On the Monday morning following the horrific events at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was getting ready for our weekly JF&CS Tremble Clefs rehearsal, which meets at a church in Newton. I have been the volunteer musical director of this chorus of Parkinson’s patients and their caregivers for ten years, but this was no ordinary Monday. I checked my computer one last time and saw an email from Gary*, one of our singers. I can always count on Gary to contact me and suggest a relevant song for the day, to honor a just-deceased music icon, for example, or to celebrate an upcoming holiday. So it was no surprise that Gary suggested that we sing a song for the Pittsburgh victims.
On my way to chorus, I was thinking that “We Shall Overcome” would be appropriate. As I was setting up, another singer, Sue*, approached me with a request to sing something in light of the tragic events of the weekend. She suggested one of our “greatest hits,” Craig Taubman’s incredible song, “Holy Ground,” with its powerful lyrics. Gary came over to me in his wheelchair, and in our little huddle with Sue, we decided that, yes, “Holy Ground” would be perfect.
Of the 30 or so singers in Tremble Clefs who come every week, rain or shine, only about a third are Jewish. We also have three women from the Cambridge Community Chorus who volunteer and are lending their voices for the second year; they have become a part of our Tremble Clefs family. The comradery in the room is palpable; it is a safe place and time in the singers’ week where they can be with others with similar challenges, AND have FUN making music together. Singing helps those with Parkinson’s whose voices have begun to weaken; we work on the rudiments of singing, breath diction, and, perhaps most importantly, volume.
Our pianist, Joe Reid, began playing the introduction to “Holy Ground.” Then something unexpected happened. I gave the chorus the cue to start singing, and they did. Then I lost it. I couldn’t sing because I started crying as I thought of the victims and our world, and that we were in a holy place like countless other holy places where senseless tragedies have occurred recently. I looked over at one of our singers and she was crying too. But the REST of the singers carried on, singing without my voice to guide them, loudly, confidently in their own voices like never before.
These incredible individuals who I have grown to care so much about, admire for the way they face their physical challenges, whom I was there to help so that their voices don’t suffer the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, were actually carrying ME. As I stood before them, I scanned their faces. Jewish and non-Jewish, we were all suffering together and trying to process what had happened. That’s what the community that we have created is all about. I felt the power of that sacred moment. The singers gave me strength as I felt in my heart that we are all in this together. The worst anti-Semitic act in recent memory and all of our singers, Jewish and non-Jewish, were suffering. Without that reassurance that others care about us, how can we go on?
That moment reinforced for me what I have known my whole life: when we are at a loss for words, the act of singing, and the perfect blend of music and lyrics, as in Craig Taubman’s song, can help us express what is in our hearts:
Ev'ry second, every minute, ev'ry hour, ev'ry day,
Ev'ry thing, ev'ry one, ev'ry place, ev'ry way,
Where you stand, where you walk, where you love, where you pray,
All of life is holy ground.
So walk as if it's holy ground,
Breathe as if it's all around.
Talk and make a holy sound,
Take your shoes off, you're on holy ground.
When you hurt, when you heal,
When you laugh, when you pray,
When you doubt, when you keep,
When you give it away,
Ev'ry second, ev'ry minute,
Ev'ry hour, ev'ry day,
All of life is holy ground.
Take your shoes off,
You’re on holy ground.
Words and Music by Craig Taubman
May the memory of those who lost their lives continue to inspire us to be a caring community.
Marilyn Okonow is the volunteer conductor of the Tremble Clefs choral group, a program of JF&CS Parkinson’s Family Support. Marilyn engages the singers with great sincerity and heartfelt warmth and acceptance. She creates a sense of community and makes each participant feel welcome and appreciated. Marilyn has a masters degree in Music Education from the New England Conservatory.
*Name changed to protect privacy.