Archive | June, 2011

A Week of Things I Like, Day 4-ish: Page-Proofing at The Forward

OK I did it again and missed a day, but I promise there will be one post for each day of A Week of Things I Like, if not one on each day of it.

I work for New Voices now and our office is now a cubicle inside the office of The Jewish Daily Forward. Which is a thing I like unto itself, I suppose. But the point of this post is that the thing I already miss about working on a publication that has no print edition is print layout and design and proofing pages.

So it brought a little joy into my heart while the staff of The Forward was proofing page 1 of tomorrow’s print edition of The Forward. First of all, the whole is a step up in print quality from my days of proofing pages at The Acorn. At The Acorn, we just print them out on black and white laser printers. But here, color pages are printed out in color on nice glossy sheets of of paper.

Then the art director–they have one of those–passes copies of it out to pretty much everybody. For a second, he mistook me for an intern and tried to give me a copy. For a second, I really wanted to take one and look over it.

Everybody then looks it over. (I overheard someone explaining what to look for to one of the interns, which I also liked.) As far as I can tell, the next thing that happens is that when Jane Eisner, the editor of The Forward, is ready, she sits down at a computer in the art department’s cubicle area and people come up one at a time and show her their corrections.

I just stood and watched this all happen for a little while. I liked it.

BTW–I also really like the print design of The Forward and I also really like their new website.

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A Week of Things I Like, Day 3: Old Wilensky Family Siddurim

I was at home in Austin for a week and a half and I came back with an extra suitcase–full of siddurim! What could be better? My mother is clearing some stuff out of her place so she asked me to take some things off her hands.

These books were all–with one exception–deposited with her over the course of several visits to my paternal grandparents’ house after she had announced she was going to convert. My grandpa, Sol Wilensky, was so excited about it that he would give her a book or two every time my parents visited.

These pictures were all taken with my new Canon Rebel T2i, a delightful graduation gift from my dad. I like it–and him–also.

Let’s go exploring….

This first one is the only one that’s not from my grandpa. According to a stamp on the inside cover, this one was once a part of the library of the religious school of the synagogue I grew up at, Congregation Beth Israel. It’s a 1976 publication of the Union of the American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism). It came out a year after Gates of Prayer, so my guess is that it was intended to help familiarize Reform Jews with Big Blue’s view of the liturgy. On the other hand, it’s not actually by GOP‘s editor, Chaim Stern, who wrote his own commentary to GOP (called Gates of Understanding), so who knows. Unlike, Understanding, this one is clearly aimed at kids.

The page on wearing talit is telling glimpse of the Reform movement in that moment in history:

WHAT ABOUT WOMEN?

In the past it was only the men who wore the talit. The reason for this may have been that only the men were obligated to pray three times a day…. This may explain why it became  custom for only men to wear the talit. There is, however, nothing in Jewish law which prohibits a woman from wearing the talit.

What do you think? Should both men and women “dress up” for worship by wearing a talit? Do you find it meaningful to wear best clothes to synagogue? Is there a benefit to “dressing up” for special occasions? …. Discuss some of these questions with friends, the rabbi and cantor, and with adults in your congregation. The differences is opinion might make an interesting debate.

In that period, your average Reform rabbi was just as likely to tell you that no one should wear a talit as he was to tell you women should wear them.

When I got these books over to my dad’s place from my mom’s, he immediately identified this Siddur Meforash: A Prayer Book With Explanatory Notes as the siddur he was required to get for religious school at Shearith Israel, the Conservative congregation his family belonged to. It’s a combination siddur and textbook, a precursor to Shema is for Real, if you will. He can remember being miffed at the time that he had to lug it with him to religious school each week, but they rarely actually used it.

I included this image, from Siddur Meforash, because it mentioned Rabbi Chaim Brecher, though this volume was compiled by Rabbi Ralph De Koven, listed below Brecher. More on Brecher later.

Here’s the illustration on the cover:

This yellow ribbon is taped to the inside front cover of the siddur, to be used as a bookmark. I’m amused because it’s affixed to the book in the exact same way that I put book marks on some of my most often used siddurim. I’m also amused by the title of this section, “Prayers Before Retiring.” I’m also amused that this is the page that’s bookmarked–the notion that my dad was ever in the habit of saying his prayers before bed seems entirely unbelievable to me.

