High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part I: Chazanut with the Chavurah

This series is being crossposted to Jewschool. Here is the Intro to the series.

I thought about beginning my adventure somewhere new, but all adventures begin somewhere similar. So I headed down to my usual haunt for davening, Chavurat Lamdeinu.

A note on CL before I get into it: CL is an oddity in the indie minyan world. It’s in suburban New Jersey and it’s members–who have many of the same complaints about synagogue life that the twenty- and thirty-somethings that are mainstays of the indie minyan world–are all generally at least 25 years older than me. There are a few exceptions to that demographic generalization, but it’s mostly true. The group is what’s left of a library minyan at suburban NJ Refrom synagogue, though it may outwardly appear quite close to Conservative in style. Our Rabbi was ordained at HUC, though her connection to Reform is tenuous these days. Our usual shaliach tzibur is a convert and a current JTS cantorial student. He is freakishly talented and I normally have no complaints about his leadership style on ordinary Shabat mornings. He generally wears a polo shirt and jeans to services, and that’s pretty much the level of dress that everyone in the Chavurah adheres to.

All of the above is why I love CL and why I go there every Shabat. But on Rosh Hashanah, a lot of that flies out the window. Instead of usual 10-20 chaverim, we grow to 30-50 for RH and Yom Kipur. Everyone–except for me, but including the other Shabat regulars–gets dressed up. And the type of accessible, but beautifully led melodies fly out the window, exchanged for all manner of off-the-wall chazanut that no one knows and no one can sing along with.

And this is the problem that always drives me away from my own community–wherever that may currently be–during the High Holidays. People I don’t come out of the woodwork. In an attempt to impress them, the leaders trot out all manner of stuff that is far beyond the weekly norm. The result is that the non-regulars are uncomfortable because they’re not used to being in shul at all. Meanwhile, the regulars are uncomfortable too because of all the weird different shit going on!

Tomorrow, this series continues with what is sure to be a bizarre day of RH with gospel music in a Unitarian church. We’ll see how that goes.

A NOTE FOR THOSE READING THE COMMENTS: Harold, GSM, Ben Sternman and myself are all either members of or former members of the congregation I grew up at, which heavily informs the discussion in the comments below.

12 Responses to High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part I: Chazanut with the Chavurah

  1. Ben Sternman September 20, 2009 at 12:33 pm #

    “In an attempt to impress them, the leaders trot out all manner of stuff that is far beyond the weekly norm.”

    I won’t say anything about your reactions to the HHD’s because it’s your experience and there’s nothing to argue there. However, I don’t think you should ascribe motives to people unless they’ve specifically stated them.

    Personally, I don’t “trot out all manner of stuff” in an “attempt to impress”. There’s additional material because it’s a unique day. When you bring out a birthday cake and sing happy birthday, it’s there because the day is indeed unique.

    I also find that the HHD nusach and melodies are comforting. Maybe that’s a function that I’ve been at this twice as long as you, but I don’t have a problem with special melodies for special days. I don’t have a problem with special Shabbat nusach and melodies as compared to weekday either.

    Do I spend more time on my sermons and are they a bit longer? Yes, but that’s also a function of expectations: my expectations that this is my chance to speak to everyone and I don’t want to waste it and the congregation’s because they want to hear something that is of larger scope.

    G’mar chatima tova

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2009 at 6:45 pm #

      I don’t have a problem with different material on HHD and I don’t have a problem with different nusach on HHD. Both certainly serve their purpose.

      And I, like pretty much every contemporary American shul-goer, have a kind of expectation of saying Ah-ah-men over and over during this time of year. I certainly even look forward to and enjoy that tune for Avinu Malkeinu that has become the norm.

      What I don’t like is that this different nusach and the different material is presented in an entirely different way than the regular material is. Growing up at CBI, I recall the bimah suddenly overflowing, two days a year, with all kinds of people that we never saw on the bimah–many of them people we never saw at services at all–throughout the rest of the year.

      They–and I was once one of them–come up, sit down, awkwardly crowd about and generally make their unusual presence known all over the place these two days a year because we’ve suddenly gotten the urge to use these two holidays to honor ever committee chair and his brother with a chance to read three sentences of English!

      Then there’s the English itself, which is suddenly a much higher percentage of the service than it was seven days before.

