In Cleveland, as in many other Jewish communities, there’s an organization called Bikur Cholim, which helps Jews struggling with illness, in a stunning variety of ways. Cleveland tends to attract members of the tribe from all over the world, thanks to our award-winning hospitals, and Bikur Cholim supports them with kosher food, rides, housing, and services you would have never even thought you needed. It’s an astonishing display of Jewish kindness during a person’s most vulnerable moments.
So when Mrs. Shapiro of Bikur Cholim called me one day to ask me for help, I sat up and paid attention. There is a woman in the hospital, she said. She is very ill. She loves music. Would I bring a little keyboard to the hospital and play and sing for her? Yes, yes. Of course I would.
This was during what’s called, “The Nine Days.” It’s a period of time in the Jewish calendar commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. Many Jews observe customs of mourning during these nine days. No weddings. No meat or wine. No new clothing. And, no music. But, said Mrs. Shapiro, a rabbi had been consulted. And he said music was permitted for this woman, to bring her joy during her difficult illness. Clearly, this was important.
So I found a neighbor who had one of those Yamaha keyboards, packed it into my car, and drove over to the hospital. Found parking. Found my mask. Put it on. Clumsily held the keyboard like some huge overgrown bouquet and made my way through the maze that is Cleveland Clinic Main. Up the elevator. Found the room. Set down the keyboard, and knocked gingerly.
The woman was there with a mask and oxygen. She was clearly Chassidic. I clearly wasn’t. Her sister was with her. Our eyes met, a mutual telegraph of sisterhood. I set up the keyboard on a tiny lunch tray, and started playing some of the Jewish oldies that I know, singing along with the amateur sound of the Yamaha keyboard. The sisters sang along with me, in their Yiddish-Chassidic accent. I smiled as we sang, our voices twisting around one another’s in the small, cramped hospital room. I don’t remember if it was them or me who commented that though our accents are so different, we all sing the same songs. In a way, the contrasting accents made the singing more beautiful. More harmoniousness than sameness.
When I paused to ask if there were any song requests, we started chatting. I asked the women where they lived, and when they told me, I somehow felt compelled to say this: “You know, my brother is Chassidic, too.” Their eyebrows raised in surprise. Me, this garden-variety Orthodox, slightly bohemian Clevelander? I told them his name and that he lives in Brooklyn, New York, and that for his kids, Yiddish is also their first language.
They laughed and said that the Brooklyn Chassidic accent is “totally different” from theirs. Now my eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Oh, yes,” they said, “once there was a mother in the grocery store in our neighborhood calling her daughter, ‘Leah’la, Leah’la,’ and it was just so different from how we say ‘Leah’la,’ so everyone knew they weren’t from here.” We all laughed. The silly foibles of us humans. The narcissism of small differences.
Yet it was the shared humanity that stayed with me from that encounter. Strangers from different places whose paths might never again cross. Different accents and different customs. Bonded over music in a cramped hospital room under difficult conditions in Cleveland, Ohio, a place they likely would have never visited. A connection from soul to soul. From sister to sister. I don’t even know their names; they likely don’t know mine. But there it is. There it always is, if we just let it.