I had no idea of what she was talking about.
Walking home one summer afternoon after a pickup baseball game, Kathy Cipley informed me that I had killed Christ. Kathy was a 9-year-old tomboy (a year older than me and a better hitter), and she said that the nuns had told her that the Jews had killed their savior. Knowing that I was Jewish (a source of amazement to her at the time), I was guilty of this terrible crime committed almost two millennia before. To a rather sheltered rising third-grader, this Jesus Christ was not a person on my radar screen.
Sure, I had killed the occasional ant on the kitchen floor of our Levittown house, and had swatted my share of mosquitoes buzzing around my face as I tried to sleep on pre-air-conditioned summer nights. But accusing me of killing this allegedly important person so long ago merely by association was too much for me to wrap my brain around. I asked my mother about it when I got home, and her answer obviously satisfied me, since I gave it no more thought.
The summer before I started high school we moved to Massapequa (about 15 minutes away), so my father could be closer to his sporting goods store. On the first day of school I auditioned for the A Capella Choir (the most selective group) and by virtue of my clear, hormone-free upper register I was admitted as a first tenor.
My director and musical mentor Mr. Ralph Hoyt introduced me to great music the first week, starting with the Crucifixus movement from the Bach B Minor Mass. As December approached, we began rehearsing songs for the annual Christmas Concert, a preview of which was presented to the student body at assemblies during the school day.
Compared to the glories of Bach, Mendelssohn and Brahms, most of the pieces we sang (e.g., “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) were downright boring. However, the closing number of the program featured our orchestra and the massed choirs in what soon became my favorite carol, “O Holy Night.” As the singers filed down the outer aisles of the darkened auditorium, a spotlight shone on the solitary figure of Gunnel Ragone onstage. She had perfect Nordic features, with blonde hair and ice-blue eyes that sparkled in the stage lighting. By the time the choirs joined her at the words, “Fall on your knees,” I was about ready to do just that.
And who could blame me? A cute girl with an upturned nose and a lovely voice, accompanied by our earnest adolescent voices and the orchestra in Adolphe Adam’s soaring melodies and lush harmony. I began to recognize the beneficent side of Christmas, a season in which gentiles were perhaps more friendly and more tolerant of those with different beliefs.
Shortly before I sang my last high school Christmas Concert, the Second Vatican Council passed a resolution (“Nostra Aetate”) which basically absolved the Jews of guilt for the death of Jesus and condemned the violence perpetrated because of the crucifixion and attendant suffering. Having continued my Jewish education through confirmation, I felt more in tune with my religious identity and saw the Council’s apology as the epitome of “too little, too late.” Knowledge of the Holocaust and what had befallen family members who were not able to leave Russia (as had my grandparents) had made an indelible mark on my consciousness.
Closer to home, racial unrest had broken out in several cities during the past summer, and I had to wonder if the people singing of “peace on Earth, good will toward men” during the holiday season felt equally tolerant after the tree and ornaments had been stowed for another year.
Now, the secular songs we sang at Christmas seemed juvenile and sometimes silly; even “O Holy Night” failed to work its usual magic. Gunnel had graduated the year before, and I don’t remember who sang the solo in my senior year. Of course, at that point in my education, I was looking forward to going on to college, the next stage of my life.
In college at Colgate, the glee club did not give Christmas concerts, since studying for final exams consumed most of one’s time and energy in December. A few times a year, we would prepare a major work and perform it with a women’s college like Skidmore or Sarah Lawrence. When I sang the Schubert Mass in B-flat my freshman year, I was quite aware of the translation of the Latin text, much of which was contrary to my personal beliefs.
However, I had no problem singing words like “Et in unum Deum, Jesum Christum, filium Dei unigenitum” (And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God). I think there are two reasons for this. Most immediate was the sheer beauty of the music and the joy I found singing it with others, most of whom did subscribe to these teachings. More important, though, was a philosophical shift in my attitude: It did not matter what words I might be singing, since I knew in my heart what I believed. That was all that mattered.
Recently, I sang in the Mendelssohn Club’s annual Christmas concert in Chestnut Hill. Our new director introduced some nice changes in the format of the program, but the audience really seemed to enjoy the familiar carols in which they were invited to join. For me, these carols provide a welcome break from the concentration required of the more challenging and strenuous pieces programmed.
Also, I find it amusing that in my forty-fifth season with the group, I know the words of the verses better than most of my Christian peers. This affords me the opportunity to look out into the audience and watch the faces of the carolers.
As the organ blasts away, on many of these faces the distant, but much hoped-for, dream lives anew: “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.”
Mark Pinzur taught math in both Cherry Hill high schools for 35 years before moving to teaching positions at LEAP Academy in Camden, Burlington County College, and Doane Academy. He has also taught “Mental Aerobics”, crossword classes, and music appreciation at the JCC for several years. He is currently President of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia (with which he has sung for 51 seasons) and Board Chairman of the Moorestown Theater Company, as well as a singer in the choir of M’kor Shalom. He lives with his wife Maxine in Cherry Hill, and is very proud of his children, Emily, a social worker and end-of-life doula, and David, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics.