Sparked by Words

Hawaiian Songbird

Hawaiian Songbird, the Original Story

File:Punahou Preparatory School, Honolulu (1909 postcard).jpg
Pauahi Hall at Punahou School, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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.

Comments on: "Hawaiian Songbird" (25)

  1. That sounds so very traumatic, Sharon. It is no wonder that equality and social justice are fundamental to who you are, Sharon, and to your identity as a Jew.

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    • Thank you, Tracy, for understanding where my dedication to social justice began, though it actually started when I was much younger, living in New Jersey. Even at 8, I understood, if only on the surface, how unfair Black people were treated. It disturbed me and was the subject of the first short story of any note that I wrote in fourth grade. All over the world, treating people who look or live differently, whose faith is not our own, is the cause for so much dangerous accusation. When will we ever get that we are one people on this small planet and that everyone benefits when we increase everyone’s opportunities?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Do you think your parents shaped your tolerance, Sharon, or was it somehow innate?

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s an interesting question, Tracy. My dad, at Ft. Rucker, Alabama when I was five, was irate at the laziness of the cooks serving the enlisted men. They all got badly scrambled eggs every morning. As an army physician, he outranked many of the people around him but he was not a general. He demanded the cooks take the orders of the men as they took their places in line and then serve them their eggs exactly as they wanted. But I saw how badly Black people were treated in Trenton, how they were ignored or humiliated and called insulting names. Even at six or so I knew that disrespect was awful. The few Black people I knew were so kind and friendly. As a teenager, when I butted heads with my parents over everything, as teenagers do, I wondered how they could possibly expect anything else from me, given that my dad had been such a rebel as to raise eyebrows at the Army base.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’m guessing that the time in Ft Rucker and when you were in your teens must have been in the midst of the civil rights movement. Sometimes I think it is better to see the discrimination and cruelty when one is young before prejudices can entrench.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Alabama – I was five, in 1953. Hawaii – I’ve lived there twice. Once when I was four; the other time we moved to the islands just after I turned11, back to the mainland, California, on my 13th birthday. I was only slightly aware of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, but very aware in the 1960s of all kinds of civil unrest. I’m not sure how to judge all of this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t apologize – just chatting at this end, too.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Still stumbling over the cockroach. Bless you.

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  3. Thank you for this insightful picture into what has helped you become the light you are, Shari. I’m sorry you had such a horrible experience. We’re not all bad us Jesus followers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Audrey, I have many lovely, thoughtful Christian friends, but kids will be kids and some of them are bullies. It’s very hard to enter a school when the year has already begun and friendship groups already established. I was also an odd duck who spoke with a thick New Jersey accent, wore strange clothes, and followed an unusual culture. It’s on me that I didn’t know how to create a friend. But this story is an accurate snapshot of Hawaii in 1959-1961. Punahou’s students often heard the school chaplain talk about the Golden Rule, but few of them lived it.
      I’m glad to see you back on your blog and wish you happiness. You’ve been a lovely friend for so many years, and I really treasure your kindness.

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  4. Jenna Barwin said:

    Love it! And I loved the Braid’s performance of your work. You have every reason to feel proud. You are now a published author–performing it is the publication! Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jenna. I loved the way Cliff Weissman, the actor, gave a powerful and perfectly timed interpretation. It’s not always easy to see what a director contributes but Aysha Wax changed the narrator from a girl to a boy. She guided Cliff to make the transition intimate and believable. I’m so glad you enjoyed the performance.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Shari, a superlative short story encompassing childhood trauma, bullying, clash of cultures, religion. Your memory of your time in Hawaii is incredibly fresh and sharp, it sounds as if these events happened only yesterday. With skill your memoir of a short story not only describes your own background, the family but also the island of Hawaii and the dreaded school.

    My heart goes out to young you; so much out upon your young shoulders and you were alone with the dilemma of the song. Unable to raise it with your family, nor obviously the choirmaster. It must have been beyond horrendous to stand on stage and not be able to utter a single word, singing silently. I have such a powerful image in my head of it all; all from the superb strength, energy and personal reflection of your writing.

