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.

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