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

Posts tagged ‘education’

Keep the Mitzvah in Bar Mitzvah

There are subjects one cannot afford to write about right away, things that need some time and reflection, cooling down, perhaps a change of circumstances like not having a pulpit anymore. So there you go, let’s talk about bene mitzvah (that’s the plural of bar / bat mitzvah), the quintessential rite of passage we all love to hate.

On my way to work, and given the season, I pass in front of a neighbor’s yard, scarcely decorated for the holidays, where a lawn sign reminds passers-by that it is time to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To me Christmas is overwhelming: the crowds going crazy at the malls, season’s songs pumping from loudspeakers since shortly after Halloween, and the overall commercialization of the event. I imagine that if Jesus’ birth were central to my faith, this pageant of consumerism would be almost insulting. My neighbor’s message is clear: celebrating Christmas is all good and well if you believe, but do not take away the real meaning of the holiday.

I believe we have done pretty much the same with bene mitzvah (from now on, BM), a name that means “sons or daughters of the precept.” We have just taken the mitzvah away and made it all about sons and daughters, introducing in it a serious devirtualization. This rite of passage –rather new in our cultural history– marks the moment where Jews are considered adults, and thus responsible for the observance of the commandments, a new status they mark by getting the honor of being called to the Torah and counted for minyan for the first time, an action often accompanied by another adulthood responsibility, leading the prayers. Therefore, let’s ask ourselves what should BM be and what have they become instead.

1. BMs are not passive sacraments. In spite of the common usage, the passive participle barmitzvaed does not exist. Kids reach the age of BM or celebrate their BM, but the ritual is not sacramental, that is, not an hocus-pocus that makes you Jewish. What is more, it will happen anyway, at age 13, ready or not, ceremony or not: you will be an adult in Jewish terms. You may skip your birthday cake the day you turn 18, but you will still be an adult and have the right to vote.

2. BMs are a community celebration, not a family affair. The congregation receives a new member with full rights by giving him or her a role in the service. Instead, it has become a day where families exert full pressure on ritual committees imposing their demands, and everybody accepts it thinking that it’s a “family function” and not a kehilah function. I have seen parents requesting that for their BM the whole congregation should use a children’s siddur, or that all aliyot should be given to family members, or that they want a minchah BM so that only family and friends attend and the kid doesn’t feel intimidated. So much for a kehilah affair.

3. BMs are a beginning of a life of learning and mitzvot, not a graduation from Judaism. Let’s face it: as soon as the last of their kids is “barmitzvaed” most families leave the synagogue. Parents can’t wait for Hebrew school obligations to finish and they shamelessly verbalize it. What is worse, rabbis, cantors and ritual committees buy into it without sounding the alarm. After all, the kid will come back when they have children of their own in order to repeat the circle of non-sense.

4. BMs are a challenge to make kids competent and proud of their achievement, not a watered down version for show off. Some kids are really prepared and take it seriously, but for most of them it is all about memorizing 3 Torah verses without understanding a word, and reading a transliterated haftarah in a Hebrew so poorly pronounced that no Hebrew speaker can follow. But G-d forbid we dare to delay their BM: the magic rite has to happen at the right time. And who will ask the parents to go through another year of the agony of participating in Jewish life? By the way, unless you consistently pronounce Ashkenazi Hebrew, please try to pronounce it “haf-tah-RAH,” less people go around thinking they learned their Torah and their half-Torah.

5. BMs should be meaningful, not superficial. This should be obvious, until you encounter frivolities like a shopping themed bat mitzvah, with the bimah adorned with huge palm trees in giant shopping paper bags, and parents’ speeches praising the kid’s high fashion taste and complaining about shopping sprees on their American Express. Yes, this was the main message, and no, I am not making this out.

6. BMs should be culturally reaffirming and deeply Jewish. It is all right to borrow from other cultures: Jews have done it successfully throughout history. Even some Christian weddings borrow from us and use a flower-adorned huppah. However we should know what are we borrowing and why. This is the case of beginning the BM banquet by lighting 6 or 7 candles, a ritual borrowed from Hispanic quinceañera celebrations You call your family and friends by turns to light a candle in memory of a deceased relative or for celebration. The problem is that you just became obligated by the mitzvot and the first thing you do is to transgress Shabbat by inviting people –including your hazzan– to make a fire on Shabbat. Yes it is cute. Now, can it wait until sundown?

7. A BM should be an opportunity for non-practicing Jews to experience vibrant Judaism, not to overtake and kidnap the service. This can be a great family opportunity to learn: anybody can learn aliyot, compose poems, learn how to raise the scroll, etc. This should be carefully planned. Do not assume people know what they are supposed to do (remember they often left the synagogue as soon as they turned 13!). Otherwise you end up with your cousin looking totally puzzled when asked to open the ark, as if it were the first time he sees an ark in his whole life. Later he will probably greet the rabbi and make excuses such as that he belongs to another Jewish denomination and that’s why he didn’t know what to do. By the way, disaffected relatives are an interesting phenomenon in itself. How can you tell a non-Jew from a disaffected BM relative? The non-Jew wears kippah and stands and sits with the congregation out of respect. The disaffected relative sits there with a blank stare, not opening the siddur or reading in English, looking at the rabbi in the eye as if saying: “I don’t buy into this and I will let you know with my attitude.”

