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The Last Echod

I think that for many readers, what follows may not be easy. But I think also it may be interesting.

As a child and a young adult, I was very much a Jew. I had been sent by my loving Jewish parents to Jewish private elementary school; I was very involved in Jewish religious schooling in evenings at the synagogue; and much of my entire family, extended and not, was also. I was somewhat bored in synagogue when we went, about one Saturday morning in two or three or four or more, but having been looking around, I knew that was normal, so I kept to several things I thought were very important, which were things which made me feel Jewish. I know now that many people sit through much irrelevant foolishness in churches for identical reasons...but I didn't know that then, and that's really another story: for right now, I am a young Jew, educated to believe that Jewishness is the most important thing about me, and here I am.

At this time, as now, Jewish synagogue services on Saturday morning, always ended with one sung prayer. It is called the Alenu. There was usually one and occasionally two songs afterwards, but that was far less prayer and far more simple singing, albeit in Hebrew...and people are sometimes putting on their coats et cetera during that time, so to me, it didn't really count. The last prayer which to me felt like a prayer, which happens to be sung, I always thought of as the Alenu.

My immediate family visited around a bit, in several hundred miles' radius, and I had quite a few young friends in other synagogues, so I witnessed quite a few different services. Every one of them, had the Alenu as the last prayer on Saturday morning. I think this is largely the same today.

There was something peculiar I noticed, slowly over the years, about the Alenu. Something I could never quite understand; and I didn't begin to notice it as a peculiarity, until I was perhaps eight years old. The last phrase of the Alenu, in every prayer-book I saw, was “hu sch’mo, echod”, meaning “whose name is One”. It was just one line in the book, but was sung twice. And then there was the more unusual third time.

The third echod was always different. It had its own little tune, its own unique set of notes, a beautiful, loving, gentle conclusion. It was usually sung in entirely spontaneous many-part harmony, and even when the many parts weren’t there, the feeling of them being there remained. I always felt something very unusual when it was being sung, a feeling of cohesion, of love of and within the whole as if we were one tribe, a collective joy unique in my experiences. I never saw the Rabbi initiate the third echod, nor the Cantor, nor any of the people in charge in the synagogue. Usually I never managed to figure out who initiated it, but the few and rare times I did, it was a young child, or the youngest person in the room, or a humble adult of any age who would almost never consider speaking up in a group.

But there was an event, when I was about thirteen years of age. It was a matter of months after my Bar Mitzvah, the very religious coming-of-age ceremony held in the synagogue, and I still had my childhood soprano singing voice. I was on a youth retreat, which included the rabbi, several elder adults, and many more young people and folks in their 20’s and 30's for helpful continuity. We had services on Saturday morning out there, and as usual, I was happy with the advent of the last echod. This was the first such retreat to which I went, and to my surprise, I found that it was myself who initiated the last echod. And shockingly, although it began in the very typical fashion, it didn’t end. I found my voice rising in thirds and octaves, with more ability to sing than I have ever known before or since, in harmony with everyone else in the room, and then there was a peak note, and it was done.

I was very happy about it then, and stayed very happy about it for quite a while. Apart from one quiet comment from someone during that last echod ("wow, he can sing!"), there was no discussion about it at the retreat, and none after either, and no perception of a need; I simply was eager to go to services next Saturday and do it again. My mom and dad were quite surprised that I was so eager to go the very next Saturday, but they rolled with it easily, and we went. I happily waited and sang through the service as usual, happily anticipating the last echod. But at the time for it, no one initiated, and I could not bring myself to do so either. Instead there was this brief rolling silence, and then the people in charge went on to the final song and we were done.

I told myself that this was just a minor bobble, an event of no significance at all. Certainly no one else there acted as if it was. I experienced a sense of loss, and even a dark thought of a permanence, but attempted to suppress it all, and went to services just a bit nervously the next week. And the same thing happened.

Since then, I have been to quite a large number of Jewish services in multiple cities and towns in the U.S. and in the state of Israel. I have heard the Alenu sung, and I have often heard a short pause waiting for the last echod, but it has never been sung. I have discussed this with four different people of very different geographies, who were old enough and observant enough to remember, who have corroborated this recollection, including the year and even the approximate time of year when it ended. Their eyes all widened just a bit when reminded.

I do not know why the Lord has done this, but for me it was and is a terribly sad thing. I still mourn the last echod. I have witnessed consequences both progressive and sad. And at least in my own case, He used its passing as one step towards bringing me to knowledge of and communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is a greater joy, and a much better one, because it is the eternal one.

Jonathan Brickman
Please do email me!

© 2020 Jonathan Brickman

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