Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Archive for August, 2011

Fallacies of part-time jobs: a hopefully constructive perspective

No matter how qualified I am, for one reason or another I only work part-time. Actually, my picture should appear under the word “part-time” in some dictionary: last Fall I held four part-time jobs; this Fall, only two, although I still hope to get additional income somehow. With my many jobs, I can’t say I could survive on my own without my spouse’s income. And as you know, “part-time” also means “without benefits.”

Believe me, I respect my employers’ choices. These are hard times. Furthermore, I work in a field particularly prone to part-timeness (I should definitely register this word). I wear many hats, but they all are very small: I am a musician, a hazzan, a church organist, and a teacher. I could go on and on about the social consequences of a poor job market but, instead –and risking to sound bitter about my own situation– I want to focus on the role of part-time clergy.

A quick look at sites like shows two new realities: first, with so many schools and so few pulpits, there are very few jobs for rabbis and even less for cantors; second, almost all of these positions are part-time. As in the case of organist jobs, cantorial job descriptions are often astonishingly detailed and demanding. Eventually, you will be in charge of Tot Shabbat services, leading Kabbalat Shabbat and Shaharit Shabbat prayers, chanting Torah and Haftarah, maybe directing a choir, teaching benei mitzvah, and of course being available for funerals and weddings, whenever, wherever. They may insist that you need a masters degree, an ordination, and even police clearances. Of course, in theory you will be doing all of that in… 5 to 10 hours a week. There is no mention whatsoever to preparation time.

It is unclear how do they figure out this number of hours, but something tells me this is the exact amount of time they usually get to see you working. It is like the old joke: what does the rabbi do when she is not writing her sermon? Upfront, most synagogues will not even revise your job application if you are not local. After all, who will ever move across country for a 1K salary with no benefits and no relocation money?

The trend that had long affected hazzanim is quickly spreading to rabbis with the aggravating factor that cantors are more dispensable and, confronted with the choice, it is seemly better for a synagogue to have a rabbi than a cantor. Some rabbinical associations like RRA insist that half-time working doesn’t mean to work “only” every Friday and Saturday, but rather to work every other Shabbat. It is not clear if congregations are getting the hint… or just hiring people who are willing to work more for less. I can name half a dozen of enthusiastic young rabbis in my own area who work full time for a part-time salary, maybe in the hopes that the shul will eventually grow, but often just out of the goodness of their heart.

Given the situation, the role of sheliach tsibbur is often left in the hands of well-intentioned but poorly prepared soloists. A “real” cantor, however, is much more than a voice: a hazzan is a both shatz and a Torah teacher; sometimes a preserver of centuries-old musical traditions and sometimes the person who introduces you to new music and new forms of worship. A hazzan will not only rote-repeat some nusach: s/he will teach you the why and the how of our prayers, and will instruct you in ritual halakhah. Often, the cantor is –much like a rabbi– in a role of pastoral care giver, somebody who is there at your simchas and when you are mourning.

To me, the problem is of an ethical nature. No matter how hard he or she works, you will probably only see your cantor on Shabbat and holidays (assuming that you go to shul on a weekly basis which, unfortunately, is not so common). Almost a 100% of cantorial and rabbinical positions will look part-time to some people, because such is human nature. Judaism, however, teaches us to honor our teachers and Torah scholars. It also commands us to be fair with our employees and to not retain their salary.

With all my love, with all my respect and understanding for your present synagogue’s economic struggle, next time you are involved in writing a job description for your shul’s new cantor or rabbi, please ask yourself if it is realistic, and specially if the balance between demands and compensation is actually coherent with your Jewish values. Ask yourself if the future of Judaism isn’t worth an extra effort to sustain those who teach us Torah day after day.

How Jewish are Jewish chanting and meditation?

Today I had the privilege of teaching a workshop at a Nehirim camp at Easton Mountain. It consisted mostly on meditation and chanting exercises from the perspective of Jewish mysticism. We were talking about how Kabbalists envision the use of music as a tool to help them connect with the spiritual world and with the Divine.

At the end of the workshop, we were checking in and evaluating what role do music and chanting play in our spirituality and specifically in our meditation practice (although not all the participants had a regular practice or were particularly adept to meditation). I felt very enriched by the insides of the workshop attendance. We listed the many ways music and chanting play a role in meditation. Firstly, somebody pointed out that music helps him “fill space” when he meditates. This may seem controversial for some meditation schools and practices but I have the biggest respect for every person’s “tricks:” if something works for you, why should I question it? More often than not I find myself meditating with background music. To me, it can’t be music with words or with very clear, symmetric, predictable structures. I often choose Indian ragas or Native American solo flutes, that is, “songs” whose next pattern I can’t predict so easily.

