“Core Issues in Jewish Prayer: Meaning, Spirit and Music” at Hadar

What alternate universe did I wander into where I get to say things like the following: After work today, I went to the yeshiva for maariv and a shiur with my friend Simi, who goes to Stern.

The yeshiva, of course, was Hadar, the flagship institution of the traditional egalitarian movement. And while Stern College is the all-girls undergraduate school of Yeshiva University (the flagship institution of ever-rightward drifting Modern Orthodoxy), Simi is a notorious heretic whose skirts end at her knees, rather than below them. She’s also the founder of the YU Beacon, YU’s third newspaper and its only co-ed newspaper. And I’m doing my part to contribute to her delinquency by bringing her to places like Hadar.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Anyway, we went to Hadar last week for part 2 of “Core Issues in Jewish Prayer: Meaning, Spirit and Music–A Signature Lecture Series by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Joey Weisenberg,” which was taught by Elie. It was cool. The stream these things online, so you can check it out over here. Tonight’s video, stubbornly refusing to be embedded but screencapped above, is over here.

A few of Hadar’s copies of Yedid Nefesh, Josh Cahan’s bencher, were sitting out on a table tonight. I can’t figure out how to hyperlink this caption, but if you click on the picture it’ll take you to my review of YN from 2009.

For tonight’s lecture, the third and final of the series, Joey Weisenberg took over from Elie. Joey leads services over at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, the best kept secret about Friday nights in New York City. The lecture was also more singing and participatory demonstration than lecture. It was also held in a room I suspect of being a glorified closet. I took a lot of notes and it gave me a lot of food for thought. Here’s what I got:

