Posts Tagged ‘chanting Torah’

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?


Fame! fortune! chanting!

May 3, 2011

Yeah! The big call just came!

Okay, calm down. It was not a New York editor phoning to beg me to publish my novel with them.

It was our temple’s cantor, back from her sabbatical, asking me to chant a verse of Torah during high holidays this fall. And not just any verse — the first aliyah on Yom Kippur.

This is a verse that in recent years has been chanted beautifully by a congregant in her 90s. It seems she decided to bow out this year and the cantor thought I would be a good replacement.

I’m very excited. Our temple draws a big crowd on high holidays — so big that we rent the 3,000-seat art deco Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland. But honestly, I’d be just as excited if I were chanting in some religious school multi-purpose room that holds 50.

Apparently the cantillation for high holiday chanting is slightly different from the rest of the year, as are the prayer melodies.

I’ll get started learning the Yom Kippur portion this summer — after I chant Torah in July with Karen, Sidney and Jane, the three other women who became adult b’not mitzvah at Temple Sinai this year.

Now… back to waiting for the call from that hypothetical editor. I won’t hold my breath, though. It’s harder chanting Hebrew when you don’t let yourself breathe.

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.