Hawaiian Songbird, the Original Story
Here is my short story, “Hawaiian Songbird.” It was presented at The Braid Theatre for their May 2021 salon production, The Rest is History. Actor Cliff Weissman performed the role with sensitive perfection. The story was edited to suit their program. I hope you enjoy reading the original version as submitted for their consideration.
The choirmaster waded along the rows of benches, listening to sixty young voices. He cupped his ear in his palm, leaned in, paused, moved on to hear the next student sing. Up and down the rows he trooped as we repeated the verse of a song unfamiliar to me: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As a Jewish eleven-year-old, I’d never heard it.
The choir class was in the third school I’d attended during sixth grade. My elementary education began with first grade in New Jersey at Parkway Elementary which I attended through the beginning of sixth. In October we traveled five thousand miles to Oahu, Hawaii, my parents fed up with East Coast blizzards.
My second sixth grade school nestled like a tropical ground bird in the lush hills above Honolulu, but I only stayed a few months. We moved again, from the rental house to one my parents bought in a suburb on the other side of Diamond Head.
My dad arranged through a colleague to have me tested for admission to Punahou School in the middle of the year, something that almost never happened. I got accepted and became a student in late December, my third sixth grade school.
Punahou means “new spring,” as in the rising of underground water, and the private Hawaiian academy is named for a beautiful natural spring-fed pond in the center of the campus. Pink water lilies floated on its surface and red crayfish scuttled along its muddy bottom. Founded in the eighteen hundreds by Christian missionaries, Punahou is the gold standard for Hawaiian schools and famous all over the islands. I’m not sure my parents knew about its Christian bedrock.
My entire family is Ashkenazi Jewish, all my grandparents born in Russia or Poland, immigrating to the United States in the early nineteen hundreds. My grandfathers attended the same tiny shul in Trenton. My grandmothers refused to serve a meal on the wrong dishes.
Our home was Jewish by identity, not by practice. Our Jewishness was an observance of what we didn’t do rather than what we did. We didn’t celebrate Christmas or eat ham but we also didn’t light Shabbos candles on Friday nights. My dad had memorized his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah. My mom couldn’t recite a single Hebrew blessing.
Yet they were Jewish at their core. They stood up for Jewish rights and Jewish values and wholeheartedly supported Israel. They saved pennies in the pushke. They railed about anti-Semitism, bristled at prejudice against Jews, and despised Jewish quotas that limited what events they could be part of.
Har Sinai Temple Religious School in Trenton taught me that Abraham broke idols to prove their feet of clay, that Jonah was sent to the belly of a whale to think about his mistakes. We learned about Noah gathering animals two by two and stabling them on a boat, tigers and mice bedding down in the same clump of hay. How those stories made me Jewish, I didn’t understand. I didn’t yet grasp metaphor or symbolism. The story I most remember was about Hannah and her seven sons. Martyrdom was incomprehensible and left me horrified.
While I attended Har Sinai School, my parents never made it for Friday night services. Not even for High Holy Days.
I’d studied music in New Jersey: piano lessons for four years, and three summer programs with a high school choirmaster. He taught us, a gaggle of kids from across the township, not only to master multi-part harmony, but to sing opera. We didn’t know we were too young to learn opera. Hell, we didn’t even know we were singing opera. We just followed his directions and sang a collection of songs in English, Latin, Italian, and French. The first two years, I was the youngest of the group. Eight, nine, ten years old, my voice was pretty, consistent, soprano. Music led me into a dimension of beauty and magic unlike my ordinary daily landscape. I loved the emotional lift choir added to my knee-scraped life.
When the Punahou choir director returned twice to listen to my voice, he thought he’d hit the musical jackpot. I was a child who’d had training and could carry a tune. He selected me and one lucky little boy to sing solos for the upcoming music recital. Our class would perform before the entire elementary school, over six hundred kids and teachers. He sent me home with orders to practice.
Friendship groups had long been established at Punahou, and entering in late December proved a social faux pas. I was the odd kid who wore saddle shoes and wide skirts over fluffy crinolines. Island girls wore sandals and slim dresses without a waistline. Their speech was flecked with colorful pidgin English while mine was heavily New Jersey accented and peppered with Yiddish. The other students welcomed me about as much as honey bees invite hungry bears to lunch. Chosen as the prima songbird didn’t endear me to the other sixth grade kids.
The hymn instructed us to trust in Jesus, our faithful friend, to bear our sorrows and grief. No way could I practice that song in my home. I was too terrified to even tell my mom what I’d been chosen to sing, but I did practice. I did everything my New Jersey choir teacher had taught us. I opened my mouth and shaped each sound, expanded my diaphragm, controlled my breathing, pronounced each syllable, articulated every consonant, rounded the vowels, and projected to reach the most distant audience.
I practiced silently, lest my Jewish mother hear me singing about Jesus and send me straight to hell with a few of her stiff punches and enough Yiddish curses to make the choir teacher blush deeper than a red hibiscus.
On the day of the performance, I stood in front of the entire choir next to the lucky little boy who’d been selected to sing solo. Punahou’s auditorium was massive as a cathedral, with a spacious balcony that belled over an enormous lower floor crammed with wooden pews. Students and staff filled every seat. We faced a rowdy audience. Though I knew from drama class and ballet recitals not to look directly at faces but at an imaginary spot on the far wall, I still saw a million pair of eyes glaring at me. Me, the new kid whom no one liked.
In the orchestra pit, the choirmaster lifted his arms to direct us. I did fine with the ensemble pieces. Individual voices submerged anonymously in the jumble of many kids singing. But when it came time for me and lucky little boy to sing our solos–well, I did as I had practiced. I opened my mouth and lifted my voice from my diaphragm. I rounded the vowels and articulated the consonants.
And I sang…silently.
Not one sound emitted from my throat. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t know how. The choirmaster’s eyes opened so wide I worried they’d fall from the sockets. He gestured with windmill spins, dropped his jaw in a gape, and raised his shoulders high enough to touch his ears. The veins in his neck pulsed. His skin sunburned in front of me. I did the best I could, but a Jewish kid cannot sing to Jesus, and so my voice simply did not function.
The choirmaster later demanded to know why I hadn’t performed. I stared at him, my answer struck dumb. It was not like me to ever refuse to obey a teacher but there was nothing I could explain. He never called on me again to sing a solo.
The next day the Punahou kids finally welcomed me to their school. They planted a cockroach the size of a dinner plate inside my homeroom desk. Did I tell you how terrified I’ve always been of bugs? Punahou remained a foreign country where I wasn’t welcome. I never made a single friend at that school.
I’d witnessed and suffered the shame of prejudice and humiliation, of being different in the tropical islands that my parents insisted were a melting pot of races, cultures, and faiths, with Hawaiians joyously celebrating differences and commonalities. Hula and luau and stories of Madame Pele bound the myths that draw tourists to the islands in droves of happiness-seekers.
The two years that I lived in Hawaii were torture for me.
It would be decades before I understood what it meant to be Jewish, to begin to immerse myself in Jewish religion, history, and lifestyle. But that moment of refusing to sing about Jesus was the moment I became a Jew.
Since my thirteenth birthday, the day my family left the islands, I have never returned to Hawaii. I would love to visit someday and see it without the painful imprint of my childhood. May God bless the islands and people of Hawaii.