Tag Archives: Jewish prayer services

Stowing my pen and covering my head

If you’re a regular reader, you know two things: First, that I hate putting on a kippah and, second, that I like to take notes in my siddur during services.

It has become increasingly clear to me that these preferences of mine are not well received in some communities. As the range of places I’m willing to daven has expanded–or drifted to the ritual right, as it might be more accurately put–I’ve had to deal with this issue more and more.

My first attempts at dealing with this involved complaining about it to people I know a lot and complaining about it even more here on this blogOne such blogged complaint in particular didn’t turn out so well. That blog post turned into a minor fiasco–which was, in the end, entirely of my own making.

Then I started trying this thing where I’d walk into a place where I suspected they’d want me to wear a kippah with my head uncovered and wait for someone to correct me. I’ve only ever met with success using this method. Either no one tells me to put one on or they do. It’s not like I’ve ever been ejected for this. (It hasn’t even cause a blog post fiasco. Yet.)

While I was using the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-later-than-permission-now approach to covering my head, I was using a similar approach to note-taking. I’d keep the pen in my pocket and try to take notes really discretely. Now that I’m actually writing this down, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually had bad luck with this method either, though I’ve only tried it in pew seating situations where it has some chance of success.

The risk associated with taking notes during services is that it has become compulsive. If I have a pen on me, I will make note of every little thing–when they switch leaders, what tunes they do for everything, liturgical oddities, the presence of other people I happen to know, the date, various architectural features of the space, etc. I could go on. It is this compulsion that has made posts like this exhaustive catalog of the minhag of one community possible.

Which means, as many–Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, most prominently–have pointed out to me, that I risk not noticing the forest because I’m taking a rubbing of the bark of every damn tree. I’m like those hordes of Japanese tourists that can’t possibly have seen one inch of Europe until they go through their photos once the vacation is over. I have pretended that this problem doesn’t bother me, but it has begun to–though this is certainly the first I’ve mentioned it here.

Now I’ve moved to South Orange and I’ve found Beth El, a nice shul that makes me want to stick around. I’m fairly mortified to find myself on the verge of considering the possibility of maybe eventually inquiring about membership at a *gasp* Conservative shul. And I want these people to refrain from ejecting me from the premises.

Which means that I have been leaving my pen at home and putting on my kippah before I go in. Of course, I wait until I’m at the door to put it on. And as soon as I’m out the door, I take it back off. But still.

(“If that’s the case,” you’re wondering, “how did he produce this blog post about services at Beth El?” My new method is to fold over the corner of any page in the siddur on which I want to remind myself that something of note happened. So far, it’s seems to be working.)

I feel, on the one hand, like this is all probably pretty good for my problems with ego and humility. On the other hand, I feel like I’m losing some battle. Being that asshole who takes notes in services has become and identity issue for me.

And, just as an aside–and maybe as a last word of protest on the issue–I have noticed that Beth El refers to itself as a Conservative egalitarian congregation. If that’s the case, why don’t the women have to cover their heads? I have noticed that many women, probably more than usual, do cover their heads, but the sign on the bin-o-kippot does say “all males” must cover their heads.

And, just as a final complaint on the topic in general, I don’t know why it matters to anyone else what is or is not on my head. I have to wonder what would happen if I went to Beth El for shacharit and failed to put on a talit. Would that matter? Or only on the bimah? Would anyone chastise me if I showed up on a weekday and didn’t wrap tefilin? Why is everyone so bizarrely attached to this one little minhag?

Alright. That’s all. I meant for this post not to turn into a rant, but it’s only been like a week so far. I’m still working on being over this stuff.

Turning the welcoming up to 11–A review of two services at Beth El in South Orange, NJ

Yesterday, I was at the UJA Federation building in Manhattan for a conference. There, I was introduced to Rabbi Danny Allen, the head of ARZA. As it turns out, he lives right here in South Orange, NJ, my new stomping grounds. As soon as he found out where I lived, he whipped out a business card, wrote his home phone number on the back and told me to call him if I needed anything. It turns out that he’s also a member of Beth El, the Conservative shul around the corner from me. I asked if he’d be there that night and he said no, but that he would be there in the morning.

So, all alone, I made the five minute walk there at 6:15 last night for services. As soon as I got there, I ran into someone who looked very familiar. She turned out to be Rabbi Francine Roston, who I had met a few months ago at a conference at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. And that’s when the overwhelming welcoming began.

I’ll now move into the bullet point format that’s been working for these reviews lately and then I’ll do the ballpoint pen rating at the end.