Secondly, chanting helps quiet the chattering in our minds, which is one of the main objectives of every meditation practice. All of us struggle with the same problem: how to turn off the continuous noise in our head so we can pay attention to important things like enjoying our present and seizing the moment. Otherwise, we go around like zombies on automatic pilot. We become slaves to our memories and to our worries for the future, continuously playing in our head the movie of what wee have just done or what we’re about to do. Instead, just sit back and smell the roses.

Thirdly, music and chanting have clear benefits for our well-being. Our whole body vibrates to particular frequencies. Our heart beats to the rhythm. Music therapists have been writing about these properties for a long time. Additionally, I believe that music has another dimension, one of the spiritual kind. It is deeply connected to our feelings and helps create memories that eventually reinforce our identity, in particular our Jewish identity. Depending on your beliefs, music can connect you to spiritual realms and even to the mind of the Divine (metaphorically or not).

It is not coincidental that mysticism of all religious traditions has placed chanting (drumming, music) in a central role of its practice. Some chant mantras, others repeat rosaries, others practice whirling dances accompanied by music. Not surprisingly, often mainstream religion has frowned at these practices. Now, in what ways meditation and chanting can be claimed as genuinely Jewish? Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature are full of nigunim, different kinds of tikkun practices, alphabet permutations, and fahrbrengen full of ecstatic chanting. They are powerful tools to help Even our text study has its musical mode, the Lehrner steiger. And yet, for many Jews meditation and chanting seem to be a “New Age thing,” identified with very particular groups. Some frown at them as being merely a strategy to attract BuJews, or an unwanted osmosis from Eastern religions.

I think it is time that we acknowledge and embrace this part of our tradition, just like Rosh Chodesh or the mikvah enjoyed their well-deserved revival in our days. Meditation and chanting are also for us, the more traditionally-observant Jews. (Yes, you wouldn’t say I am that traditional; I do believe in acting kosher and thinking treif, but that’s material for another post). Although modern Hebrew prefers the word meditatsiya, our liturgy often talks about hegion ha-lev, meaning the contemplation, the reason, or even the logic of the heart. Many siddurim translate this expression as “the meditation of the heart,” like at the end of the amidah, when we pray that the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart (הגיון לבי) be acceptable before Hashem. Next time you read these words, pause, breath and check your kavanah. That’s Jewish meditation too.

The Flow of Identities: of Puebloan, Cryptos, and American Jews.

Last July at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque NM, a very young native-American guy was telling us how most of his village’s dancers were aging. Traditions were slowly falling into oblivion, and youth were not interested in this art. This moved him to create a new dancing group whose members are all in their teens. The evolution of Pueblo pottery narrates a similar story: after generations of simpler, somehow impoverished styles, mid-20th century archaeological findings prompted Puebloan pottery makers to revive more complex, traditional designs that were long lost. Traditional forms, however, are recreated and updated both for traditional use and for commercial exploitation, in a process that has its enthusiasts but also its detractors.

A couple of days later we met with Daniel Diaz-Huerta, an enthusiastic organizer of New Mexico’s Crypto-Jewish community. Every day more and more Hispanic people of Jewish descend reclaim their identity. In consonance with our times, their newly coined Jewish character often doesn’t fit the narrow criteria of what the English-speaking, “white” Jewish community considers as normative. Like in any other social change, the establishment is often suspicious and prejudiced against a collective who doesn’t “look Jewish.”  This creates interesting sociological and cultural clashes, which I will certainly talk about in upcoming blog posts.

Back home, I read that an Orthodox beit-din from B’nei Brak has decided that Mallorcan xuetes (or chuetas) are actual Jews. Since their forced conversion to Christianity, this Crypto-Jewish community of my country of origin has been discriminated for being Jewish. More than 600 year later, the Jewish establishment is just starting to acknowledge their identity. I understand: the rules of halachah are (relatively) clear; but maybe –just maybe– it’s time to rethink modern Jewish identity and its implications. In my life time I experienced the slow creation (or restoration) of a practicing, Catalan-born Jewish community. In a way, we had to reinvent ourselves and our tradition, lost for almost six centuries. We had to create a new language of faith and a new identity. Even after the years, the existing local Jewish community –almost entirely integrated by Moroccan and Argentinian immigrants– is still having a hard time coping with this emergent Catalan collective.

