Merrily we chant along

Way back in January, I wrote about how I had been assigned my Torah portion (Vayakhel, or Exodus 37) and was about to start learning cantillation – how to chant the Hebrew text.

Slowly and steadily, I’ve been progressing through it. 

The cantor initially gave me four aliyot – four consecutive short sections to learn. When you look at them on the page, they don’t look very long. But when you listen to them, you realize that each word contains multiple notes – and sometimes even a single syllable is drawn out to encompass multiple beats or notes. So there’s more to learn than meets the eye. 

I received a printout of the Hebrew text of my portion, including cantillation marks that indicate how you are supposed to sing each word. Since we are living in the modern era, I also got MP3 files of each aliyah. 

If you’ve never heard Torah being chanted, you can listen to my cantor — Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai — chanting my first aliyah Vayakhel 1

(She has an amazing voice! She hits high notes that I didn’t even know existed. And a century ago, no one would ever have been able to hear such a voice chanting Torah. The Reform movement was the first branch of Judaism to start ordaining women as cantors in 1975; the Orthodox to this day do not allow women to be cantors.)

I gradually developed a routine for learning my portion. First I read through the Hebrew and figure out the pronunciation and meaning of the words. Then I take it phrase by phrase and look at the cantillation marks and try to puzzle out how it should be chanted. Then I listen to it on my iPod and see how I got it completely wrong.

Then I listen to the phrase again. And chant it. And listen to it. And chant it. And listen to it… you get the idea, Eventually I move on to the next phrase ,and then the next, until I’ve gotten the whole aliyah down pat and can start the next one.

I do a lot of my iPod practice on the treadmill at the gym — where the other exercisers no doubt think I have lost my mind and am communing with aliens.

This week I more or less finished all four of my aliyot. (And my Bat Mitzvah date isn’t until next February – I am way ahead of the game because we started so early.) I still have a little bit to solidify with the last aliyah, but I’m basically finished. I felt soooo proud of myself and decided to ask the cantor if I could do an additional two aliyot. She was happy to oblige.

This wasn’t just the pride of accomplishment. There was a little competitive zing to it also. My sister-in-law is becoming a Bat Mitzvah next month, at her Conservative synagogue. She is doing it as part of  a group of 12 women, so she has been learning just one aliyah.

Ha!!! All spring while chanting away, I was feeling quite macho for learning four aliyot – now six aliyot — while my sister-in-law was learning one. Just call me SuperJew.

SuperJew... able to chant large Torah portions with a single breath

But then I got curious. This week I asked the cantor, Do all synagogues break the Torah portion into aliyot in the same places?

 And it turns out they don’t.

The Orthodox chant the entire Torah portion every week – so they have six or seven very long aliyot. According to my cantor, Orthodox congregations typically have one person who does all the chanting, and don’t share it among the congregation like we do in Reform. So that one person is chanting the equivalent, in length, of  40 or 50 of my little aliyot. Every week.

The Conservative movement, meanwhile, reads through the Torah in three-year cycles. Over the course of a year, they read and chant one-third of it.  So they’re chanting less than the Orthodox, but still a lot.

Meanwhile, Reform Judaism — which is my branch — chants only a smidgen of each week’s Torah portion. It’s a symbolic amount – enough to give the flavor of Torah without alienating all us secular congregants who also want to fit soccer games and gym workouts and Costco trips into our Saturdays.

So my multiple aliyot – all six of them – would add up to just one Orthodox aliyah. Taken together, my six aliyot are just a teeny bit longer than my sister-in-law’s single aliyah.

So long, SuperJew. So long, competitive edge.

There is an obvious moral lesson here, but I think I will avoid stating the obvious.

I’ll just get back on my treadmill and keep talking to the aliens.


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2 Responses to “Merrily we chant along”

  1. Linda K. Wertheimer Says:

    You’re bringing back memories with this one, Ilana. The CD by the cantor of my Torah portion remains in my house, something I sometimes play to remind myself that yes, once, (May 6, 2006), I actually stood before relatives and friends and chanted these same phrases in Hebrew.

    I laugh at your words about how proud you were that your portion was broken into four sections. Mine was broken into three sections – to allow for different people to get an aliyah and say the blessings before and after my chanting. And my particular passage was not that long.

    Remember, it’s not how much you chant that matters on your adult bat mitzvah. It’s that you tried to chant something at all. Not all adult bat mitzvah participants chant from the Torah, even in Reform temples where there are no prohibitions on women chanting from the Torah on the bimah. In large adult bat mitzvah classes, sometimes, only a few members chant from the Torah, while another member may give the d’var Torah. And each did get something from the experience.

    For me, there was nothing more magical and even mystical than chanting from the Torah on Shabbat, knowing that around the world so many others were doing the same, knowing that so many others were reciting the same exact words. Mazel tov, Ilana, on your progress.

  2. What Does a Cantor Do? – Coffee Shop Rabbi Says:

    […] are teachers as well as service leaders. Here’s an account of an adult who learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai, Oakland. What I love […]

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