When my choir teacher first introduced our new song, nobody in my class wanted to sing it. It’s an old song from sometime in the late 1600s/early 1700s, and compared to the hip-hop, rap, and pop music listened to by teens like us, it seemed dull. However, when we all sang together, we sounded like a real choir, and not a group of 12- and 13-year-old middle school music students. I was actually getting excited about singing it until my teacher told us about the history of the piece. The song, which is called “Gloria” was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was originally sung by Catholic church choirs, in both Latin and English. My teacher said we were singing it so we could “experience music from other cultures.”
This puzzled my whole class. Already in our concert repertoire was a song from the African culture sung in an African tribal language, a song written by an African-American slave during the Civil War, a song about springtime (fitting for our spring concert), and an “undisclosed pop song.” So why did we need to sing this stuffy church song?
What puzzled me, however, was why we were singing a religious song in the first place. I go to a public middle school, where students aren’t discriminated against based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. No religion is ever known as the superior. Teachers have always made accommodations for when I miss school for the high holidays. And more recently, when I missed quite a bit of school in the week leading up to my Bat Mitzvah. So why were we singing a Catholic song?
When I told my mom and we looked up the translation of the lyrics (we were singing the Latin version), I saw that it was not a “cultural” song as my teacher put it. It was a religious piece about the lord, and it is also known as “The Hymn of the Angels.” I was suddenly very uncomfortable with singing this song and being in choir in general.
I always support freedom of religion. I never think that one religion is superior to all others. I have always been eager to learn about other religions. And I’ve never felt self-conscious about my religion. But after I learned about this song, and it’s meaning, I was not comfortable with my religion. As a Jewish student, I’m used to being part of the minority in my schools. But this was completely different than anything I’d ever experienced.
My mom e-mailed my teacher, who said that singing religious and cultural songs is allowed in our district. I wasn’t happy with this answer, and I met with my teacher to discuss my concerns with this song. After school that day, I talked to my mom about my situation. We agreed that I had to go to the concert. After all, it’s worth half my choir grade. I struggled with what to do about this song. Finally, after a lot of deliberation and getting advice from my parents and my Hebrew school teachers, I’m choosing to sing the song. I love choir, and I love singing. My mom pointed out that just because I sing about a faith I don’t practice, doesn’t mean I believe in what I’m singing, and it doesn’t make me a bad Jew.
So now, it’s a question of where to go from here. I’m going to participate in choir during my 8th-grade year. The real thing to figure out is in a few years when I’m in high school. High school choirs typically sing primarily religious songs. I don’t know if that will still be the case in 2019 when I start high school. But I know that I will do anything I can to help change policy in my district.
I know it may sound like I’m being a bit dramatic about this whole situation. But in reality, it goes beyond just me. It’s about future Jewish choir students. This situation made me seriously question how much I wanted to be in choir, something I’ve never questioned. It made me uncomfortable with my religion, and I don’t want other kids to experience this. I may be only thirteen years old, but I’m not too old to speak out for what I believe. And who knows? Maybe one day we will see high school students singing songs that aren’t religious. Maybe choirs will change. And hopefully, the next generation of Jewish singers won’t be having this experience.
Very well written!
You describe a perennial challenge for Jewish students in school choirs, because so much of the most historically important choral music was composed for the church. And being in a choir isn’t just about singing, but also about being exposed to repertoire and music history.
I was the only Jewish student in my midwestern middle school choir 25 years ago. And while the lyrics sometimes made me a little uncomfortable (particularly when they referenced Jesus), I never objected to singing centuries-old religious works.
But I did object to the inclusion of overtly religious contemporary music. One year the annual district-wide middle school choir concert was slated to include a forgettable hymn about how Jesus would save us all–composed in the 1980s and published by an evangelical publishing company, complete with an “other selections for your church choir” advertisement on the back of the sheet music. I felt that crossed a line, and (being the chutzpadik middle schooler that I was) I penned a complaint directly to the district superintendent. I was allowed to sit out for that song, but the show went on.
I didn’t join the choir in high school, in part because of this. But my younger sisters participated in choir all the way through school. They continued to face some challenges on the religious music front, including our school district’s annual December multi-high school concert of Handel’s Messiah. The Messiah is extremely religious, but is also one of the most famous and beautiful pieces of choral music ever written. My sisters sang it, even though there was some discomfort with the words. Today they are both pursuing careers as professional singers.
