Tag Archives: Judaism

My first observations about the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur

If you’ve come here from the Jewniverse email that went out on 9.27.12, welcome!

Though the Jewniverse thing directed you here, I highly recommend just going straight over to my new blog, davidamwilensky.com. Everything from this blog, including this very post, is there too!


When I first posted this siddur trailer (!) over a year ago, I wrote that it was coming later in 2010. Since then, Amazon has emailed me like three times to tell me the release was being postponed. Well, it’s finally here. This morning, I played around with my new toy in shul. Here are some initial observations:

The Rav meets Sir Sacks:

There’s a lot of Modern Orthodox star power in this volume. Rabbi Joseph “The Rav” Soloveitchik did more in his lifetime to shape Modern Orthodoxy than anyone else ever has. This siddur includes his commentary throughout, as well as a number of great introductions and forewords about him and about his views on Jewish prayer.

At the same time, it’s still a member of the Koren Sacks family of siddurim because it still features the translation used in the Sacks siddur.

It’s yet another (mostly) beautiful Koren product:

Yes, it has the usual beautiful Koren typefaces and layout, but it doesn’t have the bookmark ribbons that some of their other recent siddurim have had, which is a little disappointing. And then there’s this:

In my copy of the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, page 441/442 has some issues. The corner of this page arrived pre-bent. If it’s not totally apparent from the image above, here’s what it looked like when I unfolded it:

So that’s special.

It’s hard to read English from right to left:

It’s a recurring problem: A siddur should open from right to left, but anglophone siddurim have forewords and commentary printed in English, which makes for weird reading. Reading an introduction, when you get to the bottom of the page, you have to keep reading by looking at what would be the previous page in an English book. Koren has a clever way of helping you wrap your mind around this:

In lighter print, they indicate that you should continue reading on the next/previous page with the direction of the arrow and they tell you what the next English word will be. Koren is very focused on using visuals, rather than instructions, to help the user navigate the siddur. This is one of many cases in which they do this very well.

But I came across a problem today: They don’t do the same thing for a piece of commentary that lasts over multiple pages. For example, let’s say you there’s a piece of English commentary in the middle of the service that starts on the left leaf of a two-page spread (we’ll call it page 2). If this piece of commentary is long enough that it stretches over two pages, they run it on the next English page, but the previous Hebrew page, if that makes sense (we’ll call it page 1). If it’s longer than that (I found one like this in this siddur today), it then jumps two English pages back or two Hebrew pages forward (we’ll call it page 3). You with me? The point is, it’s downright confusing and Koren ought to use little arrows to help us through it.

It would be cooler if it wasn’t just Soloveitchik’s commentary:

In one of the introductory sections, Hanhagot HaRav, we get a list of his personal prayer practices. For instance, in Birchot Hashachar, he used to replace the word “goy/nation” in “shelo asani goy” with “nochri/stranger” because the Tanach sometimes uses the word “goy” in reference to the Jewish nation. He also used to omit “hanotein laya’ef ko’ach” because it wasn’t listed in the Talmud. Yet this siddur includes it as well as the word “goy,” as you can see:

It would be a lot cooler if it was the siddur according to Soloveitchik, rather than a siddur with his commentary.

Some new nikud?

Koren isn’t alone in this, but they like to indicate the difference between the two types of the shva vowel. They indicate which ones are vocalized and which ones are truly silent by making the dots of the vocalized shva a little bigger, as you can see in the word “hamevorach” from my copy of a different Koren siddur:

You can see that the shva under the mem is bolder than the shva under the final chaf. That’s what I’m talking about.

But in the Mesorat HaRav Siddur, they’ve got a new, more obvious way of marking the vocalized shva:

Now, they leave the shva itself alone so that both types appear the same. But they add a line above the letter that has the vocalized shva. The advantage is that it’s way more obvious. Plus, in the example above, you wouldn’t now that the shva in “barechu” is vocalized because there are no other shvas at that type size to compare it with.

That is all. So far. Shabbat shalom.

New year, new edition of the Hillel machzor

The new fully transliterated edition of 'Wings' (red) and the original 1985 edition (blue)

In case you don’t obsessively read the publication that I honcho, I thought I’d give y’all an excerpt from an interview I did for New Voices Magazine recently with Rabbi Richard Levy, editor of both editions of the Hillel machzor, “On Wings of Awe.”