Erev Shabbat

  • The hatless rabbi: After figuring out who I was, we went in and Roston muttered something about needing a kippah. I figured she meant me. Luckily I came prepared. I pulled one out of my back pocket and pinned it on. Then, I noticed that she was the one without a kippah! She fiddled around in the bin-o-kippot by the door and got one out for herself.
  • Fruits of remodeling: Tomorrow, Beth El will dedicate their “Ochs Campus,” which is actually the same location they’ve always been at, but with a major face-lift from the Ochs family, whose name the local day school also bears.
  • Nice Western light: The small chapel where we did Kabbat Shabbat was lovely. It looks like a totally new addition to the building, with seating on three side facing a shtender in the middle, which the rabbi led from. The back wall is stained glass and faces West, an inspired choice for a Conservative shul, where Friday night is likely to be a small service. The light was great as the sun began to sink low.
  • Service times: Though the light was great, the sun didn’t set by the time we were done. Their services start at 6:15 through the end of June and then move to 8 something beginning in July.
  • Making the minyan: At 6:15, there were about 6 people, including myself, the rabbi and one mourner. So Roston was out in the lobby on her cell trying to get a minyan. By the time it mattered, we had a minyan and by the time we were done, there were 15 or so people.
  • Musically boring, but not bad: Beth El has a cantor, but the cantor was not present. Roston’s voice is good enough for me, but nothing special. Kabbalat Shabbat was done in a typical nusach/Carlebach sort of way, but she opted for the most boring option at every turn. With only a couple of exceptions, she did the chant-the-first-and-last-lines thing.
  • Lecha Dodi: So musically uninteresting were her choices that we only used one tune for LD. In shuls that sing the full piyyut, they almost always switch tunes in the middle and I’ve started to be surprised when I find them not doing it. It’s a better solution to the monotony of the length of the piyyut than the Reform solution, which is truncation.
  • Good participation: Despite the small crowd, the singing was decently participatory when we actually did sing something, like LD.
  • Welcoming mourners: There is this line, “Hamakom yenachem…/May God comfort you…” that every siddur prints after LD with the explanation that it is to be said to the congregation’s mourners. I’ve never actually seen it done, but Roston actually forgot to do it and apologized, flipping back a page and turning to face the mourner. She had everyone read it together to him. It was pretty jarring to me.
  • Chatzi Kaddish nusach slip-up: Roston did CK to the wrong nusach–an accident to which I’m often susceptible–and then smirked to a guy sitting behind me. I later learned that he’s a past president of the Beth El. She muttered something to him about getting it wrong and he chuckled.
  • Magein Avot (v’Imahot): Beth El calls itself and egalitarian Conservative congregation. So it was noteworthy, though not surprising that Roston does the mamas and papas, which I discovered when we got to Magen Avot. More on gender roles at Beth El later.
  • Correct Kaddish Shalem nusach: Sometimes, once you fall off the nusach horse, it’s real hard to get back on. There was an odd pause before Kaddish Shalem as I noticed Roston glance at the same guy from before. He muttered the first couple words of KS to the correct nusach and she was able to get going.

Shabbat Morning

I arrived at 9:25 and the service started quite promptly at 9:30. I don’t know whether to add or subtract points for that. Roston and I were the first into the room, a larger sanctuary that looks like it’s a dramatic recent remodel of an existing sanctuary. It was quite nice, remarkable, given that I rarely like modernist sanctuaries. Luckily, I chose to sit one row behind a group of three older men who arrived a little after I did. It turns out they’re the peanut gallery. It’s good to spot your own kind in an unfamiliar place. One of them is also the provost of JTS, who had just led the Torah study before services.

  • Birchot Hashachar: Roston began with the daily blessings on p. 65 of Siddur Sim Shalom, that little section that Gates of Prayer called Nisim B’chol Yom. As with the service the previous night, almost everything was done in a very minimal chant-the-first-and-last-lines sort of way.
  • Skipping ahead: We continued in that fashion until p. 67 “…mekadeish at shimcha barabim” when we skipped ahead to p. 81 for Ps. 30. That means that we skipped the selection of texts that SSS replaces Korbanot with, Kaddish D’Rabbanan and Ps. 92 (the daily psalm). We then did Kaddish Yatom and moved on to…
  • Pesukei Dezimra: This section proceeded in what was quickly becoming a boring fashion, the familiar first and last line shtick.
    • A brief excerpt from a long list of things we did not sing: We managed not to sing even Ps. 136 (the one with the “ki le’olam chasdo” refrain. We also did not chant Ashrei, though we certainly didn’t skip it.
    • A brief, though complete list, of things we did sing: Luckily, Ps. 150 is too musically themed to keep even this crowd from singing it, though the melody was unfamiliar to me. In Shirat Hayam, I was surprised to find us singing “Ozi vezimrat Yah vayehi li lishuah” to that Shefa Gold tune.
    • Shochein Ad leader switch: At Shochein Ad, a very young-looking leader replaced Roston at the shtender. Her style was similar Roston’s. I later learned she is Evelyn, who just graduated from Rutgers. More on her later.
    • The ladies of Beth El: I will point out at this point that the entire service was lead by women, with exception of the Torah Service, which had a male reader and gabbai.
  • El Adon: Evelyn gave us a thankful reprieve from the usual when we got to this portion of Yotzer Or. I’m pretty sure there’s a law these days requiring El Adon to be sung.
  • Amidah: There was a silent Amidah and a reader’s repetition. It is worth noting here that we did a Heiche Kedushah (first three blessings of the Amidah together, the rest silently) in Musaf.
  • Welcoming gone wild: On Friday night, Roston introduced me to everybody twice, once at the beginning of the service and once at the end. This morning about a half dozen past presidents introduced themselves or were introduced to me during the service. One gave me an Aliyah. While sitting on the bimah during the fifth aliyah, waiting for my turn at the sixth, Roston asked if I read Torah. I told her no. She asked if I can lead davening. I said yes. There were about a dozen handshakes and full name introductions on my way back to my seat after the Aliyah.
  • Korens and Evelyn: By this point, I had relocated to sit with Danny (the rabbi from the very beginning of the post), who was sitting right behind Evelyn and her family. I was introduced to Evelyn, who was using the Koren Sacks, which I commended her on. She told me that she had asked for it as a birthday present. My kind of person. There were two other Korens in the congregation as well.
  • Mi Shebeirach gone wild: I know that we all have to join the cult of intercessory healing prayers know, but Beth El’s version is the most odious I’ve yet seen. People, like 20 of them, lined up on the ramp to the bimah while the rest of them hummed or something and they came up one-by-one to grab the Torah and say a special prayer from someone in need of healing. Danny, correctly perceiving my expression as one of incredulity, seemed not to think too much of it either. “It’s not a theological decision,” he said. “It is,” I said, “it’s just not being made for theological reasons.” Then, a little later, they wanted everyone who had gone up to the Torah to stand up for a special prayer. I stayed in my seat.
  • Musaf: As noted, Musaf was done as a Heiche Kedushah. Word on the street is that Roston wants to do away with Musaf. Oh dear. It seems I’ve found a shul with a liturgical debate worth wading into.
    • Abigail’s Sharon’s more diverse musical tastes: Musaf was led by Evelyn’s younger sister, Abigail Sharon (I think I thought, but turned out to be wrong). This was interesting because Abigail’s Sharon’s musical choices and the congregation’s acceptance of them is a sign that the music doesn’t always have to be as boring as it was.
    • A-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Adonai… I don’t actually like doing this verison of “Adonai sefatai tiftach…” but the fact that Abigail Sharon chose to was a good sign, given what I said in the previous bullet point.
  • Aleinu: Abigail Sharon went with your standard Camp Ramah-style Aleinu, with lots of singing and stomping and so forth.

