December 14, 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780
On September 26th, an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department was walking through the Wilshire-Normandie subway station in Koreatown, when a beautiful voice caught him off guard. Ahead stood a slight, middle-aged woman. Her shoulder-length blond hair was tied up in pigtails, her clothes swallowed her tiny figure. Her right-hand rested on a pushcart, filled to the brim with personal belongings and covered with a blue plaid blanket, while her left-hand juggled bags and tubs of belongings as she sang an aria from Gianni Schicchi.
He listened in awe for a moment, and then approached her to ask if he could record her singing.
At first, she demurred. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He asked her again and again until she agreed, allowing him to film her on the condition that he not post the video online.
I suppose the police officer felt that Twitter wasn’t exactly online, because as soon as he finished recording and walked away, he posted the one-minute video to the LAPD Twitter account.
The post, and the video of her singing Oh Mio Babbino Caro, went viral. Thousands of people watched, sharing it with their friends and talking about it on various social media platforms. Thousands commented.
One woman wrote, “I’ve seen her for years on the Metro. I heard her once singing “Ave Maria” and thought it was a radio at first.”
Another wrote, “I had noticed this lady several times while riding Los Angeles Metro train and seeing her feeding birds on the streets. Never in a million years [would] I imagin[e] she has such [a] beautiful voice…”
It became clear that thousands of people had seen her. Her raw talent was unquestionable. Her situation unquestionably dire. And yet, until that police officer posted that video of her, no one stopped to notice.
Was it that she was homeless? Did people assume that she must be addicted to drugs or that she must deserve this poverty she was now experiencing?
Was it, as some comments revealed, that she was too talented? That people thought it was a publicity stunt, and actress paid to pretend to be a homeless woman to see people’s reactions?
Was it just that people were too busy, too engrossed in their own lives to notice?
Have our hearts and minds become so dulled by technology that we are only able to appreciate beauty if we see it on twitter first?
Whatever the reasons, that one tweet changed everything. Her name, Emily Zamourka, came out in the comments, and newspaper reporters found her and began publicizing her story. They wrote about her journey. About her childhood in Russia, her work caring for elders in Missouri. They wrote about her subsequent career as a piano teacher and musician, and about the health challenges that derailed her life. People were touched as they learned about her struggles, about how she fought to stay in her home by playing violin in the subways, only to be thwarted one night when her violin was stolen and destroyed. When people realized this talented, middle-aged woman was sleeping on a cardboard mat in whatever parking lot she could find while singing for her supper, they decided to take action.
Strangers set up GoFundMe pages for Emily, raising tens of thousands of dollars to help her find stable housing. Managers and record companies invited her to record, to perform, to sing above ground. These professionals bragged about how well they were going to treat her, promising she would feel like a star. For the first time in a long time, Emily had a different kind of hope.
Emily didn’t change. She was the same person she had always been, doing the same things she had done for years. What changed were the people around her. What changed was that they opened their eyes and began to see, to witness.
Witnessing is such a powerful force. We think of witnessing as this passive reality. That when you drive down the freeway, you are witnessing the signs and the houses pass by. But witnessing is so much more than just seeing. Witnessing is the kind of vision that inspires us to act. And, as this story reminds us, witnessing is the vision and action which has the capacity to create transformation.
That is certainly the power of witnessing in Judaism. Think of any life cycle ritual, any moment of transformation, and you will see that it relies on the power of witnessing.
If you want to get married, you need two witnesses to see your choice and your ritual union. A wedding only happens when it is seen.
If you want to convert, you need three rabbis and a witness to listen to your journey and watch you submerge in the waters of the mikveh. A conversion only happens when it is seen.
In ancient times, the new month was determined not just by the shape of the moon, but by the person who testified about it. A new month couldn’t happen until it was seen.
When we witness the world around us, we have the power to affect transformation.
Why are we talking about witnessing today? Recently, we’ve been witnessing moments of pain and brokenness in our world. Sometimes we feel powerless to make a difference. But Emily’s story and the wisdom of our tradition teaches us that we have power. We can witness to create change.
The answer to the challenges of our day is not to close our eyes, not to hide from the sadness of what is unfolding in our world, but to open them. To open our eyes in conscious awareness of what is going on and to take action. We must see not only the challenges in our world, but also open our eyes to moments of ordinary blessing and beauty which are unfolding around us every day. We can be agents of transformation. All we need to do is open our eyes.
Thanks to the attention of one person, Emily’s story has a beautiful ending. Because of one tweet, because of one police officer who noticed her, who stopped to appreciate her performance, and because of the thousands of people who noticed that post, her life has taken a turn for the better.
And so, our question today is this: who will you choose to see? How will you use your vision to transform the world for the better?