Cantor Sylvia never expected to be playing the guitar and singing ancient songs in the lounge of a starship, but then, she’d never expected to be on a starship in the first place. She was too old, they said. She wouldn’t last the trip from Earth to Centaurus.
And yet, here she was, sitting in the common lounge, staring out the huge window – viewports -they called them viewports – at the streaking stars, her great-grandmother’s acoustic guitar resting against a belly that had seen a few too many latkes and maybe not enough salad in her lifetime, sharing the old songs with kids who would never remember that they came from Earth.
Actually, the Goldberg twins had been born under the dome at Curiosity Village, on Mars, and little Rachel Levi had grown up at Luna Colony. Earth might be in their blood, in their DNA, but it wasn’t where they were from. Not the way she was.
She played the chord again, and saw the children gathered around her focus their attention. And why not? They’d grown up with digital instruments: violins and cellos that relied on computer chips for their tone, guitars that made their sound through a wireless amplifier, and pianos that could be rolled into a cylinder the size of a zip-top sandwich bag. Her guitar didn’t have any chips, and it couldn’t be made smaller. It was wire and wood and care and love and history, and its lines were the only ones Sylvia had caressed since her beloved Harry had passed on five years before.
“I’m going to sing you an old song now,” she told them. “And you’re going to sing it with me. It’s in Hebrew. So, listen once, and then repeat.”
Mi yimalel gvurot Yisrael,
Otan mi yimne?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor
Their singing was tentative at first, as their tongues learned the shapes of the long-ago language of their people, but they repeated the verse and then moved on to the next, learning the words a line at a time, and then singing them as a cohesive verse.
Ba’yamim ha’hem ba’zman ha’ze
Maccabi moshia u’fode
U’v’yameinu kol am Yisrael
Yitached yakum ve’yigael!
“But what does it mean?” Rachel asked.
Sylvia understood that what the little girl really meant was, Can we sing it in English? She reached out and tugged one of the child’s strawberry-blonde braids. It was gentle. Harmless. “My granddaughter used to ask me that, too,” she shared. “In English, it goes like this.”
Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.
The little girl wrinkled her nose. “I like it the other way better,” she said. “It’s prettier.”
Sylvia’s eyes twinkled, and her face stretched into a broad grin. “You know what?” she asked. “I like it both ways. Do you want to know why?”
She changed her focus to include all the children. “When we sing it in Hebrew, we’re remembering the old stories, the country and the planet where all our families originated. And when we sing it in English, we’re making our stories and songs accessible to new generations. Someday, maybe we’ll sing these songs in languages Earth has never heard – or Mars or Centaurus either.
She didn’t really expect the children to respond, but when she looked up, she saw the reflection of their parents in the glass of the window – viewport – whatever – for they had gathered around behind her during the singing.
“Can we do it again?” Benjamin Goldberg wanted to know.
“Yes,” Sylvia said. “Yes, we can.”
They say space is silent. They say that you could scream your loudest inside a starship, and never be heard beyond the hull. But on that night, Sylvia was certain, if there were any creatures who existed outside the warm and oxygen-filled atmosphere of their vessel, they would have heard the voices of children and adults lifted in song.
Notes: Mi Yimalel is a traditional Jewish song, and was suggested by my friend Joy Plummer. Photo Copyright: karaidel / 123RF Stock Photo