Some Thoughts the Day after ShavuotOne of the nice things I’ve heard in recent years is when a young adult or their parent tells me about their going to synagogue somewhere else, enjoying it okay, but really missing me—because my voice is such an important part of their sense of what synagogue and Jewish life are and should be—or at least have been. A lovely thing for a cantor to contemplate, and something I understand in terms of hearing the voices of my cantors—Leo Roitman, cantor of my youth at Little Neck Jewish Center, and Ivan Perlman, cantor of my discovery of Jewish life, music and the cantorate at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island.
I thought of that sentiment on Monday morning this week as I led services for the 2nd Day of Shavuot. I recently passed my 60th birthday, and I’m a great deal more aware now of the idea that my voice won’t be ringing in the Sanctuary of Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio forever—that in 10 years I will hopefully still be healthy and happy – but by that time the Cantor Emeritus, a voice still heard, but perhaps only occasionally.
The bittersweet moment leaned toward the bitter when I thought about how, at that moment, I thought I was making great, worthwhile and even memorable sounds, but that so few were on hand to share them. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I’m thrilled to find that I’m very strong physically and vocally—more than I might have expected. When I studied voice in college, my standard for an “old voice” was Dr. David Laurent, head of the music department at Brown. I remember that Jon Mills, who was the only person I had ever met from Columbus, Ohio, referred to him as “the belly.” This sounds disrespectful and mean-spirited now, but seemed affectionate then. Laurent was a distinguished bass-baritone, and I remember how his voice seemed a deep grey-green to me. (Living in the Google age, I can pause for a moment’s research and learn that Laurent was a member of the class of 1949 at Brown. His last full-length recital was conducted in 1987, some ten years after my graduation. He was a past president of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. He WON A GRAND PRIX DU DISQUE for a recording of the St. John Passion (albeit in the 1950s).) Doing the math, it seems that Laurent was probably 49 years old when we gave him the nickname. The idea that I am still singing strong at age 60 is a surprise to the 27-year-old I was when I arrived in Columbus—not so much to the 50+ year-old I became later.
In any case, I felt, this past Monday morning, that it was more worthwhile for someone to daven with me than perhaps at any previous time in my career—the combination of increased knowledge and intimacy with the texts and nusach, along with essentially undiminished vocal capacity. And I was kind of sad that there were so few present to share in it.
On Festival mornings, the hazzan (cantor) begins at Ha-el—a paragraph sooner than Shochein Ad, where he/she begins on Shabbat. And that moment the text has a special melody unique to the Shalosh Regalim—the Three Festivals (if one can say that it’s unique when it appears in each of the ten Festival Days on the liturgical calendar). On this particular morning, it seemed like more than just singing the right notes. It seemed like someone who would ordinarily hear me on a Shabbat morning would really experience a sense of the altered holiness of the Festival Day. But of course, that’s part of the problem right there: most of the hundred or so (we like to think it’s 150, and sometimes it is and sometimes it’s more) who come on Shabbat aren’t present for Shochein Ad.
The whole flow of liturgy from where the hazzan begins is a liturgical, musical and linguistic procession that benefits from familiarity.
A friend once observed that she was having difficulty connecting spiritually with services despite her fairly regular attendance. My response was that she ought to come earlier—that the whole experience really fits together better if you’re there from the beginning –or near the beginning.
I don’t think that I’ve ever been forgiven for that response—but the response wasn’t YOU should come earlier (or shouldn’t have been), but rather that the experience is deepened and makes much more sense if it begins earlier.
In explaining to people what we do in services—daily and on Shabbat—I have reduced the experience to “four words that are three words”: ME YOU US US. ME refers to Birkot Hashachar. YOU refers to P’sukei D’zimrah. These sections actually occur prior to when the cantor begins, but they are critical to the depth of the spiritual experience. Birkot Hashachar expresses 1st-person thankfulness for starting our day with the amazing faculties we have as humans and as Jews. This sense of elation is only increased with P’sukei D’zimrah, the series of poetry—especially many psalms and the Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) that remind us, coursing through our mind and body as we recite them—of God’s greatness.
