Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

A Summer Journey with Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

It was another blazing July afternoon in New York City. Wearing khaki shorts, sandals, and a white linen shirt, I stepped into the sun-drenched West Side of Central Park. I diverged from the path momentarily, stopping near a park bench to check the hours for the Metropolitan Museum of Art on my phone, before trekking across the park to see their Egyptology exhibits. A man seated there in a checkered shirt, jeans, and sunglasses called out to me from behind his newspaper, “That’s a great book! Have you finished it yet?” Nearly dropping my phone, I gazed at him quizzically. He smiled at me. I blinked. He couldn’t have possibly meant the copy of Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh that I had in my hand, could he? “You see, I’m a Native American, but I’m also Jewish. On my dad’s side…” I squinted my eyes in confused disbelief, trying to understand how he could know this book. His appearance, ethnicity, and religious background had no bearing for me whatsoever, but somehow he now seemed perturbed that I would doubt him. “How could you have read this book? It hasn’t been released yet,” I asked. With a slight air of indignation he said, “I’m an author. I received an advance copy from Simon & Schuster. Four months ago…” I stared him square in the eyes and slowly shook my head with an audible “Hmph.” He doesn’t know the book or the publisher and he is clearly lying to me. But why? “Hmph.” he retorted, imitating me, continuing his charade. “I am writing a blog article about the book,” I said, “This one advance copy was given to me by the CCAR, the publisher of the book. So…if you really read it, then tell me, what is it about?” The man coolly responded while returning to his newspaper, “It’s about a journey. Life’s a journey.” With that, I said, “Okay, thanks. Have a great day…” and continued down the path to the East Side.

I passed a potpourri of musicians who were busking in the shaded parts of the park. A diversity of divertissements. There was the accordion player, the classical guitarist, the jazz guitarist, the violinist, the singer-songwriter. I needed a diversion to get the strange encounter I just had out of my head, but I couldn’t figure out why he had lied about the book. As I drifted past Sheep Meadow, the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Loeb Boathouse, and the Conservatory Pond, eventually winding my way up to the Met, my thoughts evaporated in the hot sun. The only thing left of the conversation in my mind were his last words. “Life’s a journey.” I pondered the collective journeys of everyone who visited or worked in the park, who built the park, and who paid to preserve the monuments and buildings. And then I meandered through the Egyptian exhibits at the Met. There were so many things to see, I couldn’t possibly process it all in one day, and I left wishing I had a guide – a Divrei Mitzrayim.DivreiMhN - no crop marks

So I took a break after visiting the museum and sat in a cafe to finish reading through Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. I finished the commentaries, the essays, and then took a look at the indexes and tables. It struck me that there was a lot of incredibly useful and even entertaining information in the book. At times I imagined it was an episode from VH1: Behind the Machzor, only with more rabbinical commentary than music. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little to myself as obscure facts about sources and rationales behind decisions became apparent. The phrases like “The God of Max Janowski is a Zealous God,” as well as naming the sources for many of the traditional prayers the  “Goldschmidt Variations,” made this cantor and Bach aficionado laugh out loud. I looked up from the book slightly embarrassed, as I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to have been laughing or not. After all, this is a clergy commentary on a High Holy Day machzor. It could have been a very dry book of useful information, but instead it revealed a very human quality.

The book made me feel as though I was in the room with the committee, deliberating over something as seemingly inconsequential as one letter, like whether we should say “HaMelech HaYosheiv” or “HaMelech yosheiv,” which in actuality can be a profound difference once it is explained. Reading the commentary and essays helped me to appreciate the incredible amount of scholarship, time, and collaboration that went into producing the High Holiday machzor, as well as the weight and intensity with which they must have deliberated over its details. I was greatly appreciative of my colleague, Cantor Evan Kent, who must have reminded the committee of the impact that changes in the liturgy have on the music and congregational participation for the High Holidays. The voice of the cantor and the importance of the music on the High Holidays was felt throughout the decision-making process. And reading the resonant words of Rabbi Leon Morris and Rabbi Hara Person brought me back to our time working together at my first High Holiday pulpit as a cantorial student in the Hamptons and at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, evoking fond memories of my personal journey.

Reading Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh also made me look forward to the High Holy Days this year. We at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue are rolling out our new Mishkan HaNefesh machzors for the first time this fall. While I was initially impatient and disappointed not to have gotten the machzor when it was published last year, in retrospect I am glad that we waited so we would have the opportunity to read Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh and be able to put more thought into our decisions, just as this machzor committee did. Like the ancient ruins of Egypt that had old blocks of granite that were reused to create the cornerstones of newer structures, the committee gave deference and respect to the old volume of Gates of Repentance while charting a new course. They recognized that the process was a human endeavor and that in the end there will likely be mistakes that are spotted and later corrected. In their long journey to create the commentaries and essays they recognized the humanity within themselves as well as the diversity of the Reform movement, and teach us lessons not only on why they did what they did, but how we too may collaborate as clergy and lay people to create meaningful new experiences that build upon the best of our past.

I never asked the man in the park why he was lying. He may have hoped to impress me. Perhaps he was lonely. Or trying to divert my attention from my phone. Or eager to connect with someone. I will never know why. But I know that the strange little journey I took that day, as if back in time to our days of captivity in Egypt, made me contemplate the journeys we all take and how the people who we encounter along the way have the capacity to alter our perspective and enrich experiences with as little as one book, one word, or even one letter.

