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What Pregnancy Has Taught Me about My Role as a Cantor

What Pregnancy Has Taught Me about My Role as a Cantor

Silhouette of a pregnant person against a brightly colored sunset

Back in December of 2018, on a Friday evening service, a congregant came over immediately after services ended and said to me, “You always sing better when you are pregnant.” I smiled at her gently; she didn’t know she had given me the ultimate compliment.

You see, singing during pregnancy is not without challenges, to say the least. Our bodies go through an amazing transformation during pregnancy, and many of them affect the voice.

Hormonal changes can affect the voice’s tone and quality; a growing baby puts pressure in different areas, sometimes creating back pain, changing one’s center of balance, tiring the legs, and taking much of the space where deep and diaphragmatic breathing is otherwise needed. All of these are crucial things for a singer. Then, add increasing lack of sleep toward the end of the pregnancy to the list…

And things don’t get much easier once your sweet baby is born. Now, sleep deprivation is real, and sleep, along with hydration, are fuel – the gasoline for a healthy voice. After giving birth, the breathing and support are compromised not by a baby claiming space but by a weak core that needs time to heal and training to regain coordination and support, which singers need.

At first glance, it would seem that the cantorate, pregnancy, and postpartum don’t mix well together.

Recently, I came across a note I received from a congregant back in December of 2015. She congratulated me on the birth of Solomon, my first child, and she thanked me because he “waited just enough to be born” so that I could sing at her husband’s funeral. I’d sung at her husband’s funeral on Wednesday, Dec. 16; my son was born Dec. 18.

Truth be told, I probably don’t sing better while pregnant, nor postpartum. But this email made me wonder: What, then, is my role as a cantor? What can I ultimately offer to my congregation?

After giving birth twice, the answer to me has become more and more evident: Forget the singing and focus on telling a story. 

During a funeral, in song, I try to tell the story of a unique soul that has departed. Someone loved and missed by many, whose life and legacy will live forever. 

During a baby naming, in song, I try to tell the story of the mystery of the universe that has made it possible for beautiful new life to flourish.

During Shabbat and worship, in song, I try to tell the story of the resilience of a people – our people. In their journey, they confronted joy and sorrow, victories and defeats, but nonetheless gifted us with the ultimate of gifts – the gift of Shabbat, festivals, and holidays when we, Jews in different countries, with different languages and from different denominations, can be one in our diversity.

During concerts, in song, I tell the story of my love for Judaism and its melodies, the old and the new. Through sacred music, I draw the inspiration to try to turn the mundane in our lives into holy.

During a choir rehearsal, in song, I tell the story of the power of music: how it can bring people together, make us happier, make us healthier, make us more caring and loving toward one another, reveal our sense of fraternity. Simply, how it can make us better people.

In that sense, then, I think the cantorate and motherhood blend together extremely well. I’m grateful for my daughter and son, who teach me so much about what I can offer to my community, and to them. They remind me that at the center of it all, there is a story: your personal story, your family’s history, and our history as a people.

Cantors get to add music to the soundtrack of our lives – and our congregants, in return, gift us with their unique stories, which we then get to cherish and weave into ours.

Cantor Sheila Nesis is the cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO. She grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to New York City in 2007 to join the clergy at Temple Israel in Manhattan. Prior to that, and in partnership with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, she toured the United States performing a repertoire of liturgical Jewish music, tangos and boleros, Ladino songs, and jazz. She also served as cantor and educator for Congregation Kehillah in Scottsdale, AZ, as well as other Reform and Conservative institutions in the Phoenix area.

Cantor Sheila Nesis
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