Instruments, Music, High Holidays*

During my summer break in Amsterdam, while attending a gathering with musicians from around the world, I came full circle back to Jewish instrumental music, and to the upcoming Yamim Noraim, the Jewish New Year season.

Lunchtime discussions with composer and musician colleagues from such places as Iran, Armenia, and Turkey included experiences with local contacts in the Jewish music communities where they live; music

Salomon Salzer

Salomon Salzer

that had originated in Persia and then moved into Turkey as musicians fled persecution some 400 years ago. The subsequent rise of the great Cantors and Jewish composers of Europe in the 1800s such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski exemplified the growth and popularity of exotic or ‘oriental’ music interests in Austria and Vienna prior to WWI.

Louis Lewandowski

Louis Lewandowski

Here the connection amongst my international peers became personal: For several years now, I have played Lewandowski’s heavenly adaptation of ‘Kol Nidrei’ on oboe, accompanied by cello, as the opening to the Kol Nidre service that opens the holy day of Yom Kippur at my local synagogue.

I want to share with you how having such instrumental music enhances the Yamim Noraim experience for congregants and patients, and some of the technical and practical information you might want to have about engaging such music for your place of worship or service.

Chaplains such as myself are mostly all aware that music has therapeutic, spiritual and healing capacities. We work with music therapists, sing at bedside, and bring recorded music to our patients and families to ease their time while unwell or transitioning. We can also bring ensemble music into worship or reflection time.

The benefits of instrumental music are that there are no words: it is pure experience, both for the listener and the performer. When I play Lewandowski’s piece, there is a moment when the notes climb just so high; and then I let go. The notes are released and go upward, unfettered by words or ideas; I think some even may still be rising.

I have had feedback from congregants that they, too, went somewhere at those moments of musical release. No words were exchanged. No sermons said, or liturgy sung, or readings read. Just a rising above, a seeking toward the Ineffable, and then a slow, blessed, and reflective return to the here and now.

That for me is the opening to the Kol Nidre service.

Practicalities if you wish to engage instrumental music for the High Holidays at your place of worship:
Play the music in secular time, before candle lighting, from the Bimah or other visible place, after everyone is seated and quieted. Musicians’ dress in white. Perhaps play some lovely Jewish melodies for ambience, as people are finding their seats, with no need for an attentive audience. Some good melody choices are: (Erev shel Shoshanim) “ערב של שושנים”  (Avinu Malkeinu) “,אבינו מלכנו”(Dodi Li)“,דודי לי.” Keep the ensemble small, 2-3 musicians.

How to compensate the musicians? We have to talk about that. Although we say musicians “play” music, it is a job — and hard work! Please pay appropriately. The rate should be about $300-$500. Remember, there is a great deal of time invested by musicians for recruiting the right ensemble, choosing repertoire, rehearsals, clothing, for time setting up, the actual performing, and then taking down. What would you pay a guest speaker for a keynote plus other speeches at a major synagogue event? Adjust according to the venue: a care home, a chavurah, a large urban synagogue, etc.

I love doing the work of bringing instrumental music into spiritual care settings. I also believe that bringing instrumental music to worship is a form of spiritual care for the congregants who are not in a care home or hospital. We can all benefit from the inclusion of spiritual connection through instrumental music to our already well-founded traditions of liturgies, Torah, and sermons.

Try this for your ימים נוראים and let me know how it goes.

לשנה טובה ומתוקה ומוסיקלית

*this article can also be found in the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains Newsletter pg. 9


Selichot-Return to the Land of Your Soul

Selichot is the name for the Jewish service that comes on the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) before Rosh haShana, the observance of the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew word, selichot means pardons or apologies, reflections on the past and the act of saying some things we did were done wrong and we admit it. We admit it and also think about how, if encountered again, we would act in the same situation.

There are three types of errors or sins in Judaism: one that occurs by accident that you might not even know you committed; one that you know you committed and know was wrong; and one you know you committed and yet believe was right to do.