Joey Weisenberg

  • We were seated in concentric circle-ish things in the smallest room ever. Joey maintained throughout that the small size was plus. I would usually agree, but this was a tad on the claustrophobic side. There’s a fine line between cozy and cramped. This was cramped.
  • I’m generally more prepared for kumbaya-type stuff in a service than I otherwise am. This was only barely within my usual threshold for kumbaya-ness during services. So for something claiming to be a lecture, it took me a while to settle in.
  • The first nigun was very slow to start, but once it gets going, it’s great. It’s been a while since I’ve been to KSS. I had forgotten how much I like Joey.
  • Simi is totally not into it. Her mouth hasn’t opened except to whisper to me that she’s just realized this is streaming live on the internet. Worse yet, we’re quite visible in the video. “I’m on a live stream?” “Yeah. There’s gonna be evidence.”
  • I’m singing along. I’m being a good sport.
  • Leaning over to Simi, “What, Stern girls don’t sing niguns?” “Oh, they do,” she says before trailing off.”
  • Joey hasn’t said anything yet. He begins: “My name is Joey Weisenberg. I’m a musician during the week and I like to sing a lot on Shabbat and also elsewhere.”
  • He talks for a while about the subject, then says that in music school he used to get frustrated when they’d talk and talk and talk about Mozart. “Just put the music on! Let’s listen to it.” This is his segue to some music.
  • He has a girl hold a high note. He then joins her, starting low and getting higher and higher and we’re all instructed to raise our hands when he matches her. This happens twice, semi-successfully. Then he enlists a third person.
  • He talks about whether we liked it better when they matched pitch or when they were almost matching, something about harmony and tension that I’m not quite following.
  • Then he does the pitch thing again.
  • He keeps saying things like, “The role music plays in the Jewish world is it helps us to tune into the world.”
  • You say the Shema, but there’s the music also, “to which we attune as a group to achieve some unity.”
  • Now he has everybody doing the pitch thing together. Simi is amused. I think it sounds like the THX thing before the movie. I’m not playing along with this part, BTW.
  • We don’t sound great, he observes, “but we’re getting used to the group and the room.”
  • “I’m working for the re-shtetl-ization of the Jewish world.” He means that we’ve gotten too slick, too impersonal and–this next bit is a recurring theme with him–our prayer spaces have gotten too big.
  • Now we’re doing some rhythmic stuff. One person is stomping. The rest of us are utterly silent. “We just one the battle. We all paid attention.”
  • Now we’re stomping in unison. Simi joins in!
  • We’re speeding up. Joey notes that groups have a tendency to get faster tempo and higher pitched over time.
  • “There is a guy next to the rebbe in the chasidic world whose job it is to bring it back down when it gets to fast.”
  • “Amazing. 40 Jews in a room paying attention to what we’re doing. If we could achieve this in prayer spaces, we’d really be on to something.”
  • Meanwhile, I’m wondering if the chit-chat isn’t an integral part of the Jewish prayer aesthetic. And I’m only half-joking about that.
  • Now we’re stomping every fourth beat.
  • Now we’re stomping every other 4th beat, which is not working at all.
  • “We want to rush it. We do that in services when we don’t know what’s going on, we go faster.”
  • I do that! If I’m lost, I just stay where I am, but start going faster and getting really anxious about being in the right place until it becomes clear where we are.
  • “We need to relax our services.”
  • We’re doing every other fourth beat again, but it’s working really well. The only difference is that Joey is very, very quietly whispering, “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, etc.”
  • “I’m just whispering very little. The smallest amount of leadership from me is doing it…. We need clear signals from our leaders, but they can be very subtle.”
  • Back on the anti-big room thing: “Could you have heard me whispering across the room at a large suburban shul? No. We need closeness.”
  • He asks if we spread a string quartet out across a large space or spread out the logs of a fire. No. “Things that seem totally obvious elsewhere and yet, in this situation we instinctively blow it.”
  • Now we’re nigunning again. I’m not following this nigun very well–it seems to get louder, then trail off a little in some kind of pattern, but I’m having a hard time slipping into the pattern. Maybe that’s because I’m taking notes furiously.
  • Simi is having none of it.
  • I pause for a little while to focus on singing along.
  • Simi grabs my notepad and writes, “I feel like I’m in therapy- stop analyzing me!” “I’m writing about me too,” I write back.
  • Is this my whole problem, though? Do I analyze prayer during prayer too much.
  • He has the group doing a little clapping/stomping/patting beat thing consistently, while we continue with this complex nigun. But then he has our voices starting and stopping. He’s actually surprised by how well we recognize where we are in the melody every time he directs us to bring our voices back up.
  • “Point is, singing is not about making sounds…. It’s about trying to pay attention…. Music has the power to make us pay attention and that’s what we need.”
  • It’s an interesting point. We’re likely to actually say or read more of the words if there’s a good tune to say them to. I don’t know if that’s what he meant. Actually, I suspect it’s not. But I like it.
  • He says that the melody is irrelevant. A change in song won’t change the quality of what we’re doing, he says.
  • “Are we hearing ourselves and everyone else or are we waiting for it to end…. Those moments are the best davening moments, when you don’t need lunch” any more and you’re just happy to continue being there, praying and singing.
  • “The choir model sets us up for an expectation of perfection, but not in this [this cramped, everyone singing all at once] model.” He’s making lots of sense to me.
  • Then he says stuff like “Tune into each other’s energy” and I don’t what’s what anymore.
  • We’re singing. Joey’s not making a sound, but he’s rocking back and forth, shuckling in his seat. “Am I contributing?” he asks. Then he slouches and checks his watch. “How about now?”
  • One person says that he was at a shul with assigned seating on Rosh Hashanah, but knowing that he needed to be in the center of the action to daven properly, commandeered a seat closer to the front. He said he also knows that he has something to contribute to the davening, another reason to move toward the front.
  • I guess I’m quite different from that. I start thinking about where I sit at every place I’ve ever been a regular. I always sit all the way off to one side or the other, about 1/3 to 1/4 of the way from the front. Close enough to be in it, but far enough that I’ve got room to thing and, well, take notes like this.
  • We’ve been singing this same nigun for a long time and then the clapping begins. “Almost 40 minutes in, but then it begins…. If clapping begins immediately, the whole thing will be over in two minutes.”
  • “Where do words come in? This is working on its own.” He has us silent. “So if we get into the moment with music and then have the Amidah…” he trails off and stays quiet for a while. It’s eerily quiet. “Music is not about making noice, but drawing us in.”
  • Does anyone else find the pronunciation of nigun as though it is a verb, like “niggin’ ” unsettling and distasteful?
  • Now the group is listing off melodies for “Menucha Vesimcha,” some fast and some slow. The slow ones emphasize menucha (rest), while the fast ones emphasize simcha (joy).
  • “Does the melody need to match the meaning of the words?” someone asks. Joey’s noncommittal. He says that of late he’s been shying away from singing words at all, just filling in between prayers with nigunim.
  • One person points out that a lot of people think that the tune that has become universal for Aleinu is inappropriately bright and bouncy.
  • Another person disagrees, saying that it’s appropriately triumphalist.
  • I jump in: The meaning is important. If we use aesthetics to enhance meaning, even sit on par with it, we’re fine. But if we allow them to supersede and run roughshod over the meaning, we’ve missed the boat.
  • One person, Joey says, looking skeptical bored or whatever can ruin the whole thing. That’s often me, I think. Simi tell me that’s her right now.
  • Abruptly, we’re back to the nigun: “This is called the Hadar nigun, so it’s a good one for us to know.”
  • And now we’re standing up, still singing, louder and louder. Simi: “Seriously?” Me: “Goodness gracious.”
  • And then I notice that she’s started singing!
  • After, on the subway, Simi gets of at Times Square and I continue on to Penn Station. Alone with the strangers on the subway, I realize that I have the nigun stuck in my head now. The same one that we were singing all night and I couldn’t figure out at first is stuck in my head.
Good night.