Equipped with excitement and energy about our personal thankfulness and God’s greatness, we then arrive at the main business of our prayers: Sh’ma and Amidah. Sh’ma is the first US—that you and I, God, have a relationship. I proclaim Your oneness and my loyalty to You. And I express my hope or belief that there will be reward for the good that I bring to the world. The Amidah is the second US—the one that says that I have such a deep relationship with the Creator that I step into God’s office for a conversation about what’s on my mind. On weekdays, this involves 19 blessings about every corner of my daily concern. On Shabbat (and Festivals), we keep it to 7 blessings—as the middle 13 blessings fold down into one that declare the holiness of the day—recognizing that God’s office is closed for business on Shabbat and Yom Tov except for the joyful business of celebrating Shabbat and Yom Tov.
All of this ME YOU US US happens by about 9:55 a.m. on a typical Shabbat. Which means that someone arriving at 10:15 a.m. is party to a completely different experience. Not a bad experience, but one lacking a foundation of deep spiritual joy.
So there I was, davening Shacharit on the 2nd Day of Shavuot, experiencing and sharing the sameness of the procession through the liturgy alongside its differentness. Same because the words are so consistent. Different because of the tension between Yom Tov and Shabbat. Or between this time, last time and next time. Each time is different. I think that those who are with us at 9 a.m. or 9:15 a.m. can tell you that. I could stop and explain it to you, but that’s not how we roll.
On the two days of Shavuot, we did Full Hallel—as contrasted with the “Half Hallel” we do most of the time. Each of these days had a strong musical personality distinct from the other. On the 1st Day, we prayed in the Chapel. This meant that anything that the congregation did in consonance or in harmony with me was felt with way above average immediacy. I chose tunes and tempos that were appropriate to that situation—and it was a super-charged Hallel. (Thanks, Aaron Rosenfeld, for noticing that. And Rosa Stolz, for enabling it—being a full partner in it.) On the 2nd Day, we were in the Sanctuary—and on the road toward Yizkor (Memorial Service)—as well as the inclusion of a chapter from the Book of Ruth. These things affect the choices that I make. I don’t need to stop and explain. But I hope that you understand the thought and feeling that’s going into this.
So, as I start to recognize that my voice will be but a memory sooner than later—or at least soner than used to be the case—I start to think about who will remember? What will they remember? Will they remember hearing me? What my voice sounded like? How I helped them find their way into the liturgy through my singing as well as by my teaching? Or will they just remember that they know that I sang, even though they weren’t there? Or even though they weren’t there yet?
Looking back, I remember that Cantor Roitman, my childhood cantor, loved leading our services. He always seemed to have a beatific smile when he led our prayers, one which drew us (or me, at least) toward him, and perhaps heavenward. I had no idea what lay at the foundation of what he was doing. That word, nusach, that refers to the traditions of prayers, modes and melodies, which I have devoted my life to nurturing, preserving and teaching? I never heard that word until my work in college or afterward with Cantor Perlman. And I’m upset to know that many people in our congregation don’t know or understand it either. That although I can be tiresome about preserving and nurturing our musical and liturgical traditions, I’m apparently nowhere near tiresome enough! I had one irreverent class of 6th graders who used to sing “Tropes Man, Tropes Man, Trope! Trope!” every time I walked in to teach them the tropes for chanting haftarah. I think (Googling again) this referred to a 1981 hit called “The Stroke.” In any case, I don’t think that enough people comment as I come or go “there’s Nusach Man”.
The point of all of this is not “listen to me.” The point is that I want to remind you again and again and again that there is a benefit to investing the time and effort to learn and recite the prayers. To grow intimate with the words and melodies. But it’s not a simple thing. You’re not likely to get it by experiencing it two or three times. Like all deep things, it requires a real investment. I want to invite you to make that investment. I feel that I can promise you an almost limitless return on your investment. We live in a world in which 2% annually is considered pretty fantastic, although we also expect immediate gratification in almost every corner of our life.
I can pretty much promise you that you won’t get immediate gratification. But I think that 500% might be a low estimate for the eventual outcome.
Thanks for listening. Please consider listening some more. And singing along at every opportunity.
To “amplify,” I’ll be adding some words soon about the prayer recited just before I begin each Shabbat or Festival day – Nishmat Kol Chai. But I’ll let you come at that text fresh!