Here’s about half of it:

Groundbreaking in its Initial 1985 Release, ‘Wings of Awe’ Gets New Edition

The High Holidays are upon us, and so is a newly updated and expanded edition of the Hillel machzor (High Holidays prayer book), “On Wings of Awe.” The original 1985 edition was ground-breaking in its inclusion of transliterations for many prayers, which was then a rarity even among liberal Jewish prayer books; the new edition’s cover boldly proclaims itself “A Fully Transliterated Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

While Bernard Scharfstein, vice president of “On Wings of Awe” publisher Ktav, told me, “We sold maybe 1,000 a year; it’s not a bestseller,” it has been a constant presence in many Hillels and in a handful of congregations for many years.

I spoke on the phone recently with the editor of both editions, Rabbi Richard Levy, about what makes “Wings” a Hillel machzor, what has changed in the new edition and how worship has changed over the last quarter-century.

New Voices: Why a new version now?

Rabbi Richard N. Levy: It was a suggestion of Bernard Scharfsetin at Ktav who felt that a fully transliterated version might be attracting to a new generation of students at Hillel and also independent congregations that had used to the older version.

NV: What makes this a Hillel machzor?

Levy: I think that fact that it incorporates a lot of features of many non-Orthodox services, that it includes, for example, [all] three paragraphs of the Shema that are still lacking in Reform worship, but are present in others. In the middle of the book there is a full silent Amidah with inserts for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for people who don’t want to use alt prayers as is suggested in some parts of the book can use the full traditional one.

There are some references to being a teacher and a student, including some reflection questions for Yom Kippur that are directed at teachers and students. There is one piece that reflects the perceived reality of single people who are yet unsure of how or when they will be loved by someone.

There was a time when some of these things could only be done in Hillel foundations that are now commonplace.

NV: What changes can people look for in the new edition versus the original one?

Here’s the rest of it.

“Core Issues in Jewish Prayer: Meaning, Spirit and Music” at Hadar

What alternate universe did I wander into where I get to say things like the following: After work today, I went to the yeshiva for maariv and a shiur with my friend Simi, who goes to Stern.

The yeshiva, of course, was Hadar, the flagship institution of the traditional egalitarian movement. And while Stern College is the all-girls undergraduate school of Yeshiva University (the flagship institution of ever-rightward drifting Modern Orthodoxy), Simi is a notorious heretic whose skirts end at her knees, rather than below them. She’s also the founder of the YU Beacon, YU’s third newspaper and its only co-ed newspaper. And I’m doing my part to contribute to her delinquency by bringing her to places like Hadar.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

Anyway, we went to Hadar last week for part 2 of “Core Issues in Jewish Prayer: Meaning, Spirit and Music–A Signature Lecture Series by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Joey Weisenberg,” which was taught by Elie. It was cool. The stream these things online, so you can check it out over here. Tonight’s video, stubbornly refusing to be embedded but screencapped above, is over here.

A few of Hadar’s copies of Yedid Nefesh, Josh Cahan’s bencher, were sitting out on a table tonight. I can’t figure out how to hyperlink this caption, but if you click on the picture it’ll take you to my review of YN from 2009.

For tonight’s lecture, the third and final of the series, Joey Weisenberg took over from Elie. Joey leads services over at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, the best kept secret about Friday nights in New York City. The lecture was also more singing and participatory demonstration than lecture. It was also held in a room I suspect of being a glorified closet. I took a lot of notes and it gave me a lot of food for thought. Here’s what I got:

