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.