In all of these ways of erring, we suffer. Life cannot realistically progress in steps of frozen perfection. Such a need for control and perfection leads to mental and social breakdowns for both individuals and communities. Our sages knew that allowing our mistakes helps us to thrive and grow stronger. The pressure to be perfect when perfection is not achievable or even desirable, takes its toll. As long as we choose to acknowledge and consider how we can learn from mistakes to do the same things better, given the chance, we are released from the burden of regretting the mistake.

There are some formulas for actualizing the desire to return to wellbeing, how to process from mistake to lesson learned. The components are familiar terms: reflection, insight, feelings and emotions at the time of the incident. Were you so driven by emotions at the time that you spoke or acted without using your good judgment and intellect? What would you prefer had been happening, both in yourself and in relationship with the other person? Can you slow down the action and see it from the distance of today?

Now comes the work part. Understanding means now that you are away from the situation you can do the intellectual examination. Where is the moment when you did or said the thing you are regretting? Understand why you did it. Was it due to emotional charges you were compelled to yield to for example. If so, be comforted with what Daniel Goleman tells us about emotional intelligence: that the ability to tolerate delayed gratification will allow your nervous system to move away from the emotional seat of the brain to the intellectual one.

You can tell yourself, ‘wait, don’t take this bait, wait for delayed gratification’ next time. If emotional bait is set out, you don’t have to bite immediately. Let it dangle until it looks more like an opportunity to think than for biting.

Looking back on what you did is step one. Understanding through intellect and recollection is step two. Next, the healing part. Forgive yourself. No matter who did the bad thing, you must forgive yourself for having been drawn in, or for perpetrating the situation. Either way, you had your good reasons at the time. Forgive yourself for not having seen the better way back then. At the very least, no self-battering. You goofed, knowingly, unknowingly, or believing it was okay. You can always put your hands out to the sky and say, “I goofed and I want to get past it.”

God listens to these prayers. People don’t always listen or believe. You and God can have your own private talk about it. Any time. While washing the dishes, watching a sunset, during the silent Amidah in synagogue, in other spiritual homes or circles. This companioning and witnessing with God or with trusted others lends the power of feeling safe, so that you could now be faced with the same situation again, and know how to do it better.

The last step is to go back to the person or situation and apologize. A fad in the 1980’s was to turn to your neighbor in synagogue and tell them “I apologize if I have done anything to hurt you this past year.” That is not teshuva, a real return to the land of our souls, from before the error or sin. This is a copout formula.

Teshuva means speaking directly to the other party about the actual event. It means apologizing without explaining anything. The formula, “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework. Because the dog ate it.” has never worked. “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework.” Is sufficient. It is the bridge or kesher that you have now built between yourself and the other person. Don’t cheapen it with excuses, valid or not.

It is the apology that counts, not the reason for the mistake. If you can both learn from the reasons, very good, but know that it is the apology that holds the power to heal.

I hope this small foray into how forgiveness of self, of others, of prayer or witnessing, and of offering apology can heal relationships has gently touched and awakened some aching places. I hope you are able to unload some of the weight we all manage to assemble, usually so subtly we don’t realize it is there until it has been released through processing.

I know my life has been lighter these past few hours since Selichot, and wish us all further days of lightness and auspicious beginnings.


Take 5 for Cello Music al fresco

It is always a pleasure to take a stroll in Vancouver when we are having weather as lovely as we have this past week has been.

Today I took time out from my task of absorbing and adapting new Balkan and Klezmer tunes on my Oboe and English Horn to get some fresh air.

To my delight, the sidewalks near my home were chalked with happy notes pointing to ‘Cello Music’, some with whimsical musical notes in pretty colours. I knew right away who it would be at the end of the trail: Clara Shandler, Canada’s Sidewalk Cellist!

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara is a treat to watch and listen to with her carbon-fiber cello and fusion of new and classical music.

It is also a treat to perform with her and I have had the pleasure of joining her on Oboe to offer liturgical music, particularly Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’, for the opening minutes before the Kol Nidrei service begins on the evening of Yom Kippur. I can attest to the melding of music and sacred time when we have played this piece together, notes intertwining as they ascend up to the heights, transforming players and listeners for the ascent back to earth. A wonderful opening to this Day of At-one-ment.

