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Notes of an Unrepentant Chazzan (in the Season of Repentance)

Credit: Michael Feldstein

This year will be my 48th consecutive year leading services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It’s a task that I don’t take lightly. In prior years, once Tisha B’Av was over, I’d dust off my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur machzorim, and begin practicing. (See the photo…) Although they are a bit beaten up, I continue to use these machzorim, as they include all of the notes and instructions that I’ve made over the years to myself. Today, the nussach and the melodies are ingrained in my brain and I don’t really require any review, although when I start hearing the shofar in Elul every morning, it does remind me that I might want to take a quick peek at the text for the services I lead.

It all started when I was in my first year of college. I was told that there were shuls that actually would pay people to lead High Holiday services. Being a struggling college student who could always use a few bucks, this intrigued me. Unlike most youngsters, I was mesmerized by the Yamim Noraim services as a kid — and I was fortunate to have grown up listening to a world class ba’al tefilla. So I asked this chazzan to make me a tape of the services, which he graciously did, and I spent the summer listening to those tapes — and learning the nusach and the melodies for the various piyutim. Somewhere in a box downstairs in our basement is a case housing those original tapes. Thank you, Lippman Bodoff, of blessed memory.

I continued to lead the High Holiday services each year at that same shul, until I got married and moved to Stamford, CT, in 1982. We joined the Young Israel of Stamford. Musaf and Shacharit were already being led by older members of the congregation, but when the members of the ritual committee asked me to lead Mincha services on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur shortly after we moved in, I accepted the job.

A few years later, the ba’al musaf left town – and I was asked to move up in the ranks and daven Musaf, Kol Nidre, and Neilah services … and I have been leading the High Holiday prayers at the shul ever since.

We are also members of a second shul in town, Congregation Agudath Sholom, and in the late 1980s, the shul instituted a parallel minyan in the chapel. I was asked to daven Shacharit on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there. Of course, I already had a commitment, but I figured that the timing was such so that I could actually lead Shacharit services at one shul, and walk over to the second shul to hear the shofar and lead Musaf services on Rosh Hashanah. For more than two decades, I’ve done the equivalent of pitching both games of a doubleheader! My feet are pretty tired by the end of davening, but, thank God, my voice has held out each year — and I actually have enjoyed being able to lead services for different congregants on the same day.

I have many memories of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services past, but I’d like to share three that have really made an impact on me.

  • One year, a woman approached me in the shul lobby after Rosh Hashanah services were over. She introduced herself, and said that she didn’t know how to read Hebrew, but that by listening to me daven, she felt that she knew what the words meant. To me, this was the highest compliment I have ever received, as I always strive to transmit the proper message and feeling to the members of the kehilah. In order to accomplish this, you must fully understand the words that you are saying. This comes into play in two ways: 1) phrasing the words properly so the meaning does not get lost, and 2) matching the music chosen to the meaning of the words.
  • One of the great things about leading the davening at the same place for several decades is that the congregants become familiar with the melodies and the nusach I use. And they anticipate the tunes and join in where appropriate. I’m sure many of you remember some of the melodies you heard while growing up and attending shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Over the years, I have received the very same comment from more than a half a dozen teens who are back from a year or two in Israel — they each told me, separately, that the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur davening in Israel just didn’t seem to feel right, because they didn’t hear my melodies that they were used to. In many ways, Judaism is a sensory religion — we breath in the smells of Shabbat foods being prepared and know that the week is almost over and that Shabbat will soon arrive… We see the light of the Shabbat and Yom Tov candles and gain a sense of peace and tranquility… We smell the spices at Havdalah to allow the beauty of Shabbat to linger just a bit more. The tunes and the melodies used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are no different, in that they remind us of the solemn nature of the Yamim Noraim. I’m pleased that the tunes I’ve used remind everyone of the Days of Awe. And I’m also pleased that it was a little jarring to those youngsters who heard something different in Israel. It means that the melodies I’ve used over the years had an impact on them.
  • When our son Yosef was 9 years old, I asked him to accompany me on a few piyutim and passages in both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Yosef has a beautiful voice, and, like me, always enjoyed staying in shul when he was a youngster — so he quickly learned the tunes I used as a ba’al tefillah. For four years (until he became a bar mitzvah), we harmonized on several pieces, and it was extremely well received by the congregants.  I’ve continued this tradition… and have now asked about eight other pre-bar mitzvah boys during the last 25 years to participate in the service this way. However, what’s most satisfying to me is that Yosef — as well as two other youngsters who have participated in this custom — have since led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services themselves, utilizing the same melodies and nusach that I was taught. There is nothing that has been more satisfying to me than to know that the nusach and melodies I was taught almost a half century ago are now being utilized by a new generation of ba’alei tefillah.

In summary, after 48 years of leading High Holiday services, I truly have nothing to feel sorry about. While there certainly were times when my kavanah was lacking, or when I missed a note, or when I mispronounced some words, I feel enormously blessed to have been given the important task of representing the congregation in prayer. (Send me an email, and I’ll share an embarrassing story of what happened to me one year while I was leading Tefilat Geshem.) In addition, I am deeply grateful that I am still able to perform this holy task. May all our tefilot reach the heavens this year, and may we all be inscribed by Hashem in the Book of Life.  Wishing all of my readers a k’tivah v’chatimah tovah.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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