Our Souls Sing on Their Own
Pulling by Hannah Altman
When I was 19, after months of arguing, my mother
agreed to tell me my father’s name. I didn’t know
anything about him other than that he was a
musician in Jerusalem. The day I learned his name,
I was home from college for winter break. My
friend Camila hopped on the A train down from
Washington Heights and sat by my side for the
online search. I don’t know what I was expecting,
but it was not what I found: a Chasid in Brooklyn.
He’d been living there for most of my life. His
website boasted his services as a one-man-band,
here to meet all our simcha party needs. My mouse
hovered over the “contact me” button for almost
In that time, I crawled my way to a Bachelor’s degree through supreme loneliness and amphetamines. I was not aware of how deeply I needed spiritual community. The closest thing to davening (prayer) in my life was going to concerts, which I appreciated from a distance; I was not yet able to claim my own musicianship, let alone see the intersection of music and Judaism as central to my life. I pushed myself away from Judaism as I became politicized. I was disillusioned with the surface-level “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) that I grew up around, and pained by my new awareness of apartheid in Israel/Palestine. Beyond that, nihilism (not God) was hip, and I wasn’t yet aware of the full range of Jewish spiritual, cultural, and political expression. Anti-oppression discourse on campus also lacked analysis about antisemitism and how it sets Jews up as the face of systemic inequity, largely benefiting wealthy white gentiles. I tried to perform being a Less Bad Oppressor by discarding Jewishness, but to reclaim my humanity from racial capitalism—and to be spiritually rooted and resourced to stay in the work—I needed to heal my relationship to Judaism. Through this healing process, I discovered my calling to study, teach, and compose Jewish music, and my love for Chassidishe nigunim (Hasidic melodies).
As I took my first baby steps into reclaiming Judaism, I would do Jewish things only if they supported me to organize in service of broader social change—a lefty spin on the internalized antisemitic narrative of needing to be useful to others in order to justify my existence and not be disposable. I still couldn’t see engaging with Judaism as something valuable in and of itself. At the time, I was terrified to graduate from college and lacked a sense of my place in the world, so I surrendered to my mother’s suggestion and applied to Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps, where participants live in pluralistic Jewish homes and work in different non-profits and public schools for a year. I accepted a job at Footsteps, an organization for people who grew up in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities and are exploring life paths that differ from the ones prescribed for them. I knew I wanted to meet my father, so I wanted to better understand his world and why people might choose to join or leave it.
During the summer of 2014, before I moved back to New York for this program, I looked my father up again. The
last time I’d searched his name, his website had been taken down. This time it popped up. I reread his bio, which described how he’d fallen in love with a nigun on a cassette tape given to him by a rabbi and gravitated towards Chabad. He spoke of his soul resonating in the nigun. I became curious about nigunim and started to dream of learning them from my father. When my level of intrigue caught up to my fear, I introduced myself via email. He wrote back “with a kind of serene and profound joy” in less than 24 hours. In another 24 hours, he sent me a follow-up email wondering whether I might be trying to extort money from him or ruin his public reputation, which I assured him that I was not. We corresponded for six months before meeting. I told him in the first month that I’m queer. This didn’t—and still doesn’t—go over very well.
Working at Footsteps gave me a constellation of queer peers with Hasidic parents, which made a huge difference for me in that first year, even though our upbringings were so different. I met a wide range of people who struggled to live as their authentic selves in tension with their families’ expectations of them: 18-year-olds who didn’t want to get married yet or at all, or wanted to choose their own partners; people who loved the traditions they’d been raised with but were trans and couldn’t survive within them; people who wanted to pursue a range of professions but had limited secular education and cultural literacy; parents who no longer believed in the divinity of Torah and were therefore fighting to keep custody of their children; creative, inquisitive souls who were ostracized in school from a young age, and many others.
I also saw unbelievable beauty that many Footsteppers were letting go of as they worked to assimilate into “secular” society, seeking freedom and finding the loneliness of late-stage capitalism. They were leaving cultures where, for the most part, mutual aid and collective responsibility were the fabric of daily life. Social services were powerfully organized, few people could exist in an anonymous way even in New York City, and nearly every moment had significance that was sanctified in community. This all felt very romantic to me. So did the deep sense of belonging that I imagined many Jews in those spaces might feel if their inner lives weren’t too at odds with the social norms. I was smitten with the Yiddish language, the warmth and exuberant spirit, the sense of reverence—everything my maternal family had lost to an anesthetized whiteness. I was particularly smitten with the nigunim.
