I don’t think I’ve ever written this down before. This is the story of the first time I played a shofar (as I remember it, not as it happened).
So it’s the mid 90s and I’m in primary school (‘elementary’, my dear yanks). We were doing Religious Education and learning about Judaism, I think for the first time. The teacher didn’t really know anything about Judaism that wasn’t written in the book, so he kept asking me, since I was the Only Jewish Kid In The Class (only jewish kid in the school in fact, except my sister). I wasn’t very religious, but I was doing my best to make up reasonable sounding answers. Anyway, the school had somehow got hold of a shofar. (If anyone’s religious education wasn’t up to the stellar standards of mine, the shofar is the ram’s horn that’s blown like a trumpet as part of the ceremony of certain jewish holy days). The shofar was passed around the class, and of course, hygene be damned, everyone tried to play it. But it’s not an easy instrument to play, there’s more to it than just blowing. So everyone is puffing and wheezing and red in the face, and the best anyone can get out of this thing is a pitiful squeak. But we’ve all just seen the guy on the VHS tape with the hat and odd hairstyle blowing it, and we heard the tooting noise come out of the tinny little speakers of the TV on the wheely cart, so we know this isn’t right. Is our shofar broken or something? Is it blocked up?
Finally the shofar gets around to me, and I am psyched all the way up. I haven’t played a shofar before, but I’m determined to get some kind of noise out of this damn thing, because my heritage is looking silly right now. The burden of upholding the dignity of Judaism itself falls upon my narrow shoulders. So, I take the biggest breath I possibly can, and put the shofar to my lips. Everyone’s looking at me, because I’m The Only Jewish Kid In The Class. And the thing that nobody in the room (including me) is thinking about, is the fact that I’m also The Only Trumpet-Player Kid In The Class.
I only know one way to blow into an instrument. It happens to be the right way. And I do it, just as hard as I possibly can.
If you haven’t heard a shofar played properly in person, it’s not easy to describe. Recordings don’t capture it at all. Maybe it’s just because you usually hear it in a context of fasting and extreme reverence, but nonetheless a shofar blast (and that’s what they call it, a “blast”) is an amazing sound. The shofar sounds like raw naked power, it sounds like righteous fury. It sounds like more noise than a single human could ever make, yet it has a property like a human voice, like a bellow, a howl, like a newly bereaved mother splitting her lungs with blood and thunder. It’s a BIG sound, in the sense that it’s very loud, but also in the sense that it seems to fill whatever space it’s in, to come from all directions at once. It makes sense that the ancients gave it religious significance. When you hear the shofar’s call, the story of the Walls of Jerico tumbling down doesn’t seem that crazy.
So, it’s not possible to play a shofar quietly, and I’m giving the thing everything I’ve got in a little red brick classroom in southeast london. I can feel the room resonate and shake, hear the single-glazed windows rattle in their frames. I’m having a great time – this is the loudest noise I’ve ever made in my short life! And it’s in school! And I’m allowed to do it! So I keep going as hard as I can until my little lungs give out. I remember surfacing, out of breath and grinning, and listening as the antique cast-iron pipes throughout the building slowly stopped reverberating over the slack-jawed silence of the room.
The kids of course have seen enough TV to know exactly what happened. The Shofar knew I was Jewish. Obviously it’s not going to unleash that kind of unearthly sonic firepower for just anyone. Shofars only work for Jews. And the teacher is like “…That doesn’t sound right… but I don’t know enough about Judaism to dispute it?”. I didn’t offer any other explanations, because why would you demystify your Mystic Jew Powers?
And I’m writing this because I just realised that there were perhaps 30 kids in that class, and there just aren’t very many jews in southeast london to set them right, so it’s quite possible that there’s at least one 25 year old adult out there who still believes that the Shofar is a Holy Sacred Artefact which will Sound its Mighty Voice for none other than God’s Own Chosen People. And that cracks me up.
bringing this back for a happy new year