As the former president of not one but two juggling clubs, I am known on this campus for taking my entertainment very seriously. But in the age of algorithm-exploiting minute-long videos, the word “entertainment” sounds like an insult. Entertainment, consumption of which brings on a sugar crash — entertainment, a distraction from real life or at least from the life of the mind.
And yet, let us not return to a “simpler time” of threepenny operas with their overwrought moral dicta. These, too, can rot the teeth out of your head, even if you floss like a dentist with an ice pick.
In a world where colors and light are always trying to grab us, our last measure of control becomes regulating what sounds enter our ears or what rhythms move our bodies. These subtler senses, measured in neat logarithms, demand our focus, like whispers drowning out screams.
But, seeing as you’ve known me for three paragraphs already, you should be able to guess that sounds themselves do not earn my blanket endorsement.
Listen, I love yodeling along to the Professors of Bluegrass as I walk down Prospect Street and bumping Unorthodox in the shower — I would venture to say I like it even more than the next guy. And I have no problem with the AirPod-sporting Yalies who are too oblivious to their surroundings to see my bike approaching their khaki-clad tibias. Well, I guess I have one problem with them.
After a while, though, this digital sound-entertainment, too, becomes an intellectual fallback, more due to habit and less due to delight. I have often found myself singing on the way back from theater rehearsal simply because I have nothing else left in the attic.
But every week here at Yale, entertainment swings back hundreds of years into the past. Almost every Friday night, something magical happens. And you should trust me about magic, because I’m a juggler.
It happens in the Slifka Center for Jewish Life after the overstimulation of Shabbat dinner, when everything has died down a bit and folks have gone off to pursue the mitzvah of sleep.
From among the ravaged places set with almost-empty bottles of wine, one table emerges as the “bentching” table, usually indicated by the appearance of a stack of slim, handsome, blue softcover books called “bentchers.” To bentch — literally, to bless — is to say grace after meals. And after some almost-silent speed-reading, the songs — called zemirot — begin.
Someone suggests the name of a song, usually in Hebrew or Aramaic. Everyone flips furiously through the bentchers until someone finds and calls out the correct page number. People tip the page numbers, flip for each other and share bentchers in solidarity, inclusion and community.
Almost before everyone can get their bearings, a voice emerges with a note, perhaps a quick and quiet beginning of a melody. The surrounding people nod if the note is right — or offer a guiding glissando if the note is too low or too high.
Finally, the note-bearer begins. Without a conductor, the ones who know the melody pour their voices in. The song fills and swells for a couple of stanzas until everyone has caught on and joined in, with or without words.
At some point a couple of choruses in, the magic happens. Everyone has found their place, their volume and the melody. And then, the harmonizers enter. To the theme come the variations. Some belt, like rock stars living their moment, as the rest of the group collectively eases off to let them shine. Some experiment with harmonies, getting stranger and jazzier until laughing all the way back to the melody. Some, like me, stick to small ornamentations here and there, building up the courage to end a phrase ascending while the rest descend.
Even if you cannot hear it, you can feel it. Hands slam on tables, chests vibrate, throats strain to reach and climb and join the union.
The energy is unmatched. The act of singing, of pushing out breath, fills the chest even as the lungs empty. Each person is connected to all of the people, their voices the weft running through the warp of the text. As Leyvik Halpern writes in his Yiddish poem “Subway Dawn,”
I — and neighbor.
I — in neighbor.
I — am neighbor.
The first time I experienced this phenomenon was my pandemic-sophomore year under the big Shabbat tent of Lot 38. In the wide, empty night, our voices floated up through the sloped vinyl into the sky, bursting with light in the star-speckled darkness framed by Murray’s tower and Hillhouse Avenue.
As a way of passing time, it is transcendental. It dawned on me a few days ago that I was in the presence of people who simply loved life. This was evident from the fact that Shabbat forbids “progress” — no electronics, no writing, no work. Inscribing a melody in time — for music can only be understood by moving through time — creates a cavity in the week in which to slow down, to form complex and beautiful eddy currents. The singers and the listeners make the music for its own sake, for the love and pain of time.
We in 2023 can cue practically any band in the world just by grazing a cell phone. But Shabbat transports us back to a time when we could only hear such music if we got a bunch of people together to sing for us or to learn an entire orchestral arrangement. The fleeting minutes of Friday night empower us to be bolder in our creativity and to feel the tension in the bonds of the human family.
So I invite you this Friday night — and, as a bonus, Saturday afternoon — to add your voice to the sea of song. Step away from “entertainment” as a distraction from life and dive into enjoyment of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not, whether you think you’re good at singing, or whether you’ve done it a hundred times or zero. Hear — feel! — what your siblings have to offer as we float along in time together.