My dad also identified this little white book as having been his. It’s a bencher.

You may notice that Rabbi Chaim Brecher appears here as well, this time as Rabbi Ch. M. Brecher. He had his hand in the editing of many of Ktav products in those days, it seems.

Now that I have this bencher, along with the next book in the post, I finally have some that are examples of prefixing Birkat Hamazon with Al Naharot Bavel, as we discussed in the comments on this post.

Another bencher

My dad didn’t have any recollections about this on, but at least we know where it came from.

I’ve always found it kind of funny to translate Birkat Hamazon as Grace After Meals, but this is just hysterical.

And here’s Al Naharot Bavel again, prefixed on to Birkat Hamazon for weekdays. I wonder if it was more common in the earlier half of the 20th Century?

This is from the back of a very decrepit bencher-sized booklet of prayers for mourners. The back has this appendix of pages where different deceased family members could be filled in, according to your relations to them. I imagine these were probably given out by funeral homes in those days. This one is from the death of my great grandfather, Sam Wilensky. It says “Who departed this Life at the age of 42 On May 22, 1933.” And check out this transliteration: “Jahrzeit!”

Though I couldn’t capture this aspect very well in the photo, this Bride’s Prayer Book has a cover made of a pearlescent opaque plastic. It also has a rather ecclesiatically purple bookmark ribbon built in. I suppose it was a gift to my grandmother, Ann Wilensky.

And guess who edited it?

Rabbi Chaim M. Brecher strikes again!

Then there’s this delightfully tacky little gem:

It’s a siddur in a plastic box!

Turn it over and…

The bottom of the plastic box is clear, so you can see the polished metal back cover of the siddur.

But nothing compares to the grandeur of the front cover once you open the box:

It seems this one was a souvenir from Israel, given to my grandparents by an aunt and uncle who had just traveled to Israel.

Presented to Ann & Sol as a memento of our trip to Israel.

Nov 1969

Aunt Cele & Uncle Sam

According to my dad, Cele’s most (in)famous quality was how little use she had for clergy. Rabbis and cantors, according to her: “They’re all ganefs!” (From the Yiddish for thief, rascal, scoundrel, etc.)

And that brings us to my favorite from this collection:

This siddur, according to both of my parents, was the one that my grandpa used around the house for kiddush and that sort of thing.

You can tell what it was used for:

My grandpa had marked the page for Friday night Kiddush with a paperclip because that’s what he most often used it for.

One particularly odd feature of this siddur is this transliteration of Mourner’s Kaddish. It was typical already in this period for siddurim to be printed with a transliteration of large portions of Aramaic like Kaddish Yatom in the back, but this transliteration “To be read from right to left.” If you look carefully, you’ll see that the English letters arranged left to right within each word, but the each word is printed directly under the Hebrew word it corresponds to!

It’s remarkable that it was in regular use well into my life, given its age. It’s unclear how long he had it, but it was published in 1924, when he was 8:

It’s possible that it belonged to my great grandmother:

The cursive here says “Mrs. S. Wilensky,” which could refer to my grandmother or to my great grandmother, both of whom were married S. Wilenskys, but my dad thinks the handwriting resembles my grandmother, Ann.

At first, the significance of the date December 17, 1892, written on the inside front cover as shown above, was unclear. But then I found this:

This is a list of birth dates of a bunch of Stillmans, my paternal grandfather’s mother’s side. (Dad, correct me if I’m wrong on that one.) So here we can see that December 17, 1892, our mystery date from above, is the birth date of Sarah Stillman, who I believe is my paternal grandfather’s mother. (Again, Dad, correct me if I’m wrong.)

Why there’s a list of birth dates written well after all these people were dead, I don’t know.

The inside back cover of the book, with the list of Stillman birth dates clipped on the right:

On the right, he clipped a little supplement of Chanukah material:

Notice how he has put a big H next to the Hebrew and a big G next to the English. This must be from a Chanukah spent with them before my mother converted. The G indicated that she, Glenda, was to read the English and the H indicated that he, Harold, was to read the Hebrew.

I leave you with a final image of it:

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A Week of Things I Like, Day 2-ish: Beth El

On Sunday, I said this week was gonna be A Week of Things I Like on this blog, that I would only say positive things all week and that I would post once a day this week.