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13 Responses to “Core Issues in Jewish Prayer: Meaning, Spirit and Music” at Hadar

  1. BZ October 4, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    the traditional egalitarian movement

    Please don’t start this one. It’s hard enough already to fend off “the independent minyan movement”.

    “This is called the Hadar nigun, so it’s a good one for us to know.”

    Whoa. Which one is this?

    • Laura October 4, 2011 at 8:30 am #

      the traditional egalitarian movement

      Please don’t start this one. It’s hard enough already to fend off “the independent minyan movement”.

      What would you suggest as an alternative?

      • BZ October 4, 2011 at 9:20 am #

        Depends what you’re trying to say, but my beef isn’t just with the words but with the idea.

        “Traditional egalitarian” is a davening style, and the set of all communities that daven in this style is not a coherent “movement” (even if we strip that word of its contemporary American Jewish meaning of “denomination”). Many of those communities have been around much longer than any of the Hadars, and would not recognize any of the Hadars as their “flagship”.

        Kehilat Hadar can reasonably be called the flagship minyan of traditional egalitarian independent minyanim founded after 2000, but that’s a smaller set, and anyway, Kehilat Hadar isn’t the subject of this post. Yeshivat Hadar (which is the subject of this post) won’t be a flagship until people start other egalitarian yeshivot in the US; until then, it’s sailing solo.

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2011 at 10:07 am #

          I’m calling them a flagship because they are the only group perpetuating and propagating trad egal and because they are the most visible and high-profile of the trad egal groups out there.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2011 at 10:05 am #

      Movements don’t have to imply hierarchy or organization. There are a lot of people moving toward trad egal. That sounds like a movement to me.

      And I have no idea how to tell you what nigun it is.

      • BZ October 4, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

        Yes, and “gay” just means “happy”, and Long Island includes Brooklyn and Queens, but when you use the word “movement” in the context of American Judaism (especially just a few words away from “institution”), people will assume a specific meaning of the word if you’re not careful to indicate that that’s not what you mean.

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

          Fair enough. But coming from a guy who’s a stickler for the precise meaning of every individual word….

          • BZ October 4, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

            I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m just saying you’re playing with fire. :)

            Do you want to see “Traditional egalitarian” as a denominational option in Steven Cohen’s next survey?

            • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

              What would be bad about that? Surely there are people out there whose primary Jewish communal identification is with a trad egal group. Sure there are people out there who live a trad egal life and see themselves explicitly as doing so.

              So what would be wrong with counting them?

  2. Laura October 4, 2011 at 8:30 am #

    Oh no. Slow singing without words, my worst enemy.
    Way to sit right next to the camera though.

  3. Aryeh Bernstein October 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    A better way to describe it is a social phenomenon or trend than a movement.
    The “Hadar Niggun” is track 4 on Joey Weisenberg’s cd “Joey’s Nigunim”:
    http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/joeyweisenberg

  4. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Roasenberg December 20, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG says:

    December 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    THIS HAS OVER 2000 HITS.

    Dating in the Yeshiva World
    Dating in the Yeshiva World

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg teaches young men and women in the yeshiva world about the dating world. From:stevenperkal

  5. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Roasenberg December 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Subject: Fwd: “Dating in the Yeshiva World” OR ANY OTHER WORLD 2000 HITS

    I would be happy to lead a discussion on this topic together with other professionals . We need to create a safe forum for students to discuss issues of concern. Y.U. is one of the great JEWISH INSTITUTIONS in the world and I have spent most of my life there either as a student or teacher. We must have pride in our school and create a strong environment for TORAH UMADA. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG
    reply

    >

    Subject: : “Dating in the Yeshiva World” OR ANY OTHER WORLD BY DR. ROSENBERG

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