The following is a transcript of Episode 112 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Wednesday, September 28th, 2022.
So a funny thing happens to me every year, starting about two weeks or so ago on the Jewish calendar. So most of the year on my commute, I listen to a mindless podcast, usually Smartless, or I listen to music, or I make work calls. Then about two weeks into Elul, I start to panic about the high holidays, and then for about three weeks, so leading into Rosh Hashana, and then throughout this entire week into Yom Kippur, all I can listen to or think about or hum all the time, like walking around the office today, are high holiday melodies.
Now, some of these melodies are already part of the liturgy, helping me to prepare for leading them in services. Some of them are just thematic songs to get into the mood, stuff about Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, and some are just niggunim, wordless melodies, that maybe I could figure out a way to use in the liturgy here or there.
Just this morning I found myself singing this one in the shower. Stick with me (sings).
Uh, that was what we sang what Elie Kaunfer led at the services that I was leading with for the, one of the closing liturgical poems of the Musaf Service on the second day of Rosh Hashana. So I’m not alone with this musical habit. Those of us who have had the job of leading services for Jewish communities around the world have been kind of privately anxious for a few weeks now, and these are the soundtracks in our head. We walk among you.
Actually the Hebrew month of Elul, which proceeds Rosh Hashana is actually designed exactly for this purpose. We’re supposed to spend a month filled with prayers and metaphors, all themed towards getting ready, getting in the mood for the high holidays. And if I was a little bit more pious, I’d just start panicking a little earlier in the month.
Most of my professional life, which exists in this strange realm called Jewish leadership, I spend talking and writing. This is a way of showing up in the world, and I like what I do. But for three days a year, I show up a little bit differently as a leader, and that involves leading services in synagogue, not speaking at services, usually, sometimes confuses some of my colleagues, but actually as a kind of musical leader.
From 2005 to 2019, I did this at the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline, an independent egalitarian minion that Stephanie and I helped to found. But since the onset of the pandemic when we couldn’t travel back, I’ve been organizing and leading services together with my friend Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, here in Riverdale, in three different backyard tents, in three years.
For those three days a year, my role feels a lot different. Less about saying original things that others will hopefully find persuasive, but actually trying to find ways for others to say old things themselves out loud in ways that hopefully they will feel sound authentic to themselves.
That’s the business of being a ba’al tefillah, a prayer leader, or shaliach tzibur, a designated representative of the congregation. I wanted to spend some time with you all in the midst of this Jewish holiday season parsing this work, and especially the piece of it that resonates the most for me, the activity of communal singing is a big piece of the story of Jewish prayer.
For me, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the best singing days of the Jewish year with a possible exception of the whole drinking song section that takes place at the end Pesach seder. And since I encountered religious communities that center song into the heart of the synagogue experience, I’ve never been able to go back.
Now I wanna clarify two important things. First, there’s a line of professional work called the Cantor. There are people who lead prayers for a living, some of whom are professional musicians and soloists. Those folks would doubtlessly have a lot to say on this with a particular kind of professional expertise.
There’s also widespread diversity in the Jewish people about the activity of singing in synagogue, what kind of synagogue, what melodies, what’s appropriate. My guests and I come at this issue today, different from one another, but also different from other sectors of the Jewish world who would have this conversation a little bit differently.
And we come at it a little bit more personally. I met both Rabbi Na’ama Levitz Applebaum, who lives in Jerusalem, but is leading high holiday services this year in Portland, Oregon, and Rabbi Marc Baker, who spends most of his professional time as the president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.
I met them both as co-prayer leaders with me at the Washington Square Minyan back in Brookline. I don’t actually know that we overlapped in the same lineup for high holidays more than once, or if at all, before both Na’ama and I moved away, and now there’s a whole other lineup of talented people taking up that mantle.
But I was thinking about building an episode on singing in shul. I immediately thought of these two dear friends and two immensely talented people. The people who I already frantically exchanged text messages with in the month of Elul with ideas and options for how we might make the singing even better this year than last. It’s a conversation in other words that I wanted to finally have out loud.
So first of all, thank you both for being here and being here this week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Your voices right now are precious commodity. Thanks for giving us a little bit of them. I wanna start with a icebreaker. What’s one thing in your davening that you did a little differently this year? A different melody that you brought in, and we’ll get to the whole question of how much new and how much old, but was there something that you brought in a new tune or a new approach that you brought in differently this year? Na’ama, I’ll start with you.
Na’ama: So thanks to our little exchange erev chag, I went back to listen to Shlomo Katz’s Live in Melbourne album and ended up doing a different niggun this year. And it was, you know, in musaf and I have my usual kind of like nusach that I go through and I just totally stopped myself and decided to sing something else.