Here we are on day three and I already missed the second day’s post. And, as regular commenter Larry Kaufman points out, I was also unduly self-critical in the first post.

Anyway, I like Beth El, my new shul here in South Orange. Here are some of the things I like about it:

  • I like that, as I pointed out in my first post about Beth El, their spirit of welcoming is great.
  • I like that they make extensive use of lay leaders in all their services. Initially, based on a sample size of only two weeks, I assumed that Shabbat mornings were more lay-led and and Friday nights less so, but they’ve already got me signed up to lead a Friday night service in August.
  • On a related note, I like how well-trained their lay leaders are. They all really know their stuff and they come from a broad range of ages, which, if I had to guess, is indicative of a great religious school.
  • I like Rabbi Francine Roston and Cantor Perry Fine. By the end of the first Shabbat morning I spent there, Rabbi Roston had reached out to me and asked if I wanted to help lead services ever. By the end of my second Friday night at Beth El, Cantor Fine had also asked.
  • I like that, according to this JTA article that I can’t seem to find anywhere other than at the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, when Rabbi Roston was hired in 2005, Beth El became the largest Conservative shul ever to hire a female as their senior rabbi. (According to the article, Beth El had 575 member families at the time.)
  • I like that, according to Google Maps, it’s a four-minute walk from my apartment–if that.
  • I like that there are a number of rabbis in the congregation. As I’ve previously mentioned, the head of ARZA is a member. Beth El’s rabbi emeritus is also in regular attendance every week and so is the provost of JTS.
  • To continue my reportage on my chronic case of Foot-in-Mouth disease, I like that a number of them seem to have found this blog and have called me out on things I’ve said here. Most recently, one member of a group of men I previously identified as “the peanut gallery” jokingly informed me that I had assessed them incorrectly. Actually, he told me, they are “the judges panel.” I like that too!
  • I like that I’m feeling challenged by Beth El. It’s good to feel comfortable within a routine at a synagogue, but it’s also good to feel a little challenged. So, to turn my whinging about wearing a kippah on its head, it’s good that going to Beth El is forcing me to wear one because it’s challenging.
  • I like that going to Beth El is forcing me to confront the fact that there are things that I like about Conservative Judaism… which may make a whole post of its own later this week.

To make up for my laziness yesterday, I’m gonna do another post tonight for day three of A Week of Things I Like.

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A Week of Things I Like, Day 1

In an effort to be less… well, hateful, I guess… I’m declaring this week to be A Week of Things I Like here on my blog. You read that right folks–this week will be focused entirely on things that I like.

FAQs about A Week of Things I Like:

1. David, isn’t a little numerically inaccurate to call this a list of frequently asked questions about A Week of Things I Like when you wrote these questions before you even finished writing the post that declared this week to be A Week of Things I Like?

Yes.

2. You don’t always post even once a week, so what does it really mean for you to have declared this week to be A Week of Things I Like?

This week, I’m committing myself to posting at least once a day from now until Shabbat. Each of these daily posts will be exclusively about things that I like. I will not criticize anything on this blog this week. (Watch that statement come back bite me in the ass on Thursday or something.)

3. David, as a longtime reader of this blog, I’m not sure what the point of this is. Isn’t being critical kind of your thing?

Unfortunately, yes, it has become my thing. But I’ve becoming convinced of late that I need to be more positive about some things. I’ve been trying to be more balanced lately and, as a part of that, I have decided to do a whole week exclusively about things I like here at the blog.

Point is, I like this blog, I like all of you that read it and I especially like your comments.

I also like the picture below. I promise a post of more substance tomorrow.

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If I stick my foot in my mouth and there is no one around, do I still make an ass out of myself?

Last week, in the first of what is quickly becoming a lot of posts about Beth El of South Orange, NJ, I incorrectly identified one of the service leaders as “Abigail, who I’m guessing is like 15 years old.”

She pointed out to me during services yesterday that she is not Abigail, but Sharon. And that she is 20, not 15. For a 22-year-old who still doesn’t need to shave every single day to look clean-shaven, that’s quite an idiotic assumption on my part.

I apologized to Sharon when she pointed it out to me and then made fun of myself a little bit. I thought I’d go ahead and do that here too. I’ve also corrected the original post.

