Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to get a seat on a very crowded Metro and unceremoniously plopped myself down without paying too much attention to my seatmate. Engrossed in her music, she didn’t pay me much mind, either. But within minutes, both of us were chatting away with one another as if we were long lost buddies or kindred souls — and in a way, we were.
It turns out that the music my seatmate was playing was not Mozart or Miles Davis but the cantillation for Parshat Shemot. In one hand, she held a xerox of the Hebrew text of the Torah passages she was scheduled to layn (recite) at her Reform synagogue in the coming weeks. Her other hand clutched an iPod, whose musical selection — marked “God” — consisted of the trop (the musical notation) that defined how the text was to be sung.
Before long, the exchange of furtive glances characteristic of Metro etiquette gave way to open and animated conversation as we traded notes on the ease or difficulty of the Hebrew, the relative merits of memorization vs. actual knowledge and the degree of preparation with which each of us felt comfortable before publicly reading from the Torah.
Over the years I’ve had lots of memorable conversations on the Metro, but none quite as memorable as this one. In the time it took to travel from my home to my office, so much of what I study, teach and write about, from the relationship between technology and religion to the fluidity — and portability — of Jewish identity, came together harmoniously, if unexpectedly.
Given the hordes of people who travel daily on the Metro, the odds of running into my Torah-chanting seatmate are far and few between. But should the occasion present itself, I’ll spare no time in telling her how she brightened my day.
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