High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part II: How to make frumpy Jews clap uncomfortably

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

I traded in last night’s chazanut for some gospel this morning. I do percussion for a gospel choir here at Drew. Our director, Mark Miller, is pretty well-known as a composer, organist and choir director in his slice of America. A brother-sister rabbinic team, Rabbis Leah Berkowitz and Perry Berkowitz, two of the frumpiest-looking Jews you could every hope to find, hold a full set of High Holidays services every year in a Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, featuring periodic bouts of fantastic gospel music. Joshua Nelson, increasingly well-known proponent of “Kosher gospel music” was also on hand for several songs.

The Rabbis Berkowitz, it seems, are far from frumpy. The folks that turn out for these services, however, need some work. The service operates in a loose and free-form sort of liturgical not-quite-structure. A sort of meditative, stream-of-conscious, never-ending narrative springs forth from the rabbis throughout the whole service in topics of alertness, repentance, joy, music and the liturgy itself. The machzor, if you could call it that, is an 8-page packet of 11×17 paper with bits of a variety of machzors grafted on.

Normally, I’m not one who tolerates highly-abbreviated or flippant liturgy, but with these two rabbis, it works. Maybe it works for me on RH, for reasons I mentioned earlier in this series: I don’t like this holiday and I don’t get it. Maybe their non-stop sermon, dribbled as it was all throughout the service gave me enough to think about that I was able to get something out of this service.

The music, of course, was beyond good. Everyone seemed to know that in the congregation, but many seemed unsure of how proper this was. And if it was proper, they didn’t know quite how to respond. Many clapped hesitantly or awkwardly, while others peered over their reading glasses in disbelief. But no one could deny it was good.

The downside: It was four hours long! When I finally escaped the building at 2 p.m., I was so hungry for lunch, I thought Yom Kipur might already be upon us!

The musical highlights: Hearing Mark, whom I know as a gospel pianist, playing along to Rabbi Perry’s perfectly chazan-y Avinu Malkeinu; and Joshua Nelson and his singers belting out Hinei Mah Tov to the tune of When the Saints Come Marching In.

The rabbinic highlights: Rabbi Leah’s shouted stream of wrongs in the world, punctuated by Rabbi Perry’s spastic shofar blasts.

Not to mention the sheer entertainment value in watching the two rabbis jump all over the bimah ecstatically waving tambourines around with such gusto that, as Four Weddings and a Funeral put it, “I feared lives would be lost.” These are two energetic rabbis. The congregation should take a few pages out of their machzor.

9 Responses to High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part II: How to make frumpy Jews clap uncomfortably

  1. Larry Kaufman September 20, 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    Looking at the web site, there’s a lot of attitudinal similarity in the mission between Bet Frumpy and the New Shul, but the NS turned me on, while neither their on-line description or your blog report had any resonance for me. Some of that may be because I’m not into gospel, even after having heard Joshua Nelson — although I would like to have heard the Saints/Hinei.

    I’m not clear as to why you don’t like the HHD, but maybe part of it is that you (like me) like to daven with people who know how to daven — and on the HHD, you have to share the air with people who don’t have a clue. In a conventional year-round shul, you can at least be appreciative of the 3-day-a-year types who are willing to support the institution year-round so it will be there for them when they need it — RH, YK, and their funerals — and be there for you in the meantime.

    I have no problem with congregations that supplement their incomes with HHD ticket sales, but I do have a problem with pop-up services that rent a hall, sell some tickets, and then vanish until next year. The implication of the Bet Frumpy web site is that that’s them. A little Googling suggests that Rabbi P has a day job — couldn’t get a handle on Rabbi L, other than that she has led Shabbat services for the Queens outpost of Habonim. Their web bios say they have been trained in all the movements — not sure what that is supposed to mean. (Smicha apparently JTS)

    Anyway, like it or not, gmar chatima tova.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 20, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

      In regards to their training, I think they find a lot of compelling material everywhere in the Jewish world. They claimed to have studied with AJ Heschel and Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi.

      I have plenty of patience for things like this. Your characterization of this as a pop-up, fly-by-night, a-few-quick-bucks operation is way off. They mentioned seriously struggling financially to pull this service off this year. And frankly, I find it far more honest than running a gigantic shul on the year-round support of invisible Jews who show up two days a year.

      For more on that, see this comment–and the others it’s with–on this other post: http://davidsaysthings.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/high-holidays-sampler-plate-adventure-part-i-chazanut-with-the-chavurah/#comment-1467

  2. Larry Kaufman September 21, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    Whether the motive is profit or prophet, they’re running a HHD service for Jews who observe only the HHD. What’s more honest about catering to an audience who only want what they want when they want it than in catering to an audience who will support a year-round institution to benefit those who need it?

    Meanwhile what about the cognitive dissonance when on one page they brag about an open-door policy, and another page say we expect you to pay what you can to sustain the enterprise. My year-round shul says the same thing — come join the congregation for what you can afford, but if you just show up for the HHD, these are the fees.

    Having now read the other post, and the comments it has occasioned, I’m inferring that your problem is not with the holyday, but with the people who come out of the woodwork to observe it and with the obeisance that is paid to them, both in giving them speaking parts in the pageant and in giving them a better show than you get on Shabbat. I just assume that the people who get bimah honors have done something to deserve it, and somebody has to open the ark or recite the Torah blessings; and I was wowed on Saturday when the rabbi read Ezekiel’s dry bones with a flute and oboe in the background. A little drama adds the nora to the yamim noraim.