The word ניגון—pronounced “nigun” in Hebrew, “nign” in Yiddish—simply means melody. Chassidishe nigunim are often wordless, though not always; many are set to Hebrew texts or lyrics in other languages (e.g., Russian and Yiddish). In the Hasidic world, nigun singing is a fixture of ecstatic prayer as well as a mode of strength-training for our souls’ daily work in the world. Chassidishe nigunim are the opposite of anesthesia: they can allow us to feel our feelings more potently. As the Piaseczna Rebbe (1889-1943) writes in B’nei Machshava Tovah 18,
[T]his is the way of the Chasid: they cry sometimes in a happy tune, and also cry while they dance, and sometimes also dance to the tune of Kol Nidrei (somber prayer chanted on the eve of Yom Kippur).
וְכָךְ דַּרְכּוֹ שֶׁל הֶחָסִיד, הוּא בּוֹכֶה לִפְעָמִים בְּנִגּוּן שָׂמֵחַ, וְגַם בִּשְׁעַת רְקִידָתוֹ, וְלִפְעָמִים רוֹקֵד גַּם בְּנִגּוּן שֶׁל כָּל נִדְרֵי
There is something delicious and revolutionary to me about this level of vulnerable, raucous human-ness being normalized, even encouraged, in public, as a mode of religious expression. I often got shamed as a kid for being “too sensitive.” Getting in touch with this tradition has helped me see that there’s nothing wrong with me, and that my ancestors are with me in my big feelings. The Piaseczna Rebbe adds:
You have come with a shattered heart to pour out your soul to the Divine in song, the melody that emerges now from the deep recesses of your heart. You will spontaneously sense that your soul emerges with exultation. At first, you were singing to your soul, to rouse it from its sleep. But slowly, slowly you feel that your soul has begun to sing on its own.
וּבִשְׁבִירַת לִבְּךָ בָּאתָ לִשְׁפֹּךְ אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ לד' בְּשִׁירָה וְנִגּוּן הַיּוֹצְאִים מִקֶּרֶב לִבְּךָ, וְאָז מֵעַצְמְךָ תַּרְגִּישׁ שֶׁנַּפְשְׁךָ
יוֹצֵאת בִּרְנָנָה. אִם מִתְּחִלָּה הָיִיתָ אַתָּה הַמְנַגֵּן לִפְנֵי נַפְשֶׁךָ לְעוֹרְרָה מִתַּרְדֵּמָתָהּ, מְעַט מְעַט תַּרְגִּישׁ שֶׁנַּפְשְׁךָ
הִתְחִילָה כְּבָר לְנַגֵּן בְּעַצְמָהּ
At the time when I read about my father’s experience with nigunim, feeling his soul resonating in them, I didn’t believe I had a soul. I thought that underneath the layers of social conditioning and performativity—the ways I chameleoned myself across space and time—there was nothing whatsoever at the core of me. I had to sing my way into knowing my own soul, into knowing that my soul could sing through me.
In the winter of 2014, I met my father in-person for the first time. He wouldn’t sing nigunim with me until we’d had a paternal DNA test. He needed to ensure that he was permitted to hear my singing voice, since Jewish law forbids people assigned male at birth from hearing the individual singing voices of people assigned female at birth unless they are family. The paternity test required an attorney’s witness, so I reached out to a public defender with whom I’d interned over a winter break. We swabbed our cheeks in her office. The results were positive.
Back at his home, my father taught me my first Chabad nigun: Lechatchila Ariber. The title and tune are rooted in the teachings of the 4th Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882), who is often quoted saying: “The world says that if you face a challenge, first try to crawl under it, and if you cannot crawl under, then try climbing over it. But I say, ‘Lechatchila Ariber! In the first place, go over!’” The fact that my father chose this melody as the first tune to teach me felt crucial. In my mind, it resonated with my approach of telling him right off the bat that I’m queer. We were both diving in head-first, without pretense.
Each time my father and I sing a nigun, the ideology that stands between us melts away. It does not matter. We do not matter. We meet in an open field of light beyond language and ego.
I have come to understand that it’s part of my avodah, my soul’s work in this lifetime, to create opportunities for more people to meet themselves and each other in that field of light. I’ve learned that I also need to keep going to that place again and again in order to stay alive in this one, and that I need teachers and fellow travelers to accompany me. Baruch Hashem, thank God, we keep finding each other.
In the spring of 2015, one of my Footsteps coworkers invited me to a weekend retreat, and there I met Chana Raskin—an incredible wellspring of nigunim who grew up in Crown Heights. There was an open mic on the retreat, and I decided to sing Lechatchila Ariber. That was my first time performing a traditional melody. Chana approached me afterwards and shared, beaming, that Chabad nigunim were her life. There was a quality to this moment of meeting that felt very clear—we were meant to know each other—something nascent here can grow and grow.
