How the Cantorate Became the Next Natural Step in My Nursing Career

I’ve always liked to sing, and I’ve always been musical, but when my (now) husband Andy suggested 20 years ago that I might make a good cantor, I laughed at his outrageous idea. It was 1995, and I was about to finish nursing school. The idea of going back to school for another five years in something that had nothing to do with nursing seemed preposterous! After all the work I had done to become a registered nurse, I was going to get a job as…a registered nurse. 

So that’s exactly what I did. And I had a wonderful, fulfilling career as an RN. I learned about myself and about people in general, especially how they cope with stress. Because people are rarely at their best in the hospital, I developed communication skills that have been invaluable to me in all areas of my life. I learned that the person in the bed is not always the person who needs the most attention, and that each room was actually a tiny kahal, a tiny community. I noticed I missed many patients after their discharge, and the people who had visited them. In smaller communities, like Greensboro, NC, I would regularly bump into former patients and be delighted to catch up. 

Years later, when Andy announced that he wanted to become a rabbi, it didn’t occur to me that Hebrew Union College would accept my 40-year-old husband and that we’d move to Israel. So when he was accepted, and I realized that I really did have to move to Israel, I wasn’t happy about it. I knew no Hebrew; I couldn’t even follow the prayerbook. Also, I had loved my life in North Carolina: my career, my patients, and my coworkers. I was homesick before we even left.

That first summer in Jerusalem I was lost.  Seeing my mounting misery, and wanting to give me something to do, Andy volunteered me for an HUC choir. And that is where things started to change.

I was invited to learn two pages of trope for an upcoming Tisha B’Av service. Knowing nothing about the holiday or the music, the assignment was beyond me. I personally know the feeling of inability, misunderstanding, and unworthiness in a synagogue setting. Back home I had been useful and respected; here I felt utterly inept. I almost gave up and left. Fortunately, the student cantor in charge drew me in: he transliterated my assigned verses, rendered the trope in standard notation, and waited patiently as I dutifully wrote the translation of each Hebrew word while explaining to me what Tisha B’Av was all about. Hebrew stopped being a jumble of vowels and consonants, it transformed that day into a method of communication. Rather than the block for me to stumble over, keeping me at arm's distance away from the Jewish community and Jewish spirituality, it began to be the connecting force between me and any other Jewish person in the world. 

The night of Tisha’ B’Av I sang my verses and understood what I was saying, after which we walked as a group to the Old City and visited the Kotel. Listening to other groups at the Kotel chant the same words we had chanted earlier at HUC, I felt a deep connection to the Jewish people. As the earth continued to turn, and the sun continued to set to the west, I realized that I was connected to chanting Jews around the world by our texts. It was a thrilling moment! 

I finally understood why Andy had been recommending the cantorate for all those years. Cantors sing on the bima, and I have always loved to sing, but to me, being a cantor is much more that. Being a cantor means teaching, listening, and counseling. As a cantor I have since had the opportunity to stay with congregants and their families over weeks, months, and years, developing a community based on relationships; I have tasted the process discussing questions about love, life, spirituality - the big questions that matter. Being a cantor is not just singing; it is celebrating, mourning, and worshiping; it is building community through attentiveness and patience, helping people feel welcome, and providing them the tools to feel at home. 

There wasn't a way to incorporate Jewish music into my nursing practice, but I’m finding that a great deal of my nursing practice -- the general understanding of stress behavior, communicating and educating, the family and group assessment, and my love for people -- can be integrated into my cantorate.  I am so grateful that I found the cantorate, a profession that brings so many of my values into one true calling.

שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