After the service, I could scarcely walk two feet without being intercepted for lengthy introductions. Which was bad because I wanted a bagel. But it was good because now I think I’ve met everybody in the world, including one lesbian mother of three who told me that she’s the unofficial matchmaker at Beth El and that she’d start thinking about finding someone for me. Welcome to South Orange, apparently.

The Five Ballpoint Pen Rating (The rating system is explained here.)

Music and Ruach: Three Ballpoint Pens

The congregation was engaged and participated, but not particularly loudly. The leading was all competent, through and through, but of three service leaders I experienced across two services, only one (Abigail, who I’m guessing is 20 like 15 years old) did anything particularly interesting with her moment at the shtender. On its own, the congregation’s participation would probably pull a three and a half, while the music on its own would probably be a two and a half. As always, keep in mind that this is only a rating of the two services I attended this week and that neither involved Beth El’s cantor.

The Chaos Quotient: Three Ballpoint Pens

Beth El was pretty light on the chaos, but I felt totally at home nonetheless. There was a solid low-level hum of chaos surrounding distribution of honors, especially the Torah service, but nothing too special. The only thing keeping this from being two and a half is the nusach issues I saw on Friday night.

Liturgical Health: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

There were, as far as I saw, three other people who brought their own siddur, each one a Koren Sacks. (I brought the Sim Shalom commentary, Or Hadash.) In an ordinary shul, that’s something, I guess–even if one of them turned out to be the provost of JTS! There was a good level of lay-leading throughout the service, as I discussed above. What keeps this rating from being a three is the questionable and totally bizarre Mi Shebeirach situation.

Welcoming Community: Five Ballpoint Pens

This might actually be the first time I’ve rated anything as a five since I started using the ballpoint pen scale. And it should be obvious from everything I said above why. These people welcome you like it’s their job.

Overall Rating: Four Ballpoint Pens

Not much left to say, except that, for maybe the first time, the warmth of the community elevated the rating past the solid three I would have given based on the other categories.

Help the Open Siddur Project attribute this kavanah

OSPOne of the organizers of the wonderful open-source Open Siddur Project and a regular reader of this blog Aharon Varady, sent out an inquiry to the OSP email list today that caught my eye:

I’m looking to the list for more information on the source for saying a Kavanah (self-focused intentional meditation), to take upon oneself the obligatory mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself. …I only began to hear this in Renewal circles. There, I was told that the origin of the kavvanah was the Ari z”l. It also appears just before Psukei D’zimra in Reb Zalman’s Siddur Tehillat Hashem Yedaber Pi:

I accept upon myself
the command
to love my neighbor as myself.

In Hebrew sources, it appears as such:

הריני מקבל עלי מצוות עשה של ואהבת לרעך כמוך

Aharon goes on to explain that he has heard a variant of it that goes like this:

הריני מקבל עלי את מצוות הבורא ואהבת לרעך כמוך | Hareini mekabel alai et mitzvat haborei, veahavta lereiacha kamocha

After a few emails back and forth, Aharon said:

Does anyone know the source for calling this mitzvah the “mitzvah haboreh.” (Aren’t all the mitzvot, “mitzvot haboreh”?)

If we could find the original source, we could attribute this custom and determine which was the original and which the variation.

I’m familiar with the “haborei” version of the kavanah from Kirtan Rabbi’s “Love Thy Neighbor ואהבת לרעך כמוך” track on his “Kirtan Rabbi Live!” CD.

Another person (attribution on request) on the list said:

This kavanah is also in sim shalom prior to early morning torah study.

(P. 63 of the Shabbat slim shalom.)

In Kol Haneshamah, (p. 151) we use alternative language: leshem yichud kudshabrich hu…)

However, I’m doubting that this “kudshabrich hu” phrasing is Reconstructionist in origin because it appears in the “L’shem Yichud” track on the album “Shuva” by Raz Hartman, who I believe is Orthodox.

Efraim Feinstein, another OSP leader, added:

 It appears (with the variant מצות עשה) in a Chabad siddur (as something that is “proper to say” before מה טובו) as early as 1896. Probably earlier, I just haven’t searched through all of them. :-)

If you do want to find the history of the phrase, tracing back Chassidic siddurim is probably the way to go.

So. Anyone know anything about the origins of any of these?

LimmudPhilly: Shabbat morning at BZBI with a weird-ass Musaf thing

I went to LimmudPhilly and wrote a bunch of posts. Here’s a guide to them.

I was gonna go to Society Hill Synagogue, which the LimmudPhilly program book described as “Unaffiliate, Conservative-style” because I wanted to know what that means. According to one person I asked, there are readings. Gah.