It was also a moment I think for me of, I’ve never davened with this community before and so I am happy to try something new because they don’t know that I’ve never done it. And it felt kind of like an opportunity for me to be able to do it. So his v’yihiyeh dakol paut k’ata pealto, cause it’s also kind of like, just upbeat and, and catchy and, and, fun.
Yehuda: Yeah, he actually says on that album that this might be the most important line in the service. I felt very validated when he said that on the album, it’s a line describing the kind of utopian, universal vision of Rosh Hashana. Every creature, um, and every creation will know that you, God, are the force behind them and everything, any living thing in the world, um, that has breath, um, kol asher sheneshama apo, everything will, will kind of acknowledge, uh, God’s leadership.
And it, you’re right, it kind of could just disappear, um, if you mumble through it, as many service, as many prayer leaders do. But, uh, but Shlomo Katz has a great, um, melody for it.
Marc, what about you?
Marc: Clearly we were exchanging, uh, WhatsApps. Uh, so I also, um, I’ve had a kind of, um, I kind of fell in love with a very upbeat, uh, niggun from that same album. Thank you. Shlomo Katz, Live in Melbourne, called, uh, Niggun Mitzpe, which I sent, it’s super upbeat. I haven’t had the courage actually to do it, cause I don’t love teaching niggunim for the first time during davening.
I just, I don’t have confidence in myself to get everyone singing something they don’t know. But this year we actually had a little sing fest, um, two weeks earlier with about 15 people from the minyan, and I taught it then. So I had the courage to teach it, Um, and I did it to, um, attah hu elokeinu bashamayim uvaaretz, which is, you know, lends itself to an upbeat tune I think. And. It was, uh, it was fun, energizing, and fun for me to try it out.
Yehuda: I assume some people came to the kind of pre-show to learn the tunes. Did other people join in with a tune that was new to them and in some ways new to the liturgy?
Marc: Uh, yeah, I mean, I had the critical mass around me who kind of picked it up quickly. And then I think between all of us, we managed to get people singing along.
Yehuda: I did for the first time this year, uh, Ishai Ribo’s version of okhi lilael, which actually I think is not a Ishai Ribo tune. I think it was written by, I wanna say Meir Katz. That’s what I was told, but I’m not sure. We could do a little bit of a digging on that.
But I sang it this year for okhila, which is also a pivotal moment in the tefillah. It’s right before the cantor, the prayer leader starts the full repetition of the, of the Amida, right in the middle. It’s like a, a liturgical poem of like kind of mobilizing yourself. Um, and I sang it and the whole place started singing. And this, I have to say, was kind of a life highlight as a prayer leader.
There was one person in shul who, her parents were part of the group that helped us found Washington Square Minyan, and since then they’ve also moved to Riverdale, so we’re part of the same congregation again. And when we started Washington Square Minyan, this was a kid who was three. And now she’s a junior at NYU and was home with her family for Rosh Hashana.
And when she came over after shul and said to me, I’m really happy that you did Ishai Ribo, I was like, Oh my God. This is, that’s what you want, right? Of, I, people find themselves, uh, in the prayers. Okay. So now that we started kind of with a warm up, I would love to hear from both of you what your backgrounds and inspirations are. The traditions that you come from, which are very different for all three of us actually, of like who are the people who you learned from or watched, um, that shaped how and why you wanted to be kind of song leaders, uh, in synagogue. And, and maybe I’ll start with you this time, Marc.
Marc: So I grew up, um, without much meaning in prayer. For me, the high holidays, I was a kind of a classic three time a year synagogue goer. And other than remembering, you know, the haunting voice of our cantor of blessed memory by the way, Canor Sam Pessaroff, and the wife of our Rabbi of Blessed memory, you know, on a, on a few lines, I did not find much meaning in prayer, until much later in life.
And uh, I think that the moment that changed prayer for me, and that kind of showed me that actually song can be an incredibly important part of one’s spiritual life was upstairs at Yakar in Jerusalem in the late nineties. Someone took me and, uh, truth is, I, I didn’t really know howo pray, which is a whole nother conversation. So I had the also kind of like, you’re an outsider, you don’t feel prayer literate, and everything is in Hebrew.
And the song, I think, after a couple times of going enabled me, mostly the “dai dai dais,” you know, the “dai dais” after the words. I muddled through the words. But then the kind of the allowing myself to be swept up in song and eventually get comfortable enough to kind of feel authentic doing that was a game changer for me.
