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Holiday Passover Pesach Poetry Prayer

Hallel in a Minor Key

We face another year of pandemic Passover. Most congregations are still shuttered, and Pesach worship will be remote and online. Seders will be small or socially distanced, a far cry from our usual crowded, joyous gatherings. Nevertheless, we will still sing Hallel, our liturgy of praises, as part of the Haggadah.

Hallel (praise), Psalms 113 to 118, is sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals (including intermediate days), as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), on all eight days of Chanukah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day). Hallel is also recited on the eve of Pesach during the seder.1 

On these sacred days of communal rejoicing, we are asked to set aside our sorrows to praise God. But how do we sing God’s praises during a time of catastrophe or pandemic? How do we sing God’s praises after a profound personal loss?

Depending on personal practice—what one chooses to include in the seder, how often one goes to services, whether an individual participates in two seder nights, and how many days are observed—Hallel can be recited as many as ten times during the festival period.

This raised a hard question for me as a liturgist. How can we sing God’s praises fully as we move into the second year of COVID-induced, socially distanced Passover seders? Could I find a liturgical response? Personally, I know how difficult this can be. My wife passed away the Shabbat before Passover twelve years ago, and the shivah ended abruptly after only two days.

I began by rereading all my prayers written about COVID and came across a line in a piece called “These Vows: A COVID Kol Nidre.” A line from it reads: “How I wish to sing in the key of Lamentations.” From there, the idea for “Hallel in a Minor Key” was born.

As I started writing, it became important to me to create a liturgy that was robust enough to stand as a full alternative Hallel, reflecting praise in the midst of heartbreak and sorrow. To me, this meant two things. First, I wanted to make sure that each psalm in the classic Hallel was represented by at least one Hebrew line in this liturgy. Second, I wanted to include the sections for waving the lulav in this liturgy, to ensure that it could be used on Sukkot by those with that practice.

Still, something was missing—music specific to this liturgy. Song is a vital part of the public recitation of Hallel, and it serves to create a personal connection with prayer. So, I adapted the opening poem into lyrics—carrying the same name as the entire liturgy—and began searching for someone to compose the music. I listened to a lot of Jewish music online, starting with my small circle of musician friends. When I heard Sue Radner Horowitz’s Pitchu Li, my search for a musician was over.

“Hallel in a Minor Key” begins in minor, but mid-chorus, with words of hope, it switches to a major key. In discussing the music, we both felt it was important to follow the tradition of ending even the most difficult texts with notes of hopefulness. Indeed, the shift reflects our prayer that sorrows can be the doorway to greater love, peace, and—eventually—to growth, healing, and joy.

We also talked about drawing on Eichah trope—used to chant Lamentations on Tishah B’Av, as well as the haftarah on that day—as a musical influence. This idea follows the tradition of bringing Eichah trope into other texts as a sort of musical punctuation. Many will recall its use in M’gillat Esther on Purim. Eichah trope is also traditionally used during the chanting of Deuteronomy 1:12, as well as in selected lines from the associated haftarah for Parashat D’varim, Isaiah 1:1–27. Sue wove hints of “the trope of Lamentations” into the chorus melody of “Hallel in a Minor Key.”

A PDF of the liturgy, including sheet music, can be downloaded here. You can hear a recording of the music here. Sue’s rendition of Pitchu Li, written prior to this liturgy, is also included as part of “Hallel in a Minor Key.” That music can be found on her album Eleven Doors Open.

This is our gift to the Jewish world for all the many blessings you have bestowed upon us. We offer it with a blessing. We encourage you to add music or additional readings that would add meaning to your worship. If you use the liturgy in your worship, we’d love to hear from you. You may reach Alden at asolovy545@gmail.com and Sue at srrhorowitz@gmail.com.

Portions of “Hallel in a Minor Key” were first presented during a Ritualwell online event, “Refuah Shleimah: A Healing Ritual Marking a Year of Pandemic.” Portions were also shared in a workshop session at the 2021 CCAR Convention, held online.


Alden Solovy is a liturgist based in Jerusalem. His books include This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, and This Precious Life: Encountering the Divine with Poetry and Prayer, all published by CCAR Press.


1 Rabbi Richard Sarason PhD, Divrei Mishkan T’Filah: Delving into the Siddur (CCAR Press, 2018), 190.

Categories
Books

Psalm 27: Music and Spirituality

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Presss forthcoming publication, Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 by Rabbi Debra Robbins, we invited Cantor Richard Cohn to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

Music offers us a powerful connection to spiritual practice. Melodies are both fluid—moving through time with flexibility and intention—and grounded—anchored in structures of rhythm, scale, and key. They embody aliveness within a defined structure, mirroring the flow of life itself.

In combination with the harmonies that support them, melodies can convey beauty, form, and emotion. They can touch on areas of comfort, hopefulness, serenity, warmth, and joy (among many others!), even suggesting more than one feeling at the same time. They are received and interpreted differently by each of us, and their resonance can vary from day to day, or even from one repetition to the next. In addition to emotion, form, and beauty, music miraculously transmits something from the formless dimension of spirit into the physical realm of song.