But Desh–a regular Jewschool commenter who I had met for the first time in person the night before–said he was going to Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel–which everyone calls BZBI–because it’s much closer to him. Turns out, it was easier for me to get to as well and it seemed better to go somewhere with a friend.

Plus, I figured, it would be nice to go somewhere predictable and not feel like I have to write a review. Wrong on so many levels, was I.

First of all, at a Conservative shul, I expect a kippah patrol. I arrived with my kippah at the ready, but did not put it on. Eventually, the honors patrol came by and offered me gelilah (this story starting to sound familiar to anyone?). I accepted, certain that he was also about to tell me to cover my head. Instead, he handed me the card–intricately detailed instructions, by the way–thanked me and told me we’d have to find a kippah to wear on the bimah. I told him I had one with me and he said OK fine whatever and moved on with his honor-distribution duties.

I consulted Desh–quite the regular at BZBI and thank God for that because I ended up sitting in a rather snarky section of regulars, just my type!–and he said that at BZBI, men are expected to cover their heads in the sanctuary (so much for that), but everyone is expected to cover their heads on the bimah. Given that, I felt fine putting a kipah on for gelilah. The cantor (more on her shortly) told me I was a very skilled Torah dresser, by the way.

(As an aside, there were way too many women whose doily-laden heads looked like they might take flight at any moment for my comfort!)

Anyway, notes (mental, I mostly refrained from notetaking) from BZBI:

  • The cantor and the music: Despite being very appreciative of my Torah-dressing skillz, the cantor drove me berserk. All of the melodies in the service were familiar to me and none were unusual for the Conservative setting. However, this cantor–one of those cantors who closes her eyes while emoting her way through every other note–was all over the place with this melodies. In some, she was putting the emphasis in funny places, in others, tweaking the melody ever so slightly. It made it impossible to sing along. I also think I was sitting in the only section of singing along types in the whole place.
  • Am I done with rabbis and cantors on bimahs? I’m beginning to think I’m never gonna be happy with a rabbi-and-cantor-on-the-bimah arrangement. I hate it more every time.
  • Begin with Ps. 92? BZBI is apparently trying something new. Their services used to begin at 9 and end at 12:30. The new plan is to being at 9:30 and end, still, at 12:30. [EDITED: I got those times way wrong. Here are the correct times.] There are variety of strategies for doing this that are currently undergoing testing. One of them is to skip straight through Pesukei Dezimrah. So they begin with Psalm 92 and then it’s straight on to Kaddish Yatom and then on to Shochein Ad straight away. Given that the Kaddish that’s at the beginning of the service can tend to migrate anyway, this makes some sense. And there is, of course, a devoted corps (mostly just Desh and some old dudes) who come early to go through PD on their own.
  • No Imahot? I was surprised to find a Conservative shul with a (relatively) young Shabbat morning crowd and relatively (like, really relatively in the case of the rabbi) young rabbi and cantor that still isn’t doing Imahot. Desh and others explained to me that the rabbi and cantor are in favor of doing Imahot, but there are some very strident anti-Imahot people who are quite old. I guess they’re just waiting it out…. Anyway, it was odd.
  • The nusach massacre continues in Kedushah: This is getting grotesque. Kedushah took like ten minutes. *face-pew*
  • The hakafah crisis: The sanctuary has an aisle up the middle and one on each side and both are connected in the back and front. Normally at BZBI, both hakafot proceed all the way up the middle and down both sides. But this week, in the interest of saving time, the rabbi announced that the first hakafah would only go up the middle aisle and that it would go all the way around–skipping the middle aisle–the second time. There was a lot of discussion of how much time this might actually save from within the snark-zone I was sitting in.
  • Thank God for the Torah readers! One of the reasons BZBI needs special strategies for shortening the service is that they’re still doing full readings of the Torah! No triennial here, friends. Yet, the Torah reading is about the coolest thing ever. There’s a retired Baghdadi Sephardi rabbi in the congregation who reads Torah. He does it about as slowly as I’ve ever seen it, but it’s damn cool to hear him doing it. He differentiates in pronunciation between Chet and Chaf and I can hear him vocalizing his Ayins from time to time. His wife then does haftarah, which is also great!
  • And then the second hakafah: They almost forget that they’re not going up the middle aisle. They go up one side, halfway across the back and then turn to go down the middle. They a good portion of the way down before they get the message from the rabbi, gesticulating wildly, to turn around and go back to the back and then come back down the other side. The snark-zone is in stitches.
  • And then the little kids started singing! Good God. There’s nothing worse than accidentally showing up to a consecration service! They do religious school on Shabbat at BZBI so the consecration kids (third grade or something?) emerged and joined us in the service toward the end of the Torah service. They sang  (!), of all things, “Yachad Lev v’Lev”–and Israeli pop song–and something I’d never heard of. And then. Shit. Got. Weird.
  • Then they started singing Avot… v’Imahot. At the point in the service, I didn’t know any of the stuff I wrote earlier about how Imahot works (or doesn’t) at BZBI. The kids sang Adoani Sefatai Tiftach and then they actually started singing Avot v’Imahot. In the snark-zone, there was a lot of uncomfortable glancing about and hiding behind pews. We weren’t sure if this was meant to be musaf or what was going on at all.
  • It was musaf. But there was a poem with some remarkable rhyming. One of my new snark-zone friends said of me to Desh, “He’s never gonna come back, is he?”
  • Eventually, it was over. And we did real Musaf. And then we all moved on with life.

Rating: The Five Ballpoint Pen Rating System is explained here.

Music and Ruach: One Ballpoint Pen

I didn’t like the music at all and there seemed to be very little ruach of any sort in the room.

