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.