I personally don’t think it’s reasonable to expect schools to excise all religious music from the choir curriculum, given the incredibly important role that it has played in music history. But I also think there are limits to what non-Christian students should be expected to sing. I would hope your choir director would let you sit out for songs that make you uncomfortable (whether that is limited to contemporary fare, or includes the historical stuff, too). And I would hope that your director would be open to conversations with you (and maybe your rabbi or cantor?) about how to balance teaching historically important music that happens to be religious with creating an inclusive atmosphere that allows non-Christians to fully participate and not feel pressured into singing about Jesus all the time.
It sounds like you are already on the right path.
I appreciate this discussion very much. I am actually a Christian pastor. It saddens me how some people who call themselves Christian, are so insensitive to the beliefs of others. I follow the teaching of Jesus, and although, I’m always willing to discuss those teachings, I believe I’m being disrespectful to my teacher if I try to shove Christianity down someone’s throat. It wasn’t his way, and those who do that do not honor him.
When my daughter was in 4th grade (in another state) each class put on a full musical for their yearly performance. Her class’s performance fell in December, so they were performing a Frosty the Snowman knockoff that revolved around Christmas and Santa.
When I emailed the music teacher to object, I was told that since Santa isn’t taught from the pulpit, it’s wasn’t really Christian. I replied that surely he knew that Santa was based on St. Nicholas, and why else would toys be delivered on Christmas Eve if it wasn’t Christian based? Finally, he relented enough to include a Hanukkah song, but considering the school had many Muslim students and Asian students who may not have been Christian, this wasn’t great either.
This was only seven years ago, it’s too bad that there are teachers still trying to slip one past by pretending religious songs/themes are not religious at all.
Although I don’t know your specific religious “flavor” (eg Shabbat Shalom vs Gute Shabbes. 😉 ) may I suggest asking the choir director to invite a local Cantor to speak to the choir and perhaps demonstrate some similae/different singing or teaching techniques? What did he learn as a Cantor, when did he start singing, what influenced him to become a Cantor, maybe teach a couple of specifically Jewish songs–whether or not they are performed outside of the choir room is immaterial.
May I also recommend the group Disturbed? The lead singer, David Draiman, was “classically trained”. Many immediately assume he started in opera or something but he was actually in training to become a Cantor like his father. Obviously as a heavy metal singer now, that’s not where he ended up. You might even talk with your Cantor or the one invited to choir and talk about Disturbed’s cover of *The Sound of Silence.* it is powerful very specifically because of David’s training.
And most importantly, may I offer a much belated *Mazel tov!* on your Bar Mitzvah! I appreciate the thread you generated here. Good on you, sir!
Wonderfully written article Hannah!
As a non-religious public school choir director myself, I thought it might be helpful to relay to you why I also have my choirs singing pieces with religious texts.
Choir directors are also educators, and it looks like your choir director is doing his/her best to expose you to a wide range of music. If you had a history teacher that pretended that the Catholic church never existed, and refused to acknowledge in class that important landmarks like the Notre Dame Cathedral or the Sistine Chapel even existed, I would call that teacher at best inept and at worst immoral. History wouldn’t even make sense without placing it into a context in which the Catholic church has a strong influence (as it had it’s hand in just about everything).
In the same way that it is impossible to teach a history class without mentioning the Catholic Church, It is equally impossible to teach a complete music class without heavily delving into the music of Bach. Bach was such an influential composer that we literally define the date of his death as the date that ends the Baroque era. He was also, not coincidentally, employed by the Catholic Church and as a result wrote almost exclusively religious music.
Separation of church and state does not mean that we outright ban the study of religions within our public schools. If your choir director gives you a piece of religious music and says, “sing this, it is an important part of history” or even “sing this, I think it’s written with good voice leading and you guys will probably sound awesome on it” then it should be perfectly legal for them to have you sing it. If they say instead, “sing this, it will bring you closer to God” that crosses a line and would certainly not be okay.
Also, American Gospel and Spiritual songs are so much fun to sing that I’d program 10 of them for a concert if I could. Beautiful music is not constrained by the religion of the person composing it, and we should not constrain ourselves when we find it.
I cant stomach my children singing gospel songs…it took me along time to reprogram them from religion as myself …most church people or Christians owned slaves …so why should my kids sing thier bullshit that was forced up on my ancestors
I doubt very seriously that a 7th grader wrote this article. This sounds like an adult expressing a problem they have through the voice of a child in order to gain more legitimacy. Children just love to sing and wouldn’t make such a huge big deal about this or stir the waters.