Rabbi Robbins has chosen the last verse of Psalm 27 to be a musical thread in our encounter with the complete text. Why anticipate the conclusion when we’re only starting out? One possible answer is to reflect on the closing words in their relationship to each stage of the journey: How do we move step-by-step toward a strengthening of the heart that lifts us in hope toward an awareness of the holy? Singing (or listening to) a melody corresponds exactly to that process, as we travel from note to note in search of a destination that exists in potential from the very beginning, but that can only be reached by tracing the entire path. As with the psalm itself, repeating the melody again and again can deepen and expand our understanding of the journey.

There are many ways to utilize the recording that accompanies this book. You may wish to begin with mindful listening, perhaps closing your eyes and bringing attention to the sound itself, to the shaping of individual syllables and words, or simply to the unfolding stream of music. You may find yourself starting to hum along, and you can add the words whenever you like. With each repetition, or from day to day, notice what’s new (or old!) in your encounter with the music. If you’d like to sing it on your own, rather than with the recording, see what happens when you try a different tempo or if you sing it more softly or loudly, more contemplatively or emphatically. Before long, you may know the music by heart. It may become an increasingly internal experience, becoming fully integral to your daily practice. If the melody begins to seem a bit less interesting, scale back to singing it only once a day, or sing it an extra time to see if you can bring something fresh to your interpretation.

May this singing practice be heart opening and soul lifting, as you explore the inspiring textures of Psalm 27.


Cantor Richard Cohn serves as Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He’s also served as president of the American Conference of Cantors, and he has been a featured conductor at the North American Jewish Choral Festival.

Categories
Books

Music and The Punctuation of Time

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

This is the story of a fourth day. From the mystery emerge years, seasons, nights and days, all with their own series of markers and movements in the sky. These patterns are the foundation upon which we build our lives. And because of the innate capacity for patterns to quickly progress from lovely routine to painfully boring rut, it is in reference to time, and specifically Shabbat, the seventh day, that we first engage with the word “holy” (kadosh) in Tanach. In order to make and take meaning from the random events of our lives, to vary the endless patterns, we must somehow mark one moment from the next, and also connect one moment to the next, in a way that makes sense over seasons, over years, over generations.

Music and time are inexorably intertwined.  Music that we see on a page is only a hard-copy representation of something that cannot exist without the passage of time. Music must move forward within the context of the passage of time, as must the planets and stars in their revolutions in the sky. The single notes, much like single stars, mean nothing unless connected to others.

The power of a single melody can send one hurtling back in time, and allow us to take others along. That’s the real meaning of the word “commemoration”: remembering together.  With a single melody, I can be transported, along with innumerable others, to another space and energy and emotional state. In this way, music helps us to both awaken to and immerse ourselves in special set times of celebration and commemoration, as well as to the k’doshim b’chol yom, the holiness inherent in every moment of every day. 

In their book Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mystical Reflections on Jewish Prayer, Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen remind us that there were two splittings of seas in Tanach.[1] The Sea of Reeds story is one that we know quite well. Few, if any of us remember this second miraculous occurrence of Israelites crossing a sea on dry land, when “Adonai your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Adonai your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which God dried up before us until we crossed” (Joshua 4:23).[2]

Rabbis Kushner and Polen share with us, from the teachings of Itturei Torah,[3] that the reason that one story is paramount in our people’s faith formation and the other has fallen by the wayside is because of song. And when we sing Mi Chamocha we are taken back, each time, to when we emerged from slavery to freedom.

The presence of music and the ways in which it moves our spirits has the ability to change us, as well as whatever comes after.  It connects us to our deeper selves, gives us insight into our past, and reaffirms our commitment to action. It causes us to reflect on our connection to each other, as well as our deep emotions in the face of art and beauty and song. All of these blessings that music brings somehow coalesce in the function of music in our ritual lives.

All faith and secular cultures mark the passage of time with ritual. Can you imagine an important Jewish ritual or holiday celebration without music? Although they vary according to region and origin, the specific modes and melodies used at different times of the year have helped Jews over the centuries to celebrate the patterns of their lives. Our music connects us not only to our present-day communities, but to Jewish communities across the millennia. As older melodies are, over time, replaced by more contemporary sounds, we also merge our unique stories of the past with the story of the communities in which we presently live.

By paralleling and making us mindful of time—its patterns as well as its passage—music allows us to go far beyond the spoken word. By adorning and providing  context  for the  ways in which we travel under the  sun, moon,  and stars created  on the  fourth  day of Creation, music has the power  to open  our hearts  to that  which is “within  our reach, but beyond  our grasp,” according  to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[4] Music connects us to any human who has ever looked to the patterns in the skies and celebrated with instrument, rhythm, and voice; it allows us to reach upward and inward, simultaneously touching our individual souls, our shared stories, and our stars.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Cantor Dreskin also serves as Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR in New York. Ellen travels extensively to congregations around the country as a scholar-in-residence, and has taught for many years on the faculty of URJ Summer Kallot, Hava Nashira, and the URJ Kutz Camp Leadership Academy.  