The good news is that I didn’t pull the name Abigail totally out of my ass. Sharon’s younger sister is named Abigail and she is–you guessed it–actually 15. She’s also, like her sisters, an accomplished Torah reader.

In other news, I’m on a train to Baltimore right now. From there, it’s on to whatever The Conversation NY is. While I’m there, I hope to figure out why something called The Conversation NY is being held in a place that is decidedly not New York.

I’m back in Jersey on the 14th. The next day, it’s off to Austin for about 10 days.

Shavua tov.

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Beth El week 2, now with more chazanut!

I was back at Beth El for Shavuot and again tonight. Tonight was similar to last week’s Kabbalat Shabbat, but more remarkable for its differences.

Last week’s was led by Rabbi Francine Roston, who conducted the service with a minimum of commentary and uncomplicated music (I called it boring in last week’s post, which may have been a tad strong). I can’t recall if she gave any sort of devar. And she led the whole thing standing on the same side of the shtender as the the congregation–that is, she faced the ark, her back to us, which I prefer. When you face the congregation, you sing at them. When you face the same direction that they are, you are leading them, as their representative.

Tonight’s leader was Cantor Perry Fine. Fine, as it so happens, has taught Russ Jayne at JTS. (Russ is a cantorial student and the beloved musical leader of Chavurat Lamdeinu.) So Fine and I had a nice chat about how great Russ is on Shavuot.

Anyway, Fine led this service with a tad more commentary than I’d like and more varied–though, as you’ll see, sometimes more overpowering–music. He also faced us, which may have been part of what encouraged him to talk to us so much.

I also have some new observations about the set up of the smaller chapel space at Beth El. The chapel is wider than it is long, so the chairs face each other in a wide semi-circle facing the ark, with a podium/shtender in the middle. If you have any more than 25 or 30 people in there, as we did on Shavuot, the chapel is a good size. It feels neither vacant nor packed with that sort of attendance.

However, on Friday nights–based, mind you, on a sample size of two weeks so far–it’s too big for the crowd, which is closer to a dozen than to 20. It’s big enough at that point that everyone can sit with several chairs between them and the next person in each direction, which is not good for ruach. My guess is that setting up chairs in a close circle that excludes the podium thing might be a better setup for Friday nights at Beth El.

We were also using an odd little siddur tonight. I borrowed a copy–with Fine’s permission, of course–so there I’ll have more on the siddur later, hopefully tomorrow.

  • Accessibility vs. musical prowess: Fine conducted most of Kabbalat Shabbat in a manner similar to Roston, in that it was first-line-last-line nusach for most psalms. However, Roston’s simple approach to the nusach made it  possible for me to sing along, while Fine’s chazanutasticness became overwhelming at times, preventing me from mumbling along. Accessibility vs. musical prowess shouldn’t be a trade-off, though it unfortunately often is.
  • Nusach vs. Carlebach: I loves me some Carlebach, so it was nice to have some in this service for some of the usuals like ps. 29. Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out where the syllables in the words fit within the melody with Carlebach and there were times when Fine let the melody fall on a different syllable than I’m used to, which tripped me up.
  • Unfamiliar, slow and hard: Lecha Dodi was the first of several things that Fine sang beautifully, but to slowish tempo and unfamiliar tune, making it hard to follow.
  • Mourners: As with Roston last week, Fine took the unexpected step of actually pointing out an individual mourner at the end of Lecha Dodi and having us all say “Hamakom yenachem… etc” to them.
  • English? Fine added some of the sort of commentary I quite like for ps. 29, explaining why it’s there. Which was nice. Then we read it in English, which was 100% unexpected.
  • Lewandowksi? Lewandowski is one of those composers I could never match with a tune until tonight. Before singing Tzadik Katamar from the end of ps. 29, Fine talked a tad a bout Lewandowski and how he composed this famous Tzadik Katamar. It was neat.
  • More weird tunes: With Ahavat Olam, we started to reach a fever pitch of slow, unfamiliar hard to follow tunes. This continued with Hashkiveinu and got real bad at Mi Chamocha.
  • The Bat Mitzvah girl and a bizarre Shma: Tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvah girl (she’s have hers at mincha/maariv/havdalah tomorrow) led the first to paragraphs of the Ve’ahavta, then we continued silently for the third one and then we actually read the fourth one out loud, in Hebrew. Not chanted, but read. It was quite unexpected.