Today, Clara played solo in the park, a mix of Debussy, Fauré, live Gypsy and heavy metal riffs, with loops assisted by her electronica.

The important thing Clara does is to explain her music: its history, her history, her selection, and how it is blended. And, expect a quiz—listening for themed passages. The audience becomes fully engaged. It was a pleasure to sit on a blanket with adults and children, everyone engaged with the music, some crayoning her fun posters, and allowing the final chords to fade before applause. How refreshing! How al fresco!

The other thing about Clara’s music is that she shares it locally and abroad. She teaches music in Asia as well as touring Canada coast to coast.

For me, today’s neighbourhood stroll brought an unexpected treat. No one had to dress up or buy an expensive ticket or commute to a theatre. Music as no-big-deal made it a Very Big Deal.

The pleasure today was in the surprise of this found music; under a tree on a blanket; in the neighbourhood, simple and soft, complex and rustic.

That so many were attracted and attentive to this unexpected music-in-the-park reminded me of the Psalms.

You may have noticed a cryptic phrase opening many of these saying, ‘to the conductor of instruments’. This is no accident: the psalmist used their knowledge that music bypasses the complex thoughts that confound our lives. We find ourselves unwinding from those entanglements as music engages our non-verbal inner selves.

The Psalms were meant to have a music and rhythm, and for good reason.

Their words of comfort and healing were meant by the composer to be matched with the non-verbal sounds of sacred music. Need and example? look at the list of instruments in Psalm 150.

Next time you are strolling by a musician, Take 5 and allow the sounds to move your inner thoughts from words to music. And remember how special all of our musicians are at creating that charged elixir, including the Sidewalk Cellist!


Remembering Orlando: Sacred Words and Music

My previous post spoke about crossing the narrow bridges over the narrow places of our lives, without our fears…

The post also referred to Shavuot as the time when Jewish people refresh our collective memory of standing together after seven weeks of wandering and chaos, as one people at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

The tragedy at the Pulse Club in Orlando has created another time of wandering in chaos for so many people: the shooting victims, their families and friends, the United States, LGBTQ people everywhere, and the world.

Today, before beginning to chant the haftarah portion from the book of Habakkuk during our Shavuot services, I read aloud to the congregation from the letter below, sent by Idit Klein, Executive Director of Keshet, the national Jewish LGBTQ organization:

“…It is sickening that the deadliest mass shooting in American history targeted LGBTQ people during Pride month. When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai. So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.

May the memory of all who lost their lives in last night’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace…”

Her message is one of comfort and community. The message in the chapter of Habakkuk also brings comfort.

The prophet says that it was a mistake to criticize God for allowing the weak to suffer while the powerful, such as the Babylonian captor Nebuchadnezzar, flourish. However, soon after Habakkuk observed that the Jews were gaining in strength and resolve; as they reconciled their own fears and weakness they began to engage once again. Their enemies were now succumbing to the wrath of God and Nature and fleeing from before the Jews.

This evening I went to the closing concert for our Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It was a night of farewells to a couple of beloved musicians. Amidst the adieus and accolades, Maestro Tovey also spoke the comforting power of music, of music healing sorrows in ways beyond words. He spoke about the composer Samuel Barber whose Violin Concerto was to be played. Samuel Barber was gay. Tovey asked the audience and players to dedicate the second movement to the victims of the Orlando shootings, followed by some time for silence. I have never experienced the Orpheum Theatre so engaged with the music, which was so strongly emotive and fulfilling.

I want to affirm my message to keep moving forward on that narrow bridge. Find the source of your fears.

In the case of the massacre in Orlando, yes an individual committed that tragedy. How are you doing with the fear that may arise in you? Do you feel weakened? Are you believing your fear is caused by others whom you feel a victim to? Or do you feel strengthened in your faith and resolve to keep moving over that narrow bridge, knowing you will find both challenges and rewards?

Can you remember that once the Jewish people began to see themselves as a people united with their resolve and faith, they could face their captors and prevail.

Please recall the victims and your sources of meaning, strength and resolve.

Zichronam l’Vracha  לברכה זכרונם

May the memory of all who lost their lives in Sunday’s attack be for a blessing.