The Chaos Quotient: Four Ballpoint Pens

I’m gonna go ahead and count whatever those kids up to toward this service’s tremendous Chaos Quotient. Between that and the hakafah, this shul is to be congratulated. On the one hand, I didn’t like the service too much. On the other hand, the chaos was excellent and made me feel very much at home.

Liturgical Health: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

On the one hand, I don’t like having the beginning of the service so truncated and the reason they don’t do Imahot is silly. On the other hand, it’s nice to find a shul making conscious, but practical choices about liturgy. And the full reading was pretty spiffy. On the third hand, I didn’t see anyone using anything other than Siddur Sim Shalom.

Welcoming Community: N/A

I arrived pretty early, had friend there already and bolted when the service was over so I’m not gonna try to rate them on this one.

Overall Rating: One and a Ballpoint Half Pens

And they’re only getting that half because the chaos was so good.

Strengths and weaknesses of indie minyans and why I don’t get to go to Zoo Minyan tomorrow

Crossposted to Jewschool

Zoo Minyan, an independent minyan that meets in the neighborhood around the zoo in DC, is not meeting for davening this week. Why do I care? And why is this interesting? Let me back up:

I’m on the Bolt Bus, headed down to DC for the J Street Conference. The conference proper doesn’t start until Saturday night, but I’m heading down to spend Shabbat in DC, hoping to get some good shul-hopping done for your reading pleasure.

My plan was to go to multi-denominational, non-membership, convention-defying synagogue Sixth and I tonight and to the still-extant, just had their 40th birthday, proving all the “indie minyans will never last people wrong,” first-wave chavurah Fabrangen tomorrow morning.

But then, while emailing back and forth with Mah Rabu blogger and fellow Jewschooler BZ, he suggested the I try out Zoo Minyan instead. Apropos my post from the other day about feminizing the theology of Kaddish Shalem, he thought I might like Zoo Minyan. During their service, they apparently alternate between masculine and feminine names for God. So I got a little excited to see that in practice.

Then, as I’m sitting here on this bus, I get this e-mail from BZ with this post from their blog:

Zoo Minyan – No Davvening, but some learning, Sat. Feb 26

Zoo Minyan is not meeting for davenning Sat. Feb 26.

Sorry folks! Insufficient leyning turn-out for Zoo this shabbos, wouldn’t be lichvod Torah. Apologies for the short notice / change of plans.

But feel free to stop by for some learning after davenning elsewhere (or after shaarei sheina / sleeping in, as is your custom).

[...]

So, it’s Fabrangen for more tomorrow, after all.

But it’s not a total waste because I have some thoughts to share that came out of this failure to launch. The first time I heard such an attitude from an indie minyanaire was from an organizer of the ultra-lightweight London minyan Wandering Jews. They don’t organize anything other than a place and time. They refuse to beg people to be hosts. If no one volunteers to host, there’s no davening. If not enough people bring stuff for the potluck, there’s no communal dinner. Etc.

I heard a woman speak about this approach at Limmud Colorado a couple of years ago. She said, if people value Wandering Jews, they will make it happen. And if they’re not making it happen, then it isn’t valuable and they should just let it go and slip away. This stands in about the starkest contrast possible to the synagogue continuity-obsessed folks.

And at Zoo Minyan, it seems there is a somewhat similar attitude. And now I don’t get to go. Oh well, their loss. And Fabrangen’s gain.

Shabbat morning @ Romemu… a month late

A picture I did not take–rather, I stole it from Romemu’s website–of some kid and Rabbi David Ingber.

Crossposted to Jewschool

A month ago, I wrote about my experience with a Renwal-style service led by some of the leaders of Romemu–NYC’s premiere Renewal shul and one of the most prominent Renewal outposts there is. It was a Friday night service being led, not actually at Romemu, but at Limmud NY.

I gave the service three and a half ballpoint pens (|||-), and said that I’d be going to Romemu the following week for Shabbat morning. To me, one of the true tests of a shul with a reputation for spirited davening is the morning after. A reputation for spirited davening usually comes from a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat, so it’s always interesting to see if a community can maintain a good morning service as well.

This can be harder to do because people have to drag themselves out of bed–and when it comes to liturgy, it’s harder to make me happy because there’s more to do on Shabbat morning than on erev Shabbat.

So I went. As I said, it was about a month ago, so my memory is a tad rusty. But I took a lot of notes while I was there and I started drafting this the day after, so I think I’ve got most of my thoughts in order. This is the first review I’ve written since I refined the Five-Ballpoint Pen Rating System. What I’m going to try to do is go through the copious notes I took first, as bullet points. Then I’ll do a more concise write-up at the end using the new rating categories. In the service notes, the section on the Torah service may be the most interesting and insightful about Romemu as a community.

Shir Yaakov, Romemu’s [musical director/insert correct title here] provided me with a copy of the song list he was using that week, so I’ll be able to provide correct [read: coherent] descriptions of the music this time.

Getting Started

  • Began with “Hareini Mekabel Alai” by Gabriel Meyer Halevi, which I think I’ve identified as being by Kirtan Rabbi once before. That was wrong, although Kirtan Rabbi does a cover of it.

