Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Home for the Holidays

For 25 years, I served as a professional Hazzan on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for a variety of fascinating Jewish communities.

My first “gig” was with students at the University of Rhode Island Hillel. Then, I spent 3 years as Cantor/Rabbi for a congregation of the fading remnants of the Jewish farming families in south central New Jersey, I filled-in one year as hazzan at the renewed Orthodox synagogue in Calgary and for 2 years served as the chazzan of a dying Conservative congregation in Brooklyn.

For almost 20 years, I served as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hazzan (and sometimes Rabbi) of the Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue on the Netherland Antilles island Curacao in the Caribbean.

When we still lived in New York , Batya and I would spend the hagim together in Curacao getting to know the people and history this fascinating Jewish community. Until we came on Aliyah we would make our annual pilgrimage (eventually together with the kids: Rafi, Ari and Nili) to the island. It was a grand adventure, complete with resort hotels, swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, horseback riding and other adventures. (I hope to write a fuller account of my experiences in Curacao at another time). Eventually though, the cost of bringing the whole family from Israel and the educational price of taking the kids out of school for 2 weeks became too high, so I started traveling and spending the Hagim alone in Curacao.

This is the third year that I am at home here in Israel in my own community for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur…and I love it! I get to be in shul with my family and community…and I am not on “display” as clergy.

I was worried about how it would be for me, becoming “just one of the congregation” after 25 years of leading almost all of the tefilot and often blowing the shofar, reading the Torah and giving the sermons. Would I be bored? Would I miss being in the spotlight and in charge? Would it be hard for me to get used to other people’s melodies? (After years of focused work, I had finally gotten the good folks in Curacao singing all the “right” melodies!) Would it be torture for me listening to someone else “krechts” through the davening?

For most of the past 3 decades I have been leading services for congregants who by and large do not understand Hebrew, are not regular synagogue attendees and who have a hard time connecting to the prayers. My role was often to use nusach and song to convey the mood and intent of the prayers (One of the nicest compliments that I have ever gotten was from a congregant who said to me: Cantor – I don’t understand Hebrew…but when you lead the prayers I feel that I do understand). Mostly though, it was me singing and chanting, being joined by the congregation from time to time for the more familiar parts. It was a desperate race against time to get the congregation through hours and hours of what was often for them a long boring service being conducted in a language that most of them did not understand.

In my youth, I watched my father , the great Hazzan Rabbi Cantor Moshe Ehrlich z”l deal with similar issues in the large Orthodox synagogue where I grew up on Long Island, where overall the Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur atmosphere at times felt more like a fashion show and a very long, very boring gala. I dreaded going to shul on RH and YK when I was a kid. And I know that many of my friends - especially in the USA - still dread going to shul. They report that the holiday atmosphere at their American synagogues is artificial and stilted, long and drawn out with only occasional inspiring moments…almost as if designed to suppress any sense of spirituality or inspiration.

So yes – I was apprehensive.

Since I am an active prayer leader and regular hazzan all through the year, when I announced at my synagogue three years ago that I would be staying home for the holidays from now on, I was warmly welcomed into the ranks of the yomtov hazzan rotation. Is there anything special that I should know I asked? No was the answer – we know that you know what you are doing so just do what you usually do. Bad advice.

Boy was I in for a surprise. Instead of the hazzan carrying most of the weight of the service on his shoulders, most of the service is sung together by the entire community – and they mostly understand the words, are familiar with the prayers and feel very much at home in the synagogue. As I embarked on my usual race to get through the repetition of the amidah without losing most of the congregation to stupefying boredom, I was brought to a screeching halt at almost every other paragraph as the community burst into inspiring and uplifting singing.

Nothing in my childhood experiences or in my decades as Hazzan had prepared me for this. I was in shock – first at suddenly feeling like a neophyte in shul, and secondly - wow – I had no idea that it could be like this. The pace and the communal energy is incredible and serves as a support and buttress to intensifying my own individual prayer.

So now three years later I love going to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! (I really never thought that would happen). It is inspiring and uplifting with very little down time. I generally lead one of two of the services and that is just enough for me. I get to feel that I am sharing my traditions and hopefully inspiring, while enjoying and being inspired by others. And there is almost no “krechtzing”.

We are especially excited to be all together at home for this Rosh Hashanah; we thought that it would be just me, Batya and Nili. But at the last minute Rafi was allowed to come home from the army and Ari’s pre-army mechinah decided to have all the boys go home for Rosh Hashanah and come back for Yom Kippur.

And me? I am still so excited to just be “home for the holidays” after all of these years.

Shanah Tovah to all. A happy and healthy year.
Ketivah VaHatimah Tovah.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing journey you've had - literally and figuratively - through the Jewish world on the High Holidays. You write so beautifully and compellingly that as you were describing what it was like to be in the center of all that kavanah and energy, I got a bit of that soaring feeling as well. Thank you for sharing...I had a wonderful yontuf and really enjoyed singing in several little groups that sharon has come up at various times, but didn't get that lift here. I mostly just treasure singing with my dad. Can't wait to see you in December. Still trying to decide where we want to be for Shabbat. Gmar chatimah tovah!