Joey Weisenberg

  • We were seated in concentric circle-ish things in the smallest room ever. Joey maintained throughout that the small size was plus. I would usually agree, but this was a tad on the claustrophobic side. There’s a fine line between cozy and cramped. This was cramped.
  • I’m generally more prepared for kumbaya-type stuff in a service than I otherwise am. This was only barely within my usual threshold for kumbaya-ness during services. So for something claiming to be a lecture, it took me a while to settle in.
  • The first nigun was very slow to start, but once it gets going, it’s great. It’s been a while since I’ve been to KSS. I had forgotten how much I like Joey.
  • Simi is totally not into it. Her mouth hasn’t opened except to whisper to me that she’s just realized this is streaming live on the internet. Worse yet, we’re quite visible in the video. “I’m on a live stream?” “Yeah. There’s gonna be evidence.”
  • I’m singing along. I’m being a good sport.
  • Leaning over to Simi, “What, Stern girls don’t sing niguns?” “Oh, they do,” she says before trailing off.”
  • Joey hasn’t said anything yet. He begins: “My name is Joey Weisenberg. I’m a musician during the week and I like to sing a lot on Shabbat and also elsewhere.”
  • He talks for a while about the subject, then says that in music school he used to get frustrated when they’d talk and talk and talk about Mozart. “Just put the music on! Let’s listen to it.” This is his segue to some music.
  • He has a girl hold a high note. He then joins her, starting low and getting higher and higher and we’re all instructed to raise our hands when he matches her. This happens twice, semi-successfully. Then he enlists a third person.
  • He talks about whether we liked it better when they matched pitch or when they were almost matching, something about harmony and tension that I’m not quite following.
  • Then he does the pitch thing again.
  • He keeps saying things like, “The role music plays in the Jewish world is it helps us to tune into the world.”
  • You say the Shema, but there’s the music also, “to which we attune as a group to achieve some unity.”
  • Now he has everybody doing the pitch thing together. Simi is amused. I think it sounds like the THX thing before the movie. I’m not playing along with this part, BTW.
  • We don’t sound great, he observes, “but we’re getting used to the group and the room.”
  • “I’m working for the re-shtetl-ization of the Jewish world.” He means that we’ve gotten too slick, too impersonal and–this next bit is a recurring theme with him–our prayer spaces have gotten too big.
  • Now we’re doing some rhythmic stuff. One person is stomping. The rest of us are utterly silent. “We just one the battle. We all paid attention.”
  • Now we’re stomping in unison. Simi joins in!
  • We’re speeding up. Joey notes that groups have a tendency to get faster tempo and higher pitched over time.
  • “There is a guy next to the rebbe in the chasidic world whose job it is to bring it back down when it gets to fast.”
  • “Amazing. 40 Jews in a room paying attention to what we’re doing. If we could achieve this in prayer spaces, we’d really be on to something.”
  • Meanwhile, I’m wondering if the chit-chat isn’t an integral part of the Jewish prayer aesthetic. And I’m only half-joking about that.
  • Now we’re stomping every fourth beat.
  • Now we’re stomping every other 4th beat, which is not working at all.
  • “We want to rush it. We do that in services when we don’t know what’s going on, we go faster.”
  • I do that! If I’m lost, I just stay where I am, but start going faster and getting really anxious about being in the right place until it becomes clear where we are.
  • “We need to relax our services.”
  • We’re doing every other fourth beat again, but it’s working really well. The only difference is that Joey is very, very quietly whispering, “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, etc.”
  • “I’m just whispering very little. The smallest amount of leadership from me is doing it…. We need clear signals from our leaders, but they can be very subtle.”
  • Back on the anti-big room thing: “Could you have heard me whispering across the room at a large suburban shul? No. We need closeness.”
  • He asks if we spread a string quartet out across a large space or spread out the logs of a fire. No. “Things that seem totally obvious elsewhere and yet, in this situation we instinctively blow it.”
  • Now we’re nigunning again. I’m not following this nigun very well–it seems to get louder, then trail off a little in some kind of pattern, but I’m having a hard time slipping into the pattern. Maybe that’s because I’m taking notes furiously.
  • Simi is having none of it.
  • I pause for a little while to focus on singing along.
  • Simi grabs my notepad and writes, “I feel like I’m in therapy- stop analyzing me!” “I’m writing about me too,” I write back.
  • Is this my whole problem, though? Do I analyze prayer during prayer too much.
  • He has the group doing a little clapping/stomping/patting beat thing consistently, while we continue with this complex nigun. But then he has our voices starting and stopping. He’s actually surprised by how well we recognize where we are in the melody every time he directs us to bring our voices back up.
  • “Point is, singing is not about making sounds…. It’s about trying to pay attention…. Music has the power to make us pay attention and that’s what we need.”
  • It’s an interesting point. We’re likely to actually say or read more of the words if there’s a good tune to say them to. I don’t know if that’s what he meant. Actually, I suspect it’s not. But I like it.
  • He says that the melody is irrelevant. A change in song won’t change the quality of what we’re doing, he says.
  • “Are we hearing ourselves and everyone else or are we waiting for it to end…. Those moments are the best davening moments, when you don’t need lunch” any more and you’re just happy to continue being there, praying and singing.
  • “The choir model sets us up for an expectation of perfection, but not in this [this cramped, everyone singing all at once] model.” He’s making lots of sense to me.
  • Then he says stuff like “Tune into each other’s energy” and I don’t what’s what anymore.
  • We’re singing. Joey’s not making a sound, but he’s rocking back and forth, shuckling in his seat. “Am I contributing?” he asks. Then he slouches and checks his watch. “How about now?”
  • One person says that he was at a shul with assigned seating on Rosh Hashanah, but knowing that he needed to be in the center of the action to daven properly, commandeered a seat closer to the front. He said he also knows that he has something to contribute to the davening, another reason to move toward the front.
  • I guess I’m quite different from that. I start thinking about where I sit at every place I’ve ever been a regular. I always sit all the way off to one side or the other, about 1/3 to 1/4 of the way from the front. Close enough to be in it, but far enough that I’ve got room to thing and, well, take notes like this.
  • We’ve been singing this same nigun for a long time and then the clapping begins. “Almost 40 minutes in, but then it begins…. If clapping begins immediately, the whole thing will be over in two minutes.”
  • “Where do words come in? This is working on its own.” He has us silent. “So if we get into the moment with music and then have the Amidah…” he trails off and stays quiet for a while. It’s eerily quiet. “Music is not about making noice, but drawing us in.”
  • Does anyone else find the pronunciation of nigun as though it is a verb, like “niggin’ ” unsettling and distasteful?
  • Now the group is listing off melodies for “Menucha Vesimcha,” some fast and some slow. The slow ones emphasize menucha (rest), while the fast ones emphasize simcha (joy).
  • “Does the melody need to match the meaning of the words?” someone asks. Joey’s noncommittal. He says that of late he’s been shying away from singing words at all, just filling in between prayers with nigunim.
  • One person points out that a lot of people think that the tune that has become universal for Aleinu is inappropriately bright and bouncy.
  • Another person disagrees, saying that it’s appropriately triumphalist.
  • I jump in: The meaning is important. If we use aesthetics to enhance meaning, even sit on par with it, we’re fine. But if we allow them to supersede and run roughshod over the meaning, we’ve missed the boat.
  • One person, Joey says, looking skeptical bored or whatever can ruin the whole thing. That’s often me, I think. Simi tell me that’s her right now.
  • Abruptly, we’re back to the nigun: “This is called the Hadar nigun, so it’s a good one for us to know.”
  • And now we’re standing up, still singing, louder and louder. Simi: “Seriously?” Me: “Goodness gracious.”
  • And then I notice that she’s started singing!
  • After, on the subway, Simi gets of at Times Square and I continue on to Penn Station. Alone with the strangers on the subway, I realize that I have the nigun stuck in my head now. The same one that we were singing all night and I couldn’t figure out at first is stuck in my head.
Good night.

