Listen To The Music Of Prayer

Although those who daven (pray) regularly rarely think of it in these terms because they take it so for granted, music plays an irreducibly crucial role in Jewish prayer

On the most basic level, if the proper nusach, or musical mode, is being used by a Hazzan or other prayer leader, a knowledgeable Jew will, immediately upon entering a synagogue prayer service, be able to tell whether it is a Shabbat, holiday, or weekday, or, for that matter, one of the High Holidays. The words that make up our prayer book are not “said,” per se, but chanted, according to traditional customs and melodies that often date back thousands of years.

The Jewish community is blessed with Jews from many different parts of the world, and each tends to have its own particular chant, and often even prayer book. The Ashkenazim have different melodies (an order of prayers) from the Sephardim, Persian Jews are different from Moroccan Jews, and Indian Jews from French Jews you get the point. Each has its own different style, but the fundamental components tend to remain the same. Synagogue, rabbi and/or Hazzan or prayer leader, etc.

I, personally, am of Ashkenazi descent, and the prayer traditions that I grew up with originated mostly in Russia. As a child, the little shtiebel (small, informal, clergy-less synagogue) that my family belonged to prided itself in how quickly it could get through a Shabbat morning service. We began at nine, and were, most often, done by eleven. There wasn’t a whole lot of singing that went on, and it was the rare Shabbat when a rabbi or layperson delivered any kind of d’var Torah– usually for a bar mitzvah. I can’t say as it was a glorious prayer experience, but what it did have was dependability. Rain or shine, cold or hot, no matter the season, that little synagogue functioned, and I learned all my synagogue skills there.

Last weekend- close to forty years since I last davened in the synagogue of my youth, and thirty-three years into my rabbinate at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a large Conservative congregation in Queens, I spent Shabbat in Buenos Aires, in the context of my work with the Rabbinical Assembly. I participated in a four-day conference, and also, as I wrote last week in this column, I had the privilege of participating in the ordination ceremony of three new rabbis at the Seminario Rabbinico Latino Americano, a sister seminary of the Conservative/Masorti movement founded by the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer.

On Friday night, the conference participants were invited to Shabbat services at Amihai, a large and vibrant Masorti congregation in Buenos Aires where we also ate dinner. For me, attending that Friday evening service was a major highlight of the trip, and it was all about the music. It couldn’t have been more different from the service that I grew up with as a child, and it was radically different from what I do in my own synagogue in Forest Hills. In the context of a traditional prayer service, it was a major departure from what might be considered traditional forms and limitations, and I consider myself a traditionalist in many ways. But it was amazing… and I loved it.

New Yorkers, especially those on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who are familiar with the phenomenally successful synagogue B’nai Jeshurun, will understand what I mean. BJ’s power is rooted in the musical tradition of Buenos Aires that the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer brought with him from Argentina, and my friend and colleague Rabbi Matalon continues. At Amihai, three spectacularly talented musicians accompanied the rabbi (himself an accomplished and talented musician) as he sang his way through the service, with his congregants– and there were lots of them there -– singing with him. Most of the music was not rooted in the traditional chant of any one community, and in fact, much of it was more popular in nature than traditional. There were, inevitably, some Carlebach melodies thrown into the mix, but the majority of the melodies were newer than that.

What I found most remarkable, and powerful (if thoroughly not traditional), was the use of modern Israeli music. In a conscious effort to connect his congregants to contemporary Israel, the rabbi had instituted the practice of singing a different Israeli song (not David Melekh Yisrael, but a real song) at every Friday evening service. When we were there, because the service the next morning would include the prayer for the new Hebrew month of Elul, he included Shlomo Artzi’s lovely and haunting song “Yare’ah” (“Moon”), a reference to the calendar. And the congregation knew it, and sang along with him…

In so many ways, the Friday evening service that my Argentinean colleague had designed was incredibly different from what I’m used to. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not. But it’s what it is that is of significance. A true Litvak would have left that service and immediately pulled out a siddur and prayed the traditional liturgy. I guess I’m not that true of a Litvak. I left that service feeling elevated and spiritual, newly respectful not only of the power of music to shape the prayer experience, but also of the truest possibilities of pluralism. We are all serving the same God, just singing a slightly different song…


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.