floor. Our hosts seemed to speak no English, but with my little bit of Russian I was able to offer some words of appreciation for the beauty of the building and the singing we had heard from outside. When they heard that I like singing, they called over a young man in a robe. He nodded slightly in greeting, and then sat down beside us and started to sing. The pure, sweetness of his voice and the mesmerizing, soulful melodies went straight to my heart. I exchanged glances with my son, who is a wonderful singer himself. His eyes were wide with wonder. We listened, utterly captivated by the transporting beauty of the music. I made no effort to hold back my tears. The young man sang for quite a while and I traveled deeper and deeper into a foreign land of song where the language was unfamiliar but the devotion universal. When the singer finished, we thanked him and left the magical chamber. I returned the cloak to a hook by the door, and we put our shoes back on, and went out into the summer night, both of us transformed.
In the United States we treasure freedom of religion; upholding that freedom is for us a sacred trust. It is very important right now that we educate ourselves about the diverse cultural manifestations of Islam, lest the beautiful music in the mosque be drowned out by strident voices of hate, bigotry and ignorance.