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  • Jay Prosser

The music of memory

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Chanukah in the Maghain Aboth, Singapore


I just spent Shabbat Chanukah – the Saturday over the Jewish Festival of Lights – in the synagogue of my ancestors, in Singapore. I’d come as a child when I visited Singapore with my mother, but I’d not done this for decades. After many years in ‘shuls’ in Britain – even those with a largely Sephardi congregation – being part of a service here was an auditory immersion in the music of my ancestors’ Middle Eastern past. And I realise how important this music is to my return to Judaism.


The Maghain Aboth (meaning, aptly, ‘Shield of Fathers’) is the oldest and largest synagogue in Southeast Asia. Situated in the Jewish ‘mahallah’ (neighbourhood) on Waterloo Street, the synagogue was built in 1878 by Jews -- like my own Jewish ancestors -- from Baghdad, Iraq. With its yellow and white décor reflecting the clean, bright surroundings of Singapore, the Maghain Aboth is beautiful and very well kept up. It struck an immediate contrast with the synagogues I’ve visited connected to my family’s past elsewhere in Southeast Asia and South Asia, which are increasingly dilapidated and struggle to get a minyan, the quorum of ten men necessary for a service.

On that day in the Maghain Aboth, the vast, high-ceilinged prayer hall was packed. Almost every seat in the men’s area below was filled. The women, located Sephardi-style in balconies above, were also in healthy attendance. (There is now a space below to accommodate elderly, disabled or pregnant women, mums with buggies, etcetera.)


The Hebrew was nothing like Hebrew as it is sung or spoken in Europe. It was nothing like the contemporary Israeli Hebrew (‘Ivrit’) I’ve been learning, or even the Torah Hebrew I’ve now transitioned to, taught via the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I’ve never heard Hebrew sound more Arabic – which was the language of my family over and above Hebrew. Or was it, in fact, Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language connecting my ancestors to the Babylonian Empire, where they were exiles for some 2000 years, before my great-grandfather Isaac came to Singapore?


The cantillation, the diacritical singing of the prayers, followed the quarter tones of Arabic music. The voices in the synagogue swooped up and then down in milliseconds, like swallows crossing each other in the last flight at dusk.


Nothing was ‘Reform’ or European in the orchestration of the whole service. The parashah, weekly reading, on Joseph and his brothers, was long – there were 8 or 10 aliyot, men called up to the bimah to read. I recognised snippets of the Aleynu or the Amidah or the Shema or Adon Olam. But I kept losing my way in the Arabic-sounding Hebrew recited at high speed.


Another huge difference from any other synagogue where I’ve experienced a service was the volume. Never has the phrase singing their hearts out, in my experience, been so deserved. The men raised the roof with their hallel, their praise – roaring, shouting. These men wanted to be heard, by a lot of people, and/or by a distant ethereal being. The rabbi thumped the bimah, a rhythm in time to the prayers’ music, again something I’ve never seen done in Europe. This was prayer as song – definitely Aleynu – halleluyah, prayers, praise. It was the longest Shabbat service I’ve been to – 4 hours at least. I loved every minute.

Is there an unconscious auditory memory passed down in families? Does memory have a musical ‘ear’? Freud draws his diagram of the unconscious mind, or unconscious memory inside us, with a ‘cap of hearing’, 'acoustic' area, as if our deepest, most latent memories are those of sounds. And given that hearing is, as we all know, the last sense to go when we die, perhaps those sounds live on, even when other parts of us are clinically dead.


‘Eastern’ music, strange to Western ears with its off-tones and irregular rhythms, its extremes of feeling and yet delicate detail, compels me into absolute attention. Its effect is always double – turning happiness into sadness, connection into loneliness, and vice versa. So much in Jewish songs and stories is about exile, journeys, transitoriness and longing, but also love, joy, celebration. The Kaddish, the prayer for dead Jewish ancestors and expression of darkest grief, is a song of blinding praise.


This sad undertow, the dominance of the minor keys, is what pulls me into synagogues. The liturgy, the singing, especially of Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews, feels so familiar to me: known, as it did in the Maghain Aboth on an unconscious level, even if consciously so much of this felt unfamiliar to the Anglicised, Europeanised, ‘Reform’ me.


Hear, O Israel. In the Maghain Aboth, I felt myself being summoned back to these ancient prayers, to the songs and stories of ancestors.

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