This past week a YouTube video that must have gone viral through the Jewish community, arrived in my inbox from many diverse sources. It was a video of a young Israeli singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, in Hebrew*.
The first wave of emails I got with this link came with emphatic subject lines to ‘watch this!’: I didn’t really look, though, until the link came from a dear friend back home in Vancouver.
I needed both the message from my friend, and also the message from Mr. Cohen. I watched the video stream into my view in rapt attention, and the gooey trappings of the talent show faded to the background. Because it was in Hebrew, I could let go of the familiar sound and imagery of Cohen’s words, and allow just his music to sail into a novel understanding of the pathos of the song.
The youth who sang seemed too young to have lived Cohen’s poetry, although he brought a youthful fever to the song that kept me on edge, his voice always near the breaking point, but not quite. It was a cliffhanger. He filled his container to the brim, without fear of breaking or overflowing. That is what I have been seeking in my art: that is what I needed to see this week.
I replied to my friend, “Now I know what I will sing for my Cantorial Boards this Spring, thank you!”
What are Cantorial Boards? at the end of the academic year the Cantorial students at JTS present our vocal, and in my case instrumental and vocal, accomplishments to our faculty. The wonderful part is being able to choose something dear to the heart, and I have already chosen my oboe piece, a beautiful rendition of Psalm 23 by Gerald Cohen. I also know I will be presenting as a liturgical piece, a selected prayer moment from the Weekday Nusah.
We also present a secular song. My first thought was something from West Side Story, I always loved performing the score on oboe in ensembles, grabbing onto the sexy driven pace so characteristic of Leonard Bernstein. I gave myself the challenge to vocally step outside myself, and in fantasy, don a bouncy ponytail and swirl skirt and sing, ‘I’m So Pretty’. If I could pull this off, be someone I have never been, indeed, I could transform myself into any role, with practice.
As another, more academic part of developing my identity as a Cantor, I attended the Mini Semester at the Seminary this past week. I was the only student from the Cantorial School among the many Rabbinical students. The Interfaith theme for the week took us to the nearby Catholic Church, where I learned that Catholic Churches also have Cantors, and the Cantor at this Church was a woman. She shared with me that the Catholic prayers can be sung to musical modes particular to each prayer, something that I had thought was unique to Jewish prayers. This Cantor’s training came from memory, listening to recordings, and composing in those modes. I also noticed that she had a natural way of moving herself, sweeping us up with her as she swept up her arms, keeping the flow of prayer moving along by extending her presence into the sanctuary draw us in, and she avoided invasive singing ‘instructions’, those interruptions to explain how and when to join in, that can kill the kavana or prayer intent.
One of the four days of the mini Semester focused mostly on music and prayer. The first presentation was with Neshama Carlebach and members of the Green Pastures Baptist Choir. We heard the channeling of her father’s voice in the selections of his music, with the addition of the voices of her Inter-faith ensemble. The gospel spirituals styling and falsettos got us to our feet and I felt the flight of spirit as we left the structures we are so used to in our traditional Jewish prayers. The exposure to different prayer music continued after dinner, when we went to a Gospel Church in Harlem for the Wednesday night Manna Service. Here, the worship ran with escalating energy and reverb into and through the congregation. Again, many of us enthusiastically joined in, hands and body in the music, as well as voices.
And here is where I realized that I could dump the ponytail and swirl skirt, and pack my powerful body of spirit into prayer. This is where I understood how the rigorous seminary training as a Cantor would serve me. In the church, the spirit would fly from the soles of my feet and my bones, up the windpipes and out the lid: but sometimes, unlike the young polished Israeli singer, it would get away from me. I yearned to do whatever I needed to, to keep that tension of spirit and verve in check, from getting away, and to keep it suspended joyfully like a beautiful kite on the wind, not allowing it to be torn away and lost by a gale force.
At my next voice lesson, I allowed myself to open further, freer and let my teacher guide me when I got to the point where I would lose it, to keep the music in check, to tame it. The grunt work of ear training helped me stay on pitch, and now I could begin to trust my ability to feel the pleasure of the beauty of voice without the fear of losing it to the wind. The tension of holding pitch while releasing into the sounds I anticipated was a taste of liberation for me. Hallelujah!
Sometimes it is a good thing to venture past the familiar. Experiencing the joy and ecstasy in prayer with confidence came with accessing prayer differently with others. That is the value of Interfaith experienve.
In the past, singing Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was frustrating, much like trying to catch a little fox and hold it by the tail, only to have it skitter away. The song itself is about relationship, bittersweet, somber, with moments of ecstasy and pathos ensconced in the musical moments, juxtaposition of pitches and modulations. How to, it is like the intonation of the oboe; piercing and beckoning and visceral all at the same time. How reminiscent of relationships we’ve all had. How much this music resonates with my life, and how at peace I am to know that I can learn to capture this yearning, at least for an afternoon of graduation.
