Niggunim (“nee-goon-EEM”; Singular: Niggun “nee-GOON”) are wordless melodies used in Jewish reflection, prayer and/or celebration. They are sung in groups and often comprise of the same repetitive sounds such as “Ya-lai-lai” or “Dee-dee-do.”
This was the scene in a TV show I watched a few months back: A young, melancholy Orthodox man wanders through Jerusalem. He comes upon a group of other Orthodox men gathered on a picnic blanket in a park, singing Niggunim together. He walks over to them and they welcome him into their circle. He observes as they sing. Slowly, he joins them in song.
Then, they beckon, “Sing us the song in your heart.” He reluctantly begins singing a Niggun, an improvisation, a melodic answer to their implicit question of “How are you?” His voice rises, finding the song that’s most true in the moment. Then, the men in the circle begin singing the Niggun back, holding his song with their voices, reflecting it back to him.
In meditation, I’ve been practicing listening for the song in my heart and singing the spontaneous Niggun that comes. It’s an effort for me to listen from the pelvic floor, from the gut, then to invite the song to travel up and out through the throat.
Sometimes the niggun is melodious, sometimes it’s cacophonous.
Often, I’m self-conscious as the sound begins to come.
Always, the Niggun’s naked truth catches me off guard.
As a white Ashkenazi cis Jewish woman, listening for the Niggun that’s alive inside of me moment to moment– the one that stirs in my pelvic bowl, intestines, thoracic cavity– is an unfamiliar process. The interlocking technologies of white supremacy, European Christian supremacy and heteropatriarchy work to disconnect bodies from voices. This programming is inside of me.
In my role as a bodyworker and somatic coach, I know that I’m not alone. One somatic signature shared by many of us who have access to whiteness and who’ve been raised as girls and conditioned as women is a blockage in the throat. I’m reminded of it even as I type this: it’s a sore, subtle ache, a well-crafted dam of a survival strategy.
I marveled at a few things from that scene in the TV show: The way the character came into song, listened internally to what was true for him and then trusted it enough to allow the sound to make its way from heart to lips. The way the others welcomed him into the circle then witnessed him so completely, reflected his song back to him and held it, not trying to fix or change or put words to anything that could remain so perfectly wordless.
In preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days, we’ll be hosting some Niggun Circles. This is what we’ll do, and this is why we’ll do it —
When we practice together and not alone, we subvert the individualism that teaches us we can only be messy or in-process by ourselves.
When we vocalize the melodies and cacophonies inside of us, we subvert the shame that teaches us to silence our voices until what we have to say is polished and linear.
When we first listen for, then speak, the songs that emerge from our depths, we practice witnessing with tenderness that which we’ve been taught to override or suppress or numb out.
When we feel the vibrations of our Niggun reflected back to us in circle, we gently remind the blockage in our throat that it’s a little safer to loosen.
When we reflect back each other’s song with our own voices, we remind ourselves of the truth of our interconnection and, in that, remember the sweetness of what it might mean to be free.