And then the other, I think, critical moment was when the same person who took me there took me to the Leader Minyan in Jerusalem, in the tennis center, I think on Rechov Hatzfira on Rosh Hashana, which is an epic experience, and it’s very, very long, but I just distinctly remember, um, leaving that singing the tunes and feeling a distinct sense that this is what prayer can be all about.
And years later, after kind of doing it, I, I kind of got up the courage to try leading it myself. And uh, it’s just been, uh, a blessing to be able to try to recreate some of what I experienced in those places so many years ago.
Yehuda: Can I push you to say what enabled you to move from someone who muddled through the words to get the confidence to lead other people in this? It’s not easy work.
Marc: Yeah, I mean, the honest answer is probably my all or nothing personality, but the truth is that the last person that I should give a shout out to when I think about my relationship with prayer and song is Rabbi Meir Schweiger at Pardes. Um, I’d say many, many people, um, probably have had him as a prayer role model.
For many years he led the optional morning minyan at Pardes, when, you know, most people didn’t go. And very early on in my journey, I realized if I wanna learn how to pray, I just have to go pray. And I kind of, I didn’t know what I was doing. I certainly wasn’t feeling obligated. I just started going every morning. And um, over time it became kind of organic and authentic to me.
And Meir was one of the people who, it was a role model for what it means to lead and, and pray with deep, deep kavanah, deep intention. And I think over time, at some point someone was like, You wanna try leading? And it just felt natural for me. The song leader in me, Yehuda, though for sure, comes from camp.
I went to a Jewish camp that wasn’t particularly religious or spiritual, so I didn’t learn any of these songs at camp, but I did learn how to lead large groups of people in wild ruckus fight song type things, and we could kind of unpack the connection between that and being a shaliach tzibur.
Yehuda: Totally. Na’ama you’re, you’re kind of the opposite story, right? You grew up in, in essence in, in cantorite royalty, and in, and music in your dna.
Naama: Yeah, really. I more and more lately have been feeling just extremely, extremely privileged, um, in this respect because, uh, I actually, my, my grandfather, the cantor passed away, um, almost a year ago. And, um, every chag that we get to during this year of, of mourning has been like, well, this is what Saba would sing and Saba would make us, you know, daven this, in this kind of way, and just feeling very blessed, um, that I grew up in a home and in an environment where like motzei Tisha B’Av, the machzors would come out and you start practicing nusach, right?
So definitely against my procrastinating nature. As you said, Yehuda, you know, kind of like cramming in those last niggunim right before chag, but that was like the melody and the soundtrack to what our lives looked like. So there was very specific songs that you were can sing Friday night and very specific songs that you can sing Shabbat day and you can’t mix the two.
And we became very snobby and very picky about who shlichei tzibur are. So we couldn’t also go to shul anywhere because, um, it, it’s actually, you know, it’s difficult, uh, when you sit there and criticize the ba’al tefillah who’s not doing the exact kaddish and the right, you know, nusach for that time.
And so my father, who was not the son of, but the son-in-law, um, also was trained by my grandfather as a chazan. And he really had my brother, who’s a younger, a year younger than I am, was singing with him, uh, in shul on yamim noraim from the age of three. And so that was really my upbringing, and also being able to be very fluent, in tefillah, and in, in, in nusach and in niggun.
Yehuda: So it’s interesting cause Marc, your rupture from a particular type of congregation to what you discovered is kind of the opposite story. Cause Na’ama, your rupture was basically clawing your way in to a patriarchal cantor family and becoming a prayer leader yourself. Uh, I know that that was a big move, right?
Naama: So for me, as a woman and growing up in Orthodox, um, household, it’s been a long journey. Um, and I, I, I feel very blessed that I, you know, I would say that the, the beginnings are definitely a big part of my story is Washington Square and Yehuda and Marc, and I still have notes in my machzor that say, Yehuda and Marc’s Niggun.
And, um, you know, and just kind of feeling that I was given the opportunity to be able to bring some of, I would say tradition, masoret, and nusach to a community. And, in kind of like in a selfish way, to have the place to experiment and develop my leading skills far from home.
Yehuda: Na’ama, do you have your, I imagine, do you have like your grandfather’s voice in your head of like, you, you have to sing these particular songs on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Constantly?
Naama: Constantly, constantly and, and a lot of like fear and trepidation that when I wanna integrate a new niggun, like I did this past Rosh Hashana, knowing that it has to be very meduyak, like very exact. It has to have like the right kind of tone to it. It has to be appropriate for the words. You know, my grandfather was fifth generation Yerushalmi, would always uh, lament over the mitzaga hashirim haivri.
