(Article first published in de Toledo High School’s holiday publication al regel ahat, Fall 2018)
It is no coincidence that Sukkot, z’man simhateinu/the season of our joy, is also the holiday that places the greatest emphasis on hosting guests through its idea of ushpizin. The connection between hosting people in our makeshift homes roofed with the season’s vegetation and an abiding feeling of joy, takes many forms. One particularly powerful and quaint form is group singing. In years past, fall and winter ushered in the season of choral circles, when people of various communities would gather in the evenings to sing songs and strengthen social bonds. In fact, this was the practice for some years at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York while it was under the leadership of Rabbi David de Sola Pool in the middle of the 20th Century. In this same community, special songs were reserved to be sung together in the communal Sukkah. Most famous among these is the meal time hymn Bendigamos (here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZHaP4zgmLM ). In an age when the fabric of our society feels under the threat of irreparable tearing due to politics, loneliness, and fear, perhaps this Sukkot signals to us the moment to return to this simple method of experiencing joy together.
Scientific research has helped us understand why group singing is effective in fostering joy. It turns out that choral and group singing stimulate the release of oxytocin in the brain. UC Berkeley neurologist Walter Freeman explains that “Oxytocin is not a happiness chemical, but a brain tool for building trust…and we feel happiest in learning to trust one another” (Journal of Consciousness Studies 4 [May 24, 1996]). When singing together, we are forced to trust that others will sing along with us, will sing their part, maybe even serve as the foundation for our harmony or build a harmony on the notes we sing. In the moments when this occurs, anyone who has experienced it can tell you about the unique happiness that is felt. That this happiness is rooted in an experience of trust helps explain why choirs are often the vehicle to build mutual understanding between groups that otherwise might struggle with it. Such choirs include “Shades of Praise,” an interracial gospel choir, “The Kaos Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children,” and the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus that comprises Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim members.
Rabbi de Sola Pool described the effect of singing together in religious terms, stating that while immersed in it,“the soul of each worshipper may rise to God, borne on wings of song” and that furthermore it provides “spiritual peace to those within…and beneficence to enrich the community without” (Selections from Six Decades of Sermons). This year, as we invite in our ushpizin, our guests, let’s make it a point to sing together, to have a little more trust in one another, and to build the kind of joy that we can only make together. Mo’adim l’simha, hagim u-z’manim l’sason. A joyous holiday to everyone!