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July 25, 2014 | 27th Tamuz 5774

Sound Reflections

Galilee Diary #462, October 21, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day, For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob.
-Psalms 81:4-5

Shorashim is located on the west-facing slope of a shoulder of Mt. Gilon, overlooking the Hilazon Valley. Across the valley, less than a mile away, is the Moslem village of Sha'ab. We don't have that much contact with the villagers, but we hear from them all the time. Weddings are held outdoors, and the amplification system for the dance music is quite robust, so we "participate" in every wedding - which means, during the summer, just about every night. Fortunately, they usually end by midnight. And the muezzin's call to prayer in the mosque is also amplified, and carries clearly across the valley, five times a day. Within our first year here we had already "stopped hearing" these sounds, in the sense that they had just become a normal part of the environment, often blotted out of our consciousness by other stimuli - not waking us up or disturbing us. The other day I happened to be awake at 4:00 in the morning. It was a clear, cool morning, a few days before Rosh Hodesh, so there was a bright sliver of a moon in the eastern sky, and the nasal, mournful chant of the muezzin drifted across the valley, and it occurred to me that this was a beautiful moment, and that actually I like hearing the muezzin; it has become part of what defines home for me - a part of the landscape like the olive trees that carpet the valley. During the day or early evening, I guess I really have stopped hearing it; and if I happen to be in a village at prayer time, it is often rather a nuisance, like a low flying jet - you have to stop conversation for a minute or two until the noise subsides. But in the pre-dawn silence, attenuated by distance, it seemed somehow comforting. Often, the muezzin's call wakes up the jackals that live down the mountainside, and they add a backup chorus of howling that seems just right.

It's interesting how sounds become a part of the landscape. In the Turkish period, the municipal boundaries of a village were defined by the reach of the muezzin's call (unamplified) - so sound actually did define the landscape. I imagine that my response to the muezzin's regular call is parallel to the feelings aroused by church bells for those who live in small towns in America - or big cities in Europe. On the other hand, the dominant and frequent sound that seems to characterize the landscape of most big cities today is that of the sirens of emergency vehicles echoing through urban canyons. People who come from the city to spend a night in the Galilee comment not only on the muezzin, but on the silence before and after. When you experience silence you become aware of the impact of constant background noise on your quality of life.

If you think about the "Shofarot" section of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, which catalogs the references in the Bible to the sounding of the shofar and its meanings, it seems that we Jews too have placed a strong emphasis on sounds that fill and define the public space. The shofar is not an instrument for drawing-room chamber music concerts; it is the ancient middle eastern version of church bells and amplified muezzins. Like those public sounds, it is designed to wake us up, penetrate and interrupt our mundane consciousness, to call us to attention, to bring us together.

So I noticed and appreciated the muezzin's call, and then drifted back to sleep, to be awakened to start my day an hour later by my clock radio playing the advertisements before the morning news.

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