Thursday, August 04, 2005

133. Unison

(Continuing.)

All the melodies were complex, and most of them tested the limits of my untrained voice, but I found the hardest to be a section called "U'vechen," a series of paragraphs in the middle of the service. Some congregations simply read it; others, like the one I went to a few years ago, make parts into a song. My synagogue turns it into a fast, dramatic, and kind of scary solo for the rabbi(s) and cantor in a style befitting the urgency of the translation:

Let all Your creatures sense your awesome power...
Grant joy to Your land and gladness to Your city...
When You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth, evil will be silenced, wickedness will vanish like smoke...
Then You alone will rule all creation...

It's a prayer of loud, insistent affirmation. To pause or breathe in the middle of declaring all those truths would would be a sign of doubt, so it never stops.

I first heard "U'vechen" a few years ago, when I was in the choir and we sat in the first row of the side balcony. The cantor and both rabbis stood together at the bima, shoulder to shoulder, singing in unison. I was right above them, and could see their shaking shoulders and their hands clenched in determined, defiant fists at the edge of the podium. As much as I treasure the gender-neutral, egalitarian nature of everything that goes on at the synagogue, I counted the minutes, every year, until I could hear those three, booming male voices praise God at the top of their lungs.

5 comments:

Regina Clare Jane said...

This is just a mind-blowing post for me, aa... I get goosebumps every time I read it. The power of the U'vechen must be incredible- praising G-d with every fiber of your being!

alto artist said...

I'm glad I was able to translate my own goodbumps into words! So much of Yom Kippur is like that...25 hours of intense petiton and praise...it can be a frightening, amazing experience.
--aa.

Glory said...

Pardon my ignorance; your posts always teach me so much. Is it a requirement of the job that rabbis have wonderful voices? What if someone who's tone deaf wants to be a rabbi?

I'm honestly curious, so I hope this question doesn't seem condescending or glib. I can't tell you how many ministers I've known who have no musical sense. Our current one fancies himself a guitar player, but all he can do is strum down, down, down--no rhythm, and only the 1-4-5 chords in the keys of G and D.

alto artist said...

Oy! (And your question is not condescending at all--I appreciate your curiosity!) There are many rabbis who can't sing, unfortunately. But they do it anyway. Jewish prayer, most of which is chanted rather than spoken, consists of separate services for morning, afternoon, and evening (and a fourth on on Yom Kippur). The same set of prayers, more or less, are used for each service. And each service has its own "nusach"--a musical mode and set of tunes that distinguishes it from the others. Holidays have distinct tunes, as well. Time, rather than place, are considered sacred in Judaism--it doesn't matter where you celebrate a holiday, but when is very important--and the main way to distinguish the "when" is through the melodies of the prayers. So rabbis, even tone-deaf ones, have to know all this, even if their congregations wish they didn't... The cantor's job, traditionally, is to sing most of the service, but the division of labor between he or she and the rabbi is fluid, determined mainly by the customs of the community. My synagogue is very unusual--most of what I'm writing about (cantor sitting behind a keyboard, rabbis playing drums, the frequent introduction of new tunes to old prayers, clergy without egos the size of buildings) would not be the case anywhere else. This also holds true for our rabbis dividing the singing equally with the cantor--it's unheard of. (And, believe me, many people choose not to attend my synagogue because it's so different from they way they grew up.) Services, at many synagogues, have mostly become a spectator sport, much to the detriment of American Jewry; you show up, listen to someone with an operatic voice, and leave. The High Holidays are the only time at my synagogue where the person in the cantor's role has so many opportunities to be heard alone--and even then, half of the singing is done by the rabbi or congregation. I'm very, very lucky to have found this place.

Regina Clare Jane said...

Thanks, Glory, for asking this question, and aa for answering it so well! I also learn so much from you, aa, and I can't thank you enough!