L’Shalom, with prayers for peace within yourself and toward others




Narrow Bridges and Narrow Places

The 50 days between Passover and Shavuoth to mark the Biblical journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. Egypt is called Mitzrayim in Hebrew, meaning ‘narrow place’. This year, the retelling of the journey of my ancestors from out of the Narrow Place of bondage to receiving the Torah (Law), brought to mind a saying of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ‘“The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”

This year has been a turbulent one worldwide. There are refugees streaming away from crises in their homeland, there are reversals of progressive gender equality legislation, there are demands by college students to be provided with a safe environment, terrorism is on the rise, and at least one American Presidential candidate is running on a platform of backlash against any progressive racial, cultural or gender policies. What is driving this? Fear.

Fear from all quarters is headlining the news these days. People are afraid. Some are afraid of losing their familiar way of life, some of losing their long battle for hard-won rights; some are expecting their path to be free of obstacles, others are creating obstacles to draw attention.

It seems they are all walking across narrow bridges, or wandering lost in the desert, while schlepping (carrying) along their old fears.

In the case of the Exodus story, as soon as there was any hardship in the desert, the people demanded to go back to the Narrow Place of Egypt where things were familiar, where they even fantasized they had dined on fish and leeks.

The wandering in the desert was scary; the best thing to do was blame someone, Moses their leader, for their scary predicament. It was much like crossing a narrow bridge: you are in an unrecognizable place, neither here nor there and can only go forward.

Fear of changes such as these arise in part due to a lack of structure or guidebook. The Hebrews escaped the Narrow Place knowing only that 400 years of slavery was enough, and they could not stand being slaves any longer.

They did not know where they were going; and that was scary. The narrow bridge they were crossing was certainly taking them away from a very bad place. If they could endure the chaos that resulted from a new and unfamiliar freedom things would certainly be better. They did not have a structure for this mass exodus; instead they just had to stay the course and keep walking, fear and all.

After many mishaps and building their own source of guidance with the Golden Calf, they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I like this Biblical example of how treacherous it is to cross from places of chaos into those of order. I believe the model can be applied to ease our modern maelstrom of push-and-shove over newfound cultural, racial and gender paradigms and events.

I will share a recent personal experience. I was walking home from synagogue one Shabbat. As I passed the outdoor patio of a coffee house, I overheard a very loud conversation that was overtly using expletives against both Israel and Jews. I thought about what to do about this rather brash conversation and decided to turn the situation into an opportunity to ask what the basis was for the loud and offending remarks. First, I approached the loud group of young people seated at a table and simply identified myself as one of the Jews they were deriding. As I walked away, the young people beckoned me to stay and speak with them. Through these actions, we all set aside fear and embarked upon a walk over that narrow bridge together.

We talked. When asked, they could not provide any facts about Jews and Israel; they only knew their negative views from friends’ opinions and the abundance of left-wing popup news media on the street. They wanted me to give an overview of Judaism and I gave them some dates for important events in the formation of the modern country of Israel. I invited them to Google these and see what else they could learn.

Contrary to what fear might have said about this conversation, they thanked me profusely.

By taking those steps toward them a journey began, away from the enslaving ideas we had on both sides, toward a way of understanding how this chaos of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism came to be.

I also learned that diplomacy happens in direct 1:1 conversations: not through online polemics, international political gestures, grandiose political swaggering, or biased news media.

I have told this story about the coffee house conversation to others. Usually the first response is, with all that pressure to conform to the status quo of the neighbourhood, wasn’t I afraid to approach these young people? My reply has been that my only fear was that because I was peacefully walking home from synagogue when I overheard them, I might be violating Shabbat (the Sabbath) by potentially creating a conflict. However, the wisdom of faith told me that the honest way to create and perpetuate Shabbat peace was to take that walk on that narrow bridge and engage these people, without fear.

We observe the passage of 50 days from Passover to Shavuoth as an opportunity to take steps away from things that we are unsafely bonded to and find an order in our lives that matters.

There are still a few days left before Shavuouth begins, on the evening of June 11th. Find time over these days to leave behind something that holds you back—a habit, an addiction, a prejudice, a hurt—and move ahead with faith rather than fear, that something good lies ahead.