Like if, you know, if there were prayer leaders that were really bringing in every modern Israeli, uh, song into tefillah, he was like, lo matim, this not appropriate for this. And can’t do that. And so I am very careful as far as um, what kind of tunes I bring in for sure.
Yehuda: So I’ll just share my own point of access to this. I think that the first prayer leader who I saw, who came, actually, I think out of the song leader tradition, who really inspired me as a teenagers was Richard Joel, who led services when he was at the time president of Hillel and moved to Washington and became the prayer leader in our kind of small synagogue, the startup synagogue, became now big synagogue, Kemp Mill Synagogue.
And you know, Richard was, like during the week, he was a accordion man. Like that’s where he came out of that system. And it felt that way. It was like joyful and exuberant. And then, when I went to Yeshiva, Rav Amital, the Rosh Yeshiva, didn’t have a great voice, that wasn’t his thing, but it was prayer in a different way, for a Holocaust survivor who would just get up there and pour his heart into mussaf and was actually lifted by the congregation around him.
And that, I think that’s what it was like, I think I learned first what the responsibilities of the prayer leader are and then what the responsibilities of a good congregation is to the prayer leader to see that kind of symbiosis.
Um, I have a kind of theory that I’d love to sort out with the both of you, which is that like, there’s like an x axis and a y axis of, of the high holiday experience. One of the Xes is on the axis of joyful to somber, and the other side is from experience to performance, right? Like what we’re talking about here are highly experiential. None of us are cantorial soloists in that, right? Na’ama could be, but none of us actually function that way as Cantorial soloists. We wanna be there to like be, create an experience for people.
Naama: We’re not professionally trained, which
Yehuda: And in that sense we’re not professionally trained. Correct. Um, I would say though, what’s interesting is that there are a lot of high holiday services in the world that are a performance. And I say that not disparagingly. I think there are a lot of people who expect to go hear a performance, to listen to the cantor or to listen to the rabbi.
And there’s definitely an axis on the somber and the joyful. There’s a lot of people who I think would come into services the way we’re describing, like this group is kind of all the way in the quadrant of joyful experience, and there are a lot of people who would be like, no, that’s not what the holidays are supposed to be about.
So I’d love at the same time, there’s a little bit of somber, so I’d love to hear you kind of toggle with that, cause I think that’s out there for what people expect out of the high holidays. And I’m curious, I guess all of us have been moved into the joyful experience part of things. I’m curious what it’s like to live in the Jewish world together with others who don’t.
Naama: You know, you’re catching me, um, in a bit of a unique situation here. I have been blessed to come and lead a community in tefillah, a community that I’ve never met. Uh, have never davened with before. And also the first woman coming to lead tefillah, which is a big thing for them as well.
And a lot of expectation of kind of that Cantor feel performance, which is very much, you know, it’s not my style at all, almost. And so, the different things that I, I can do or were in my power to do in order to kind of manage those expectations and create the balance of, on one hand, as you mentioned, a joyful, meaningful experience with people who don’t necessarily know the tunes that I’m going to sing or don’t have those access points.
Again, going back into that kind of privileged life that I, that I lead in, in tefillah. And, and so really finding a balance and that, an I think back to my grandfather and, he was yes, also about nusach, but he was also so much about kavanah and there wasn’t one tefillah of the high holidays that he didn’t break down crying.
And I think that, that for me, you know, is kind of like that where we meet, right, on the X and the Y as far as how do we create meaning? First of all, it has to be real. Also understanding just the great responsibility that we have. I think that, that, for me when I, when I lead tefillah, um, is definitely very, very present. Um, the responsibility of having people find meaning in this and, um, being able to create a meaningful experience that that is lasting and that energizes us for the rest of the year.
And there are certain parts in the tefillah that are meant, I think, again, to be somber. So I’m not gonna sing an uptune for u’ntenaeh tokef. Which, you know, I think would be difficult to swallow, for a lot of us. And on the other hand, you know, we have v’yeetayu, this, we, we talk about a kingship and v’yitnu lecha keter melucha, and it’s an uplifting, with words that are meant to be happy. And I think that there is, kind of, like, those ups and downs during the tefillah.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. Marc, I know you’ve thought about this a lot, especially the joyful experience part. I’ve been with you when you lead davening. One of the things that’s so incredible about being in shul with Marc when he leads davening is how much smiling you do. I mean, it’s like, it’s hard not to feel, uh, infectious joy.
So maybe, like, what’s that about, for your read of the high holidays and what they’re supposed to be?
Marc: Thank you, Yehuda. That’s nice. I, I, I think, um, look for me. Most of this is about people in community. Like most everything else I’ve done in my life, I think the energy I bring to it and the relationships I create, create through it tend to far outweigh the talent I bring to it.
