High Holiday Tune Selection FAIL

All of the davening was nice. All of the ba’alei tefilla for the main tefilot (Shacharit and Mussaf on RH; everything, except maybe mincha, on YK) knew nusach and had nice voices. Nobody was too quick or too shleppy. Which is good. So why did I get the feeling that it wasn’t anything special this year?

I think it has to do with the tune selection of pretty much every shali’ach tzibbur – and I’ll include myself in this. I’m aware that tune selection is a tricky business. The tune must capture the mood of the particular piyut in question (i.e., no U-netaneh Tokef to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” to use an actual example from my childhood). The tune must be familiar to the crowd, or at least be familiar to enough of the crowd that you’re not singing solo and simple enough for others to pick it up quickly. And I think that the ba’alei tefilla all nailed these down pretty well, even if some got a little cutesy or gimmicky (like Ve-khol Ma’aminim TTTO “Anachnu Ma’aminim Benei Ma’aminim”).

The problem was this: too many of the tunes used were tunes from throughout the year. There were a bunch of Shabbat zemirot tunes (the Gerrer Kol Mekadesh, the Carlebach Kah Ribon, the standard Friday night and Shabbat afternoon tunes for Yedid Nefesh, and others). It was Carlebach heavy, but with Carlebach tunes that are completely ubiquitous – “Ata Takum,” “Niggun Neshama,” and the like. And I think that every slow song ever written by Abie Rottenberg made an appearance at some point during the High Holidays.

I’ll grant that many of these tunes actually were set to parts of the liturgy – Ko Amar  and Ha-bein Yakir Li being the obvious examples. I was also happy that “Adam Ha-Rishon’s Niggun” made several appearances (I used it for “Atiti Le-chonenakh”) over the course of the High Holidays.

These are all wonderful tunes, but by and large too few of them were Yamim Nora’im tunes. I understand that YK fell out on Shabbat this year – so commemorate that by using one standard Shabbat tune. Or use a Shabbat tune that is not sung every. single. week. There are at least three well-known tunes for Yedid Nefesh that are not standard (the one from Aish is my favorite – and I used it for Mimkomecha at Shacharit on RH). Use one of them (I see that my neighbor, the Nusach Freak, has the same gripe).

There’s a reason that these days are called the Days of Awe. The liturgy – and that includes the tunes – should inspire intense feelings of love, awe, and majesty. Using special tunes, that the congregation associates specifically with the Yamim Nora’im – like we all do with Chamol, for example – is the only way to do that.

One other gripe – don’t hybridize tunes for kaddish titkabel, something I heard a few times this holiday season. I enjoy the standard tune, what the NF calls the “victory kaddish.” I also happen to love the Modzhitzer titkabel, which I use. But don’t start with Modzhitz and switch to the victory tune for yehei shelama rabbah. You’re simply not doing justice to either.

I enjoy a mix of popular tunes (of the Carlebach and D’veykus variety), Chassidishe melodies (few and far between in our milieu, unfortunately), and “standard” Yamim Nora’im tunes from America, Israel, and even from particular yeshivot. And I’m not rigid about it like some people are. But when the tunes used are rather pedestrian, then the entire davening feels pedestrian, uninspiring, blah. In short, the davening wasn’t anything special because it wasn’t anything special.



[I wrote most of this on Erev Yom Kippur, but ran out of time and was unable to post it beforehand]