 

[1] Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mys- tical Reflections on Jewish Prayer (Woodstock,  VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004),

[2] Adapted from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publica- tion Society, 1999), 464.

[3] A. Chayn, Itturei Torah, ed. Aaron Jacob Greenberg  ( Jerusalem: Yavneh, 1987),

3:124.

[4] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Vocation of the Cantor (New York: American Con- ference of Cantors, 1966).

Categories
High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

HaBocheir B’shirei Zimra: The Ones Who Choose Song

We cantors had this crazy idea – well, I had this crazy idea: a new machzor deserved new music.  The process of creating a new machzor transformed the conversations about the narrative of the High Holy Days; that conversation should extend to the message and experience of its music as well.  So two years ago, we convened a group of cantorial colleagues to study Mishkah HaNefesh, to delve into its new texts, layouts, and flow of prayer and song.  This was truly an inspired combination of cantors with different backgrounds, experiences and talents; our study and dialogue was of great depth and excitement as we considered our current musical repertoire for the High Holy Days, where we wanted either a new musical expression of a familiar text or deliberating about what we would aspire to have for some brand new text.

The journey has been amazing.  We approached a cohort of composers from the Reform Jewish world, our friends and colleagues who are members of either the American Conference of Cantors or the Guild of Temple Musicians, with a bold invitation – to donate their time and talent to us through the gift of a musical composition to be part of what we hoped would be a ground-breaking anthology of new High Holy Day music.  Their generosity of spirit was overwhelming.  Our committee then proceeded to commission each composer with a text and genre of musical direction, specifically chosen for each composer.  And so, Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh was born, the newest music created by those who are called to express our deepest hopes and aspirations through music, the musical threads of Mishkan HaNefesh.

In the ensuing months, we spent time in dialogue with each composer as their creative juices flowed.  Together, we tweaked and refined each draft of the composition, bringing the text to life through the musical notes and voices; this partnership helped to create the extraordinary musical expression that we envisioned and hoped for.

Fast forward to our recent ACC-GTM convention in Fort Lauderdale – the first copies of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh arrived!  In keeping with the goal of honoring the generous contributions of the composers, the volume also contains short statements from each composer about their musical inspiration for their composition.  We chose to present the entirety of its contents to the convention participants in order for everyone to have a more concrete experience of the music, and enable all of us to determine the ways we would use pieces in our services.

Of course, that presentation required rehearsal and preparation.  What an experience it was, to sing and hear the notes come off the page, springing to life as we began to sing. The resonance of the piano, the soaring voice of each cantor, the blending of choral voices, the rising and expansion of sound and word: we had seen it on paper, heard it in our heads, yet the layers of sound and the diversity of expression were so much more moving than I even anticipated.  As the Editorial Chair of the project, I had the opportunity to write some introductory words to the volume.  Experiencing the music coming to life, I feel even more confident in the hopes I expressed there, that these beautiful musical expressions of our sacred texts will inspire all those who hear them, helping them enter into the Mishkan of prayer in the Days of Awe, with a sense of fulfillment and peace.

Cantor Susan Caro serves Northern Virgina Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia.  She is also the Editorial Chair of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.

Categories
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.

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

Categories
High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Introducing Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh: New Music for the High Holy Days

I remember the first moments that I sat in the sanctuary at Temple Beth El of Great Neck and heard my cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, sing the majestic Avinu Malkeinu of Max Janowski for the first time.  With the organ and the choir joining her, I felt the emotion well up inside of me as I realized the impact that this incredible music had on me. I had those same feelings the first time I sang Kol Nidre as a Student Cantor, and of course Max Helfman’s Shema Koleinu at my first full time pulpit.

I still feel the emotion of the music of the High Holy Days each and every time I put on my white robe and stand before the Kahal to intone the majestic and powerful music of the Days of Awe.  It is why I am so proud to have been part of a project to bring new powerful and emotional music to the Reform movement helping to bring to life the beautiful poetry in our new machzor.

After nearly two years of work, the American Conference of Cantors, in partnership with CCAR Press, is proud to present to our movement this book of new compositions for High Holy Day worship.   This book brings musical life to many of the magical new texts found in Mishkan HaNefesh while also bringing musical voice to other traditional texts found in the machzor.  All of us have our favorite melodies for Avinu Malkeynu, or Shema Koleinu….I know that I do.  However, the music contained in Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh provides beautiful alternatives and an opportunity to introduce new musical memories to our communities.  Like the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, the music contained in this volume underscores the central value of Teshuvah, accompanying our journey during the Days of Awe, as together we seek repentance, new direction, and a sense of return to God and the Jewish people.

While I would never try to replace the melodies that are part of my life and my inner soul, I am so excited to join these new and exciting melodies to them thus enriching the musical life of the Jewish people for decades to come.

I look forward to sharing these new melodies with my community this coming High Holy Days and hope you will as well.

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Cantor Steven Weiss is the project director for Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh and the Vice-President of the American Conference of Cantors.  He also serves Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, MA.