In 2016, I was working at Eden Village (a Jewish farm summer camp) with Aly Halpert, who invited me to join her on our day off to attend Let My People Sing—a liberatory singing retreat founded by Margot Seigle, Noam Lerman, Mónica Gomery, Batya Levine, and Ilana Lerman. Aly and I stayed with Margot, who was also in the process of starting a diasporist chicken farm called Linke Fligl (“left wing” in Yiddish). At the retreat, I attended a session called “The Transformation of a Nigun” with Joey Weisenberg. We sang one melody for an hour. I wished it would go on for years. Again, I felt a sense of bashert-ness, meant-to-be-ness, that all these people and places were significant for me to encounter, though I wasn’t sure yet why.
In 2017, I went to explore Jewish studies at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. I was ready to learn lishma, for its own sake. While there, I wound up singing regularly with Chana Raskin in her gatherings for women called RAZA, as well as in a more intimate semi-weekly chaburah (learning group). We explored nigunim that were commonly sung like staccato marches and slowed them down to flow like honey, turned them into rounds, layered on harmonies, hollered them from our kishkes (guts), and revealed new dimensions of torah in the billowing sound.
When I returned to the US to continue my studies at the Hadar Institute, I found myself wanting to share nigunim with other queer and trans Jews who didn’t feel comfortable in the religious spaces where these melodies were so alive. I decided to start A Queer Nigun Project, now directed by my dear friend and collaborator Rachel Chang. It began as a Soundcloud page, a web archive of recorded melodies in gender-expansive voices. I sent out an email to friends asking them to send me recordings of themselves singing nigunim, and lots of people were excited about the idea, but I didn’t get a single recording back. I realized I needed to host gatherings where we would sing nigunim together, and I would record and post them. I made a Facebook page for A Queer Nigun Project, booked an accessible space in Crown Heights over Sukkot 5779 (2018), and posted my first Facebook event. About thirty people came—most of whom I had never met. That turned into a monthly event. Making the Soundcloud quickly became secondary to the power of sitting in an affinity circle of queer and trans people, belting out these melodies with our whole beings.
I started thinking more about who was in the room and who wasn’t in the room, and how to make this healing technology more accessible so more people could benefit if they wanted it. In 2019, my chevrutah (study partner) Ari Pomerantz had the idea to reach out to the Prison Chaplaincy Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We met two chaplains, Rabbi Mia Simring and Rabbi Gabe Kretzmer-Seed, who connected us to the communities seeking Jewish services at Rikers Island and 3 other local jails to do nigun circles together. Some people would come and just listen, some would talk in the back like at synagogue, and others got super into the singing and shared with us that they hadn’t sung or heard singing in a very long time, and that they felt a rare sense of calm. We started doing monthly circles inside and organized rotating leadership among about a dozen facilitators.
I led a queer nigun circle at Let My People Sing that summer. A week later, I moved to Philadelphia for the Rising Song Jewish Music Residency, where I got to study full-time with Joey Weisenberg. I joined the Cultural Organizing Team at Linke Fligl, focusing on ritual leadership. I started composing more seriously and began to see a path for myself as a professional Jewish musician. I decided to pursue making my own independent album, Love Is the Ground, and to collaborate with Simcha Halpert-Hanson in organizing a compilation of nigunim sung by nonbinary folks, Undzer Tish (Our Table). And this past year, Chana Raskin came to Philadelphia to record RAZA’s debut album, Kapelya, produced by Rising Song Records. I had the overwhelming zechus (merit) of singing by her side.
B’ezras Hashem (with Divine help), someday I will write more about nigunim. B’ezras Hashem, someday we will sing together. I leave you now with these musings and a prayer: while a nigun may first emerge as a lonely cry from the chasm between our inner and outer experience—between our yearnings for wholeness and the fragmented world as it is—when we sing a nigun, we may experience a powerful integration between our inner and outer experience, between what is moving through us and what is resonating all around us, holding us. This can be a taste of the world to come. May we merit the world to come speedily and in our days!
Rena Branson (they/them) is a Jewish composer, organizer, and educator who uplifts personal and collective healing through song. They are an alum of the Rising Song Jewish Music Residency and founder of A Queer Nigun Project, which organizes singing events for LGBTQIA+ folks and people in the Jewish community who are incarcerated. Rena writes melodies on commission and offers workshops, concerts, and song circles that weave together original music and Chassidishe nigunim (traditional Hasidic melodies). Their debut album, Love Is the Ground, is available on all streaming platforms. Learn more at renabranson.com!