I’m learning a lot right now, during the semester break from the Seminary.
The first part of the learning came in the form of סבלנות. The Hebrew word savlanut means “patience”. I had always respected the concept of patience as a virtue. I owned it, though, when I drew it from a basket of words, on my first evening, of my first venture, into formal davenning (prayer) leadership training. I was at the DLTI at the Isabella Freedman retreat center. “סבלנות”, yes, I struggle with patience: sometimes I have too much, and I get left in the dust, and sometimes, too little and, well, impatience is not a virtue!
Over the semester break, the gift and the lesson came in the form of resigning myself to just stay in bed and rest, and let all other plans go. Holidays with friends and all. Then, I was alone with just me, and my very active imagination. Like Ya’akov in the night, having stepped away from his amassed household, I began to truly wrestle, and name the things that are a blessing for me, and those which are not. I listened to my favorite oboe recordings, Joseph Robinson’s albums, and fell back into the swoon that brought me to the instrument: I listened to Cantor Gerald Cohen’s album of his music, Generations, and looked ahead with anticipation and resolve to playing some of the pieces on oboe, myself. I started writing, and this blog came about after realizing how much I miss writing and publishing. I finally finished editing the manuscript for a second anthology of personal narratives from my writing students. Not surprisingly, in my wrestling, Music and Writing came out on top; and my fearful and shy selves were named and recognized as needing to be moderated and fazed out.
I looked forward to stepping out, and the first activity in the queue was the Nusah and Nigun Intensive at the Mechon Hadar. Nusah and nigun are two forms of Jewish music. Nusah is the structure from which cantors riff and modulate to lead prayers, and nigunim are songs in various modes, with or without words. Both forms have soul stirring, captivating rhythms, cadences, modulations from traditional minor to major modal themes. The music was taught without musical instruments of any kind, all singing, and using the body as percussion instrument; hands clapping, knee-slapping-toe-tapping as drums. We even had a session on table top drumming. How resonate is your dining room table? or a hollow wall, chair back, door? did you know they make great percussion instruments, with the correct hand and finger-drumming techniques?
The Intensive also had a text study component. And there, in our study of the origin of the Amidah, the heart of the Jewish prayer service, we ran into Lot’s Wife. The thread is: the word עמידה, amidah, means standing. The prayer is said standing. Why? According to the sources we read, in the story of Abraham’s bargaining with Gd to save Sodom and Gomorrah, we learn to stand in prayer from Abraham’s example: After all the bargaining, Gd destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. We don’t know if it is because there just weren’t even ten innocent people, or because Gd had intended to destroy the cities no matter what, for their outrages to Gd. In the end, as we know, Lot’s Wife turned back, perhaps worried about the daughters and family left behind; regardless, she turned to salt. I reflected with my hevruta, my study partner, that this could be compared to the impossible situation that Holocaust Jews may have faced, being pulled away from family and herded onto trains and into camps. Should one stay back, look back, or keep moving ahead? Sometimes, we have to make these decisions, perhaps this story shows us with metaphor what could happen.
What struck me though, was the next verse. In the very next morning, Abraham gets up and goes and looks down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and sees the smoke rising like the smoke of a kiln. Why did Lot’s Wife look and become salt, and not Abraham? Perhaps it was because Abraham had returned to a place where he previously stood and found communion with Gd, at the same appointed time: for Abraham, his looking across the same plain was a regular act of prayer and communion, as opposed to the fear and doubt of Lot’s wife’s gazing back toward home.
Now, how are the text and music related? through nusah. As Jews, we pray several times a day, we have secular days and holy days, and we have seasonal prayers. Nusah is the spiritual, musical cue for time and place, that tells us what season we are in, whether it is a regular weekday or a holy day or Shabbat, and what time of day it is. All that, without words! This is brilliant, and this is what we know about Abraham: he had a regular prayer habit with Gd.
The system of nusah melodies has become so universal, that at one time, it was possible to walk into a synagogue service and know exactly where on the calendar and the clock one was, by the musical cantillation modes.
Unfortunately, with the Holocaust, and its disruption to, and destruction of, the stabilized fabric of life for Jews of pre-War Eastern Europe, much of this music was lost, or worse, abandoned. The people disappeared, and so did their traditions. Post-war Judaism attempted to adopt Modernism, assimilate, and adopt new customs from other faiths. There has been an effort in recent times to catalog and preserve nusah, such as in this Nusah and Nigun study program. This is also at the heart of Cantorial training. Years spent learning and capturing the souls of the nusah and prayer modes for the weekday service, the High Holidays, for Shabbat, for Festivals, and for services for the different times of the day. In this way, we as Jews can once again feel the cycles and rhythms of our lives through prayer. I feel privileged to be learning them, the lore of my Jewish heritage.