Wednesday, September 08, 2010

943. Awe immersion preparation

(Trying to catch up on some pre-holiday posts before the holiday appears in a very short time.)

Selihot on Saturday night, the final stretch of awe immersion preparation. We studied and sang two piyutim, liturgical poems: Ahot Ketana, traditional for that day, to a Moroccan melody, and Leka Eli Teshukati, often sung prior to Kol Nidre, with a tune from the Jews of Greece. Gorgeous, flowing music set to texts about how desperately, almost agonizingly we yearn to connect to God. But the tunes are infused with joy, no pain at all.

I didn't grow up with music from that part of the world; it's not my tradition at all. If music were like food, then it wouldn't be entirely kosher for me to embrace these sounds. You can't decide to become Sephardic at Passover just to be able to eat kitniyot, for example. Born Ashkenaz, you're kind of honor-bound to stick to those customs. Thank goodness it doesn't work like that with music, because I am not the biggest fan of the sounds of my most closely relsted forebears. On Saturday night I watched the end of an excellent documentary about a well-known cantor whose passion in life is to spread the joy of hazzanut--excuse me, chazzanus--the traditional plaintive, operatic and melodramatic style of cantorial singing popular in Eastern Europe for a few centuries, and then in the US as Jews flooded these shores. It's still the sound most people associate with cantorial music, althoug few cantors sound like that anymore.

I am grateful to this musician and his colleagues for helping insure that this link to our past doesn't become a dying art. But I'm also very glad that fewer hazzanim, at least in liberal Jewish circles, sound like that. I don't like it at all. In fact, I hate it. There, I've said it, and pray that the combined force of my ancestors rolling over in their graves won't knock me over. As soon as I heard the first florid, kvetching glissando escspe this cantor's mouth, I was transported to the time in my life when Judaism was a spectator sport dominated by mumbling old men. (I like it even less when sung by a woman; there were a few examples of this in the film, as well.) I know others have fonder memories of this style of music, but to me it just sounds like people trying to be larger than life--which should be the domain of God alone. The cantor at my synagogue has the most glorious voice on earth, and probably heaven as well, but also a way of singing that is smaller than life--humble, full of awe, able to make quiet sounds that leave room for the rest of us to hear the still small voice. His hazzanut isn't about him, but us, one of the best gifts I've ever received.

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