I was back at Beth El for Shavuot and again tonight. Tonight was similar to last week’s Kabbalat Shabbat, but more remarkable for its differences.
Last week’s was led by Rabbi Francine Roston, who conducted the service with a minimum of commentary and uncomplicated music (I called it boring in last week’s post, which may have been a tad strong). I can’t recall if she gave any sort of devar. And she led the whole thing standing on the same side of the shtender as the the congregation–that is, she faced the ark, her back to us, which I prefer. When you face the congregation, you sing at them. When you face the same direction that they are, you are leading them, as their representative.
Tonight’s leader was Cantor Perry Fine. Fine, as it so happens, has taught Russ Jayne at JTS. (Russ is a cantorial student and the beloved musical leader of Chavurat Lamdeinu.) So Fine and I had a nice chat about how great Russ is on Shavuot.
Anyway, Fine led this service with a tad more commentary than I’d like and more varied–though, as you’ll see, sometimes more overpowering–music. He also faced us, which may have been part of what encouraged him to talk to us so much.
I also have some new observations about the set up of the smaller chapel space at Beth El. The chapel is wider than it is long, so the chairs face each other in a wide semi-circle facing the ark, with a podium/shtender in the middle. If you have any more than 25 or 30 people in there, as we did on Shavuot, the chapel is a good size. It feels neither vacant nor packed with that sort of attendance.
However, on Friday nights–based, mind you, on a sample size of two weeks so far–it’s too big for the crowd, which is closer to a dozen than to 20. It’s big enough at that point that everyone can sit with several chairs between them and the next person in each direction, which is not good for ruach. My guess is that setting up chairs in a close circle that excludes the podium thing might be a better setup for Friday nights at Beth El.
We were also using an odd little siddur tonight. I borrowed a copy–with Fine’s permission, of course–so there I’ll have more on the siddur later, hopefully tomorrow.
- Accessibility vs. musical prowess: Fine conducted most of Kabbalat Shabbat in a manner similar to Roston, in that it was first-line-last-line nusach for most psalms. However, Roston’s simple approach to the nusach made it possible for me to sing along, while Fine’s chazanutasticness became overwhelming at times, preventing me from mumbling along. Accessibility vs. musical prowess shouldn’t be a trade-off, though it unfortunately often is.
- Nusach vs. Carlebach: I loves me some Carlebach, so it was nice to have some in this service for some of the usuals like ps. 29. Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out where the syllables in the words fit within the melody with Carlebach and there were times when Fine let the melody fall on a different syllable than I’m used to, which tripped me up.
- Unfamiliar, slow and hard: Lecha Dodi was the first of several things that Fine sang beautifully, but to slowish tempo and unfamiliar tune, making it hard to follow.
- Mourners: As with Roston last week, Fine took the unexpected step of actually pointing out an individual mourner at the end of Lecha Dodi and having us all say “Hamakom yenachem… etc” to them.
- English? Fine added some of the sort of commentary I quite like for ps. 29, explaining why it’s there. Which was nice. Then we read it in English, which was 100% unexpected.
- Lewandowksi? Lewandowski is one of those composers I could never match with a tune until tonight. Before singing Tzadik Katamar from the end of ps. 29, Fine talked a tad a bout Lewandowski and how he composed this famous Tzadik Katamar. It was neat.
- More weird tunes: With Ahavat Olam, we started to reach a fever pitch of slow, unfamiliar hard to follow tunes. This continued with Hashkiveinu and got real bad at Mi Chamocha.
- The Bat Mitzvah girl and a bizarre Shma: Tomorrow’s Bat Mitzvah girl (she’s have hers at mincha/maariv/havdalah tomorrow) led the first to paragraphs of the Ve’ahavta, then we continued silently for the third one and then we actually read the fourth one out loud, in Hebrew. Not chanted, but read. It was quite unexpected.
That’s extent of my noteworthy observations about services tonight. Overall, twas good and I’m still enjoying getting to know Beth El.
ALSO, I hesitate to mention this because it confused the hell out of me, but Fine told me afterward how nice my voice is and asked if I’d ever been in a choir. I was flabbergasted. I know nothing about my voice and tend not to think too highly of it. More on this development later. I think.