And what I mean by that is, for me it’s my attempt to bring that kind of intentionality and energy and kavanah and to kind of be with people in singing, I think far outweighs my sense of my own musical capability or my capacity to provide the kind of, what you call, performative experience that some people may be looking for.
Honestly, like if you’re looking for that, like I’m a disappointment as a prayer leader in, in all honesty. Maybe honestly that’s a flaw. I may not have that tool in my toolbox for people that are looking for that. But I tend to skew far to the joy, energy connect side. And even when I’m somber and sad, it’s an attempt, I think, to be in it with the community, by the way, sometimes too much. Sometimes people are like, Okay, we’re done already. We’re ready to move on. You know? And I want more from people.
Um, I will say my, I’m just thinking about your two by two. The problem with the word performative, of course, is that it can be taken as judgemental, even though you said it’s not. I, I’m thinking about it from the experience of the pray-er who’s in the congregation. It may be also that there’s a time when there’s different people who connect in authentic ways to different things.
And I think the question isn’t whether it’s performative or not performative. The question is what draws you into authentic connection with the prayer leader? Like the way you described Rav Amital. And I think there are people who feel deeply connected to someone when they are listening to that person’s voice, when they’re listening to the kind of cantorial soloist. That’s what draws them in.
It’s not like they’re passively sitting listening to a performance, but actually, that is what’s authentic and compelling for them. I tend to feel like connected in authentic and compelling ways, what I’m singing along with people and banging a shtender and kind of dancing along.
But I just, I think it’s so different for different people and by the way, different for different people in different contexts with different prayers and different tunes. That’s what makes this so hard, right? Cause, you know, you could have someone who comes in and expects a sing-along for one thing. But if you try to sing along to another one, they’re like, What are you doing?
The only thing I’ll just add is that I, I tend to have the job of a Yom Kippur Mussaf every year, which is really interesting liturgically because of how many different modalities there are. And the one place where I feel like I have a real experience with the performative is with the recitation of the avodah, of the service of the high priest, that is then followed by the martyrology, neither of which lend themselves to communal singing.
Just so we’re clear, both of which I have a custom of doing out loud. And I will say, I find them both incredibly emotional, and my kids find that part probably the least comfortable part of the prayer service because I think they see me as performative in that moment. It’s like such an interesting thing. They, they find a lot of discomfort with that modality.
Yehuda: So something really interesting happened at our services this year, which I absolutely loved. Rabbi Avi Killip was doing the sermon for our services on the first day and, and gave just a beautiful, really stirring talk on, on building, rebuilding after, after difficult times very appropriate to our pandemic moment.
And at one point she was riffing on a line in the prophet Isaiah and when she started translating it, she used again, a Shlomo Katz melody from a song he put out called An Everlasting Love, which describes the love between the God and and the Jewish people, and she just started singing it in the middle of the sermon.
And what was amazing about it is that it’s, it’s so interesting, even in a congregation where everybody’s been singing together for two hours, one person standing up doing the prose section when you’re just supposed to be giving a sermon, singing is like initially a little awkward. Like, this is not a singing moment. This is the listening quietly moment.
But what was incredible about it is that it just totally built a bridge between sermon experience and singing experience. And I was just like, she religified the sermon into the service in a way that totally enabled it to kind of swim together.
Another angle on this is we had, uh, someone else in our house on, um, on Rosh Hashana who was also a visiting service leader for a different congregation, who had a gig in the city and, and drove up to us for lunch on Rosh Hashana, and was in the same spot that you’re in, Na’ama, of like, I don’t really know these people and I’m brought in to create an experience that’s really important to them.
And she used the line, which I loved. She’s like, you gotta play the hits.
Naama: Oh a hundred percent. There’s certain ones, especially like high holidays, if you’re not singing the right, you know, areshet sifatenu or there, you know, anything that kind of,
Yehuda: Areshet is kind of a deep cut. I mean, start with avinu malkeinu.
Naama: Avinu malkeinu, Oh yeah, no, that for sure. That’s not even, that’s pshita, but like for sure there’s definitely, when I come into a new community, like the first thing that I do is kind of walk through the machzor with either, you know, the rabbi or the former cantor, which, which is the case also here, and, and be like, okay, what are the must sing tunes?
Because people wait for it all year. And if you don’t sing a certain tune on Rosh Hashana, it’s like Rosh Hashana didn’t happen for them. People are so emotionally, like charged around tefillah, especially for people who come for the three days out of the year. Like it’s just a lot of responsibility.