That’s extent of my noteworthy observations about services tonight. Overall, twas good and I’m still enjoying getting to know Beth El.

ALSO, I hesitate to mention this because it confused the hell out of me, but Fine told me afterward how nice my voice is and asked if I’d ever been in a choir. I was flabbergasted. I know nothing about my voice and tend not to think too highly of it. More on this development later. I think.

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Pros and cons of two kippot

And one more thing about this whole kippah thing that I just posted about.

Since my Bar Mitzvah, whenever I’ve had to wear a kippah, I’ve worn the one that my dad had made for my Bar Mitzvah. It’s a knitted kippah, but not as small, lightweight and flexible as your classic Modern Orthodox kippah srugah sort of thing. In short, it’s hard to forget that it’s there. I can always feel it, bearing down on me. (I put those words in italics to give you a sense of the little involuntary curl my lip developed as I typed them.)

But I recently came into possession of an assortment of the smaller ones that are so common among habitual, non-Chareidi kippah wearers. So far, I’ve been wearing one of those to services.

Pros of wearing the bigger one

  • Forgetting it’s there: It’s become an issue of identity: I don’t wear kippot and I’ve made a conscious chose not to. So it’s good to wear one that’s slightly uncomfortable. It means I can never forget it’s there and accidentally become accustomed to wearing one or forget to take it off when I leave.
  • It’s green, which is my favorite color.
  • It’s a slightly odd shape and it’s a brighter color so it stands out. It lets people know that I don’t usually wear one.
  • My dad got it for me. He has a matching one in blue.

Pros of wearing the smaller one

  • It’s more comfortable. What I said about the pros of wearing the bigger one aside, it might better to wear something that allows me to be relaxed about it than to wear something that reminds me I’m doing something I object to doing.
  • It’s more innocuous in size and color so I look less like some uncouth loon who doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I kind of like being that guy, so maybe this is a con? Damn.

Whatever. You get the point.

Your inevitable suggestions that I’m over-thinking this are not needed at this time.

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Stowing my pen and covering my head

If you’re a regular reader, you know two things: First, that I hate putting on a kippah and, second, that I like to take notes in my siddur during services.

It has become increasingly clear to me that these preferences of mine are not well received in some communities. As the range of places I’m willing to daven has expanded–or drifted to the ritual right, as it might be more accurately put–I’ve had to deal with this issue more and more.

My first attempts at dealing with this involved complaining about it to people I know a lot and complaining about it even more here on this blogOne such blogged complaint in particular didn’t turn out so well. That blog post turned into a minor fiasco–which was, in the end, entirely of my own making.

Then I started trying this thing where I’d walk into a place where I suspected they’d want me to wear a kippah with my head uncovered and wait for someone to correct me. I’ve only ever met with success using this method. Either no one tells me to put one on or they do. It’s not like I’ve ever been ejected for this. (It hasn’t even cause a blog post fiasco. Yet.)

While I was using the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-later-than-permission-now approach to covering my head, I was using a similar approach to note-taking. I’d keep the pen in my pocket and try to take notes really discretely. Now that I’m actually writing this down, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually had bad luck with this method either, though I’ve only tried it in pew seating situations where it has some chance of success.

The risk associated with taking notes during services is that it has become compulsive. If I have a pen on me, I will make note of every little thing–when they switch leaders, what tunes they do for everything, liturgical oddities, the presence of other people I happen to know, the date, various architectural features of the space, etc. I could go on. It is this compulsion that has made posts like this exhaustive catalog of the minhag of one community possible.

Which means, as many–Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, most prominently–have pointed out to me, that I risk not noticing the forest because I’m taking a rubbing of the bark of every damn tree. I’m like those hordes of Japanese tourists that can’t possibly have seen one inch of Europe until they go through their photos once the vacation is over. I have pretended that this problem doesn’t bother me, but it has begun to–though this is certainly the first I’ve mentioned it here.

Now I’ve moved to South Orange and I’ve found Beth El, a nice shul that makes me want to stick around. I’m fairly mortified to find myself on the verge of considering the possibility of maybe eventually inquiring about membership at a *gasp* Conservative shul. And I want these people to refrain from ejecting me from the premises.

