It is almost the spring of my second year at Hebrew Union College, and I am studying cantillation.
I love it. I feel clever when I get it right and adore picking up the little nuances that only the cognoscenti appreciate.
The faculty chair asks if I will chant an excerpt from Esther on Purim during the school-wide service. I demur a bit, because I have mastered only haftarah chant so far and am just starting on Torah. Esther cantillation is part of next year’s curriculum. Still, I say yes, feeling sure that I can learn it, at least well enough to chant the assigned verses, which are Esther 7:5-10. Only a few verses, with lots of “Hamans,” so there will be lots of traditional noisemaking in the congregation to blot out his villainous name. I am excited.
I learn the system with its odd melismas and strange ironic bursts of sound. Then I practice chanting the text over and over until I can do it from the fancy scroll, which has no vowels or cantillation signs. I am not quite in the legally mandated zany Purim mood, though, as I am taking this task very seriously. I am new to the book of Esther, new to this system of chanting, newly honored with a public reading on a day when everyone, students and faculty, will be in the chapel, and only nineteen years old, with a teenager’s self-consciousness.
When it is time, I get up for the reading. The congregation, overwhelmingly male and rabbinical, is merry, red-faced, and laughing from all the pranks and gags that have taken place so far—and also from more than a touch of drinking. (On Purim, we Jews are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between Mordecai, the hero, and Haman, the villain.)
I, on the other hand, have not had a drink, and in my nervousness I start my chanting in a smaller-than-usual voice, although it must be said that the acoustics in the fifth-floor chapel are very encouraging. I am fine, though, really fine.
And then, about four verses into my reading, Dr. Samuel Fischmann, the eminent Bible scholar, comes rushing up from his seat in the congregation onto the bima. He is madly yanking loose his tie and wresting his arms out of the sleeves of his jacket. In a great hurry, he hurls himself toward me. I am aware that this is theater, so I keep my eyes on the scroll and keep reading, much to the amusement of the now roaring crowd.
Until now, I have been too focused on the accuracy of my chanting to think about the actual words, but now I realize that I am intended to be an actual character in the story as I chant, “‘Does he mean,’ cried the king, ‘to ravish the queen in my own palace?’”
Now I understand what the men before me anticipate: I will be that ravished queen in this pantomime. My face, like Haman’s in verse 8b, blanches. Still, I persist with my task.
But I know that Bible scholar and student alike have had their way with me. I look out at the laughing faces and, stone sober, I am unable to tell the difference between friend and enemy.
Excerpted from Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.