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When A Jewish Girl Enters a Church

Jesus' looming, bloody statues, paintings and depictions of him on the crucifix, dripping blood from the places where the nails went in always scared me.
[additional-authors]
June 1, 2020

When I was a young girl, Jesus scared the daylights out of me.

Or not Jesus himself but more looming, bloody statues, paintings and depictions of him on the crucifix, dripping blood from the places where the nails went in.

When we lived in North Carolina, the year I turned 10, I was the only Jewish girl in my class at school.

And my Girl Scout troupe held meetings at a Catholic Church.

Once my mom picked me up late, so I had to wait in that big, dark church alone. Just me and the massive, bleeding Jesus statue, his eyes rolled way back in his head. Was he judging me? Could he tell I was an interloper, trespassing in this Christian space?

I burst into tears when my mom finally pulled up in the station wagon.

I told her I didn’t want to go to Girl Scouts anymore.

Considering how terrifying I found images of Jesus, it was interesting that images of Mary produced a different reaction in me.

Maybe unconsciously, it was a solidarity thing?

From one Jewish girl to the next, like, hey girl, I see you. I thought she looked like a nice lady. Like she had a warm, safe lap, like her arms would be soft if she held you.

She looked like she would smell of jasmine, or maybe freshly baked bread.

***************

It is one of those unseasonably hot Provencal mornings, right after the cherries have shed their confetti petals and the fruit is getting to be that dark red color.

Such a dark red, almost black.

The same exact color as the first lipstick I ever bought for myself in Grade 7.

I am about to meet my neighbor Julie for a social-distancing walk.

“Meet by our house?” she had texted me earlier.
“We live next to the church.”

“Church?” I never noticed a church on our street.

But when I arrive I crane my neck and look up, and I can see a pale, hint of a crucifix, right on the building next to hers.

It’s almost impossible to see from the cobblestone street if you aren’t looking for it.

Really more like a whisper of a crucifix.

“Is the church still in use?”

We are strolling now along the red dirt through the cherry orchards.

“Sometimes. But usually, it’s locked. You have to ask a certain monsieur for the keys.”

Ask a certain monsieur for the keys? To an abandoned, hidden French chapel that for some reason was kept locked up and hidden from view.

What were we, living inside the Da Vinci Code? But I forget about it until a week later when my friend, Samara texts me.

Samara asks whether I might be interested in singing Schubert’s Ave Maria for the upcoming episode of The Righteous Conversations Project. The Righteous Conversations Project is a collaboration between Holocaust survivors and teens.

Each week they have a theme and feature short, award-winning films made by their teens and conversations with inspiring folks.

This episode, Samara, explains, is going to feature a French Holocaust survivor in her 90’s. Her life was saved by nuns as a young Jewish girl in France, during the war. They’d hidden her in a convent.

I say yes. Maybe Ruth can even join me on the cello! But it isn’t until the next day I remember the church.

Maybe, I think, getting excited, maybe we could record Ave Maria in that very French chapel! To honor the Holocaust survivor whose life had once been saved by French nuns.

The hairs on my arm stood up thinking of it.

So I ask my other neighbor, Marie-Claude, if she knows who this Monsieur Sebastian is.

“Monsieur Sebastian? He lives in the next village of Les Fevriers. La-bas!”

“La-bas?”

“Oui, la-bas.”

I frown. La-bas means “over there.” La bas isn’t very specific.

So I ask another neighbor, Amandine.

“Monsieur Sebastian, oui, oui. He lives la-bas, just up the mountain.”

“Do you have a house number? A last name?”

“La-bas.”

I am skeptical. Was I supposed to climb that great mountain of a hill with a giant bull-horn and just shout  “Hear ye, hear ye, if there is a Monsieur Sebastian amongst thee, make yourself known so I can pretty please borrow the keys to the hidden chapel?” Evidently yes. So I march up the mountain in my shorts and sports bra.

Jacques comes too because he comes with me everywhere. After about 15 minutes of sweating, we arrive at the village of Les Fevriers to find a man smoking a cigarette.

The man is very suntanned. He has a shaved head and wears a gold chain around his neck. He looks sporty, like a football coach. Not at all what I expected from a man who was the steward of keys to a secret chapel.