    I spent two dreadful years in one school … by quickly doing better than many who had been there for years and also by me and my family not belonging to the right ‘class’ meant I was without friends and spent a whole year without any student addressing me, truly sent to coventry! About to return one Easter break I finally told my mother how desperate and totally alone I was so that when she asked how I would feel if I didn’t need to go back, I just burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying … for joy. Two days later I started at a new school, made wonderful friends and life finally seemed to start afresh.

    Sorry for going on, your experience at the school touched a nerve with me and I feel your agony of all those two years. I hope your next schools were more welcoming, understanding and you made good friends.

    Congratulations on having your story accepted and wonderfully exciting to have it performed! Bet you still feel like dancing with happiness! 😀❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Annika, I’m so very sorry for the pain at the school that made you miserable. As a teacher for many decades, the student “ambiance” is the area that so many schools ignore. Administrators and teachers, even parents, focus on curriculum development and methodology, which they should do, but often don’t see the kids at the fringes. Even when they do, they tend to blame those kids, already feeling isolated, for being the problem rather than realizing they are victims of the adult-neglected social atmosphere.

      We moved from Hawaii to California on my 13th birthday. I made two very dear friends almost instantly but learning how to cultivate friendship has been a life long skill I’m still developing. Some of the Hawaii awkwardness was definitely my fault but the school had no program to integrate new students. I’m glad in a weird way for my experience because when I started teaching, I always looked at the struggling kids and made an effort to figure out how to help them.

      Thank you for your tender thoughts. You always are empathetic.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wowza Sharon that was heart-wrenching. Thanks for sharing. How traumatic for you, understandably unable to sing to Jesus. Were your parents in the audience or did they hear about it afterwards? Were they proud of you for not singing or not? Either way you could only lose. Hope you are doing OK these days. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Denzil, so lovely to hear from you. I’ve been out of the loop for nearly everything as I lived in Northern California with my younger son’s family, providing care during much of the pandemic for their young children so their parents could work. I hope you’re doing well and am still trying to get to reading blogs I missed for so many months – yours is on that list.

      Thank you for your sympathetic comment.

      The recital took place during one of the weekly chapel services so my parents didn’t attend. I never told them about the incident. I don’t think they would have been proud of me under any circumstances. I didn’t lose entirely, because I gained a personal perspective that’s guided me the rest of my life. It helped me begin to figure out who I am.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been a bit quiet myself actually Sharon, for various reason. Looking after the grandchildren sounds fun – and exhausting. I hope it hasn’t taken too much out of you. It’s great you have perspective on the “singing” event.

        On 1 May we downsized and moved house to a ground-floor apartment with a small garden, so I am happy to have a garden to work in (after 7 years without one). And it’s near an abbey with a park and a wood and a lake, so I feel like I’ve got a new lease of life. On the 31st we get our first vaccination too. Still miss our grandchildren terribly: they are in Sweden and we haven’t seen one of them and she’s already 20 months old. Take care and take it easy, if you can.

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      • The pandemic has been so tough on families. And my heart goes out to those who’ve lost family or dear friends, who have been ill themselves, who are still suffering the after effects of this disease.

        Hopefully you’ll be able to travel soon to see those grands or they’ll visit you. Grandparents are so wonderful for children, a relationship that’s unlike any other. Someone once told me: Grandchildren are the dividends that parents earn on the investment they make in their children.

        Give yourself a window for rest after the second vaccination. Some people need about 48 hours sleep and recuperation, but much better than getting sick with Covid.

        Enjoy your new home and especially the garden. I bet you’ll make it spectacular. Hope you’ll share photos on your blog.

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      • Thanks Sharon.

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  7. Sharon, thanks so much for sharing your story. It’s truly remarkable…. I just can’t imagine how awful that must’ve been to not be accepted by your peers (if you can call them that). Wish I could’ve seen the performance.

    I’ll try to comment further tomorrow. (Getting late here, but I just wanted you to know that I read it and felt very moved.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Betty. I wouldn’t say they were my peers – they were just kids who probably found it funny to tease me and didn’t realize their meanness. I wasn’t perfect either. It’s after 1 AM here – I’ve got to get some sleep too.

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