Which means that I have been leaving my pen at home and putting on my kippah before I go in. Of course, I wait until I’m at the door to put it on. And as soon as I’m out the door, I take it back off. But still.

(“If that’s the case,” you’re wondering, “how did he produce this blog post about services at Beth El?” My new method is to fold over the corner of any page in the siddur on which I want to remind myself that something of note happened. So far, it’s seems to be working.)

I feel, on the one hand, like this is all probably pretty good for my problems with ego and humility. On the other hand, I feel like I’m losing some battle. Being that asshole who takes notes in services has become and identity issue for me.

And, just as an aside–and maybe as a last word of protest on the issue–I have noticed that Beth El refers to itself as a Conservative egalitarian congregation. If that’s the case, why don’t the women have to cover their heads? I have noticed that many women, probably more than usual, do cover their heads, but the sign on the bin-o-kippot does say “all males” must cover their heads.

And, just as a final complaint on the topic in general, I don’t know why it matters to anyone else what is or is not on my head. I have to wonder what would happen if I went to Beth El for shacharit and failed to put on a talit. Would that matter? Or only on the bimah? Would anyone chastise me if I showed up on a weekday and didn’t wrap tefilin? Why is everyone so bizarrely attached to this one little minhag?

Alright. That’s all. I meant for this post not to turn into a rant, but it’s only been like a week so far. I’m still working on being over this stuff.

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Turning the welcoming up to 11–A review of two services at Beth El in South Orange, NJ

Yesterday, I was at the UJA Federation building in Manhattan for a conference. There, I was introduced to Rabbi Danny Allen, the head of ARZA. As it turns out, he lives right here in South Orange, NJ, my new stomping grounds. As soon as he found out where I lived, he whipped out a business card, wrote his home phone number on the back and told me to call him if I needed anything. It turns out that he’s also a member of Beth El, the Conservative shul around the corner from me. I asked if he’d be there that night and he said no, but that he would be there in the morning.

So, all alone, I made the five minute walk there at 6:15 last night for services. As soon as I got there, I ran into someone who looked very familiar. She turned out to be Rabbi Francine Roston, who I had met a few months ago at a conference at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. And that’s when the overwhelming welcoming began.

I’ll now move into the bullet point format that’s been working for these reviews lately and then I’ll do the ballpoint pen rating at the end.

Erev Shabbat

  • The hatless rabbi: After figuring out who I was, we went in and Roston muttered something about needing a kippah. I figured she meant me. Luckily I came prepared. I pulled one out of my back pocket and pinned it on. Then, I noticed that she was the one without a kippah! She fiddled around in the bin-o-kippot by the door and got one out for herself.
  • Fruits of remodeling: Tomorrow, Beth El will dedicate their “Ochs Campus,” which is actually the same location they’ve always been at, but with a major face-lift from the Ochs family, whose name the local day school also bears.
  • Nice Western light: The small chapel where we did Kabbat Shabbat was lovely. It looks like a totally new addition to the building, with seating on three side facing a shtender in the middle, which the rabbi led from. The back wall is stained glass and faces West, an inspired choice for a Conservative shul, where Friday night is likely to be a small service. The light was great as the sun began to sink low.
  • Service times: Though the light was great, the sun didn’t set by the time we were done. Their services start at 6:15 through the end of June and then move to 8 something beginning in July.
  • Making the minyan: At 6:15, there were about 6 people, including myself, the rabbi and one mourner. So Roston was out in the lobby on her cell trying to get a minyan. By the time it mattered, we had a minyan and by the time we were done, there were 15 or so people.
  • Musically boring, but not bad: Beth El has a cantor, but the cantor was not present. Roston’s voice is good enough for me, but nothing special. Kabbalat Shabbat was done in a typical nusach/Carlebach sort of way, but she opted for the most boring option at every turn. With only a couple of exceptions, she did the chant-the-first-and-last-lines thing.
  • Lecha Dodi: So musically uninteresting were her choices that we only used one tune for LD. In shuls that sing the full piyyut, they almost always switch tunes in the middle and I’ve started to be surprised when I find them not doing it. It’s a better solution to the monotony of the length of the piyyut than the Reform solution, which is truncation.
  • Good participation: Despite the small crowd, the singing was decently participatory when we actually did sing something, like LD.
  • Welcoming mourners: There is this line, “Hamakom yenachem…/May God comfort you…” that every siddur prints after LD with the explanation that it is to be said to the congregation’s mourners. I’ve never actually seen it done, but Roston actually forgot to do it and apologized, flipping back a page and turning to face the mourner. She had everyone read it together to him. It was pretty jarring to me.
  • Chatzi Kaddish nusach slip-up: Roston did CK to the wrong nusach–an accident to which I’m often susceptible–and then smirked to a guy sitting behind me. I later learned that he’s a past president of the Beth El. She muttered something to him about getting it wrong and he chuckled.
  • Magein Avot (v’Imahot): Beth El calls itself and egalitarian Conservative congregation. So it was noteworthy, though not surprising that Roston does the mamas and papas, which I discovered when we got to Magen Avot. More on gender roles at Beth El later.
  • Correct Kaddish Shalem nusach: Sometimes, once you fall off the nusach horse, it’s real hard to get back on. There was an odd pause before Kaddish Shalem as I noticed Roston glance at the same guy from before. He muttered the first couple words of KS to the correct nusach and she was able to get going.

