Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Shanah Tovah 5774!

Maybe I'll get back to final conclusions on the Peres Conference and other summer adventures later (and maybe not). . . but I thought it would be nice to post what I've written for our synagogue's Rosh Hashanah services this year. . . 

The Most Important Voice – Yours

Each year I write an intro and commentary regarding the prayers and music for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Although most of what I typically write is about what I sing or what the choir sings, I’d like to turn my attention a bit this year to what YOU sing – and how you sing. 

A major alteration in what synagogues sound like in our lifetimes has been the shifting of singing from the hazzan or cantor and choir to the congregation.  This began with the rising popularity of congregational singing beginning perhaps in the 1950s – and was deeply influenced by songwriters and songleaders like the late Debbie Friedman beginning in the 1970s.  And it has been influenced by the increasing popularity of instrumental music even in more traditional synagogue settings.   There is a new/old phenomenon that has deeply affected many religious gatherings, and this is the Nigun, or wordless melody.  Interestingly, when I look at the sources from which I have learned nusach (the traditional melodies of the synagogue) from 19th century Europe, I sometimes see wordless melodies written before, in the middle, or (less often) after texts – another sign of the importance of the nigun in Jewish musical tradition.

The late Rabbi Shelomo Carlebach was probably the greatest ambassador of nigun singing, yet since his passing in 1994 the power and familiarity of nigunim has increased geometrically, both in the independent minyanim that straddle the world of cosmopolitan young Jews and in the traditional world of hasidic congregations in Israel and the U.S. as more people from outside those communities investigate what’s going on there musically.

What does this have to do with us at Tifereth Israel?  That depends to a great extent on you.   We are creating more opportunities for congregational singing and nigun singing this year than ever before – both at our traditional services and our alternative services. 

Singing a nigun frees you up from trying to make it fit the words, and lets you move toward a meaningful spiritual experience that goes beyond the words.  What makes a good nigun?  It needs to be catchy enough that you can learn to sing parts of it immediately and all of it after a few or medium number of tries – but not so catchy that it becomes an earworm – something that disturbs you day and night.  We can try to examine those characteristics scientifically, but I think we are better off listening and singing.

I will work hard to sing the prayers beautifully in ways that help you see, hear and feel their meaning—using the traditions developed over centuries combined with the flexibility of the nusach to allow me to never sing the liturgy the same way twice. 

The choir will sing a few pieces that reflect the high points of composers’ interpretations from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries – and they will help to lead all the congregational singing—old melodies and new.

I hope that you will have some deeply satisfying moments in your listening to them and to me.  But I’m depending most of all on those moments when we are all singing together.   In the Alternative Service, Rebecca Gurk will serve as “Rosh Nigun” to assist Rabbi Woodward in bringing nigun to the heart of their service.

What will make those moments great?  The more that you allow yourself to sing as part of the whole, the more you will derive from it – and the more all of us will take away.  You don’t need to wrestle with the words of the nigunim – but singing a melody without words requires something else; something a little deeper.  Reach down and find that part of you that you can’t put into words, and pour it into the nigun.

And you can turn any congregational melody into a nigun by singing it without the words.  Find what works for you, and help us make this the most beautiful High Holidays ever!

The Music and Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah
Evening Service:   The formal beginning of the evening service (Maa’riv), Barchu (p. 5), introduces the majestic and elegant nusach melody that will be heard up to the Amidah and in the Kiddush—and on Kol Nidrei as well.  (Nusach refers to the melodies and musical modes customary to our religious traditions.)

The Amidah begins and ends the same way as at most other services.  The main differences are found in the Kedushat Hashem (Sanctification of God’s name – an extended form of Atah Kadosh, p. 13)  and Kedushat Hayom (Sanctification of the Day, pp.14-15).  These paragraphs, from Uv’chein Tein Pachd’cha through M’loch al kol ha’olam (p. 42), will be recited each Amidah on Rosh Hashanah. 

The composition May the Words, sung at the conclusion of the silent Amidah, is my arrangement of a melody written by “our own” Alice Levitin.  At the evening service’s conclusion, Yigdal has a special melody unique to the High Holidays.

Morning Service
The sh’liach tzibbur (service leader, literally “messenger of the community”) begins at different times on different occasions – Yishtabach on weekdays, Shochein Ad on Shabbat, Ha-el on Festivals, and Hamelech (p. 69) on the High Holidays.  Hamelech, of course means “the King” – and this is the aspect of God (who we describe in many ways with many names) that is central to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). 