What if I did one-day yom tov, but went to shul on day two anyway?

Reports of my complete departure from the Reform ideological fold have been greatly exaggerated. I’m not backing away from doing one-day yom tov this year, though I’m tempted to test drive two-day yom tov sooner or later. But I have been thinking about how to attend a second-day RH service and participating as fully as I can–all without compromising my one-day values.

(Some background on an approach to two-day yom tov that I’m particularly fond of can’t hurt, so here’s BZ’s material on it: Israelis are lazy, “ONE DAY ONLY!” parts 1a, 1b and 2, “Ontology of yom tov” and “Hilchot Pluralism, Part VIII: Simchat Torah.”)

Anyway, I’m writing this as I figure out how to do this. Here’s my thinking so far: On day two I could go to shul and the only two things I’d really have to do differently is say a weekday Amidah while everyone else does their RH Amidah and recuse myself from Musaf.

And since any piyutim and whatnot are just that, I could play along with those just fine.

Right? Does that make sense?

Shabbat Notes, 9/24/2011: Dad’s visit; Gospel music in musaf

My dad is in town. He and I usually talk on the phone at some point on Shabbat to fill each other in on any particularly excellent bits of chaos we witnessed in shul that morning. He’s also a reader of this blog, so his visit would not have been complete without a visit to Beth El. He rightly told me that he approved of the level of chaos.


In musaf this morning, the Christian gospel tune, “Lord Prepare Me,” was on the march again. I’ve previously discussed the tune’s increasing use in Jewish worship here and here. I’ve encountered the use of this melody several times, though this use of it is new to me. Today Cantor Perry Fine used it for the musaf kedusha. Eschewing the usual call-and-response-and-repetition style, he led us through the prayer in unison to the tune of “Lord Prepare Me,” from the beginning–“Na’aritzecha venak’dishecha…”–through “Baruch kevod Adonai mimekomo.” Then we proceeded to the the tune of “Erev shel Shoshanim” for a while.

