My First Time Reading Megillah at Rutgers Hillel
By Gilana Levavi, Class of 2018
Rutgers Hillel Blogger of the Semester, Spring 2015
This Purim, I read, or chanted, a chapter of Megillat Esther at Rutgers Hillel. The night of Purim, I read Chapter 2 at Koach’s egalitarian megillah reading, and the next morning I read it at the women’s megillah reading.
The egalitarian megillah reading and the women’s megillah reading each involved many people chanting different sections of the text. I found it really beautiful to hear so many unique voices and styles of chanting come together to compose one story and to hear all of the voices come together to allow those present to fulfill the same one mitzvah, or commandment, of hearing the megillah. Hearing the variety of our voices reading from the parchment also made the text seem more accessible.
Learning to chant the Hebrew text for the first time using the traditional Ashkenazi trop (cantillation style) for megillah was a slightly intimidating task. I practiced to be able to read it out of a parchment scroll and pronounce each word properly with no vowel or cantillation marks. In the days before Purim, I spent much time between classes and other activities, on buses and on foot, repeatedly listening to recordings of the reading and singing it to myself. Evan Finkelstein ’17, Talia Friedman ’15 and Talia Greenstein ’16 each worked with me individually to help me learn and practice the reading. Learning from my fellow students and Hillel community members was really really helpful, as they give much better feedback and are much more supportive than audio recordings and various lines and squiggles on a page. Also, since no two voices are identical, I found it very helpful to learn from a few different people who each have unique voices and styles. I really appreciate them taking the time to work with me.
Though it probably could have been a good idea to start learning it earlier, I enjoyed immersing myself in the task of learning to chant megillah during the two weeks immediately preceding Purim — listening to recordings, singing it to myself, getting it stuck in my head — during most spare moments of the day. As I practiced chanting, I learned the meanings of the words in a much more memorable way than simply following a translation.
Often, various Jewish melodies that I’ve learned will come into my head, and I’ll find myself humming or singing them at various points of the day. These melodies are rich in layer upon layer of memory and meaning. Woven into these melodies are memories and meanings that transcend time and space, such as: the meanings of the words that some of the melodies have, memories of my father singing them, the cassette tape of Shabbat songs that I used to listen to during every single car ride with my mother, singing them together with peers in different Jewish communal settings, and prayer, moments of reflection, emotion, and melodies that have been sung by Jews for centuries. Through them, I can connect to these layers of meaning and memory in a non-verbal way that is distinct from other modes of connection. Once a melody that holds this kind of richness gets stuck in my head, it never really seems to leave. I am looking forward to randomly thinking of my megillah chapter while biking to classes, to re-experiencing the communal memory of traditional trop that has been chanted by Jews for centuries, to remembering through it my experience of chanting it during my first Purim at Rutgers, and of the beauty of hearing the megillah chanted by so many different voices. And I look forward to continuing to learn, experience and build upon these layers of meaning and memory.