When I was a kid, I remember these most haunting images that would appear on the news, images I couldn’t understand as a child. They were women of all ages, with pictures pinned to their clothing, dancing alone in a public square. There was something very moving and very sad about the voice, and very powerful in ways I couldn’t possibly comprehend as a child.
This was, of course, the cueca sola, women whose husbands and sons and fathers had been ‘disappeared’ by the regime of the dictator Augusto Pinochet. They took the national dance, a dance that Pinochet himself had co-opted, and danced alone. As the musician Sting wrote in his song They Dance Alone:
Why are these women here dancing on their own? Why is there sadness in their eyes?
Why are the soldiers here, there faces fixed like stone; I can’t see what it is they despise.They’re dancing with the missing, they’re dancing with the dead. They’re dancing with the invisible ones, their anguish left unsaid.
That dance, to beautiful music, was as powerful a protest as any. And, arguably, the Cueca Sola did more to topple the regime and bring about free elections than any other form of protest.
The idea of protest music isn’t new, of course. Every revolution and movement has had its songs and anthems, but we as Jews have been especially keen on the idea. From Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow and Leonard Cohen to the music of Rogers and Hammerstein in such shows as South Pacific, to Kol Nidrei, a protest song if there ever was one, to the Ramones and Scott Ian and Adam Yauch, we as a people have been attuned to the idea that music conveys a message beyond mere entertainment, and more powerfully than any blunt instrument. Music has the power to change and move the individual, to be transformative. We see it when kids go to camp and the songleader starts playing her guitar, or in our sanctuary when we join in Mi Shebeirach. Music can challenge, as unetaneh Tokeph does at the High Holy Days. Or Music can teach and explain—think of the English verses of most Jewish camping songs, translating the Hebrew. Or music can comfort, as the words of psalms so often do.
As Activist Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR recently put it: we should sing a song that reminds us of our vision and what we can do. When we are paralyzed and need to move forward, music becomes the push that unifies, that elevates, that sanctifies, that engages. And it is those who sing, those who make music, who move us forward as well. And everyone can make music. Each of us has a voice that brings the words of prayer—be they words of challenge or comfort—come alive! As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “A few can touch the magic string, and noisy fame is proud to win them: Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!” Our choir reminds us that our voices are necessary, important messengers of holiness.
So, we say thank you to our choir, and invite you to join their ranks. And we say thank you to their leaders, our cantor, our music director. We thank them for the beauty of their instruments, to be sure, but especially for their leadership of us, their encouragement for all of us to join in song. Because only when we sing together can we transform one another; only when we sing together will we remember our vision of holiness, and remember what we are called to do. Amen.