8. BMs should be reaffirmations of identity, not insurances of identity. We do not extend tribal certificates, and yet people will argue that they are indeed Jewish because they were “batmitzvaed and all” or tell you they are very bad Jews because they even didn’t “get barmitzvaed.” In our days, progressive parents would rather skip circumcision than BM. And yet, BM is not sacramental, nor magically imbues the person with Jewish identity. Rather, it makes kids stand in the crowd and proclaim their Jewishness, even in spite of being part of mixed families. We should focus on this reaffirmation of identity.

9. Most kids are not operatic singers. They are there to act as shelihe tzibur. The rest of us is not there to admire their often cracking voice, but to participate in the prayers he or she is leading. Why should we stop saying the Shema so that we can hear a kid mumble through it?

10. A BM is not about kids, it’s about newly minted adults being welcomed to the kehilah. We should be moving on from pediatric Judaism. In fact, it is time to evaluate what pediatric Judaism has brought us: BM mills, school-centered versus mitzvah and limud-centered synagogues, dumbing down and loss of richness. A good example of it is using Shabbat morning melodies all the time, from Friday night to Yom Kippur, just “because that’s what kids learn at Hebrew school.” There are plenty of examples more, such as sanitized divre torah; model seders as the only seder the family will attend this year; school Sukkot parties as the only Sukkot; the total disappearance of Shavuot simply because it falls outside of Hebrew school calendar, etc.

11. Finally, BM celebrations should be socially mindful and not wasteful. What is the value we are teaching the youngsters when a BM becomes a crazy mini wedding? Welcoming a kid to the community and celebrating it should be an equalizing event, not a display of the economic cliff between the haves and the have-nots. Let us plan real mitzvah projects that teach kids and adults that we live in a broken world but that we can do a lot to fix it. Placing a couple of empty boxes at the entry of the synagogue so that other people can bring cans of food, or spending two afternoons at the animal shelter playing with puppies may give the kid a check-out of a mitzvah project, but will hardly teach her anything about responsibility towards humanity

As a maturity rite of passage, it is perfectly ok to delay a BM. Some of the best BM I have seen are celebrations involving adults and older children. So let’s bring the mitzvah back where it belongs.

Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”


Trophies for showing up: on the educational value of effort.

It’s back to school day. While I am hooking the projector to my laptop, one of the kids is telling me something I have heard way too many times in the last two weeks: “I don’t want to play recorder anymore; I’ll be trying viola.” The 4th grader has been playing recorder for less than nine months and he cannot yet tell a G from an A. Nevertheless, he’s got enough: it’s just too boring. While this conversation is taking place, another girl, of Russian origin, has unpacked her violin and started playing, page after page, a rather elaborated concerto with accuracy and gusto. I never taught her that, so I ask how has she improved so much in the short span of three summer months. Apparently, she has been in Russia all summer visiting relatives, and she has taken lessons there. Being of European origin, I confess I had almost forgotten how different the musical education abroad is, even with its many flaws. As a kid I was taught to take my music practice very seriously because the effort pays off. From the age of nine, I took lessons twice a week, practiced daily, and took exams in front of three teachers year after year. There was no money to go around jumping from instrument to instrument: your choice or an instrument implied a certain commitment to it. Yes, it may have been a little too tough, but I’m grateful for all that discipline, which fostered in me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong: there is nothing bad about children trying out instruments and different kinds of sports, nor about making their education a little more playful. My big question is if we –teachers and parents– are actually doing enough to encourage them to persevere on anything, to stick to that recorder another year, and this time actually taking five minutes a day to practice. Of course, no child can be left behind, but should we really stand still or barely move forward out of fear of challenging kids too much? Yes, the education we received was too dry, but perhaps –only perhaps– today we are expected to teach in a way that it’s all games an glitter, no effort and no challenges. Trophies for all, just for showing up, are great for the students’ self-esteem, but are they good for their preparation and maturity?

Almost at the same time this was happening, there was an uproar in my area because the shul where I work –otherwise out of the way, invisible, even ostracized by the bigger congregations in the area– dared to reduce its Hebrew school from twice a week to only once, even if doubling the learning time on that one day. It was a democratic decision based on demographic changes, availability of volunteer teachers, etc. The accusation from the big shuls in town is that this policy is watering down Jewish education and giving unfair advantage to our synagogue, because apparently everybody will flock to the “easy shul.”

In my opinion this statement reveals two big dilemmas. Firstly, people do not seem aware or concerned that Jewish education is already watered down to a rather clear little soup. Concentrating education in a single day will most probably not change a thing. After seven years of twice-a-week Hebrew instruction, an alarmingly high number of children end up learning by heart a haftarah from some transliteration, without understanding a word of what they’re saying. We just seem to love to pretend in front of our friends that the kid is proficient. Secondly, we not only acknowledge but even sanction the fact that many parents have one main goal: the fastest and easiest path to their kids bar/bat mitzvah. Once children are “barmitzvaed” (since, whoever invented this verb, set it in the passive form), they can graduate from Jewish life altogether, maybe to reappear, if lucky enough, for their wedding. As a result, adults go around with a mere varnish of Jewish culture and the concept of G-d of a 13 years-old.

Have we made Jewish education (or music education for that matter) so “nice and friendly” that it just lost its purpose? Have we decided that the best way to avoid boredom and desertion is simply to demand very little effort? These are questions that cannot be solved in a day but require a deep revision of our education systems. Among other things, I think it’s time to de-emphasize the centrality of benei mitzvah rituals, and even to delay them until age 16 or more, so that little Sarah doesn’t just “get barmitsvaed” by some rabbi but consciously chooses to accept on her shoulders the responsibilities, privileges and blessings of an adult member of our people.

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.