A Chaplains’Story: The Magic of Music and Memory

-Die Yiddishe Mamas im Altersheim

“I don’t like to talk about my age….” These were the first words my hospice patient, Alice [this and the following names are not the patient’s real names] said when we met for the first time, which happened to be on her 90th birthday. That was the most information I ever got from her; as the months progressed, it was unusual for her to say much of anything except smile, grimace and nod or shake her head. Her hearing was fortunately, still intact, so the only way we could communicate was through music and Yiddish songs, in particular. When I would start singing “Tumbalalaika” or “My Yiddishe Mame”, the glazed look in her eyes would suddenly sparkle once again and the Alice of long ago would emerge as she moved her lips with mine.

With “Phyllis”, it was a similar experience. Confined to her bed, with labored breathing, her isolation from the world as she once knew it, was leading her to greater depression and anxiety. In my role as hospice chaplain, I had the privilege of spending time with Phyllis, and listening to the passionate stories of dancing to Big Band music with her beloved husband of nearly 70 years.  But now, it was the rhythmic, lyrical verses of Yiddish and Hebrew melodies that seemed to bring her to life once again.

In the small, private senior facility “Libby” lived in, I would always find her propped up in her wheelchair in front of the TV watching action B-movies [which according to the staff, were her favorite movies]. After a series of strokes, Libby was no longer able to walk or speak;  but when we held hands and I sang a rhythmic Hava Nagila with her, her eyes lit up, she would open her mouth and  make incoherent but joyful sounds as we swayed together.

Did I mention that I have sung with a number of klezmer ensembles over the years and performed with the NYC Yiddish Theater? (Folksbine Theater] While I originally trained as a classical opera singer, one of my greatest passions is Yiddish – the language and the music. And some of the most magical moments have been when I encounter people for whom the language and music evoke tender recollections of their childhood.

During my years living in Hannover, Germany [1979-1991] first as a music student, and then free-lance singer/actress, I often volunteered at the Jüdisches Altersheim.  Perhaps because I was a child of older parents [Heb: bat z’kenim]who fled their respective countries [Germany & Lithuania] in 1939,I have always been drawn to the older generation. I longed to hear their stories, sing with them, keep them company and serve them their evening Kamillen Tee und Toast.  I even spent time visiting with the father of a internationally known pianist… he always seemed so lonely…But when I sang songs in Yiddish, they would sing along…some would cry, as the melodies awakened pleasant as well as painful memories. It may have been their only therapy…

Now, living in Los Angeles, in addition to serving a synagogue congregation as a cantor, I also work part-time as a hospice chaplain, sometimes driving an hour each way to see a hospice patient. Traffic is notoriously dense and erratic, especially during rush hour and there are days when I question, should I really be doing this? But then, after arriving, when I find myself face to face in a sacred encounter with a lonely, isolated human being, who has been sinking deeper and deeper into the recesses of her past, as I sing a familiar Yiddish or Hebrew melody, both of our spirits are restored as the music awakens a spark of life that lay dormant in her soul.

Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel

Essay written for GLOSSEN – a peer reviewed, bi-lingual scholarly journal on literature, art, and culture in the German speaking countries after 1945 and has been published since 1997, ed. Prof. Dr. Frederick Lubich – August 2019