Preaching to a Tone-deaf Choir – a Tisha B’av Story

Our tale begins, strangely enough perhaps, on a rainy Shabbat morning in the dead of winter. The ‘Anglo shul’ in the just-over-the-Green-Line yishuv where we then resided was having a Shabbat Chazzanut, and so, although I rarely if ever davened in the main-sanctuary minyan, I decided to make an exception for the special event. I grabbed one of the few available seats near the bimah, and happened to find myself directly right behind Nathan Schultz*, one of the most respected members of the congregation, a rabbi and cantor in his own right.

The chazzan and choir were exceptional, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, harmonizing along with them throughout the service, when I was abruptly brought back to earth; Schultz, unexpectedly, had turned around and told me he wanted to speak with me later on.

I happily thought to myself that this could only mean one thing: Schultz is a cantor, and he hears that I have a pretty good voice myself, so he must want to discuss starting a choir of our own. Interesting idea!

But afterwards, the moment Schultz started talking with me in the shul vestibule, I had the painful realization that starting a choir was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, he immediately launched into a discussion of a liturgical matter, specifically, the Nachem prayer, a special addition to the Amidah at the Tisha B’av afternoon service that asks God to console those mourning for Jerusalem. The prayer describes Jerusalem as a razed and devastated city, devoid of inhabitants, lying in utter ruin.

“I’ve long been bothered by the Nachem prayer, because I feel it lacks hakarat hatov, recognition of the good that God has done for us in reunifying Jerusalem. We should be thankful for the miraculous rebuilding of the city in our time!

“Now sometime after the Six-Day War, the Chief Rabbinate composed an alternate version of Nachem that puts less of the emphasis on the destruction of Jerusalem that’s in the original prayer. I think this version is far preferable.”

Fair enough, I thought to myself, but why was he interested in discussing this? And with me specifically?

As if he’d read my mind, he continued, “And the reason I’m mentioning this to you is that since you have yahrzeit on Tisha B’av and always lead the services, according to the shul by-laws, you have the right to choose any halachically-approved nusach tfila (prayer rite).”

Ah, the shul by-laws, I remembered them well. As it so happened, I’d served as one of the gabbaim back when the by-laws were being prepared, and in this capacity, I’d had the dubious privilege of being volunteered to join the relevant committee. This august body, with my addition, consisted of ‘big-picture’ me along with, or more accurately, versus, ten or eleven of the most detail-oriented individuals who’ve ever roamed the face of the planet. The weekly meetings, which lasted the better part of a year, were stultifyingly boring, as the committee established rules for every possible aspect of synagogue ritual. My colleagues had so much fun crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ that when they were done, they then proceeded to cross every ‘i’ and dot every ‘t.’ As I knew well because I generally read the haftarah on the Shabbat before my father’s yahrzeit, the by-laws even specified which portions of Chazon Yeshayahu should be chanted in the mournful Eicha tune, and which parts should be read with the usual haftarah intonation.

And so Schultz wanted to invoke the ‘any-approved-nusach-goes’ rule, whose purpose had really been to allow the shliach tzibur (prayer leader) to use either the Sephardic or Ashkenazic prayer rite, to substitute a modified version of Nachem. Clever!

That is, if I chose to go along with him. Well, although I didn’t quite share his enthusiasm initially, his argument certainly made sense, and I gave him my tentative OK. But it then occurred to me to ask: had he run his idea past the gabbaim? And what about Hagai?

Hagai was a professor of Semitics, and one of the few Sabras who attended our shul on a regular basis. If Hagai hadn’t been my chief nemesis on the by-laws committee, he’d certainly been a close second. Nevertheless I held him in high esteem for his erudition and wit, as did the rest of the congregation, which usually deferred to his judgment.

Schultz assured me that everyone was on board.

————–

On erev Tisha B’av, to avoid after-the-fact accusations that I had substituted a different Nachem text on my own initiative, I decided to post a message to the local email list about the planned change, noting that Schultz had originated the idea, and that it had been endorsed by the powers-that-be. In any case, I assumed that because the revised Nachem prayer had been authorized by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which wasn’t exactly a reformist body or the Reconstructionist synod, and that Schultz was highly regarded, there would be little or no opposition to the change. And if someone for whatever reason was nevertheless upset by the idea, he could always attend the second mincha minyan, the one at which I would not be ‘officiating.’

I was soon to learn that my assumptions were wrong. While I was standing around before shul the next morning, waiting for everyone to arrive so that we could begin, cranky from before-morning-coffee grogginess – and realizing that I would be not only spending the entire day without coffee, but also leading two prayer services and chanting an haftarah in my semi-conscious state – to my astonishment, I overheard this so-and-so, a retiree who had only recently moved to the yishuv and didn’t even know who I was, announce loudly to everyone in earshot, “Who is this Larry Feldman, and just who does he think he is?!”

That didn’t bode well, and indeed, it turned out there had been such a backlash to the proposed change that after shacharit, one of the gabbaim told me in no uncertain terms that we would not be using the Rabbanut’s Nachem text at mincha. I resisted the temptation to quote the by-laws and point out that it was my right to do precisely that; I try to avoid getting into arguments on Tisha B’av, or before my morning coffee anytime for that matter.

Although I really had no skin or ego in this game – changing the Nachem text had been Schultz’s idea, after all, not mine – I went home after the fast had ended with a bad feeling. And I couldn’t help but ponder about the zealots during the waning days of the Second Temple, whose inflexibility had contributed to the Temple’s destruction.

—–

A few years later, I led Tisha B’av services on the yishuv for the last time. The very next morning, a moving van was parked outside our front door, and appropriately enough, we spent Shabbat Nachamu elsewhere, at our new home in Zichron Yaakov.

So it was that almost a full year went by before Tisha B’av came around again, and before services started, the rabbi — fortyish, Canadian-born, ordained at Yeshiva University — unexpectedly began to discuss the controversy around the Nachem prayer. He explained why the traditional formulation of Nachem was considered problematic by some, and then announced that he had printed up several copies of one alternative version of the prayer. Anyone who wanted to could come up front and take one, and, he added, there were other alternate versions that could be found online.

A few people approached to get copies.

But no one peeped.

And no one caused a ruckus.

And services began without incident.

And it struck me how ironic it was that I was the only one in the room who appreciated the ordinariness, the completely uneventful nature, of what had just transpired.

*‘Nathan Schultz’ and ‘Hagai’ are pseudonyms

About the Author
Lawrence Feldman made aliyah with his wife, Nettie, back in 1982. Both native New Yorkers, they have four children and currently reside in Jerusalem .
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