Yehuda: So, okay, so I assume for all of us, you gotta sing, uh, avinu malkeinu, you gotta do that. You have to do the, and by the way, I know how ashki-normative this whole podcast is. This would be a totally different podcast with Spheradi and Mizrachi baalei tefillah. I get it. You would have to do b’rosh hashana yekatevun.
But now, for you two, what’s the tune that you just wouldn’t be doing, even if it’s not a classic, it’s just become so deeply part of your own repertoire that you’d never get rid of it.
Naama: I think the way I do u’netana tokef, for me is something that would be very hard for me to change. And I think that that actually comes more from my father than my grandfather, because he, you know, things evolve, right? And so I think that there’s certain things that I sing and that I have implemented into my daveing that my grandfather would never do, and my father did the same. You know, it’s kind of like baby steps. And I think that the way that my father has done u’netana tokef for years, starting with a niggun, and then moving into our nusach, is something that I’ve kind of adopted and would be very hard for me to change.
Yehuda: What’s the niggun?
Naama: (sings u’netana tokef).
And then it continues.
Marc: I think Na’ama, you just changed my u’netana tokef for this year, so that’s good. Thank you.
Yehuda: Marc, what about you, what’s, what’s indispensible for you?
Um, I don’t, I’m, I’m gonna say I don’t know that I have one that is as sacred as what Na’ama just described. But I would say, Carlebach’s simcha l’artzecha, which is, I will say often a dilemma because I don’t know if the community can handle it both in shacharit and in musaf. So it’s after a lot of the longer piyutim, so there’s a temptation to just like move through it and not even try to sing at that point.
But I find it actually to be just an amazing, an amazing niggun, and it has both slow and fast. And if you can fire people up, it kind of injects, both great music and great energy, and I think at a time when people are like ready to let down
Naama: I find that’s similar as with v’havioti, what you just described at the end of musaf.
Yehuda: The last possible song, right?
Naama: The last possible song. Do you do it or not, right?
Yehuda: Yeah. I, I think you always, if things are going well, if the service has been going well, people are there. You’ve got their captive audience, they’re committed. They’re already part of the experience. It’s only if it’s not going that great that you want to kind of bust out of there, and be done.
Marc: Hedge, hedge.
Yehuda: Yeah. You know, for me, I, I set this, when I started doing the neilah for the first time, you know, um, at that first Washington Square Minyan Yom Kippur in 2005. I took neilah, the closing service, and I, they’ll have to pry away from my cold dead hands as my favorite thing that I do on anything throughout the year, professionally or otherwise.
I just, I also don’t know what people do to pass the last hour and a half of Yom Kippur if you’re not leading neilah. It’s just this incredible responsibility and a great joy, and there’s a great tune from Yakar, that I learned at Yakar, which is from Kabbalat Shabbat, from Lecha Dodi, from Mikdash Melech. And there’s a, the one of the piyutum, the liturgical poem that takes up most of neilah, especially if you sing it slowly and it gets interspersed with the 13 attributes of God is just, it goes like this, it goes, “yai dai dai…”
Anyway. Um, the reason I love it so much, I, I can’t imagine a neilah without it. I really can’t. At this point, and I, I’ve only known it for half my life, but part of the reason it works so well is it sounds like a lullaby, it’s like the end of Yom Kippur and it’s a lullaby. And then you get to jump between that and kind of shouting out the 13 attributes of God, it kind of feel like it wouldn’t be neilah without it.
Um, tell me a little bit, like a great musical moment for you that worked once in your daveing that kind of surprised you and or something that bombed as a prayer leader,
Marc: Well, my bomb is easy. I’ll start with that, Na’am, you can, I’m sure you have more highlights.
You know, I, I have to say I have, I, again, I have like the opposite of Na’ama’s experience. I have no mesorah, so I have no inherited tradition at all, which is incredibly liberating, but it also means that like my tradition is drawing on my memory of experiences of other people’s inspiring davening, like the leader minyan that I mentioned.
And I have a distinct memory of Ebn Leader who led Yom Kippur musaf, which was like truly a transformational experience, blending in reverence and also lightheartedness and humor. And ending Yom Kippur, his hayoms, to high ho, high ho from I think Snow White, High Ho, High Ho.
Yehuda: Yes, Snow White.
Marc: It’s off to work we go, uh, I think maybe my first time ever leading Yom Kippur myself, I was like, I just went for it.
And, um, I think I can still remember the faces. You know, what, what are you doing? What is this? I got, I got both no help musically and just kind of like quizzical looks. I have never done it since.
Yehuda: It’s, I mean, it’s actually an amazing tune because the word is hayom.
Marc: I know. Hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, hayom, taamtzeinu.