The Setup

  • There is a guy playing a cajon, Shir Yaakov is playing a djembe–though he also played guitar throughout–and a guy playing some very lovely classical guitar-type stuff.
  • Rabbi David Ingber, of course, is leading. He’s using a mic, which it doesn’t seem to me that he needs. He’s a loud-voiced fellow. I asked him about it later and he said he does need to keep his voice from getting destroyed every week. However, does he really need a flesh-tone pop star mic? And does he need to be so loud? And do we need a full-on sound guy in the back sitting at a control panel and everything? The whole things engenders and odd atmosphere, in my opinion.
  • There are, as we begin, about 20 people. They don’t fill the space at all. It feels quite empty. Ingber later told me that the previous night’s service had been one of the most packed they’d ever had. (This, mind you, was not the one I was at, which had been the previous week.)
  • The set-up is quite similar to B’nai Jeshurun, in that there is a rabbi leading from a podium, plenty of open space between the rows pews and the rabbi, and a semicircle of musicians behind and to the left of the rabbi.
  • Architecturally, the space is more similar in style to Anshei Chesed. I figure that they were probably built around the same time. Major difference: Romemu is in a church. It’s a wonderful space. If Romemu bought it from the church, they could turn it into a fantastic sanctuary for their purposes, but for now, I’m quite unsettled by the imagery around me. I’m actually a big believer in the notion that Jews ought now pray in churches. After services, I chatted with Ingber about this. He said that many in their community actually like that it’s a church. It’s a sign to many of the radical atmosphere of welcoming they want to engender at Romemu. I think you’ll all get my drift if I respond to that with an unenthusiastic “Whatever.”

An Atmosphere of Radical Welcoming

  • The radical atmosphere of welcoming, by the way, leaves something to be desired. When I arrived–a tad early, as is my wont–there were some congregants puttering around near the entrance. I wasn’t greeted by any of them, nor did any of them offer me a siddur. And about this “siddur…”

The “Siddur”

  • Siddur P'nai Or

    The siddur is P’nai Or by Rabbi Marcia Prager. I chatted with Ingber about this creation after the service. Apparently it’s one of two Renewal siddurim. I told him I didn’t think too highly of it and he said that, in that case, I should stay away from the other one all the more so! He said it’s not quite right for Romemu and that they are working on their own.

  • PO is pamphlet-y construction, overfull of clipart and poorly, inconsistently laid out.
  • Liturgically, it goes far beyond cringe-worthy.

Birchot Hashachar

  • Chanted Modeh Ani
  • For the daily blessings, we alternated between Hebrew and English
  • Once we had completed the blessings from the siddur, Ingber had people shout out the blessings they were thankful for in their own lives. Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to cover my reaction to this. People are shouting out stuff like, “Warm gloves!” and so forth. And they’re doing all of this to the nusach!
  • There’s a quite a bit of “Take deep breaths, etc.” sort of things from Ingber. Too much of that for my taste. More than once per service, and I start deducting ballpoint pens, I think.
  • The guitar is doing this cool Spanish-sounding thing. It’s great.

Pesukei Dezimrah

  • Yeah, but how did we get here so fast?
  • Psalm 92 (“Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat etc.”) to a slow, chant-y melody. We end after “Zamru lAdonai bechinor.”
  • They play with God’s name a lot. It’s not clear if this is Ingber at work or the siddur at work on Ingber. Among others, we say Hashem, Yah, Ruach Ha’olam and Shechinah. It’s not per se, bad in my view, it’s just odd and jarring.
  • Ashrei is done to a melody I don’t know. The song list Shir Yaakov gave me says, “Ashrei–Or Zohar.” It’s unclear to me what that means. After a bit of googling, I still don’t know.
  • The spirit of the group, which is steadily growing in numbers at this point, is good, but Ingber’s mic is overpowering at times.
  • We end Ashrei after chanting the first two lines through a few times. The melody would work for a complete Ashrei–but for that, we’d have to flip all that way to page 64! Why has it been hidden somewhere other than where it belongs?
  • Psalm 150 we do to a tune I know, but it sounds quite new because the tempo is different and the instruments bring a new sound and a flavor to it. It’s good.
  • Ingber asks for “chaotic” chanting “in our own way” for Nishmat. Sounds great! Is he pandering to me? (Kidding, obviously.) It doesn’t come out chaotic at all anyway.
  • For “Uvmakhalot… Shochen Ad… Barchi Nafshi… Yishtabach… etc.” it’s quite hard to join in and follow Ingber’s wandering chant.
  • The song sheet, however, says, “Shochen Ad–nusach / U’vemakalot rivovot–Carlebach / Yishtabach–nusach.”
  • Directly from my notes: “Rm. has filled more, but still too big”
  • Chatzi Kaddish is normal
  • A Hadar fellow arrives. This seems quite odd to me. On the other hand, Romemu and Hadar are sponsoring some learning together lately, so perhaps it’s not so odd.

The part where things start to get meta…

  • Ingber mentions that a new friend he made at Limmud NY is here and looks at me. He mentions that in my review of his service at Limmud the week before, I noted: “…Ingber asks everyone to say Shabbat [Shalom] to people around [us] that we don’t know. ‘Careful though,’ he says. ‘I don’t want it to become a shmooze fest.’ Yeah, OK. It quickly becomes a shmooze fest.” So we all say Shabbat Shalom to the people around us, and successfully avoid a shmooze fest.

Shacharit

  • In my notes, it says, “Barechu same as at Limmud.” So I’ve consulted that review, where it says:
  • “Barchu is done with an unfamiliar tune. People often have a hard time discerning what to do during Barchu when it’s a tune rather than nusach because the call and response nature of it is hard to parse. That happens here.”
  • The song sheet, however, says “Barchu — Ein Od.” I guess that’s the particular melody they did?
  • Yotzer Or: Ingber wanders in English and Hebrew, chanting and explaining through Or Chadash, which is:
  • From the song sheet: “Or Chadash — Robert Esformes chant”
  • Shir Yaakov has his talit over his head for a quite meditative Ahavah Rabah
  • From song sheet: “Ahavah Rabba — Shimshai”

Random stuff from the middle of my notes

  • This resembles the loopier end of Reform almost?
  • More meditative than ecstatic, where Friday was more ecstatic. This is confirmed in a conversation with Ingber after about intentionally creating very different moods through Shabbat
  • A Hadar fellow arrives, davening out of Koren Sacks
  • I’m surprised by the number of stage directions. Maybe I shouldn’t be. I guess I’m used to spirited davening in a shul going hand in hand with a more knowledgeable community, which often means that stage directions are not needed.