      The choir comes out, along with a cellist and a clarinetist. People we’re used to singing along with–and here’s where we start to overlap with what I saw at CL the other night–are suddenly singing in this over-the-top fashion that prevents us from singing along. Suddenly we’re being sung at, instead of led in song.

      • Ben Sternman September 20, 2009 at 7:38 pm #

        I certainly can agree with both your and your mother’s reactions that it seems like a performance. It feels like a performance too and that’s not something that I like or particularly want.

        I have a few questions: Would you prefer less congregational participation with the readings? Clearly you want more congregational participation with regards to the singing.

        Are the prayers that are normally said in Hebrew suddenly being said in English or is it that the additional HHD material is being said in English and that brings up the English percentage?

        Doesn’t CBI normally have a choir and instruments? What’s so wrong with a cello or a clarinet as opposed to an upright base and guitar or piano?

        I think, and I can’t disagree at all, that what you don’t like is the formality of it as compared to a regular Friday night and the fact that the formality makes it seem more performance and less participatory. If that is your point, I think that’s a good and valid point. How does one convey the majesty and awe of the HHDs with a less formal feel?

        • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2009 at 10:58 pm #

          “How does one convey the majesty and awe of the HHDs with a less formal feel?”

          I’m dismayed by the notion that awe comes from ties and high heels. Or even by the notion that awe can come from a cello or from having to show a ticket to get into a synagogue that has trusted you with your own security code for the rest of the year. This is a refrain that I’ve often heard about HHD being different from other holidays. It is predicated on a very Western understanding of what makes a church awe-inspiring–soaring ceilings, stained glass, robes, impeccable choirs and esoteric, canorial chanting. Feh. I find the sound of sefardi and middle eastern music awe-inspiring on any occasion. More than the style of the music, I find a congregation belting out the prayer in song together far more awe-inspiring than listening to a single chazan hit all the finer points of a grand 19th-century German Reform creation.

          Awe can some from the HHD nusach itself . It can come from a good sermon. It can come from standing with an honest group of Jews that one knows and loves and knowing that everyone else, just as you are, is on the cusp of a new year and on the cusp of a period of deep introspection and repentance. Awe will also come, and here I return to my usual refrain about any kind of service, from teaching about the service.

          “Would you prefer less congregational participation with the readings? Clearly you want more congregational participation with regards to the singing.”

          There’s a difference here that you’ve missed. I want the congregation to be able to sing along. I don’t want eleventy-seven of them them to be offered the honor of leading various songs. That’s what’s happened with the readings.

          Whereas, at CBI, most readings are participatory, or at least responsive, on HHD, anything that’s meant to be participatory or responsive is hard to participate in or respond to because someone less confident and not used to leading such things has the honor thrust upon them of leading such a thing. If, BTW, anyone wants to bring up the lay leaders on Shabat mornings that I’m so fond of, hold it in, because that’s also a different scenario, which, when it’s working, will involve one or two people leading the whole service while milling about minimally. These people will also have been trained in how to lead to some extent, which is not something we can assume about the arsenal of committee co-chairs being lobbed at the bimah on HHD.

          “Are the prayers that are normally said in Hebrew suddenly being said in English or is it that the additional HHD material is being said in English and that brings up the English percentage?”

          I’m not sure. I really couldn’t say. And I don’t think it makes a difference.

          Where you were going with that comment about Hebrew and English, I imagine, is that it makes sense to the HHD-specific stuff in English so that people understand it. Teaching about why those things are there will help far more. And it will help far more than concocting an interpretive responsive reading to replace the unfamiliar Hebrew will. And it will be awe-inspiring to boot!

          “Doesn’t CBI normally have a choir and instruments? What’s so wrong with a cello or a clarinet as opposed to an upright base and guitar or piano?”

          Normally? When? Once every other month for two songs at a time? I don’t like having them on those occasions and I still don’t like them on HHD. Find me five people who aren’t in the choir that like having them on a few random Friday nights a year.

          Nothing is wrong with those instruments, but like I’ve said, they’re just part of the whole battery of bizarre elements that make HHD jarring for people who come every week.

          On HHD, we forget about those people and pander to the people we haven’t seen in a year and won’t see again for another year. We pander to them because they’re the real majority of the congregation and as such they have more financial weight than the slice of the congregation that comes every week. I know that’s all just about the financial realities of supporting a large congregation, but if you have to cut ethical corners to get there by making your base uncomfortable, what’s the point of making the money work to make the big shul keep chugging along?

