Let the chanting begin!

I had my first meeting with the cantor on Friday. At our synagogue (is this how it works elsewhere? I have no idea), the cantor and the rabbi divide up the work of preparing the B’nei and B’not Mitzvah. 

The rabbi works with you on the meaning of your Torah portion, and on the drash or speech you are to write and present about it. The cantor helps you learn to lead prayers and to chant the Torah and Haftarah portions in Hebrew. 

Up until now, I’ve been meeting about every two weeks with our temple’s senior rabbi to talk informally about Judaism. It’s been totally unstructured and conversational – the only agenda has been the questions that I bring in on that particular day. 

Now, with the cantor, things are getting a little more structured. 

My Bat Mitzvah binder

I’ve got a three-ring binder with the words, translations and transliterations of the major prayers that make up a Shabbat service, and a CD of what they sound like when they are sung or chanted. I have a workbook (kind of like a 3rd grade math workbook) published by the Union for Reform Judaism with the Hebrew and English text of my Torah and Haftarah portions. 

I’ve also got some sheets that explain the Torah cantillations – little marks that will apparently tell me when to raise or lower my voice to correctly chant the Hebrew. 

Now, I have to say that this seems a bit unfair. It’s hard enough to navigate an entirely different alphabet without having a second set of alien symbols that are like traffic signs for all those foreign letters.

Go fast! Go slow! Watch out for the curve! Sheep crossing! No – no – no – baa! – aak!

But here’s my mantra whenever anything seems daunting about this process: 

Twelve-year-olds are doing this every day. My twelve-year-old did it. So chill out and do it.

In any event, I’m not cantillating yet. My assignment for the next two weeks is to review the major blessings and prayers from the Shabbat service – the blessing for wearing a tallit; the blessings before and after reading the Torah and Haftarah; the V’ahavta, Avot v’Imahot, G’vurot and Kiddush.

Most of these I already know. I didn’t grow up going to a synagogue, but I’ve been enough times as an adult, and I listened to my daughter practicing these enough, that I am easily able to follow along during services. The cantor had me chant them on Friday and said I did pretty well.

“That’s pretty good,” she said. “And remember, when you’re up there, there will be other people chanting along with you.”

But “pretty good” isn’t what I’m looking for.

I told her that I wanted to know all these prayers as well as I know the Friday night Kiddush.

“I want to know them well enough that if I’m shipwrecked on a desert island, I can lead a service on my own,” I said.

She nodded and seemed amused. And it is admittedly an amusing image – Robinson Crusoe celebrating Shabbat under a palm tree. (And what about his man Friday? Does Friday celebrate Shabbat? Or does Shabbat sanctify Friday?)

But in fact, I wasn’t thinking Friday or Crusoe or even “desert island” when I said “desert island.” 

I was thinking about concentration camps, and those stories of random anybody Jews leading a Passover seder or a Shabbat service in the bleak, dehumanizing barracks of an Auschwitz.

That’s part of the reason I undertook the Bat Mitzvah process. God forbid I ever end up anywhere close to an Auschwitz. But if I am, I want to be one of the people who can keep Jewish culture and identity alive.

I want to be able to rely on my own Jewish competence — kind of like having an earthquake survival kit, only for Judaism.

I shied back from saying that to the cantor because it seemed a bit melodramatic. I came up with the “desert island” idea instead.

But even setting aside the extreme Holocaust imagery, the concept still holds. I want the self-sufficiency of being able to lead a service myself. I want to feel secure enough in my knowledge of Judaism to pass the traditions on to the next generations.

Even here in 2010 California — where the biggest threat to those next generations is not anti-Semitism but Jewish ignorance and assimilation.

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11 Responses to “Let the chanting begin!”

  1. Lewis Buchner Says:

    I like this piece. I am cheering on your agnostic self as you learn to hold your Jewishness with increasing depth and accuracy. And there is another aspect of chanting I think… the way that our consciousness shifts when we use our voices for other than speech.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Huh — what an interesting idea — the way that our consciousness shifts when we use our voices for other than speech.

      I haven’t thought about this before. I’ve thought a little bit about what it means to speak things out loud in a group setting (such as a religious service) rather than just thinking them to yourself silently. But I haven’t thought about how chanting or singing changes the way we think or how we think about what we are saying.

      Lewis or anyone, want to speak further on this?

      • Lewis Buchner Says:

        Just like how poetry taps into a different part of the brain than (most) prose, singing and chanting open up channels in our body and our brain. There are whole meditation methods based on chanting (think Maharishi’s mantras) where the idea is that a repeated sound of a specific physical vibration effects the vibration of the physical body and the brain as well. There are African drum rhythms that are supposed to be tuned to heal specific organs. And so I think that the chanting that is common in most religions is a vestige of old knowledge about the ability that chanting has to shift consciousness, both on a physical plane (our bodies shift a little) and in our brains (we get shifted out of mundane analytical verbal thinking).

  2. karen tanner Says:


    I share many of your feelings in relation to my own upcoming Bat Mitzvah. The Holocaust looms over me and I think about my connection to those perished. I am partly doing this in honor of them and feel it is my own statement that I will claim my rights and my place as a Jew.
    The Hebrew does seem overwhelming but I managed to get through the prayers fine.I just worry I won’t remember the beginning of the tune each time. The Haftorah is a bit of a challenge. It definitely is a LOT of work. And for my old brain–I ain’t 13 anymore!

  3. Susie W Says:

    Ilana and Karen,

    Regarding learning all those symbols, words and a whole new alphabet; it’s gotta be the best exercise possible for a mid-life brain. all those new neural pathways being created……


    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I like new neural pathways. But what do I do with the old vestigal ones?

      I was playing Monopoly with Becca when she was home sick this week and realized I can still recite from memory every piece of Monopoly real estate in order, plus the amount each one costs, and how much it costs to put a house on it. E.g. Mediterranean Ave. costs $60, buying a house on it costs $50, if there’s no house on it the rent is just $2…

      I will be on my deathbed at 102 and unable to remember the names of my grandchildren but I will still be able to tell you that New York Avenue comes after Tennessee and costs $180.

      • Susie W Says:

        i think its probably a good idea to take an occasional trip down those old pathways, just to kick the stones out of the way and keep them clear. I have a few of them myself (lots of complete sets of words for old TV theme songs–even “my mother the car”), but I somehow find them helpful. I think the trick is to get the new pathways as well trod, or at least as accessible, as those old ones. I dont know how to do that. I dont think its sheer repetition–some how it has something to do with the suppleness of our receptors.

        Perhaps taking a walk down those vestigial pathways is a way to enhance that suppleness….?

        I like the visual of the monopoly game. I think i could do the whole board too; maybe missing one or two lots. only a general feel for the rent/mortgage.

        It might come in handy on a “jeopardy” appearance.

  4. Knowing Our Own Roots « The Dragon’s Mouth Says:

    […] and is (largely) an account of her preparation for her Bat Mitzvah.  In her most recent entry (“Let the Chanting Begin”) she talks about her preparation with her cantor.  The cantor had her do a dry run on some of […]

  5. Judy Levin Says:

    You know how the Cantor says something personal about each Bar/Bat Mitzvah! I can already hear hers for you and its going to be a “doozy” (sp?)! You are giving her such good fodder to work with. I love how you are fuly embracing this experience, wringing each opportunity to get the most out of it.

  6. Chanting Hub Says:

    Good luck with your chanting practice and putting down those new neural grooves.

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