At 6 p.m. Berkeley time in an airy blue building on upper Bancroft Way, a group of students will gather in a circle every week around a table. One by one, they will walk up, momentarily wrestle with a matchbox until it produces sharp pop of smoke and flame and light a little tea candle. They collectively inhale, wave both hands up to cover their eyes and begin:
“Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
It’s the Hebrew blessing for candle-lighting that signifies the start of Shabbat — the day of rest that begins Friday night at sundown. This melody is different than the one I grew up singing every week — it’s low and reflective, rather than the cheery, clipped version from around the dinner table.
During the first Shabbat service I attended during freshman year, the familiar words felt so foreign to me in this new harmonic context. I was at Berkeley Hillel — a center for Jewish college students — instead of my home, engaging in an activity I deeply associated with family with people I barely knew.
Before moving to college, I’d lived in the same place my entire life. There was an inherent sense of comfort very much ingrained in that physical space, a total wholeness between the walls. And while I was not raised as particularly observant, my family celebrated holidays both year-round and every week, always with music. My father especially encouraged us to sing blessings for new experiences, for freedom, for finding strength in fear, for bread on Friday.
With any given prayer, there have been many different melodies written over time, and congregations adopt the various ones that they prefer. I grew up in a Reform synagogue, which meant that there was a constant presence of musical accompaniment on guitar, percussion and other instruments incorporated into the religious services. At Hillel that first semester, I got in the habit of attending student-led programs that followed the candle-lighting, and was relieved to find that the Reform service mostly used versions of the prayers that I already knew. Going off to college felt very much like an uprooting, but the associations with certain songs would take me back. In that crazy first semester of college, I found home in the familiar melodies.
The weeks turned into months and the months into semesters, and by now I’m a wise sophomore with a lot to say about feeling at home. It took me forever to feel settled at Berkeley, but after spending nearly every Friday evening in that blue building on Bancroft Way, the profundity was not lost on me when I finally realized how natural the candle-lighting melody sounded to me.
I very recently started working as a Hebrew school teacher at the same synagogue I grew up going to in Marin County. This weekend, I’ll be away at Camp Newman staffing a retreat for the congregation’s upcoming B’nai mitzvah students (13-year-olds preparing for a traditional rite of passage in which they read from the Torah). Newman is a Jewish sleep-away camp in Santa Rosa, and while I never actually spent any summers there as a camper, I’ve staffed enough of these retreats to understand why people love it. The main point is for kids to have a space where they’re able to build positive and thoughtful associations with being Jewish.
A significant part of this is done through music. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize a number of Newman-specific melodies and quirks to certain songs. There are versions of prayers so distinct that you can immediately know who has been there based on the way they sing it. Just a few weeks ago at Hillel, I remember someone requesting that we do “the Newman Version” of a song, which incited the most excited response one could imagine from a handful of college kids hanging out before dinner. For many, Newman is a home away from home.
There is no being Jewish for me without music, and I think it’s about home. It isn’t a physical space — even if in my mind’s eye it might look like a kitchen table or a summer camp or a blue building on upper Bancroft Way. Home is realizing that I’ve subconsciously memorized the way my friend harmonizes to each melody every week. It’s a version of a childhood prayer, a sense of security that can’t ever be put into words, a translation in the space that rests between the notes of a song.