Back to notes on Shacharit

  • The Shema is done in full, with a very meditative, long-lasting opening
  • From song sheet: “Mi Chamocha, Tzur Yisrael traditional”

Amidah

  • First three aloud, the rest silent, as I anticipated
  • Musically, it’s interesting. At Mechalkel in Gevurot, the instruments comes in as the nusach picks up. This, I note, requires the musicians to remain standing during the Amidah.
  • Kedusha uses a couple of Carlebach tunes I was unfamiliar with. From song sheet: “Nekadesh — Yasis Alaich Carlebach / Mimkomcha — ‘VeShamru’ Carlebach”
  • After Kedushah is over,  Shir Yaakov gets up and starts the Amidah on his own from the beginning.
  • We end the Amidah with Yihyu Ratzon in English to the tune of “Sanctuary.” More on what the means can be found here. Then, we move into the chorus of “Sanctuary” and then into a nigun version of it. Then we’re off into “Ve’asu li mikdash etc,” which often ends up in these odd Jewish liturgical mash-ups of the Christian gospel song “Sanctuary.”
  • Ingber does something that I’ve never heard before in Kaddish Shalem. It deserves its own post. So here’s that.

Interruption on demographics

  • I wrote at this point in my notes that the congregation appears to be demographically slightly older than my usual NY davening hangouts, but it’s still a quite diverse group age-wise.

Torah service

  • This felt like the longest Torah service of my life.
  • Ingber says that anyone who wants to should come open the ark. “Grab a talit!” he says. “If that sounds new agey to you, it’s from the Ari!” He looks directly at me.
  • I note a surprising lack of chaos in the service so far. This, of course, is a little troubling.
  • But then the ark door like falls off while they’re trying to extract a Sefer Torah from it. “How many Jews does it take to to take out a Torah?” Ingber jokes.
  • The service runs very much on the charisma and personality of Ingber and I wonder if Romemu could function without him. He is not just its current leader, but its founder.
  • It’s appropriate this group called Romemu is at its most ecstatic in the morning service during the hakafah as they sing… Romemu.
  • Someone is carrying the Torah around like a pile of wood. It’s bothering me.
  • Musically, it’s remarkably clear that this, the Torah, is the climax of the service.
  • Ingber mentions grassroots, DIY Judaism in the last 10 years. So nice, he says, to see people stepping up to take charge and lead their own Judaism. This seems a tad odious to me, given that Romemu was founded by a rabbi–Ingber!–and that the service is not at all lay-led. There will be some lay involvement as we get into the Torah service, but it’s worth noting that there has been none whatsoever so far.
  • There are 20 people for the first Aliyah.
  • He seems to mini-drash before each individual Aliyah. Each of these leads into an explanation of his kavanah for the Aliyah at hand, such that each Aliyah is for “anyone who [insert the particular thing here].”
  • The drashing is quite participatory. He often asks for suggestions and ideas from the community, so there is a strong sense of communal involvement at this point in the service, but it’s still not lay-led, by far.
  • The Torah is lay-read.
  • Some of the Torah is read by Jake, whose Hebrew name is Ya’akov. It is his 30th birthday and he feels he is at a turning point in life, so this is the occasion of his Jewish name-change. He is now known as Yisra’el. The name change takes place after he reads the third and final Aliyah.

Garb notes

  • There are many men and many women wearing talitot.
  • The talitot tend to be more tradition in shape and color so there are few of the sort of contemporary talitot.
  • Almost all men have their heads covered. I might be the only one with a bare head.
  • In stark contrast, only a handful of women have their heads covered.

Rating?

This is gonna be a hard one to do an overall rating for. Again, the full rating system is explained here.

Music and Ruach: Four Ballpoint Pens

The congregation is engaged and participates loudly and ecstatically. The music, led by Shir Yaakov, is fantastic, through and through. I’m giving four instead of five because of the bits chanted by Inger that were hard to follow along with and because of the sung Barechu.

The Chaos Quotient: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

Ingber is such a strong leader for the service and there are few moments of transition for chaos to occur within. Because of that, despite the loud and ecstatic nature of the service, there is little chaos. However, the near-demolition of the ark is a pretty good little bit of chaos. So two and a half sounds like a good rating to me.

Liturgical Health: One and a Half Ballpoint Pens

Liturgical health is indicated primarily by two things: 1) Attention to and regard for the structure of the service, and 2) the apparent liturgical knowledge and interest of congregants, as indicated by their siddurim of choice. The overall structure of the service was intact, but they play very fast and loose with the content of the morning blessings and Pesukei Dezimrah. The only people who brought their own siddurim were two visiting Hadar fellows. And that siddur. Oh, that siddur.

Welcoming Community: Four Ballpoint Pens

I noted earlier that I was not particularly greeted on arrival, but the kiddush afterward was fantastic and everyone was very friendly. Overall, the quality of the community is great. Romemu, in essence, is good people.

Overall Rating: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

I thought a lot about how many pens to rate this service overall. Though the people and music were truly phenomenal, the liturgical issues I had are too big for me to overlook. That said, keep in mind that this is a rating of this service, not of Romemu itself, which is comprised of much more than its Shabbat morning services. I am keen to go again, though I think Friday night might be as far as I get with Romemu again.

The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music

According to JTA, the Reform cantorial school has been renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music:

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, made the announcement Jan. 27 in New York at a memorial tribute to Friedman, who died Jan. 9 at 59.