The Shacharit prayers are similar to those of weekdays and Shabbat – but, as noted before, the nusach is of quite a different character. 

The first passages that distinguish the Shacharit (morning) Amidah from Ma’ariv (evening) are found on page 81 – Misod embodies what might be the central musical motif of high holiday davening.  The three piyyutim on pp. 83-85 each establish in their own way the majesty of God the Judge contrasted with the lowliness of us, the petitioners.  L’el oreich din (p. 85) particularly brings home the judgment theme and in a sense serves as a Shacharit pre-echo of the awesome Un’taneh Tokef prayer of the Musaph service.

Following the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah, the Shacharit service reaches a new height with the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu.  Our choir’s settings are by Max Janowski (a pretty famous piece of 20th century Jewish music even before Barbra Streisand recorded it) and Michael Isaacson – and we conclude by chanting together with the congregation.

The music for the Torah Service (p. 96) includes many familiar melodies in their original form: choral works.  These works became so popular throughout Europe that their melodies achieved MiSinai status among Ashkenazic congregations, though they date “only” to the 19th century.  (MiSinai means, literally, “from Sinai” – but figuratively, ancient melodies.  Many of our high holiday MiSinai melodies date to Ashkenazic Jewish practice in Germany as far back as the 11th century!)

For Adonai Adonai (p. 97), I have adapted a melody and setting by Samuel Naumbourg (Chief Cantor in Paris from 1845) that leads us into the familiar congregational melody that we chant.  Since the text is recited three times, I wanted to provide multiple interpretrations—while preserving our opportunity to sing something familiar together.

When we return the Torah to the Ark, we will sing Uvnucho Yomar (p. 123).  On the first day, I have pieced together some of the beautiful melodies of Lewandowski to lead up to his magnificent Hashiveinu.  On the second day, we sing my arrangement that dramatizes the Uvnucho Yomar text and leads us into our congregational Etz Chayim Hi sung together with 4-part choir.

The Musaph (Additional) Service begins with the plaintive Hatzi Kaddish followed by the recitation of the Silent Amidah.  The Musaph service is at heart just a big (really, really big) Amidah.  The first pass through – the silent Amidah – is everything I described in the Ma’ariv service plus three lengthy compendia of biblical references to Malchuyot (sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (shofar soundings). 

Un’taneh Tokef, which includes B’rosh Hashanah (pp. 282-284), is the dramatic high point of the Musaph liturgy.  Its stirring imagery of God sitting in judgment before us contrasts the loud, clarion call of the shofar with the hearing of a “still small voice.”  It paints a pastoral picture of sheep passing before their Shepherd Who determines who shall live and who shall die (and how).  Along with this comes the statement that God waits for us to repent until the final moment, that we are like dust, that we pass away like a dream. 

Musaph musical highlights include B’rosh Hashanah (especially the lyrical melody by Meir Finkelstein performed by young people in our congregation, including Gabrielle Cohen, Halley Dunn, Marissa Madison and Allison Meyer) but also the dramatic rendering of the same text by Aminadav Aloni. 

One of the melodies for Areshet S’fateinu (recited, along with Hayom Harat Olam) for each of the Musaph shofar soundings, pp. 158, 162, 166) is an adaptation of a melody of the renowned Cantor-Composer Todros Greenberg.  Greenberg, the “dean” of Chicago cantors for generations, was the great-grandfather of Amy Judd of our congregation!

Near the conclusion of the service are Lewandowski’s jubilant setting of Psalm 150 (p. 165) and the “fan favorite” up-tempo “Chasidic Kaddish” (p. 171).  The latter piece was made famous by Yossele Rosenblatt, the greatest of all 20th century cantors.  The Lewandowski psalm setting is a favorite wherever Jewish choirs gather or meet.  I have performed the Lewandowski Psalm here for many years – and in the congregation where I first was exposed to great Jewish music (Temple Emanu-El, Providence, RI), in the Berliner Dom with 70 cantors and that great church’s great choirs, at the North American Jewish Choral Festival – and many other places.  It is the Ode to Joy of Jewish liturgy and Jewish choral singing.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year--Cantor Jack Chomsky

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