Are we, as contemporary American Jews, any different? I don’t think so. Our identity is as fluid as it can be, because it doesn’t come imposed on us anymore. In many ways, today we are all Jews by Choice. We choose to define ourselves as Jews; and being Jewish is only a more or less important part of our identitarian cocktail: we are Jews, Americans, LGBTQ, politically progressive… all of them simultaneously, in a combination unique to each of us.

We share yet another feature with our Xueta, Crypto, and even Puebloan fellows: most of us have not received tradition directly from our parents. We have claimed it a posteriori. Jewish tradition and observance in the Western world has often skipped a generation (or two, or three). We are constantly going back to this tradition but, at the same time, we are recreating, updating and reconstructing it. It’s an impassioned and challenging process that will probably result in a Jewish identity that maybe –just maybe– our great-grandparents would have a hard time recognizing. The effort, however, it’s worth every second.

In this time of crisis and changes, we don’t know what the Jewish community will look like in 10 years’ time, but we are pretty sure that it will have to adapt itself to new challenges and new, fluid identities.

Untimely death of the Hebrew language: in saecula saeculorum le-olam va-ed.

When I was a kid, I thought that my Catholic auntie was a genius: she knew the whole Latin mass by heart. She could pray the rosary without the booklet, all in Latin. Later, when I went to high school and learned some Latin, I realized that, after decades of rote repetition of a text in a language she didn’t understand, my auntie had transformed the prayers in a gibberish in which one could barely recognize some original Latin phrases. Latin is a dead language. You can mistreat it to your heart’s contempt because no native speakers are around to defend it or to laugh at you.

Now, Hebrew is miraculously alive and well. People in Israel speak it everyday, and here in America many non-natives love it and know it pretty well. It is the language most of us use in shul for our prayers and study. Unfortunately, for many it has become a death language, after decades of rote learning of bar mitzah’s haftarot (aka “half-Torahs”), of simplifying our prayer books to their bare bones, of people graduating from (aka checking out of) Jewish education after their benei mitzvah, of cantors and rabbis assuming that Hebrew alienates people from communal Jewish life.

Far from me to try and solve all that at once, but I would like to comment on my particular area of interest: that of Jewish music. Simplification is everywhere, and reaches almost absurd extremes. While on a trip, I was at a shul on Shabbes. At the end of pesukei de-zimra, the congregation sung the so-called “Sufi melody” of Ps. 150 (big, cautious quotation marks there). I often use the same melody when I lead services too, because one can fit all the words of the psalm and yet it is not overly long. However, this shul’s version was quite simplified. They had substituted all the words by two simple phrases, halelu halelu halelu (repeat at will) and the known kol ha-neshamah ending. With all due respect, maybe we are treating people like little kids. In our effort for not alienating people due to Hebrew, we are educating generations that not only don’t know the language, but are not even familiar with how it sounds. Learning all the words of a psalm you sing weekly does not hurt. Congregants will appreciate knowing prayers in Hebrew; it is their heritage, their treasure and birthright. Even if they barely understand them, the sound is there, building identity, creating memories, and awakening people’s curiosity to learn the language eventually.

I have the biggest respect and admiration for my fellow Jewish composers but here’s my friendly advise: please, if you don’t know Hebrew well, other people will be happy to help. There’s no shame on checking with your cantor, rabbi, Hebrew teacher, or Israeli speaker. Admittedly, one in a hundred congregants will realize of your mistakes, but why should you take that risk? Checking your Hebrew text before recording is particularly important. The famous Halelu halelu halelu melody can be found in several CDs. At least in one of them, it breaks my heart to hear so clearly after a long list of mere halelus– “kol han Shema” instead of kol ha-neshamah, again repeated a number of times.

If you are “atem,” then we’re nitzavim; we stand here today and remember the dream; kehilah kedoshah: a nice song of a talented composer that I admire. However, as a linguist, I can’t but label its use of Hebrew as mere diglossia, folklorization, or heraldic use of language: words lose their primary function and are used as mere ornaments. Language is no longer alive, but fossilized and packed for casual consumption. Any person who speaks both English and Hebrew –and probably you have a handful of them sitting in the pews– understands the strange phrase as meaning if you are you then we are standing. Another example: May Shekhinah bless you… ha-Shem panav eleikha is also a beautiful and inspiring song, but it would be so much better if its composer didn’t suppress the verb of the Hebrew phrase, thus rendering it unintelligible.

We should honestly evaluate if writing English lyrics sprinkling Hebrew words instead of salt-and-pepper is doing any good to the musical education of our congregations. Hebrew should impregnate all our congregational life, particularly our music, because it is one of the keys of our survival as a cultural minority.