          • GSM September 21, 2009 at 10:09 am #

            Y’all have moved on, and it went rather smoothly in terms of readers and aliyot this year. Surely CBI’s tradition of sharing the reading responsibility helps the clergy conserve their voices and energy as much as it honors folks who labor behind the scenes. And isn’t it a bit charming to have someone stretch to take on an unfamiliar role? And I’m not sure how it happens, but the congregation somehow comes to the aid of the reader to help them lead, just as we do for a wobbly bar/bat mitsvah.

            But I doubt that it’s the piano itself that David is objecting to; it’s that the piano becomes the focus rather than a helper. And the vocal flourishes! So intrusive. Yes, I understand that there are people who like that, but since CBI has services in two rooms, why not leave that in the sanctuary with the choir and let those of us in Smith have a more normal experience? Sorry to lob the question at you, since neither of you have any control over that….

            Liturgy-wise, the holiday-specific content is half the point of being there, and I can read the Hebrew when the group reads the translation. What’s bothering me is the repetition. During ERhS at Kol haLev, I found it jarring to finish the Amidah silently, sit down, and then have the last couple of prayers re-done as performances. People had worked so hard to deliver those beautiful performances, and all I wanted was to scream out, “Done. Let’s move on. Next!” And the formula at CBI of reading the translation, saying the Hebrew, and then singing the Hebrew irks me year-round.

            BTW, Rabbi Folberg gave a catchy sermon touching on politics using the device of red vs. blue prayer books (HHD-only vs. regular attenders) and red vs. blue states.

  2. Harold September 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm #

    Could it be that Shabbat and the High Holy Days have different purposes? To follow Rabbi Sternman’s birthday analogy, consider that Shabbat is intended to be joyous and familar (it happens every week!) whereas RH and YK are intended to be solemn and majestic. Therefore you might expect the content and melodies to be different. I much prefer Shabbat services to HHD services, but part of that, I’m sure, is familiarity.

  3. GSM September 20, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    There’s a lot to enjoy at this time of year, but it feels much more like attending a performance than attending a service. I feel more like a member of the audience than a participant. Plenty of other annual holidays are special without provoking me to frustration, so claiming that these days are exceptional is no defense.

    I used to think the repetition (Why read, sing and translate the same passage?) as a substitute for thoroughness was the worst part, but I’ve changed my mind this year. The worst part is the vocal flourishes that make standard gestures awkward. I can’t possibly rise to tip-toes three times in super slo-mo without wobbling, and I constantly felt as though I was going to fall forward before I could rise from a bow.

    Funniest part this year: I’m now so well-trained trained by Miskan that I found myself flipping to the next spread at the end of the first page on a spread–and then having to flip back.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2009 at 6:47 pm #

      Word, bingo, and on the nose.

      And as for the little MT flourish at the end of this comment, it’s just yet another bizarre side effect of using that camel of a sidur.

  4. Jessica Epstein September 22, 2009 at 8:20 am #

    As a cantor, I feel Jewish liturgy is incomplete without nusach — the melodies which tie it to time and place. The liturgy of the HHDs demands more complexity, as the prayers and piyyutim themselves are complex and multifaceted (like Unetaneh Tokef). The melodies are the same every year, so hopefully a few years with this cantor will increase your familiarity and ability to participate. Remember though, that singing along is not the only way to reach spiritual heights, and the hazzan is there to be the voice of the kahal, the emissary and the messenger. Many people find the HHD melodies inspiring and moving. May I suggest perhaps opening yourself up to a different kind of prayer experience which would be more rewarding, than expecting HHD to be like a freilach Shabbes?

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 22, 2009 at 9:29 am #

      Welcome to the blog (and, I see, my Twitter).

      I like nusach. I’m a big proponent HHD, chol and Shabat nusach. Again, I like it.

      But. I don’t like being sung at from on high by someone up on a bimah. I’m not stating knee-jerk preferences based on one or two experiences. I’m saying that for as long as I can remember I remember being unsettled and bored by the way the synagogue I grew up at treated music during HHD.

      Complexity is fine and it makes sense here. What I’m talking about it when the leader holds a particular note out and flutters their voice about before continuing on with the melody.

      I know people find the melodies moving. I have said here already that I like them too. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t like is the way it gets presented.

      “Singing along is not the only way to reach spiritual heights.”

      Jews do not let one person pray on their behalf. Jews pray together, communally. I want to be a part of a Jewish community that prays together.


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