“Might you be Monsieur Sebastian?”

“Oui.” He eyes me suspiciously.

“Parce-que….moi, je m’appelle Sara? And je suis Americaine but I got stranded here because of Covid-19? And I’m an opera singer? And I heard you might have the keys to the locked-up chapel of Les Baux, and I wondered if I might go in to, sing. To sing Ave Maria, specifically?”

He inhales the cigarette, coughs a bit, puts the stub with his shoe. “Quand?”

“Tomorrow at 5:00 p.m.?”

“Oui. I will come find you.”

Now I look at him dubiously. Come find me? What does the Provencal have against concrete directions?

“Perhaps it would be simpler to text each other. Shall we exchange numbers?”

Monsieur Sebastian looks at me like I just suggested we get married.

“Or not.” I say quickly. “ You could also just come find me.”

*******************

The following day the three of us, Monsieur Sebastian, Ruth and I meet at the chapel door.

“I have to stay with you. There is a very precious work of art in here. I am not permitted to leave you alone with it.”

He opens the door with a creak, and a rush of cool air blows over us. I blink in surprise. I had figured that chapel would be shadowy, medieval, gothic. Like that terrifying Catholic Church in North Carolina where the Girl Scouts met.

Instead, it is airy and luminous. The colors are white, yellow and pink. It is soft, comforting, almost maternal. It almost feels like the colors and textures that would be in a child’s nursery.

It’s a room you could sing in or also curl up on a pew and take a peaceful nap in. Ruth sits on the altar, puts her cello between her knees and starts to tune. Monsieur Sebastian sits in the last pew, folds his arms over his chest, taps his foot.

The acoustic is a singer’s dream, so damp and live it could be a shower.

Where you just let out the smallest, quietest ping of sound, and it ripples back at you like sunlight on water. We repeat it a couple times, trying to get the best version, and soon the neighbors start filing in.

They sit in the back pews, about 7 of them,  all dressed up in their Sunday finest. I’ve only ever seen them out working on their cars or gardening, in dirty jeans, in work clothes. Now they have on long skirts. Their hair is slicked back, they wear dresses. They are clean, freshly showered, even perfumed.

Ruth had mentioned earlier to them we would be making music in the church. I guess nobody had done that in a long time. Or maybe ever? And the fact that the neighbors dressed up to hear us play a two-minute song is so sweet I almost want to cry.

But it’s not until our very last take that I notice her.

Way up in the corner of the church, in white marble, a beautiful, angelic statue of the Virgin Mary. There is stained glass behind her and light is pouring through.

From where I stand on the altar it seems like light is coming out of her head.

So this time, on our last take, I sing to Mary.

I am very clearly not Christian but I figure it can’t hurt. I ask her to help us, to heal us, to lend us her safe lap, her warm arms. To deliver us, to bring us all health and relief from Covid-19, to keep us safe, to bring us comfort.

And a part of me knows she hears me, because she is bigger then just Christianity.

She happens to be the Christian face of the Divine Feminine but the Divine Feminine belongs to everyone. She is our Jewish Shekina, she is the Buddhists Tara and Quan Yin, the Hindus Lakshmi. When we finish the take, Ruth whispers, “That was the one. That was our final version.”

And we both look up.

Monsieur Sebastian, who until this minute has been silently brooding in the last pew, is now openly weeping.

“You have transported me to the heavens.  Look, look, at me, you have moved me to tears.”

Ruth and I blush and murmur a duet of grateful thanks.

“You said you were musicians but I didn’t know you meant like this.”

Monsieur Sebastian blows his nose, puts his hands over his heart, dabs at his eyes with his sleeves.

The neighbors burst into applause.

We all laugh happily, Monsieur Sebastian is glowing.

Afterward, we invite the neighbors for a social-distancing get-together outside my house.

Everyone brings their own glass, Ruth pours the rose wine that she cleverly thought to chill in my fridge.

“To music,” we say.

“To music!” they say.

And we laugh and chat boisterously and try to keep the social-distancing up, and the children and dogs run around the fig tree all twisted up with the honey-suckle and Jacques barks happily.

For two musicians who’ve been under lockdown, with no audience in months, and maybe even for the neighbors, it is like we’ve been handed a small miracle.

And that is very, very fine.

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