Without getting into too much detail, for me, religious practice is a little complicated. In part, it involves desperately avoiding any organized religous services (despite being fairly active members of our religious community and ostensibly intending to attend services regularly). But sometimes, when I get it together to to get to services and really pray, really concentrate, if the stars align, I experience moments of searing spiritual connection. I crave this stuff. I also find it utterly boring and soul-sucking.
But throughout my childhood (which had a similar pattern, though I couldn’t get out of going to church…), and now my adult religious life (there was about a 15 year gap of angry atheism in there — strictly speaking for my own atheism here, in no way implying angry is a general feature of atheism), I have loved singing at religious services. I’m not a highly trained singer, but I was a decent alto. I learned by singing with my family as a kid how to harmonize, and I loved picking out lower harmony parts, fitting my voice into the group and letting go.
But for the last year and a half or so, I’ve hated singing. Services drove me even more nuts because I didn’t feel like I could participate in the one part I somewhat reliably enjoyed. My voice sounded so much like a woman’s voice and I hated that so I just quit singing. And then, as testosterone slowly started to lower my voice, I couldn’t find my way around. I haven’t experienced a complete loss of vocal control, or a loss of my ability to match pitch, but I have felt a sort of disorientation. My range is constantly shifting, and for a long time my vocal range didn’t really fit comfortably in with an alto range or a tenor.
But this year, at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, I sang.
Our religious community (a havurah, sort of like a very tiny synagogue without a rabbi) is small and lay led**. We’re a little unpredictable. On any given week, it’s not a guarantee we’re going to sing all that well, because you never know who is going to lead or who is going to show up. It’s a small group, and in a small group I feel self-conscious about my voice. But at high holidays, the singing is awesome. Our numbers increase 10 or 20 fold. The leaders go out of their way to prepare good music. This year, there were enough of us that I could slip into the background, fit my voice into the others, and sing. It was such a rush to hear my voice joining in with the men’s voices. It was wonderful to feel like my voice, even if it cracked sometimes and wasn’t exactly that nice round baritone I imagine in my head, was my own.
** If you are in the Cambridge/Somerville MA area, and are a trans(*) Jew, and haven’t found a place you feel comfortable, you might consider checking us out. For all our idiosyncrasies (and we have many, some of them quite charming), our community has grown into a truly comfortable place to be trans and Jewish, and has real leadership from trans members.