I clunk a tape that’s half a century old into my throwback audiocassette player. Suddenly, the sounds of my mother’s family past are all around me. I’m back in the flat on Short Street in Singapore. Heat radiates through the recording. And I feel connected.
Shouts come from the yard on the ground floor, including the hawkers’ calls, repeated in Hokkien and Malay, through the veranda and the open windows. Neighbors’ radios and televisions hum gently. Traffic honks and revs. The voices on the tape rebound off the concrete floor. Despite pre-Dolby fuzz, the recording makes the flat sound cavernous, though it was barely bigger than the loft I write in now.
The scene comes back to me. My silent grandmother is offstage in the kitchenette. She is making her Chinese version of Iraqi Jewish saffron cabbage for lunch. My mother is in there with her, cooking. She is happy to be home. She is still strong and beautiful.
I’m in the living room with my grandfather. He’s enthroned on his patterned cane chair; a magus, wearing his sarong. Now it’s my sarong, though I can find no occasion for it. My grandfather has installed me on his knee, and I sit facing him. His skin is rich polished brown against his white singlet. His tufted eyebrows are eagles' wings outstretched in flight. His warmth and calm envelope me. I inhale his tobacco and spices: cloves and cinnamon, cardamom and chilli. They get mixed up with the smells coming from the cooking.
It’s an apt infusion. My grandfather is a spice trader, and my grandparents’ love mixes up China and Jewish Iraq, in the pungent steamboat hotpot that is Singapore.
My grandfather, Jacob Isaac Hyeem Elias, sings. I am transfixed — as much now, listening to the tape, as I was when I was there in the flat.
The bright sunny days will soon fade away,
Remember what I say and be true, dear.
“The Spanish Cavalier.” A lamentation over the transitoriness of life, the passing of time. The singer pleads to be remembered when he is gone, for his words to be heard beyond his individual lifetime.
My grandfather lives in my memory as a singer. I was neither old enough nor geographically close enough for his stories. But I have never stopped hearing his voice and his songs. When this recording was made, my mother had taken me, as a three-year-old, back to her home in Singapore. I hear myself chanting on the tape some of the English nursery rhymes I grew up with.
“OOOO-OOOO!” my elder brother attempts to drown me out. But I shout down this rude monkey. My child’s-age voice rings out, sure-footed, enunciating every syllable. Let me be heard.
My grandfather must have been listening to me then, as I listen to him now. Jacob’s singing fills my loft space. His voice booms and projects, remarkable for the small and, by then, old man. Already he was 80. My visit and the occasion of the recording marked the first and only time that I would meet him. And it was the last time that my mother would speak with him — though she would see him on one more occasion before he died. Audiocassettes were then a new-fangled thing. So it’s sheer chance that we have his voice: that I have this opportunity to hear it again and preserve it, and pass it down, for posterity.
If I listen hard enough, the songs of the past could carry over generations. They might seem highly individual — their selection an individual’s unique choice — but songs can form a family soundtrack. I could come into an inheritance through song.
And this is how the Jewish liturgy works. Or is supposed to work.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.
I’ve been practicing in order to lead the most important prayer in Hebrew for the first time in my synagogue. The Shema is the closest Judaism comes to a creed. It’s all about oneness: the oneness of God, the oneness of a people. And it calls on us to listen, to hear a voice.
The Shema is the first prayer that every Jewish child is supposed to learn, and the last thing that every Jew says before sleep. The last thing also before death. It’s the one prayer that my grandfather taught my mother, as he must have been taught it, and before him, his ancestors. The Shema is the only prayer that my mother still recites daily. Though her bones have grown dangerously brittle and her skin is tissue-thin, her voice is unwavering.
No one taught me the Shema. It’s something that my mother omitted when she “married out,” that is, married a non-Jew. She forewent oneness. Hers was a choice for twoness; otherness rather than sameness. Twoness equalled my noneness: an absence of Jewish identity.
I’ve not attended to this missing inheritance until the last few years. Until I realize I’m the only one left in the family who can learn how to say these things anymore. That I’m the only one who even knows that I’m meant to say prayers for dead Jewish ancestors. And that if I don’t, there will just be silence.
So I’ve taught myself the Shema. I stagger through the claggy mud of the Hebrew. I re-shape my tongue to roll off the soft shushing and rrrring sounds. I feel deep down into my throat, trying to draw forth the gutturals.
Shema, Yisrael. Adonai eloheinu; Adonai eCHad.
But who, I wonder, is being called to listen? And who is speaking?