When I was a child I could hear the bells that chimed from a school near my house, Brooklyn College. On the weekends especially, when it was relatively quiet, we could hear the quarter-hour bells as well as the hourly chiming. I got into the habit of counting along. Someone once remarked to me that he found the bells annoying and that they made him nervous. Although I can empathize, I disagreed. These bells are a reminder, a form of music, and in a way they bring together the people in a neighborhood; listening to them is a communal experience.

There is a Roman Catholic church located several blocks away from my house now, and when I am at home I can hear its hourly toll. As well, at 12 noon and at six PM, a longer tune is played. I find it charming. Along with the rumble of the elevated subway train and the tweeting of birds, these are some of the familiar sounds of my neighborhood.

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There is another regular sound in my area, which I do not like. There is a Shabbat siren that is sounded each erev Shabbat; two piercing blasts prior to the onset of candle lighting. This also occurs prior to holidays. The sound is not pretty like the college and church bells, but a cringe-inducing, one-note blast that sounds like an emergency alert, such as the type you hear for fire departments in many parts of the United States.

I have gotten into heated discussions with people about my dislike for this siren. Many people I know dislike it as well, complaining about its shrillness, and about its occasional malfunctions (going off too frequently or twice in a row, for example). Other people tell me it does not bother them, or they do not even notice it. A few people have suggested that my complaint is veiled anti-Semitism, of the self-hating kind.

I find that contention offensive. There are bigger issues at play here. Is this siren a form of freedom of religion, or is it an intrusive part of our landscape? Does it impose a burden on those who are not Jewish? Does it also function as a guilt-tripper: get ready for Shabbat; you cannot escape this noise! The church bells are not specifically a religious notification: they function as a clock for everyone, whereas the Shabbat siren is specifically geared to those who want a warning that Shabbat (or a chag) is approaching.

The siren emanates from a yeshiva situated a block away from me. A man once told my father, years ago, that he hated the siren because he lived across the street from it and he could feel its vibration. Perhaps ten or twelve years ago, I complained to a local politician and nothing happened. I know I am not the only person who finds the siren to be an aural assault.

This past Shabbat morning I was awakened at 6:30AM by the Shabbat siren; it went off accidentally. Ugh. And it went off again at 6:37AM. This was not funny at the time, although I did chuckle at the thought of this silly, loud noise as I typed this sentence.
I know that other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York are subjected to Shabbat sirens. I just do not think that Shabbat, which is supposed to be a sweet experience, should be ushered in with such an obnoxious, startling noise.

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