Shabbat Morning

I arrived at 9:25 and the service started quite promptly at 9:30. I don’t know whether to add or subtract points for that. Roston and I were the first into the room, a larger sanctuary that looks like it’s a dramatic recent remodel of an existing sanctuary. It was quite nice, remarkable, given that I rarely like modernist sanctuaries. Luckily, I chose to sit one row behind a group of three older men who arrived a little after I did. It turns out they’re the peanut gallery. It’s good to spot your own kind in an unfamiliar place. One of them is also the provost of JTS, who had just led the Torah study before services.

  • Birchot Hashachar: Roston began with the daily blessings on p. 65 of Siddur Sim Shalom, that little section that Gates of Prayer called Nisim B’chol Yom. As with the service the previous night, almost everything was done in a very minimal chant-the-first-and-last-lines sort of way.
  • Skipping ahead: We continued in that fashion until p. 67 “…mekadeish at shimcha barabim” when we skipped ahead to p. 81 for Ps. 30. That means that we skipped the selection of texts that SSS replaces Korbanot with, Kaddish D’Rabbanan and Ps. 92 (the daily psalm). We then did Kaddish Yatom and moved on to…
  • Pesukei Dezimra: This section proceeded in what was quickly becoming a boring fashion, the familiar first and last line shtick.
  • A brief excerpt from a long list of things we did not sing: We managed not to sing even Ps. 136 (the one with the “ki le’olam chasdo” refrain. We also did not chant Ashrei, though we certainly didn’t skip it.
  • A brief, though complete list, of things we did sing: Luckily, Ps. 150 is too musically themed to keep even this crowd from singing it, though the melody was unfamiliar to me. In Shirat Hayam, I was surprised to find us singing “Ozi vezimrat Yah vayehi li lishuah” to that Shefa Gold tune.
  • Shochein Ad leader switch: At Shochein Ad, a very young-looking leader replaced Roston at the shtender. Her style was similar Roston’s. I later learned she is Evelyn, who just graduated from Rutgers. More on her later.
  • The ladies of Beth El: I will point out at this point that the entire service was lead by women, with exception of the Torah Service, which had a male reader and gabbai.
  • El Adon: Evelyn gave us a thankful reprieve from the usual when we got to this portion of Yotzer Or. I’m pretty sure there’s a law these days requiring El Adon to be sung.
  • Amidah: There was a silent Amidah and a reader’s repetition. It is worth noting here that we did a Heiche Kedushah (first three blessings of the Amidah together, the rest silently) in Musaf.
  • Welcoming gone wild: On Friday night, Roston introduced me to everybody twice, once at the beginning of the service and once at the end. This morning about a half dozen past presidents introduced themselves or were introduced to me during the service. One gave me an Aliyah. While sitting on the bimah during the fifth aliyah, waiting for my turn at the sixth, Roston asked if I read Torah. I told her no. She asked if I can lead davening. I said yes. There were about a dozen handshakes and full name introductions on my way back to my seat after the Aliyah.
  • Korens and Evelyn: By this point, I had relocated to sit with Danny (the rabbi from the very beginning of the post), who was sitting right behind Evelyn and her family. I was introduced to Evelyn, who was using the Koren Sacks, which I commended her on. She told me that she had asked for it as a birthday present. My kind of person. There were two other Korens in the congregation as well.
  • Mi Shebeirach gone wild: I know that we all have to join the cult of intercessory healing prayers know, but Beth El’s version is the most odious I’ve yet seen. People, like 20 of them, lined up on the ramp to the bimah while the rest of them hummed or something and they came up one-by-one to grab the Torah and say a special prayer from someone in need of healing. Danny, correctly perceiving my expression as one of incredulity, seemed not to think too much of it either. “It’s not a theological decision,” he said. “It is,” I said, “it’s just not being made for theological reasons.” Then, a little later, they wanted everyone who had gone up to the Torah to stand up for a special prayer. I stayed in my seat.
  • Musaf: As noted, Musaf was done as a Heiche Kedushah. Word on the street is that Roston wants to do away with Musaf. Oh dear. It seems I’ve found a shul with a liturgical debate worth wading into.
    • Abigail’s Sharon’s more diverse musical tastes: Musaf was led by Evelyn’s younger sister, Abigail Sharon (I think I thought, but turned out to be wrong). This was interesting because Abigail’s Sharon’s musical choices and the congregation’s acceptance of them is a sign that the music doesn’t always have to be as boring as it was.
    • A-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Adonai… I don’t actually like doing this verison of “Adonai sefatai tiftach…” but the fact that Abigail Sharon chose to was a good sign, given what I said in the previous bullet point.
  • Aleinu: Abigail Sharon went with your standard Camp Ramah-style Aleinu, with lots of singing and stomping and so forth.
  • After the service, I could scarcely walk two feet without being intercepted for lengthy introductions. Which was bad because I wanted a bagel. But it was good because now I think I’ve met everybody in the world, including one lesbian mother of three who told me that she’s the unofficial matchmaker at Beth El and that she’d start thinking about finding someone for me. Welcome to South Orange, apparently.