Cantor Daniel A. Singer serves Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. He has served on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors for two years. 

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

The Book With No Music

In September of 2014 a children’s book was published called “The Book with No Pictures.” At first glance, the book probably should have been a flop, but it certainly wasn’t. From the time that publishers could mass produce books with artwork, there probably hasn’t been a book for young children on the market that hasn’t had some kind of pictures. Walk into a children’s bookstore today and it is hard to find anything that in addition to colorful artwork, does not feature some accompanying CD, sound effect buttons, pop-ups, textures, toys, celebrity characters, or other gimmicks to help entice children to engage with books and their families to purchase them. But this book, in addition to having no pictures or characters whatsoever, has no story line and is simply a bunch of hilarious nonsense words and phrases for the reader to say: words like “Blork,” “Bluuurf,” and “Glibbity Globbity.” So how could it have been possible for a silly children’s book of this kind to become a New York Times #1 bestseller?

A video was circulated on the internet featuring the author of the book, B.J. Novak, an actor and stand-up comedian, reading his book to a group of children. The video featured their hilarious reactions to his reading, thereby proving that a children’s book does not need any pictures at all to be successful. The video went viral, garnering millions of views and the book became an instant bestseller. So what was the key to B.J. Novak’s remarkable success? Was it a clever viral marketing campaign? That surely didn’t hurt. Was it B.J. Novak’s celebrity status? I don’t think so. Was it the content? Probably not. Or could it have been because the book was developed to highlight the relationship between the reader of the book and the audience, and the storytelling, rather than placing too much emphasis upon the contents of the book? Now we could be on to something.

The CCAR’s new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, took countless hours of time, thought, and resources to develop. The process involved many of our leading rabbinical minds, cantorial voices, and lay leaders collaborating over the course of many years. Because of this, many of us believe that these books have the capacity to shape an entire era of worship and religious thought, so it is particularly important what content is ultimately included in the book. And yet for the large percentage of Jews that only attends a Reform worship service once or twice upon the High Holidays, regardless of what language is used, what commentary is offered, or how the fonts or paginations appear, the prayers on the page may often seem nearly as foreign and nonsensical to the average Jew as the words in B.J. Novak’s book. This is similar to the idea in Dr. Ron Wolfson’s premise of Relational Judaism, where he argues that instead of investing in programming, congregations should strive to invest in building lasting relationships with congregants. We now have an opportunity to highlight the relationship between the readers of the machzor and their congregations. Now that Mishkan HaNefesh is published, we can focus more upon the relationships that are forged between congregants, clergy, and liturgy through the telling of the story.

Just as we publish new prayer books with new language to relate to each generation of worshippers, so too is music for worship continually evolving. This is why the making of new music for Mishkan HaNefesh is so important and why Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh, the musical companion to Mishkan HaNefeshis such a timely publication. Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh is a compilation of High Holy Day music assembled by the American Conference of Cantors from a wide variety of styles and sources that allows for contemporary Jewish composers to give voice to liturgy from our new machzor in innovative, rich, and meaningful ways. The book includes twenty-five exciting new musical settings of liturgy for Mishkan HaNefesh from the Reform movement’s greatest musical artists, including many accomplished cantors and singer-songwriters.

Even Avinu Malkeinu by Max Janowski was met with skepticism and resistance by discerning musical directors of congregations during Janowski’s generation who preferred a more sophisticated musical approach. Yet hardly anyone today could imagine his beautiful and timeless melody being controversial at all. Some of today’s musical innovators have the potential to become standard repertoire for congregations across all movements, but the music needs to be published, shared, and experienced at congregations in order to stand the test of time. Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh offers congregations the opportunity to give new voices a chance to make their way into the lexicon of High Holiday worship. We have read many of the same prayers again and again for generations. Today we have the opportunity to try to retell the same story, only with new voices.

The Torah provides thirteen chapters of vivid detail on the physical description and construction of the Mishkan, and yet there is no account of the kind of music that might have accompanied its sacred rites – not until the Mishnah was published many generations later. We can only imagine what the worship might have sounded like. The Torah, like all ancient oral traditions, was passed down musically, and yet we did not bother to write down the musical patterns until centuries afterwards when cantillation systems were eventually codified and notated. The Torah is our most sacred book, but like Mishkan HaNefesh, it is a book with no music.

This image reminds me of when I met the head of the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College for the first time. On his ornate music stand in his office I found a very distinguished-looking book titled, “All I Know About Cantoring – By Cantor Israel Goldstein.” I opened the book and laughed out loud when I discovered that every single page of it was blank – a gag gift given to him by a friend. It was hilarious and memorable gift, but upon reflection, music can function a bit like that – it can be the sounds that can fill the pages of a blank book, the midrashic stories that can fill in the gaps between the story lines of Torah, or the images that can be evoked in the minds of children who hear a book read to them that has no pictures.

With the publication of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh, the American Conference of Cantors tries to help us hear how we can retell our same age-old story in new and engaging ways. Not all books need to have pictures or music in them, but many congregations may wish to use this beautiful book as another useful tool for forging relationships between congregants, clergy, and liturgy for this generation and generations to come.


Cantor Dan Singer is the Senior Cantor at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.