The parsha of Ki Tavo coincides annually with the second Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. The most prominent feature of the parsha is the blessing and curses that God promises for upholding or failing to uphold the Torah. A superficial look will show quite obviously that the curses, the tokhecha, is much longer than the promised blessings. In fact, there is a general pattern that the warnings against breaching God’s covenant are generally much longer and more detailed than the promises of reward for obedience.
Negotiation is a tricky business. It involves getting two (or more) parties to consent to some kind of mutually beneficial association. In order for negotiations to succeed, the agreement must be in the best interest of each side. The more each party feels that it has no choice but to come to an understanding, the greater the chance that the negotiations will succeed. This is true of any and every negotiation.
As a result, the reward for upholding an agreement should be self-evident – if it were not worth my while to enter into the association, I would not have done so. Sure, there can be incentives along the way, but the real benefit of the agreement should be part and parcel of the agreement itself, not some external sanction or incentive. On the other hand, building sanctions into an agreement can keep each party honest. The greater the penalty for backing out of an agreement, the less likely a party is to have a change of heart and breach the contract. This accounts for the length of the tokhecha as well as the small print on any contract.
Currently, the NFL Players Association and the NFL owners are in the initial stages of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. Though there may be a lockout, everybody knows that the players and owners will eventually come to an agreement. After all, the players and owners desperately need each other. The owners can’t play, the players don’t have the resources to run a team, and the benefit that accrues to both when a team is fielded is way too great for either side to terminate the relationship for any extended period of time.
Contrast that with the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The recent articles by Karl Vick and Roger Cohen about whether Israelis are truly invested in the peace process point to a reality that I think is accurate, even if the authors did not necessarily unpack it correctly: Israelis want peace, no doubt. But things are good enough in Israel right now that the incentives offered by peace do not justify the risks that peacemaking entails. Israelis are not desperate for peace, because, frankly, life is pretty darn good without it. And so the price they’re willing to pay for peace is not so high (I’m not judging whether this prevailing attitude is good or bad, or whether it has any bearing on the actual negotiation process, which much address a far more complex reality – those are much longer posts).
This is all by way of introduction to the intense negotiations that Jewish people all over the world will hold with their God over the next day. The primal, mythic core of Yom Kippur is the re-enactment of God’s selection of Israel and His entry into a covenant with them (the most potent symbols of this are the se’ir La-Shem and the second Luchot). Our basis for negotiations (see here) is that our collective relationship with God is akin to that of the players vis-à-vis ownership; we are powerless yet indispensable to His goals (Rav Ezra Bick has a wonderful discussion of this concept here), and He therefore must renew His covenant with us.


Steak n' Slichos

Last night/ this morning, I went with my father and my nephew to Jerusalem for our annual Erev Rosh Hashana 'Steak n' Slichos.' We have a late dinner of entrecote at Vaqueiro. We then head down to the Kotel for selichot at the astronomical midnight. I'll admit that the idea of steak and selichot is an expression of contemporary suburban religious sensibilities - conspicuous consumption followed by a devotional pilgrimage. But I like it.

The Kotel was jam packed, and there was a real diversity there. I happen to love the cacophony of different traditions that you get there. Some find it distracting, and if you're looking for a focused davening, I suggest the Hurva, a few steps away. I like the jumble of Jews trying to outshout each other. Since we got there about a half hour before astronomical midnight, I joined a kumzitz organized by Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi. It was nice to see lots of people stop and join in. It was just. really. nice.

Before descending to (or after ascending from) the Kotel plaza, you can see - it's really quite amazing - the Jewish throngs saying selichot at the Kotel and the Ramadan break-fast celebrations taking place in Silwan, just a few hundred meters away. Looking out over the"Holy Basin" and watching Jews and Muslims observing their religions separately and peacefully, it's easy to forget how many wars have been fought over this very piece of real estate.

Living in Israel, it's impossible to avoid the holiday season. The whole rhythm of life builds up to Rosh Hashana - colleagues and friends send out cards, synagogues have their annual membership drives, schools send home songs and honey dishes, radio stations count down the year's best songs, and journalists review the highlights and lowlights of the past year. In this environment, it is inevitable that we take stock of our lives. My birthday - always a time to review life - falls out on the second day of RH this year, exacerbating my brooding and introspective mood.

I won't share everything I've been taking stock of, but I will share my resolution (kabbalah) for this RH - I will not talk sports in shul anymore. If it seems a bit prosaic, it's because it's manageable. I've begun to feel that the topics of conversation in shul - and not just the bein gavra le-gavra talking - is too shallow. Shul fills an important social role in my life and in the lives of many others, as it should. Talking in shul - not necessarily during davening - is inevitable and even encouraged. I've found that sports have become a sort of "default" - a way to make conversation without really trying to get to know the other person, of "talking without speaking." So if I cut out sports in shul, I expect good things to happen (I'm not in shul now, though, and the O's are beating the Yanks for the second night in a row [UPDATE - Buck-O's win again] - 4 in a row vs. the Yankees and Tampa Bay if they hold on).

Together with you, readers, I look forward to a happy, healthy, and productive 5771. Le-shana tova tikateivu ve-teichateimu.