    But per some of the comments on the other post, whether it’s Shabbat or Yom Tov, I join the objection to repetition — sing or say, Hebrew or English, but once is enough.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm #

      “They’re running a HHD service for Jews who observe only the HHD.”

      How do you know? My sense from the crowd was that, though they didn’t know quite what to think of the music, they knew what they were doing in a service. They didn’t seem as bewildered by the basic choreography of prayer as many always seemed to be on RH and YK at my childhood synagogue. Maybe many were there for the same reason I was–to get a new take on a holiday that bores them.

      “What about the cognitive dissonance when on one page they brag about an open-door policy, and another page say we expect you to pay what you can to sustain the enterprise?”

      Inherent in the whole thing is the need for quality, professional musicians, a large space, two rabbis and a twice-a-year crowd that can’t be asked for donations a couple of times a year. All of those things being understood, I don’t think it’s at all out-of-line to ask people to pay.

      “I’m inferring that your problem is not with the holyday, but with the people who come out of the woodwork to observe it and with the obeisance that is paid to them, both in giving them speaking parts in the pageant and in giving them a better show than you get on Shabbat.”

      I have a problem with the obeisance paid to the non-regulars who pop their heads in for the day and with the day itself. But it’s hard for me to separate the two problems and see how much of my overall problem is because of which of those two.

      “I just assume that the people who get bimah honors have done something to deserve it, and somebody has to open the ark or recite the Torah blessings.”

      I served on a Reform temple board for a year and a half. I also went to services every week during that time, Friday and Saturday. I would estimate that I never saw over half of the people I saw at board meetings at services. I never saw them on Sundays during religious school. If you’re involvement with a synagogue is limited to serving on committees, but never getting into the communal trenches and meeting people, I’d rather you weren’t involved at all.

      Honor those people with an award at the annual meeting. If you feel the need to use lots of people for lots of things during HHD, use the folks who come to services every week and actually have some clue about what’s going on during a service.

      “I was wowed on Saturday when the rabbi read Ezekiel’s dry bones with a flute and oboe in the background. A little drama adds the nora to the yamim noraim.”

      Good thing I wasn’t there. I probably would’ve made some unfortunate snarky comment about it and then immediately felt bad and atoned for it. See the other post you mentioned for more on how to have awe without dragging a slew of European concert instruments into the equation.

      “Once is enough.”

      Word.

  3. Larry Kaufman September 21, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    “. Maybe many were there for the same reason I was–to get a new take on a holiday that bores them.”

    In the immortal words of Reb Ernest Hemingway, isn’t it pretty to think so. The people I know who are bored by services (typically all services, not just RH/YK) just don’t go.

    “Inherent in the whole thing is the need for quality, professional musicians, a large space, two rabbis and a twice-a-year crowd that can’t be asked for donations a couple of times a year. All of those things being understood, I don’t think it’s at all out-of-line to ask people to pay.”

    I don’t think it’s out of line to ask people to pay either. Kemach and Torah and all that stuff. But I do think it’s out of line to imply free and then ask them to pay. And of course none of those quality professional musicians is playing a European concert instrument, just good old authentic nigunim out of the Israeli gospel tradition. Maybe there’s something to the Orthodox ban on all instrumental music, which eliminates the need to decide that the music Ploni likes is kosher but what Almoni likes is treyf.

    “If you’re involvement with a synagogue is limited to serving on committees, but never getting into the communal trenches and meeting people, I’d rather you weren’t involved at all.”

    Well, the good news is that you’ve disqualified yourself from Chabad, with its willingness to take people from where they are and try to bring them along. There’s a Chasidic tale, parallel to the Juggler of Notre Dame, that reminds us that the kavana is what the KBH is interested in. And the reality is that the Shabbat minyan wouldn’t have a place to daven, nor the fourth-graders a place to learn Hebrew, if somebody weren’t going to those committee meetings and keeping the place running.

    I’m unlikely ever to be in NY for the HHD, so I won’t be able to judge Bet Frumpy for myself. But I might get there for Shabbat sometime, so I can check out the New Shul, which sounds vital and vibrant and visionary.

    • David A.M. Wilensky September 21, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

      The New Shul, sadly is only “vital, vibrant and visionary” when they aren’t having Friday night services. I once had a macher at The New Shul tell me that they were perfectly aware that their Friday night service are dull. They seemed unphased by this and said that they had made a conscious choice not be a community obsessed with prayer. That obviously turned me off some. Then again, some Friday nights they skip services all together and do something called “Shabat on Tap.” It’s held at a bar.

      Awe is a funny thing. I’ve never been awe-inspired by anything except the negev desert. Tashlich at midnight on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere is the only moment of awe I’ve ever experienced on HHD and there were no musical instruments involved, regardless of origin.

      I’m not knocking concert instruments because I think they’re inauthentic–whatever inauthentic might mean with regards to Jewish music. What I’m saying is that, to me, concert instruments are the ultimate symbol of staid, boring and authoritarian. As such, they inspire no awe within me.

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