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

Posts tagged ‘language’

She wore blue velvet: more dangers of co-optation.

 

Some years ago, in Tel Aviv, an Israeli friend of mine told me –in a mixture of wonder and puzzlement–: “I don’t understand how can you call yourself dati (religious), when it’s obvious you are not.” What he meant was clear to me: I don’t wear kippah all the time, only when I feel like doing it, and when I don my yammy, it is definitely colorful, not plain black velvet. My tsitsit do not hang ostensibly outside of my clothes. I observe Shabbat, but I don’t mind turning on lights, taking showers or using my electric kettle on that day. To me, Shabbat is about rest, enjoyment, connection with the divine and other human beings, about spirituality, not about making myself a pretzel considering if pouring soy milk over my cereal is tantamount of forbidden cooking. All these details brought my proudly secular friend to repeat the common motto: “it’s all or nothing!” Either you observe or you do not. Translated in plain words: stop appropriating the beautiful, meaningful, ethically sound aspects of Judaism and discarding the retrograde, anachronistic aspects they define as equally essential. According to this theory, it is hypocritical to light Shabbat candles, bless the wine, smell the sweet havdalah spices, celebrate the new moon, or cry like a baby at neilah, if you are not ready to accept the laws of mamzerut, pray for the restoration of animal sacrifice, and discriminate against random folks (women, agunot, LGBTQ, converts, liberal Jews and anybody who doesn’t look like us). This is just a fallacy, a mistake that is hurting more than helping.

More recently, while writing an article, I was trying to find a good definition of “repentance” in Judaism and I did what most of us do these days: I begun by googling the corresponding Wikipedia articles. The articles on ba’ale teshuvah stirred me and brought to my memory the story I just told you. For those of you that may not know, a ba’al teshuvah (literally “penitent” or “somebody who has repentance,” for short a “BT”) is a person who was born “legally Jewish” but never practiced, and later in life has a religious awakening and comes back to Judaism. Therefore, most of us, average committed Jews of all denominations are ba’ale teshuvah in some form or other. A number of us –born Jewish or not– has experienced the transformative miracle of discovering the richness of Judaism at a point of our lives.

The problem comes when you use the concept of ba’al teshuvah in an exclusive, discriminating way. The fact is that most people have bought into the idea that a BT is somebody who didn’t grow up Orthodox and has later adopted this denomination. If you were secular, a moderate Reform, a committed Conservative Jew, or even a Conservadox all your life and suddenly you “don the black velvet kippah” so to speak, congratulations, now you are a BT, and you are a “real Jew.” However if you were secular and then come back to any progressive way of Jewish observance, you are out of luck: you have not upgraded to BT.

On a deeper meaning, from its inception, the current use of the term BT was intended to discriminate against newbies. The auto-denominated religious will say that somebody is a BT in order to differentiate this person from an FFB, a frum from birth, somebody who is born “into families that are already religiously observant, and who have been conceived, born and raised Jewishly” (quoting the Wikipedia article). And if you are a FFB you can always go wrong and become an OTD (“off the derech”), somebody who has left Orthodox practice, no matter if he is still a very observant liberal Jew.

You see, sad as it might be, it is perfectly Ok if Orthodox people use these terms and look at the rest of us as unauthentic and fundamentally wrong. There is very little I can say or do to change their opinion. My many Orthodox friends know that we will never agree in this subject, so we just don’t bother. But why in the world should the rest of us buy into it and use these words in the same terms? I have already ranted about the need to stop using the term frum or “religious” among us to mean only “Orthodox”, which invalidates the religious experience of must of us. Maybe it is time that we become aware of this other language co-optation and stop using BT with the same implications. Then we’ll realize that the so-called BT movement is immensely bigger than what they tell us. Everywhere I turn I see people who (re-)discover in Judaism a beautiful, ages-old, moving, profound, and living wisdom. And, believe me, not all of them wear black velvet kippot.

Don’t curb your enthusiasm.

It is not a secret that the Jewish population is getting smaller and older. Much has been written on this subject and we all agree that we need to grow and we need it now. Some have even suggested we should lift the traditional ban of actively seeking converts. By this thesis, one should not only not make things impossibly difficult for candidates to conversion (we all know some contexts where this attitude is overdone ad absurdum) but rather go as far as to encourage people to explore our faith. But let’s leave this controversial subject for a future post.

Going back to the growth of Judaism, we can pinpoint many different causes of the demographic decline. For some rabbis, intermarriage is the big monster that is eating us alive. In my opinion, the trees maybe hiding the forest in this case. See, I grew up in a country whose language and culture are clearly receding. Many thinkers blame immigration and cultural intermarriage, as if the Catalan “purity” were watering down. Catalan speakers marry Spaniards and the whole family chooses Spanish as their home language, since it is always easier to favor the culture of a majority. However, it is evident that in some areas of Catalonia “culturally-mixed” families fare better than in others. A mixed family in Palma or Alacant is more prone to abandon the Catalan language in favor of Spanish than, let’s say, a family in the Garrotxa, just because in that area Catalan is more alive and enjoys better social prestige. Now back to Judaism: in a social context where Judaism is less alive, an intermarried family will be more prone to “go with the majority” and educate the kids as Christians. The culprit here is not intermarriage, but the weakening of Jewish identification. All in all, I think that it’s about lack of enthusiasm for Judaism.

As many of you know, I’m a hazzan with a bunch of part-time jobs. One of them is as a church organist. Two weeks ago I was sitting at my organ and listening to a visiting pastor. His sermon was about the church’s need to proselytize –what they call “the Great Commission”– and make disciples. His argument was simple: imagine your life without a personal relationship with Jay-Cee. How voided of meaning, joyless, purpose-deprived would it be? Now think of your relatives, friends, and coworkers who do not have that. Doesn’t it move you to action?

Allow me the somewhat-risky exercise of bringing the pastor’s argument to Judaism. Imagine your routine, your whole world without Judaism, without its ethics, life-cycle rituals, yummy food, music, and crazy idiosyncrasy. Imagine going through the week without the anticipation of Shabbat and without its rest, or going through the year without the excitement of the holidays. No shivah to comfort you, no seder to prepare for, no Purim frolic, no apples and honey for a sweet New Year. Chances are a considerable number of your Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances have a life like that. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

Some rabbis and cantors get rather angry with the so-called Kol Nidre Jews. I just find them difficult to understand. Why on earth would you choose to come to shul only once a year, and pick the day that has more fasting, impossibly-long services, and weirder rituals? (Admit it: legally declaring vows invalid and the whole avodah service have some rather peculiar tinges). It is as if they wanted a confirmation that religion is this strange, foreign, depressive thing they witness once a year. To me, the worse part is that people choose to look at their entire Jewish heritage through the prism of a “sad” penitential commemoration. Ask some non-practicing Jews: they may have no idea what Shavuot is about, but they know most details of death and mourning rituals. Why live in “Kol Nidre mode” all your life?

Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, probably the most beautiful holiday of our calendar. Talking about the exuberance of these celebration, the sages said “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Ha-Shoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 1:5). It is also the ultimate time to engage in an important mitzvah, hakhnasat orkhim, inviting people to share a meal with you. This Sukkot, make your love and enthusiasm for Judaism something contagious. Show the beauty and richness of Jewish life to those who still don’t know it, Jewish or not. Show your disaffected Jewish friends that there is so much more than fasting and long piyyutim. Show your non-Jewish friends that the external aspects of Judaism they know (all those prohibitions and picturesque attire) are nothing but a small detail in the whole dazzling picture. Let us all spend our whole year in Sukkot mode.

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.