Friends of the late singer-songwriter have made possible an endowment to the school, which will be known as The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Ellenson said.

Here’s the full article from JTA.

Also, the article says:

Her most well-known composition, “Mi Shebeirach,” a Hebrew-English version of the Jewish prayer for healing, is now part of the Reform liturgy.

I can’t even begin to describe the aneurysm I’m having about the notion that any individual piece of music could be a Never mind that. It is, in fact, a part of the Reform liturgy. I just found it in Mishkan T’filah on page 109.

OneShul. Yeah.

Without commentary–or editing–here are the notes I typed while “attending” the online Kabbalat Shabbat at OneShul.org.

30 second ad for the new james cameron film, sanctum.

there’s a logo up. the service has not started. unfamilar guitar-camp sort of music is playing. there are 9 other viewers. i can log in to chat. i refrain.

now we’re at 10. a minyan has arrived.

below the screen and the chat field, there is a siddur called “OneShul Community Siddur” it’s the same thing as indie yeshiva pocket thing. which i will be attempting to use. not that koren is far out of reach, but i’m making an effort here.

we’re down to 9 viewers. back to 10. back to 9. back to 10. up to 11! what is going on? and 13.

Google ads keeping popping up.

holy crap, the tune is country roads.

down to 12.

oooh. it’s starting. and it’s stopping. and it’s starting? and it’s stopped again.

it’s very choppy. there’s lots of discussion of how choppy it is. and it’s better. and now the whole thing is gone.

Well, in the midst of all the choppiness, we were all welcomed and they mentioned that they were about to do something involving a Shabbat dinosaur.

Thankfully, I think we missed that due to the choppiness and the outage because we’re back and this guy Michael is doing candle lighting. interesting, that we can all sort of light candles together, in a way. I already lit mine, which are now burning next to the computer.

The Shabbat dinosaur is back. It’s a little girl in a blue dino outfit.

And the nusach their using to light the candles is for Chanukah. *facepalm* Then Michael reads the bracha again in English.

After some puttering about and brief discussion, we’re singing Shalom Aleichem. I feel a little silly sitting in my dorm room singing along with this.

Patrick Aleph says, “Adonai Malach yirgzu amim.” Now Michael is reading it in English.

Now Michael is doing a devar and Patrick has joined the chatroom. “lets talk smack during the dvar” he says. AviEarnest says “Michael needs a dinosaur prayer shawl.” Goodness gracious.

Michael is talking about how Mishpatim takes slavery, a despicable institution, and tames it.

“michael is more spiritual than me in this way. he can take text and really work it well” patrick writes.

There are 18 viewers by now.

Michael is done now. Patrick says they’re gonna take some questions from the chat.

coco765: “How can you look for G-d?? I’ve been doing that all my life and I haven’t found G-d. Any ideas????”

Michael, apparently in Rabbinical school, answers.

I’m struggling to be open-minded right now. Realllly stuggling. Oh my goodness.

20 people now. comments are flying.

coco says, “PunkTorah=my new bff!!”

Michael is talking about Art Green. In theory, this goes from 7 to 8. (michael mentions reb zalman now.) It’s already 7:25 though.

can we get on with this service? one or two more questions, Michael says.

aaaand we’re on the barchu.

we’re halfway through maariv aravim. I’m gonna leave it there and tune out from the service. This is not Shabbat-conducive. The amount of judge-y in my head right now is no good.

Shabbat Shalom.

Psalm 137 vs. Psalm 126: Shabbat and yom chol in Birkat haMazon

When I came back to campus this week from Winter break, there were a couple of graded papers waiting in my mail box from Yehezkel Landau, my professor for Jewish Spirituality last semester. (I previously wrote about that course here and shared a short reflection paper from that course here.

On a short reflection on the topic of sacred time and the Jewish calendar, Landau had written:

Shabbat is also and experience of messianism now, a rehearsal for, & harbinger of, a redeemed future–cf. Psalm 137 before BIRKAT HAMAZON on yom chol vs. Pslam 126 on Shabbat: DREAM of REDEMPTION MADE REAL, EXPERIENTIALLY

So I have investigated. I began by checking my various benchers. None that I own include Psalm 137 before Birkat haMazon, but all include BhM’s familiar Shabbat opener, Pslam 126–“Shir hama’alot. Beshuv Adonai etc.”

So I googled. And Wikipedia kindly informed me:

Psalm 126, Shir Hama’alot (Song of Ascents), which expresses the Jewish hope of return to Zion following their final redemption, is widely recited before birkat hamazon on Shabbat…. Less common is the recitation on weekdays of Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel (By the rivers of Babylon), which describes the reactions of the Jews in exile as would have been expressed during the Babylonian captivity….

So that’s interesting. 137–you know, the one Bob Marley wrote–is a sad remembrance of expulsion and diaspora, while 126 is a joyous vision of a return and redemption.

Each week, we get kicked out of our redeemed state and our day of rest and back into our everyday drudgery. And each week, we get sing Psalm 126 as we get to return to the joys of Shabbat.

If I actually said BhM after every meal, I think I’d start adding Psalm 137.

PS–Dear bencher editors, what gives? Where’s 137, huh?

Lost nusach of the Beit haMikdash

The Open Siddur Project

Over at The Open Siddur Project, Aharon has posted a summary of a known piece of nusach from The Temple:

Once upon a time, according to the Mishnah, it was the nusaḥ (liturgical tradition) of the Cohanim in the Bet Hamikdash[1] for the Ten Commandments to be read prior to theSh’ma.

He also gets into why we don’t read the Aseret haDibrot before the Shma any longer. It’s cool. Read it.