    The Five Ballpoint Pen Rating (The rating system is explained here.)

    Music and Ruach: Three Ballpoint Pens

    The congregation was engaged and participated, but not particularly loudly. The leading was all competent, through and through, but of three service leaders I experienced across two services, only one (Abigail, who I’m guessing is 20 like 15 years old) did anything particularly interesting with her moment at the shtender. On its own, the congregation’s participation would probably pull a three and a half, while the music on its own would probably be a two and a half. As always, keep in mind that this is only a rating of the two services I attended this week and that neither involved Beth El’s cantor.

    The Chaos Quotient: Three Ballpoint Pens

    Beth El was pretty light on the chaos, but I felt totally at home nonetheless. There was a solid low-level hum of chaos surrounding distribution of honors, especially the Torah service, but nothing too special. The only thing keeping this from being two and a half is the nusach issues I saw on Friday night.

    Liturgical Health: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

    There were, as far as I saw, three other people who brought their own siddur, each one a Koren Sacks. (I brought the Sim Shalom commentary, Or Hadash.) In an ordinary shul, that’s something, I guess–even if one of them turned out to be the provost of JTS! There was a good level of lay-leading throughout the service, as I discussed above. What keeps this rating from being a three is the questionable and totally bizarre Mi Shebeirach situation.

    Welcoming Community: Five Ballpoint Pens

    This might actually be the first time I’ve rated anything as a five since I started using the ballpoint pen scale. And it should be obvious from everything I said above why. These people welcome you like it’s their job.

    Overall Rating: Four Ballpoint Pens

    Not much left to say, except that, for maybe the first time, the warmth of the community elevated the rating past the solid three I would have given based on the other categories.

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    I’m back in the world

    Since I last posted, I’ve graduated, moved into an apartment and gotten a job. I’ll let JTA’s Coming’s and Goings thing do the talking:

    David A.M. Wilensky has been named the next editor in chief and executive director of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, replacing Ben Sales, who is completing his two-year stint in the position. Wilensky is currently the publication’s web editor, is on the editorial board of Jewschool, and blogs about Jewish liturgy at The Reform Shuckle. He has just graduated from Drew University.

    I somehow missed the fact that they posted that until Sieradski pointed it out to me yesterday.

    Many more backed up posts to come soon.

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