Yehuda: it’s, it’s a great, it’s a great case study on music actually, because in the leader minyan, which starts at 6:00 AM and then they go,
Marc: 6:30, yeah. Goes to an hour after, hour after three stars. Yep.
Yehuda: So when that happens, which is the end of musaf, it’s probably what, 4:00 PM
Marc: It’s just before sunset actually. They barely get mincha in.
Yehuda: So by that point, everyone’s been with you the whole day. They’ve been with you on the journey through the somber and the melancholy, and so that lift actually works musically. It’s amusing and it’s fun. When it gets imported into a service that’s three hours long, it’s like, irreverent, it doesn’t work.
Marc: It could also be that you’re no Ebn Leader. Like, I mean, there’s Ebn, you know, like I’ve davened with Ebn Leader, I’ve been inspired by Ebn Leader. Don’t even try it. You’re no Ebn Leader.
Yehuda: Don’t try to do that. Yeah. What about for you, Na’ama?
Naama: It’s a tough question. Yeah. You know, I, I think that preparing with the community before davening is so crucial, that it’s really become kind of like a prerequisite when I come to a community. I’m like, I won’t come just to do kind of like a one off and be done with it.
I’ll get there early. We’ll have a session together. I have to have people who are planted in the kahal, in the, you know, in kind of to be able to, to, to sing along with me. And I think that, maybe it’s fresh in my mind, but we did the v’yeetayu, v’yitnu lecha keter melucha, this year for the first time in the shul, community did not know it.
And handing out the parts so that, you know, you mentioned Ashkenazi and Sephardi, right? I think that one of like, the kind of kvetches for Ashkenazim at least is that there’s almost no participation from your kahal in, in helping to lead. And I think that the yehetayu piyut and the way that it’s kind of built is able to bring in, I think, other voices and other people.
And it’s kind of like this anxious moment of like, are they gonna do it? Are they not gonna do it? Did they learn the Hebrew for it? Did they get it? You know, and it’s kind of like, and um, and so one of the things that I also kind of insisted upon was not to stand in the front of the bima, but kind of like move back and lead from within the kahal because the, you know, again, the performative as opposed to experiential.
And the piyut worked and, and people sang it, and it was a great moment of nachat, I think, when you’re able to also kind of introduce something new.
Yehuda: Yeah. I, I think the one, I don’t know who wrote it, but I, I learned her from Julie Endelman, who is a great, great prayer leader. And it’s an interactive piyut that’s, I’m sure some people are familiar with, where the, whoever’s singing sings a phrase, “v’yeetayu kol l’avdecha” and the whole congregation sings “v’yitnu lecha keter melucha.”
In the reform movement, by the way, there’s a totally different famous tune and it’s one of the greatest hits that you can’t change. So this wouldn’t, this, that wouldn’t fly in parts of the Jewish world. But as Na’ama’s alluding to, it’s also something you can easily hand out the parts and it’s interactive.
And when we did it this year in our tent, um, there was somebody sitting near the front of the room. It was so funny, who didn’t see it coming, didn’t know that there was gonna be like audience participation and just had this absolute look of joy, and amusement, and was like tapping the person next to him, look, that person over there is singing now, and like couldn’t get over it.
And it’s also like one of those moments that totally changes the dynamic of the room of people, like a consciousness, oh, we’re actually all praying together here. We’re all participating in this.
Naama: Yeah, we all have a part
Marc: I just wanna note, it’s also an opportunity for musical pluralism. I mean, depending on, you know, how flexible and open you’re willing to be, it’s a chance to kind of test your own willingness to, you know, open up the boundaries for who can lead and what they sound like and how good their Hebrew is.
And there’s something metaphorical, I think about the, the medium being the message there. That’s, there’s nothing like, no matter how good your Hebrew is, no matter how much bum bum, the tune. Some of those phrases are really hard to string together with the music, but you get the full throated, v’yeetayu lecha in response.
And I think there’s something almost like beautifully kind of democratic and inclusive about that.
Yehuda: Yeah. You know, something else interesting that happened this year is I’ve done this before, so it wasn’t the first time I’ve done it, but I sang, you know, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to Hallelujah in the middle of the shofar section of the musaf. A lot of people do this and it was also a democratic moment because, everybody knows that, like it’s not a niggun that’s been applied. Everybody knows it.
And it just, I thought it, I was like, oh, this will just be a thing. I’m, guess I’m killing time. But oh my god, the whole crowd got into it and it’s hard outside in a tent acoustically. So it was, there were moments when I knew people were singing, but I couldn’t totally hear it. That one, like, oh yeah, everybody kind of joined in on that one.
