Tazria: Alone and Alive

Let me tell you about this piano. It belonged to my grandmother, and for the last 11 years it has belonged to me. My grandmother, Philly Krieks, was Dutch, born and raised in Amsterdam. She and one of her two sisters studied music and sang in the Concertgebouw Orchestra Chorus, the volunteer chorus for Amsterdam’s orchestra. My grandmother survived the Holocaust living in Amsterdam with fake identification papers. Her other sister worked for the Dutch underground and one night, while my grandmother waited and worried at the window as she did every night, she did not come home. She died in one of the camps.

My grandparents bought this piano in the early 1980s when they lived in a high rise in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, with a view of the entire Manhattan skyline. I credit the seeds of my childhood love affair with New York City and my choice to attend college there to the evenings I spent as a young child, face pressed against the sliding door on the balcony, watching the lights of that skyline. Only a few years after purchasing the piano, my grandfather passed away at a young age. Most of my memories of my grandmother are of her alone.

She moved this piano with her when she relocated in the Boston area. She was a very present part of my life as I grew up, and I remember distinctly the phone call I had with her as a young adult when I knew that things had irrevocably changed. She didn’t know who I was on the phone and she tried to talk to me as if she knew our relationship, but it was clear to me that she did not. She retreated into Alzheimer’s and unfortunately spent her final years lost to the disease. When she moved into a facility that could care for her, the piano was left to me, her oldest grandchild, and the one who had chosen a musical career.

I see my grandmother in this week’s Torah portion. We read in Tazria of a series of ritual impurities: childbirth, leprosy, skin afflictions. These impurities are called in Hebrew tamei. When someone is found to be tamei, she or he is isolated from the rest of the community for a period of time until she or he is considered tahor, pure again. The concept of tamei, the act of drawing a distinction between what is pure and what is impure, is clearly an ancient approach to dealing with the anxiety of illness and death, the fear of these unknowable and uncontrollable experiences. When faced with something we don’t understand, we want to isolate it from everything we want to protect. The intention of this ancient practice was always to return the one who was tamei to the community, the isolation was not permanent, as long as the person became tahor. When I consider my grandmother’s story, I consider this Torah portion from the point of view of the isolated. She experienced the isolation of tamei in two striking ways: first living through the terror of World War II, and then experiencing the deterioration of her memory.

So many things in modern life too, not just in the ancient world, are unknowable, unfathomable, inexplicable. So many things can make us feel isolated and alone. The songwriter Patty Griffin captures this in her song, The Rowing Song. Griffin creates a melody that feels like sitting in a boat on the ocean, traveling. “Nobody knows,” she says “so many things, so out of range, sometimes so strange, sometimes so sweet, sometimes so lonely.” And while we may feel at those moments that we are the ones who are tamei, that we are, Griffin says “alone all of the way,” we are, she says “alone…and alive.” In the isolation, in feeling alone, we can find life, the feeling of knowing we are alive.

For the isolation, both in Tazria and in modern day life, does not stop the journey of life. “The further I go” Griffin’s song says, “more letters from home never arrive.” We might lose touch, we might have to wait to be reconnected with the community, but we should never doubt that we are still very much alive. Whether it is the horrors of history or the horrors of illness that isolate any of us, we can find life.

My grandmother had music, and I firmly believe that music kept her connected in her darkest moments of isolation to the sparks of life within her. Even as her disease progressed she would brighten when she heard a piano playing. Music was the touchstone that reminded her she was alive, a letter from home that every once in a while actually arrived. She is no longer traveling on a journey of life, but her piano is. And the sound of this piano is one of my touchstones, a letter from home that arrived to me. I hear the piano and I picture it sitting in my grandmother’s different apartments. We all have our touchstones, the things that remind us in our isolation that we’re alive. There is so much we don’t know, so much that scares us. Find the thing that awakens life within you.

For me too, like my grandmother, it is music.

Given her ambivalent feelings about religion after her experience in Europe in the 1940s, I’m not sure what she would think about her piano in this room. But she would love that it will be played regularly and enjoyed immensely, bringing music to all who enter this space. I’m glad to share this piano, this music, and tonight this song, The Rowing Song, with you.