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Bringing In Mishkan HaNefesh

Two years ago, Temple Beth Sholom had a fire that forced us to rebuild. Along with the destruction of our building, our prayer books, including our Gates of Repentance, were deemed unfit and we buried them in genizah, under the foundation of our new chapel.

This tragedy afforded us a very unique opportunity; without any committees or genizalengthy conversations with the congregation, we chose to immediately purchase Mishkan HaNefesh. The congregation was not totally unfamiliar with Mishkan HaNefesh as we piloted the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service the year before. The Afternoon Service was unique, so it did not give us the full flavor of what Mishkan HaNefesh had to offer.

I spent the three months leading up to the High Holy Days sharing personal articles about transitioning to our new machzor, along with articles from colleagues. My hope was to build anticipation and excitement within the congregation.

Our congregation’s practice is for every person to purchase and bring their personal copy of the machzor for the High Holy Days. We have some available, but ideally we hope our congregants will Mishkan HaNefesh Cover Picture (Light) 10_14_2014invest in their own copy. Many pre-purchased the book and we provided personalized bookplates. We had a number of copies for congregants to borrow and on Rosh HaShanah, all of the books had a card inside. I invited the congregation once again to purchase their own copy. I asked them to fill out the card that evening, give it to a greeter, and then take the book home. The next week, we had the Yom Kippur edition and personalized book plates waiting for all those who purchased them on Rosh HaShanah and the days between. The response was greater than we expected and we had boxes of books waiting for pick up on Yom Kippur. The personalized plates allowed us to then confirm which books were ours and which belonged to congregants.

On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I used the sermon as an opportunity for us to explore our High Holy Days liturgy, its history and in it’s present form. I encouraged the congregation to make the prayer experience their personal experience. “Explore the text, get lost in the readings, don’t worry, we will call out the page numbers and let you know where we are when you’re ready to rejoin the communal prayer. There are no italics, therefore, if you want to read along, then please, read along!” This meant I needed to be aware of my pacing and not only have the congregation follow me, but allow me to follow the congregation.

My goal was to not be the leader of the service, but a participant along with them—to be a guide as we trekked through our High Holy Days experience together. “Guest readers” were not included in the service in order to maintain the flow. Instead, people were invited to participate in the Torah and Haftarah service. And my Cantor, David Reinwald and Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane took us on a completely different journey with Jonah on Yom Kippur Afternoon. They chanted the book of Jonah in English!

The experience of these first High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh was greater than I expected! The congregation was grateful for the opportunity to pray at their pace and to be active participants. I appreciated hearing all the voices from the congregation throughout all the services. The prep work leading up to the services was greater as I needed to maintain the momentum of the service and not go on automatic pilot. The exploration of the text was well worth it and enhanced my personal preparations.

If you can, take the plunge into Mishkan HaNefesh. It will be worth the investment of money, time, and the heart.

— 

Rabbi Heidi Cohen serves Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California.

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Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

What Should a Prayer Book Look Like?

I grew up using a Holy Day prayer book called The Union Prayer Book II, Revised Edition. It was small, black, and either dull or appropriately understated in appearance, depending on your perspective. Even its name was remarkably prosaic. It didn’t tell you that it was a High Holy Day prayer book, only that it was the other prayer book, the UPB I being the edition for Shabbat.

If it’s what you grow up with, it is what you think is right, the way things should be. The English was a bit flowery, there wasn’t a lot of Hebrew, and it included instructions to the congregation of when to stand and when to sit, like stage directions in a script.

Holding a new prayer book in your hands is a revelation. After years of reading out of the same book, it starts to feel like an old friend. We encounter the new prayer book and think, “Are prayer books supposed to/allowed to look like that?”

Prayer books are a snapshot of the Jewish community: its theology, its social dynamics, its aesthetics; each prayer book is a portrait of our people in a different place and time. None are the same, because we, as a people, are an evolving religious community.

Sometimes we forget that prayer books themselves were once an innovation. There were no prayer books before the Middle Ages. In the early rabbinic period, there was much greater fluidity and spontaneity in the language of prayer than we have today. Prayer books helped to freeze the language of prayer.

The printing press changed everything. Jews were among the best customers of these new printed books, and by the late Middle Ages, Jews everywhere could pray with a book in their hands.

Even today, it is the publisher who decides what goes into a prayer book, and what it should look like. Which brings us to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement, and the aesthetics of Mishkan Hanefesh.

The first thing you will notice is that Mishkan Hanefesh is not one prayer book, it is two. The Rosh Hashanah book has a gold cover, and the Yom Kippur book has a silver cover. I think the gold represents the theme of God’s sovereignty, which is reaffirmed on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. Silver suggests the white of Yom Kippur, the cleansing of sins, the purification of the soul.

Inside, the pages themselves are set off by colors. Traditional texts and translations appear on white pages, usually on the right side of a two-page spread. Grey pages (on the left side) offer alternative prayers, sometimes creative meditations on the theme of the traditional text, sometimes poetry that speaks to the theme, even “counter-texts” that speak for those who struggle with the traditional text.

Then there are the blue pages, meant for study and reflection. These pages, interspersed throughout the prayer book, invite the worshipper to take detours, to go deeper, to spend time in thought, not in recitation.

Of course, technological advances make all of this possible, but the application of publishing tools is done in a way to invite a more spiritual, and a more flexible experience both for the worshipper and for the worshipping community. No two congregations are likely to have identical experiences with Mishkan Hanefesh, and from year to year, we will find new riches in its pages.

Mishkan Hanefesh has done away with stage directions. Every congregation has its own customs, and the prayer book no longer tells us what to do. That can be unsettling, but also liberating. It empowers us to think about our ritual more consciously.

Finally, Mishkan Hanefesh just looks different. The Hebrew typeface is original, and was created expressly for this Machzor. It is elegant but not ornate; it rests easy on the eyes.

And, then, there is the art work. Yes, this prayer book has art! Clearly, representational art would be a distraction from the deeper themes of prayer. The art is abstract, suggestive, inspired by the prayers it accompanies, but not explicitly interpreting them. That is left up to us. The artist, Joel Shapiro, worked in the medium of woodcuts. You can see the grain of the wood, the rough edges of the cut, the simple primal shapes, all of which direct us back to a confrontation with our own raw self.

Welcome to Mishkan Hanefesh, your new sanctuary of the soul.

— 

Rabbi Larry Milder serves Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA.