Friday, October 07, 2005

Random Rosh Hashanah Reflections

1. For the past ten years, I've spent Rosh Hashanah with my parents (in Modern Orthodox-land) and Yom Kippur in Brooklyn (in Ultra Orthodox-land). This year, since my grandmother did not fly up from Florida for the holiday, my wife suggested finally staying home for Rosh Hashanah and I insisted that we not. Here are some of my reasons:

A. My parents enjoy us being there (and we enjoy it also -- I know you're reading this)

B. The level of hazzanus simply cannot be compared. The MO shul has many more attendees so can afford an expert cantor. In my UO experience, we end up with some-guy-from-kollel who can manage to get through the service (which is much more than I can do). A number of years ago, the MO shul hired a cantor who I later kept bumping into in Brooklyn. He is -- hands down -- the best hazzan I have ever heard (granted, I'm no maven in the music area). In general, in MO-land my silent prayer is longer than most other's so the hazzan starts the repetition while I'm still finishing up. That presents no problem because I'm good at ignoring people (just ask my wife). But when this hazzan started, I was simply entranced by his praying. He didn't sing, like most cantors do, but rather prayed in song. Maybe it was his raw lack of polish (like I know) that lent honesty to his praying or some unique style, but he emphasized the most important parts of the prayer in ways that just made the words so much more meaningful. To this day, I still talk about him and when I bump into him, ask him when he's coming back (he got a local MO job that paid the same). I'll add that if you want to hear him, he sings with Shalsheles.

C. Shul ends at a decent time in the MO world. Starving on Rosh Hashanah does not add to my concentration on prayers, especially when the shlep is in the cantor's repetition of the prayer (and eating before shofar is not an option in my book). And, frankly, I don't understand how anyone can pray as long as they do in some shuls which I have attended. In previous years, when I prayed on Yom Kippur in a yeshiva-type setting, I would finish my silent prayer, walk home and check on my wife and little kids, return to shul and still wait for the repetition to begin. Plus, in the MO shul I attend they skip a lot of the piyuttim that have crept into the service over the centuries, making it much longer. In my opinion, the more of those you can get away with skipping, the better.

D. The shofar blowing is more interesting in the MO shul I attend. It's kind of like the Passover seder, with my sons asking (afterwards) why the shevarim blasts had three at first but then five, or why the blower is taking a breath in the middle of the shevarim-teru'ah blasts. It keeps their attention.

2. Over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, for different services I went to three shuls that I had attended -- in their various incarnations -- as a youth. I've been told that the neighborhood has developed over time so that the three shuls represent different places within the spectrum of MO, each one being more to the right or left than another. I don't get it. I know all three rabbis personally (one is a lifelong friend and another was a study partner in yeshiva) and they are all essentially in the same place ideologically. As to the attendees, I couldn't tell much of a difference. Like any MO shul, the groups in each of the three were very heterogenous, spanning across the spectrum. I simply couldn't see why any of the shuls is farther to the left or right than any of the others. Either it's all a matter of perception or, as an outsider, I can't tell the difference. I guess I've turned into a racist because the MO all look alike to me.

3. One thing I haven't seen outside of a yeshiva-style service is something that, at the time, annoyed me greatly but I now miss: the screamer. On Yom Kippurs past, I used to sit next to a man who, at any point that required congregation participation, would shout out the passages at the top of his lungs. No exaggeration; as loud as he possibly could. It seemed quite bizarre but I now realize how much it adds to the feeling that you are praying for your life. I'm not a screamer. I just don't have it in me. But it's good to have a few screamers in the service to create an atmosphere of awe and devout prayer. I have never seen a screamer outside of a yeshiva-style service, even in ballebatishe UO services.

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