On High Holiday music

by Rachel Barenblat (Lanesboro, MA)

This past week I had two very different liturgical experiences. I spent Shabbat Shuvah weekend at Jewish Renewal retreat center Elat Chayyim, and I went to Yom Kippur services at the congregation I just joined here in North Adams. (Technically it’s a Reform shul, though the congregation was Conservative for a century, so they tend towards a Hebrew-intensive kind of Reform-ness.)

I’m a big fan of Elat Chayyim, in part because I really like the way they handle prayer services. Services are egalitarian and creative; they do interesting things with God-language; they often incorporate meditation into their davvening (they regard prayer as, among other things, a vehicle for becoming more spiritually awake). They also sing a lot: often chants based around one line or one phrase from a particular prayer, and always melodies that are easy to learn and follow.

My little shul uses a fair amount of song in our Shabbat services…but I learned this year that we handle the Days of Awe in a special way. We hire a cantorial soloist to lead us in song. And I didn’t like that one bit.

My problems with the cantor were twofold. First, half the time she sang for us rather than with us, and I don’t like having someone else pray on my behalf. (I’m interested in a grassroots kind of worship, in which the rabbi or chazzan is there to lead us, not to do things for us.) And secondly, she was using ornate, flowery melodies that most of us didn’t know and couldn’t guess, so even when she was trying to lead us in song, we weren’t following very well.

Because I’d just come from Elat Chayyim, where the chants and niggunim are so intuitive and everyone sings everything, the contrast was remarkable.

I know that a lot of people like having a cantor, especially for the High Holidays. And I expect my rabbi was happy to have someone to co-lead services with him; leading a congregation through the intense and intensive Days of Awe has to be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s nice to have someone to share that burden with.

I know that there are special melodies, a special nusach, for the Days of Awe. And I imagine that the cantor probably loves singing this stuff, because it’s the only time of year she gets to do so. If you train to be a cantor, and you learn all of these different melodies for different liturgical seasons, you probably want to use them all, right?

But as a worshipper, I have to say, it really put me off. Because when I’m spending a whole day in shul, I want to be involved. I want to be singing. And since I didn’t know many of the the melodies our cantor was using, I couldn’t follow along. Half the time I just sat there, trying not to be surly, looking at the words and humming the easy melodies I’ve encountered in other congregations under my breath.

Now and then we returned to a melody that everyone knew. And then our voices rang out, and it really felt like a holiday again. Which was great; but it served to highlight how frustrating the rest of the experience was.

So I want to argue against the use of flowery High Holiday nusach. I think it perpetuates a kind of disempowerment. Only the people who happen to know the special melodies can participate, and everyone else is left silenced and subdued: hardly conducive to feeling involved or even uplifted by the shul experience. And isn’t that what we’re there for?

Rachel Barenblat is beginning her fifth year as a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program, and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington. Author of four poetry chapbooks, she’s been blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi (http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/) since 2003. She lives in Lanesboro, MA, where she and her husband Ethan are expecting their first child this December.

This essay first appeared on The Velveteen Rabbi in October, 2003 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

For more information about Rachel, you can read this interview: http://faithfulprogressive.blogspot.com/2005/05/fp-interview-rachel-barenblat-from.html

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