Also, I had an aliyah. More on why that happened sometime next month.

Andy Bachman strikes again: “regrettable” that Reform truncated Shma

Andy Bachman, senior rabbi of the Reform Beth Elohim in Brooklyn always has smart things to say at his blog, Water Over Rocks. I saw this post from him this morning about the Reform excision of the second paragraph of the Shma. Here’s part of it:

In Reform Judaism, for the better part of the last century, Reform Jews have recited the Shma while standing as a public expression of faith, doctrine, pronounced creed.  And Reform prayerbooks have, additionally, eliminated from the liturgy the paragraph following the Shma (the original Torah text of which appears in next week’s Torah portion) mostly because in its articulation of why one ought to observe God’s commandments, there is an explicit articulation of the Biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, to wit, if you follow My commandments, I will give rain in its proper season, God warns; but if you don’t, the earth you hope to cultivate for sustenance will not yield its fruit in its proper season.

It’s always struck me as a regrettable loss that the early Reformers excised such ideas, depriving generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.

Here’s the rest of it.

Jewish Outlook makes an ‘appointment’ with me

I do love that my job is newsworthy in The Jewish Outlook, my hometown Jewish paper.

However, just so we’re clear, JSPS was founded in 1971, not 1970. And it used provide “content for campus Jewish publications around the U.S.” but there are very few of those left and they do not get their content from JSPS. Nowadays, JSPS is really just the organization that publishes New Voices Magazine.

Speaking of New Voices, it’s not “a monthly online student publication.” It’s just an online student publication–nothing monthly about it.

Also, if they’d consulted their AP Stylebook, they would’ve found that publications are italicized, rather than set in quotation marks.

Not that I’m complaining. All publicity is good publicity.

Help me hire some student journalists!

now-hiringgif

Who says there are no paying jobs left in journalism?

By day, I’m the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and the director of the 40-years-young organization that publishes it, the Jewish Student Press Service.

Since the JSPS was founded (New Voices itself is 20 years old), we’ve been a home for independent Jewish journalism–written and published entirely by college students.

We operate on the most shoestring of budgets, but occasionally, we get the exciting the chance to actually hire someone. In this case, I’m looking for 10 someones! If you know a student journalist who might be interested in this, let me know in the comments or by emailing me at david(at)newvoices.org.

Here’s my full pitch:

Jewish Student Journalists: We Want to Pay You!

New Voices Magazine, the national Jewish student magazine, is seeking student journalists to do paid reporting from their campuses this fall!

As a National Correspondent for New Voices Magazine, you will write one reported article per month and will also be able to contribute to the New Voices blog. (Some correspondents may also file video or photo pieces instead of or in addition to written articles.)

Each correspondent will report once a month throughout the fall semester (which, for our purposes, will consist of September, October, November and December) in exchange for a $250 stipend. Many will be rehired for the spring semester.

Every month, there will also be a topic that each correspondent will be asked to do some reporting on. That material will be knitted together into articles that will feature reporting from several campuses.

New Voices is hiring writers for these positions from a geographically diverse selection of campuses.

For full details on how to apply, head over here.

Shabbat Notes, 7/30/2011: Three Kaddish Yatoms!

This is a short one, but I just have to mention this:

This week, we actually had a minyan when we got to the Kaddish Yatom that we usually flip backwards for before the Torah service. So we did it then. Fine.

Then we got to the Torah service… and did it again. Of course, we also had the one at the end of the service.

For a grand total of three Kaddish Yatoms.

Shavua tov.

Kippot and my commute, part II; New Jersey Jewish News, part II

Kippot and my commute, part I

New Jersey Jewish News, part I

This morning, as I emerged in Penn Station from my New Jersey Transit train from South Orange, a woman and her grown son stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you the guy from the New Jersey Jewish News?”

“That’s me,” I said.

We had a rambling conversation while I was on my way into the bowels of Penn Station to hop on the subway. At one point, the woman told me that she’s a scout leader and that she was recently leading an all-Jewish troop on a trip at some camp. At the same time they were at she was there with her all-Jewish troop, there was also a group of Messianic Jews Jews for Jesus Christians at the camp. Some of them wore tzitzit, but no kippah. As I do. And as the article in the New Jersey Jewish News described. She had to explain who these weirdos were to her scouts.

Yesterday, she told me, they saw me on the train and wondered if I was another such person. Later that day, however, they saw the NJJN and figured it out.