Posts Tagged ‘cantillation’

My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…

September 12, 2011

… is the beach.

I did this when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah service, and I’ve been doing it again with the portion I’ll be chanting on Yom Kippur morning.

Stinson Beach / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Stinson Beach is long, wide and mostly empty, even on weekends. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to the end, and then another 45 to walk back. I take my iPod with our cantor’s recording of my portion, and I walk along and listen and chant. None of the other beach walkers seems to notice or care, and it’s much safer than the other place I practice chanting — in the car.

Don’t even ask about that. One of these days I will rear-end someone, and when the officer eyes me suspiciously and asks if I was texting while driving, I’ll say “Of course not. I was chanting.”

Learning to chant a Torah portion is different from anything else I do in my daily life.  It involves spoken sounds rather than written words. It’s not intellectual or analytical. There’s no tangible, material goal like there is in writing a news story or cooking a meal or planting zucchini.

It’s harder than simply learning to sing in a foreign language. When I listen to pop songs in Hebrew or French or Spanish — the foreign languages I sort of know — the choruses tend to stick in my head. They repeat, they rhyme, they use familiar daily sentence structures. All of that makes them easy to remember.

Fog and sun / Photo by Becca Schuchat

With Torah, the grammar is often archaic and convoluted. (For instance, the Torah typically uses future tense when it means past tense. Why? I’m sure there’s a historico-linguistic reason, but no one has told me.) There are weird sentence constructions, and obscure words like “ephod” that don’t exactly pop up in daily conversation.

The melody shifts back and forth at random between minor and major keys. There are no patterns of repeated melodies, no rhymes, no ABAB CDCD verses and choruses. It would be a lot easier if God had hired Woody Guthrie and the Torah read, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Jezreel Valley to the Jerusalem highlands.”

To be fair, there is the skeleton of a system.  A limited number of melodic phrases are used again and again in chanting Torah, and there are symbols to represent those phrases (cantillation). Sometimes the melodic phrases even correspond in a systematic way with certain points in the text, like the ends of verses.

But it’s still a lot less systematic and structured than modern pop songs or western classical music or the various bits of poetry we all had to memorize in grade school. And for a relative beginner like me, it remains pretty inscrutable. So I turn on my iPod, listen to the cantor, and imitate what she does. Phrase by phrase, line by line. I look for familiar words and am ecstatic when a difficult, unfamiliar word turns out to share a root with a word I already know. Those words are like rafts in the middle of a long, exhausting swim.

Andie at Stinson / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Between the Torah portion I learned for my Bat Mitzvah service, the one I learned for a service in July, and my current Yom Kippur portion, I’ve now done this enough that I can see a pattern in how I approach it.

Phase 1: Feel overwhelmed. (“How am I going to learn all that?”)

Phase 2: Take it one phrase at a time.

Phase 3: Get enough phrases down that I can chant a verse or two without getting stymied.

Phase 4: Learn enough verses to realize I am almost done. Yay!

That last phase is the one I’m in now, having learned five of six verses pretty securely. At this point it becomes fun. I find myself humming the melody without thinking about it. I can go back to some of the more troublesome lines and make sure  the phrasing and notes are exactly right. I can start to think about the meaning of the words while I chant them rather than just worrying about what the next word/note should be.

It occurs to me that this, in a very abbreviated way, is the same process as revising my novel. I’m in the overwhelmed/one-step-at-a-time phase with that right now. I still haven’t worked out my problems with the middle of the manuscript. It just occurred to me this morning that I may need to completely overhaul the ending. I hope sooner or later to reach  the point I’m at with my Torah portion — where the big, blunt work is done and I can relax and focus on making the phrasing just right.

Huh. What was that I was saying about this having nothing in common with the rest of my life?


Merrily we chant along

April 23, 2010

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.

Let the chanting begin!

January 17, 2010

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.