Here’s what oboes can do:
A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks to manage. You know, those waves of days that are almost nauseatingly filled with appointments to book, appointments to keep, a broken light fixture in a strategic location in my apartment, re-scheduling of broken appointments, friends needing my ears and heart, keeping up with studies and work.
“Stop!” I said out loud to my music stand. I sat there, prepared for the step into fantasy that my daily oboe practice gives me; instead, the music scores on my stand said, ‘more work for you!’.
“Enough! I’m doing something fun now, and that’s it!” I put the reed into my mouth and started to bop out a few notes. I can do this, I thought, a ditty is about to happen, work can wait! Bum bum bum, bum bum bum, bi da bi da, bum bum bum. So far so good. And out it came. From beginning to end. I was having fun, and it wasn’t work…or an accident.
I notated the music. How satisfying to see a completed composition of my own on paper! It was beautiful. What creative muse got me there? Even if I had cleared my datebook and created a buffer zone of time devoted to creating a nigun, prayer without words, it would have been a struggle to plunk out each note, hours would’ve gone by, and then ending unfinished with, ‘Oy, this is too complicated, I’ll have to look at it some other time, if I can remember any of it tomorrow.’
Grateful for having the divine permission to create it, I put the put my new finished composition aside, and rehearsed my music for an upcoming symphony concert, then practiced my new instruments, the sitar and duduk, feeling all the while satisfied and released inside with having made the new music composition.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! The story is just beginning, because this music came for a purpose…
I just attended the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute (DLTI) at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, a prayer leadership ‘laboratory’ for Jewish religious professionals. My ‘team’ for this second week of laboratory was asked to prepare to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service. We decided to bring not only our training and education in Nusah and liturgy into this most special of services, but also our instrumental talents.
What is Kabbalat Shabbat? Shabbat is the seventh day of the week, the day that God stood back from the week of creating, and knew that it was time to take a break. A real break. Not a day off to get the shopping done, a hair cut, mow the lawn. Shabbat comes from the root for the word to rest or set down, שבת. And Kabbalat comes from the root word to receive קבל; Kabbalat Shabbat is a real and welcomed break away from work.
How does this Kabbalat Shabbat look then? Isn’t stepping out, filling the nest with new clothes and food, engaging in a hobby, a day off?
No, say the first century rabbis who gave the written narrative of the Creation story its depth and accessibility for us. No, real rest means a complete turn away from the work of creation and creating. That means no writing, although you can read and think creatively; no commerce, so no money handling; no cooking, no cleaning. This is the day to get all of that done ahead of time so you can have a full day plus 1-1/4 hours to absorb in wonder and gratitude that you have made it not only one more week, but that you can take stock of where you have come to over the week: For Big Things, like a new job or outfit or a new baby; small things you didn’t have a chance in the busy-ness of the week to pat yourself on the back for, like a new attitude or moment of self-care.
It’s also a time to step aside from the harshness of life and have a talk with God. Ask, why am I at such a loss now? how will I know my wisdom? and be available to the messages that may appear to you in response.
That sounds good, but how does one enter such a conversation with God, with the Ineffable? We’re all gung-ho these days for a meditation retreat, and may even respond like Pavlov’s dogs, going into a lotus pose when a Lycra clad teacher clings a bell from her yoga mat.
Our Davvenen team followed the tradition of the long ago sages of Tsefat in Israel, and saw Shabbat as the Bride, coming to meet God, the Groom. In keeping with this tradition, we knew that our fellow learners would enter the Sanctuary dressed in white, wising to welcome this Bride and Groom with rich and beautiful musical imagery in the prayer service.
Here’s where the oboe comes in: Picture the simplicity and poignancy of the sunset wedding parade in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, here the wedding party led to the ceremony by lilting oboe and singing, as davenners entered our house of prayer, and the meeting of Bride and Groom.
We stood at the front of the Sanctuary, oboe playing, guitar strumming along by one of our teachers, my two co-leaders swaying and singing with the kahal (community): bum bum bum, bum bum, bum, bi da bi da, bum bum bum.mit went on and on—and on. I looked over at a teacher and besides beaming at the beauty and success of this wedding assembly we’d created, we had to move the service along!
The auspicious beginning continued. We were filled to capacity, a spiritual direction training program joined us, as well as several dignitaries. Shy as my teammates are in our weekday selves, on this Shabbat, we were The Holy Wedding Emcees.
As for the rest of the service, the ceremony went on and on. Waltzes were waltzed to our music; spontaneous ‘Ameins!’ and ‘Oh Yeah!’s, and ‘Yes Lord!’s were shouted Jospel-style to chanted words from Torah.
The time ran away with us, the beauty was intoxicating; somehow, with helpful cues from our teachers on how to rein in the energy, to leave out extra items, and keep moving forward with the service, we brought the service to its close, too.
A minor miracle seemed to have happened. Somehow the three most shy and introverted members of this DLTI group ended up leading this most dramatically special of the weekly cycle of services, and the fervor went to capacity.
What did I learn? What can I share with you, reader? First of all, the three of us were on a journey of love together. Our love of God, of Shabbat, and the spirit we believe is available to everyone deep inside, brought us together as a co-creative team. Patience, thoughtfulness, and grace came to one another as we planned. We forgot our egos, most of the time, during our preparations. I wanted to share my new nigun music, Shayndel wanted to share her angelic lyre music, and Dovid wanted to share his love of Jewish liturgy and tradition.
We trusted our inner navigators that told us that we know how to bring in the Shabbat Bride, to be received by a holy assembly of worshippers, and God.
Alone, we each are on the shy side, together, our shared vision came alive.
I enjoy studying, writing and doing my own music studio work on my own. In the end, the reward for the intensity of creation within, happens outside of the studio, from the dialogue created through the communion of artist/prayer leaders and their congregation. At week’s end, after all our creating, we take time to love, celebrate, and rest with God’s Creations, too.
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.