Our Feet, and Voices, Were Praying

Amy and Eula

I sang my heart out and made a new friend. For the past several months, I was fortunate to participate in an extraordinary hopeful, spiritual and educational community music project, Singing the Dream.

Even in our broken world, I found camaraderie joy and peace every Wednesday night, after answering the open call for singers. On January 26, singers from all walks of life performed in the packed 700-person capacity sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El of Providence.  It was an afternoon of song and fellowship in tribute to the life and legacy of civil rights leader and American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through this annual civic and cultural event in collaboration with Providence’s Central Congregational Church, “we want our neighborhood — Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics — whoever they are religiously or not and whatever color their skin is, to stop once a year and say, ‘Are we just talking the talk? Or, are we walking the walk?’ said Emanu-El’s Cantor and choral director Brian Mayer. “And, bring our attention back to what Dr. King’s message was, what his dream was.” This year’s concert featured New York City’s Sing Harlem Choir and its founder, Vy Higginsen.  Higginsen, a celebrated producer and writer, created the Mama Foundation for the Arts in Harlem two decades ago to train younger generations in gospel, jazz and R&B. Higginsen’s mission has been to teach her young singers that they have a voice, and that every voice must and will be heard. Anyone who has heard Sing Harlem, would agree that Vy Higgensen is achieving her mission.

The Singing the Dream Chorus, a community chorus of singers from amateur to professional, performed African-American spirituals and Jewish hymns.  A highlight was the East Coast premiere of “I Felt My Legs Were Praying,” composed by New York-based Cantor Gerald Cohen reflecting on the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery by Dr. King and 600 civil rights demonstrators, including the late Rabbi Eli Bohnen of Temple Emanu-El.  Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (whom King called “a great prophet” and close friend) marched alongside King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. 

Gerald Cohen writes, “We strive to use our words, our songs, our bodies—our whole being—to work for a better and more just world.  When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, they exemplified religious leaders who hear the voice of the prophets and the Psalms as an explicit call to action.  In this composition, I combine the words of Rabbi Heschel after the march—most famously remembered in the phrase “I felt my legs were praying”—with a verse from Psalm 35, which also speaks of one’s very body exclaiming praise, and praise of a God who protects the poor from those who would oppress them.”

                    From Psalm 35 and the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Kol atzmotai tomarna Adonai mi chamocha!
matzil ani meychazak mimenu, v’ani v’evyon migozlo.

[All of my bones exclaim: Adonai, who is like You!
saving the weak from the powerful, the needy from those who would prey on them.]

And yet our legs uttered songs—
The march from Selma was a protest, a prayer.
Even without words, our march was worship,
I felt my legs were praying!

“I Felt My Legs Were Praying” was a complex, fascinating and challenging work for a small, amateur chorus to tackle. Because of Cantor Meyer’s enthusiasm and determination, as well as his expertise as a musician and educator, we were inspired to deconstruct, examine and conquer the music, embracing its remarkable sophistication and beauty.  At one rehearsal, we were honored with a rare treat- a master class, via Skype, with Gerald Cohen himself.  To receive feedback and insight from the composer further enriched our understanding and appreciation of his masterpiece.

Temple Emanu-El’s late senior Rabbi Eli Bohnen invited King to address the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in New York in 1968. There, King was serenaded with “We Shall Overcome” performed in Hebrew and later declared: “Probably more than any other ethnic group, the Jewish community has been sympathetic and has stood as an ally to the Negro in his struggle for justice.” King was assassinated ten days later. Our chorus  joined voices with Sing Harlem and standing-room-only crowd, filling the sanctuary with our rendition, in Hebrew and English. Many wept. Actually, I am pretty sure everyone wept.

The morning of the concert, my friend Eula and I were sitting the the sanctuary pews.  Complete strangers at the onset, we had sung together for months, connected by the shared sense of divine presence conjured through song.  That, and and mutual appreciation for great fashion. Eula pulled something from her bag, and said, “I brought this to give to you.”  My beautiful new treasure is a silky scarf emblazoned with the words ‘Great Heroines’  and the strong smiling faces of Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. I am rarely speechless. Even without words, I felt my tears were praying.

great heroines