Um, one of you alluded to earlier, I don’t, I don’t remember at what moment, about the difference between the weightiness of performance versus a sense of responsibility to people. I echo with that a lot. I don’t, I don’t ever get nervous about the side of it that’s like, I’m gonna do a bad job musically, cause I also, I’m not a professional singer or musician.
I, but I do, I do feel very heavily around have I helped provide something to people that they need? And that can manifest in did we do the right tunes of the wrong tunes. But also like that sense of, what kind of stuff people are carrying with them.
I’m curious, if either of you have thoughts on like how the singing and how the music plays into that, um, the kind of dialogue between the prayer leader and the people in the room.
In what ways does the singing contribute to that kind of dialogue and that relationship?
Naama: Um, I mentioned before that there’s so many emotions coming into the high holidays and expectations and what people bring into the room with them. And you never know what’s gonna happen at the end. It’s kind of a bit of an unknown journey, right? And especially for, I would say, like I want to be able to choose every tune that I’m gonna do beforehand, and yet I don’t, and I know why I don’t.
I don’t because I really wanna be present in the room. And, and you can’t really lead a tefillah without being in some sort of conversation with the people around you and with the community around you. And I think that for me that’s like really at the core of it. And so, right, you’re gonna read the room and you’re gonna feel like, maybe I should sing this and maybe I shouldn’t sing that.
And I always have like five options of, of different, you know, tunes on every piyut. And, and yet, you know, there is something I think very meaningful about being able to walk into a shul across the world, for me, I live in Jerusalem, and start off with, you know, nusach of Rosh Hashana evening, of Maariv and everybody’s with you and everybody knows the tunes and, and not everybody obviously, but I think that there’s definitely this sense of coming home.
I really think that that’s what people are looking for. A sense of belonging, a sense of community, of coming home. So many stories after, uh, davening, Rosh Hashana, people came up to me and said, Wow, you know, I, this reminds me of my childhood in New York. It reminds me of my childhood in, you know, wherever. That’s a huge zchut, like to be able to create an environment that feels like it’s a coming home and that you belong somewhere. And I think that that’s what’s important.
Marc: Hmm. Yeah, I guess I’ll just say, um, First of all, the feeling of responsibility to the community is humbling and can sometimes be overwhelming and can actually throw you off your game. Right. I I, I, I think a lot about, it’s a very fine line between feeling in service to the community and trying to stay attuned to them and projecting judgment onto them, which I think is a very fine line.
And so I think, you know, really coming back to that centering sense of, I have to be grounded in myself, have the right intentions and trust that if I ground myself that everything will be alright. You know, there’s something paradoxical about that. I just wanna note that.
I guess for me it’s about trying to create some moment of connection for people. It’s a long process. People are in and out, you know, you’re, literally in and out and, you know, mentally and emotionally, in and out. And I think if you leave a service feeling, that one moment, that one tune, that one prayer I felt connected to the other people in that room, maybe I felt connected to that, if I understood it to that, to that prayer in a slightly new way, a, a moment of uplift. That feels like a big accomplishment.
Um, and you know, and it’s a push and pull. Like, is this a moment to push them a little harder than they think they want to go? One more dai dai dai. I’ll bring a little more energy and you know, can you push them or do you have to kind of read the room and, and what they’re telling you is like, dial it back a little bit, I’m ready to move on from this.
And by the way, sometimes that answer comes from them. From others, right, who just kind of push you beyond. You, you think it’s over and you know, you get a few more people. So that dynamic, that’s one of the things that I just find so special. You know, it’s like humbling and it’s incredibly, it’s an incredible blessing to be able to be in that kind of relationship with a community.
Yehuda: Well, this episode was a love letter to all of the experience makers of the Jewish people around this time of the year. The rabbis, the cantor, the shlachei tzibur, the congregational leaders, the ba’alei tefillah, the people running youth groups, the people who blow shofar, the gabbaim who run the Torah services, the Torah readers, the Haftorah readers, the sermon givers, the ushers, the custodians, the water drawers, and the wood choppers. Uh, we’re grateful to all of you. The Jewish people couldn’t do this every year without you.
And thank you in particular to Rabbi Marc Baker and Rabba Na’ama Levitz Applebaum for standing in on all of your collective behalf to tell this week’s story about the Jewish people at this moment. And thanks to all of you for listening.
Identity Crisis was produced by David Zvi and edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shelhevet Schwartz, with music provided by Socalled.
Transcripts of our show are are available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. Transcripts are gonna be tricky this week. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Apartment Institute can visit us online shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this one, please write to us at [email protected].
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