The shofar, or ram’s horn, is one of the most enduring symbols of the Jewish people. Its use predates the siddur, the menorah and nearly all other ritual objects. For me, the shofar – and specifically my father’s – is also one of the most enduring images of Judaism in my own family. As far back as I can remember, my father has owned this shofar:
This shofar was, and continues to be, the perfect shofar. It is easy to blow. I can’t get a sound out of most shofars but I can always get a gorgeous tone out of this one. Which, by the way, is exactly what you would want: a sad, low, hollow sound. Not piercing, but strong. It doesn’t smell when you blow it. And, because it’s hard to break a shofar, I have many memories of my siblings and me blowing it every time the High Holidays rolled around.
Throughout my childhood, my father was the chaplain at a Jewish senior apartment complex. Every Rosh Hashanah, he led the services and blew the shofar. After services, we would walk across the street and take the stairs up to the tenth floor (we did not use the elevator on the Sabbath and holidays) to blow the shofar for Mrs. Soffen, who could not make it to the synagogue. If there were others we knew of who had not heard the shofar, we would also visit them in their apartments, schmooze for a while, and my father would blow the shofar for them, too. Because everybody in that community was of advanced age, the conversations on Rosh Hashanah were real. Residents spoke lovingly of how the sound of the shofar brought them back to their own childhoods. Some cried. And the High Holidays were no joke. They were truly pleading for something: to stay alive a little bit longer, or maybe to be reunited with a spouse or family members who had already died. Even as a child I felt the gravity of their prayers.
But as usual for me, with everything related to Judaism, there was a catch: I am a woman. And a shofar, like almost every other Jewish ritual object, was for men. Growing up, I never once heard a woman blow a shofar in public even though I don’t know of any halachic (Jewish legal) issue with that. And even now, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a woman blow a shofar, even in the more liberal synagogues I’ve attended as an adult.
When I was eighteen, I spent a year studying Jewish texts at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an all-girls yeshiva in Jerusalem. The students all arrived around the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, the time of year when the shofar is sounded each morning in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Since we had an all-female prayer service, one of the rabbis asked if any of us girls wanted to blow the shofar. At the time I found that to be shocking, since it never occurred to me that it was acceptable for females to do so. I was probably one of the few girls who had practiced blowing a shofar before, but I didn’t feel comfortable stepping forward into that role publicly. In the end, the rabbis ended up blowing the shofar for us.
Fast forward to two years ago. I was praying in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and I noticed the following prayer (truncated a bit for the sake of good songwriting) in the shofar service: “May it be Your will, God, that angels will ascend from this shofar and stand before Your throne and advocate on our behalf for You to forgive our sins.” I was so moved by that image and those words that I set them to music. The song I wrote is called Sheya’alu (And They Will Ascend).
I recently released a music video for this song. I began with footage of me singing and playing the song. But, as I watched it, I knew what the video needed: footage of me blowing the shofar. I had a moment of panic: But would that be OK?? I knew that the answer had to be yes. Let our girls – my two daughters and yours – grow up with an image of a woman blowing a shofar. And let us women see that image, too.
I borrowed my father’s shofar for the shoot and I added images of me blowing the shofar to the video. And, since then I’ve held onto the shofar, and every day I take it out and I blow it — for me and my own need to wake up, but also for my children to see. And every week now, when I play music for Jewish preschoolers, I bring the shofar and I blow it for them, too. Let them see a woman blowing the shofar. Let that not be a jarring image for them, as it was for me.
The shofar holds an inherent paradox. On the one hand, it is familiar and soothing. We hear it year after year and its vibrations resonate deep within our bones. On the other hand, the sound of the shofar is meant to jolt us awake and remind us that we can do better. Let this year be no different, the ancient alongside a sense of freshness, the comfort alongside the striving.
Julie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is healing the world one song at a time with original, uplifting music. She has been releasing one music video a month since June of 2013. Enjoy her videos here.