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A Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

77 responses »

  1. Well, this post is neither Shevarim nor Teruah, rather a blast of fresh air 🙂 Thank you for sharing this post 🙂

    Reply
  2. I always looking forward to your posts. I love how you share your religion and the Jewish culture with us, and I love reading about those adorable pooches of yours. Next time you see a Baltimore Oriole, think of me. I grew up in Baltimore, and my favorite baseball team is still the Baltiore Orioles. 😀

    Reply
  3. I was a regular at our soul and I too always resented the way all these stranger would show up and take over. I understood I was being small and petty and all that but I still resented it.

    Reply
  4. Someone told me to throw dryer lint out in the yard in spring for birds to put in their nests. After every rain I’d see a soggy mess of dryer mat. I like your mom’s idea. More dignified.

    Reply
  5. I had one of those cardinals in my yard this summer. I don’t know if he sounded like a shofar; unfortunately I have never heard one. Maybe my cat has. He was particularly interested in this bird. I had to be extra vigilant that he didn’t get him. Great post! I enjoy reading your blog. I’ll have to tell you about my dogs sometime.

    Reply
    • Thank you! You can probably find someone blowing a on youtube. There are people who believe you need to hear the shofar every day for a month before the high holidays, and if you can’t hear one in person, there’s always the internet. Seriously.

      Reply
  6. I loved hearing about the people you never saw before suddenly appearing for the Jewish high holidays. We had the same scenario in the Catholic church when I was growing up. At our holy days, Communion took forever because EVERYONE wanted to receive it and the church was so packed. They were referred to as the C&E Catholics–for Christmas and Easter.
    Cricket looks so cute singing……I would gladly be her audience.

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  7. I got all kinds of little pings reading this—it reminded me, somehow, of a Lois Ehlert children’s book on birdsong that my son used to love (cardinal firmly featured); and I remembered, too, feeling highly insulted that strangers crowded us out of our regular seats on Christmas Eve, making us stand in back of the church. Some things cut across denominations!

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  8. Happy Rosh Hashanah Rachel! There will be many sharing your thoughts the coming few days!

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  9. Happy New Year! *ear licks* Noodle

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  10. I like the idea of a bird service. It sounds like one I could sit through without fidgeting.

    Incidentally, I’ve always wanted a shofar, but I guess I’ll just have to keep on driving myself.

    Reply
  11. Me too – I like the eimage of you and cricket sitting on the grass, singing with the birds (with your hair not combed!) Made me laugh Rachel x

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  12. I love your perspective! It’s honest and pure… and you’re sarcasm makes me laugh out loud! Thank you:)

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  13. L’shana tova. I hated the folding chairs too.

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  14. Your lawn sounds like a place of worship if ever there was one. Great way to start the new year. Shana tova!

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  15. I loved to watch the birds come and go in our garden before we sold the cottage. It’s not the same here, but better in some ways as I get to see swallows really close as well as thrushes, robins and blackbirds which I was already used to. We have several black and white wagtails here at the moment, and yesterday, I saw a yellow wagtail, absolutely gorgeous as he fluttered down on to the pontoon just ahead of me, the flitted off across the bank.
    I heard on the radio it’s the start of the Jewish New Year. May I wish you a happy one.

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  16. Maybe Butterfly and I could have a conversation some day.

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  17. This is hilarious, Rachel! Truly, I laughed several times at the mental images and sounds you described – makes me want to go to synagogue and sit in the folding chairs with you…and I’m a pescaterian. 🙂

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  18. I would definitely prefer the birds singing. I have a Cockatiel who sings his little heart out in addition to talking.

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  19. As we have studies the Jewish Holy Days I always thought they were such a beaufitul way to ask forgiveness and atone for our sins, but I guess your high holy days are like ours at Christmas and Easter – I have come to accept the increase and thankful they at least hear the word twice a year! Also in my studies we feel when Jesus returns it will be trumphets but in reality it may be the shofar – I actually like the sound of it. Either way we believe I hope we see some of the return of the orderly and sentiment of the Jewish Holy Days and that the day will come when we will all be united again as God intended. And by the way I much prefer the sounds of birds in singing in my yard too!

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    • The shofar is probably the old time trumpet, without the ability to change notes or create anything that sounds like music.

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      • The first time I heard it played I thought is was awesome sound I can visualize what it must have sounded like when the Israelite’s called their people together. I never thought that it is probably an old time trumpet before men “perfected” it.

  20. i used to feel the same way about strangers taking all the seats when I used to go to church at Easter and Palm Sunday. People you never saw before and never see again for the were sitting comfortably while I was crammed in somewhere in the back! Grr!

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  21. I also like to sing! I think Cricket and I should form a group. We would make wonderful music together 🙂

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  22. I’ve seen photographs of Cardinals. They are a beautiful rich colour. The closest we have here in Sydney is the Crimson Rosella. There are lots of these in the local park.

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  23. What a refreshingly beautiful post. Your yard sounds amazing…a perfect animal habitat.

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  24. Pingback: A Cardinal’s Song | LakeArrowheadLadyWriter

  25. I for one would attend bird services. Choppy would as well, though I suspect there would be far fewer birds at those services she did attend.

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  26. lovely post, Rachel, Thank you for sharing 🙂

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  27. I always enjoy your posts, Rachel. I just moved to a place with lots of trees and lots of birds. Sitting on my deck, contemplating and listening to their songs is one of my biggest joys. I also belong to a contemplative prayer group that meets outside when possible. Bird songs always figure largely in our sessions. We pray in silence but thankfully, the birds do not! One of our topics for contemplation in the group was atonement. I think you should write a post about it. I think it would start a interesting conversation. Before moving, I lived in a city with a large Jewish population. It took three years before I stopped sending my kids to school on Rosh Hashanah. Lol. I wish you and your Mom peace during the high holidays.

    Reply
  28. Wonderful post. I usually lurk here, but I just had to say how much I loved it. And that I want to see pics of any “fantastically well dressed” squirrels you see! 😉

    Reply
  29. hello rachelmankowitz its dennis the vizsla dog hay if yoo ar intrested to no wot thoze birds ar on abowt bak their the noo yorker reesently publishd a helpful translayshun of a tippikal bakyard bird konversayshun chek it owt at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/back-yard-bird-talk !!! ok bye

    Reply
  30. Your backyard sounds like my backyard, and I have lots of cardinals. I’ll have to pay attention to see if mine make that call.

    Reply
  31. I love the sounds of all of the many birds in our community. Every time I walk outside it’s like a flash mob symphony just for anyone to hear. I like the symphony inside too. My daughter has a two year old rescue sparrow (Jack) who sings his song all day. Nature is so amazing. How can we not look outside and see anything short of magic…
    Thanks for sharing!
    Best,
    Trish

    Reply

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