My family became religious when I was seven. Every Friday afternoon we drove over the Bay Bridge to the Chabad House, where we stayed for Shabbat. I loved going there. Friday night’s prayer service was beautiful and filled with stirring melodies. The meals were full of crowds of people serving, clearing, talking. The rabbis told fascinating stories, and sang haunting wordless melodies called niggunim.
One weekend I took a friend with me. Saturday night, on our way back over the Bay Bridge, she made fun of the songs, "Ai, ai, ai..." collapsing in laughter. Hurt, but not knowing what to say, I was silent. "You don't understand!" I wanted to tell her, "These songs are beautiful!" But I was too young and too shy to explain.
The high school I attended was Orthodox but non-Chassidic. There, I was introduced to the traditional Shabbat songs, praising the beauty of Shabbat, its foods and laws. Nearly every one concluded with prayers for the Mashiach. I loved the way the songs created a mood, as 70-plus voices sang as one, and I brought these zemirot home and shared them with my family.
The custom of singing songs at the Shabbat meal comes from the Talmud (Megillah 12b): "Shabbat, when Jews eat and drink, share words of Torah and praises." Some even say that singing Shabbat songs is a mitzvah!
After high school I studied in Israel for a year, learning Chassidic songs from the various ‘courts’ I visited. I collected small-run cassette tapes from groups such as Breslev, Kalev, and Modzitz, learning new tunes for verses from Psalms and prayers.
Coming from the Chabad tradition, my husband did not know zemirot. But we now sing them – along with our beloved niggunim – around our Shabbat table. Each child picks his or her favorite for everyone to share. And as ever, I love how the songs create a mood.