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

Posts tagged ‘worship’

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!”

 

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Reenactments of death: Kippur, prostration and judgment day

I scribbled this post right after Yom Kippur but then I told myself that all this talk about death was just not too coherent with the happy Sukkot season we were about to enter. Today, when we approach the end of the Tishri frenzy, some shocking and very sad news brought the subject back to my mind: two days ago my graduate-school friend Cantor Jason Goldberg passed away of a sudden heart attack at age 34. May his memory be a blessing.

 

While leading Yom Kippur services this year, I was meditating on what I call the Kippur reenactment of death. This is a very strange holiday, with ancient and a little obscure rituals. If you think about it, the whole idea of Kippur is to play dead. Many of the details prescribed by the ritual correspond to a metaphoric death: like the deceased, on Yom Kippur we wear a white kittel and no leather shoes. All of our attire is white, the color of purity and that of shrouds. Just like the dead, we don’t eat, drink or have sex, all actions that define the quotidian of living beings. We are, in a way, like the angels of Service, spending the whole day in prayer and praise to Ha-Shem.

 

It is not by chance that this day is also named yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, because that is what we actually enact. Think of U-netane Tokef and its words: this day is full of awe and terrible, a time to come in front of the divine presence. The Book is opened and our destiny is now sealed: who will live and who will die, how exactly will the dead perish, who shall prosper and who shall not. A mighty shofar is blasted, but only a still small voice comes out, calling us to teshuvah. At that time of the day, I can’t avoid thinking of those who are aged or sick. I wonder how many will not be here next year for Kippur. It hurts to imagine that Jason may have had a similar thought when he sung that same dirge-like melody some weeks ago, with his limpid tenor voice, for what would be the last time of his life. Death –and even more when it is untimely and sudden– always falls on us with the cold shine of a knife.

 

One of the strangest aspects of the High Holidays, and particularly of Kippur, is the ritual prostration. Jews do not ordinarily kneel or prostrate when praying but we have this one time when we do. It is a humbling and deeply spiritual experience that –unlike some people think– it is not reserved to clergy. Next year, give it a try and you’ll tell me! I read somewhere that the prostration in itself is another reenactment of death: instead of falling flat at once, we slowly bow down, kneel and move to a full prostration. We are slowly breaking down and dying, falling back to mother earth’s womb. However, we are in front of the King, who has the power to raise the death, so lifne Melekh we suddenly raise back to life, like the earth revives in its cycle of seasons.

 

I am not an anthropologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of prostration are in fact reenactments of death. Bowing down and prostrating to the sun is probably the oldest form of human worship, as if our ancestors where telling the sun: “ we acknowledge that you are very powerful, that you give life to the plants and that you even can burn us to death if left in the desert for some time; see? just one stare from you and we drop dead!” Since the tribal king –as later the pharaoh– was often a personification of the sun, it comes as no surprise that the ancients begun to bow down to him as well. Many ancient religions –and even modern Islam– have fasts that last only as long as there is daylight. Somehow, maybe they “play dead” so that the solar god don’t see them “alive and eating”.

 

Wherever we look in the Yom Kippur machzor, there are constant reminders of the metaphoric death. There is a Yizkor service, probably the central one in the year. We have a long recitation about Jewish martyrs in history –modernly including those of the Shoah– with very graphic details of their death. A number of times we repeat piyyutim like be-yom din. Finally, there are a number of confessions: remember that the vidui is not only something we recite several times on Yom Kippur but also the prayer we are supposed to say at the time of our death. This text not only permeates the viduim of the Avodah service, but also many other places such as the end of Neilah.

 

And yet, Yom Kippur is a reenactment of death so that we can enjoy another year of life. No matter how we feel, life goes on. By “playing dead” in a way we try to conjure death once again. At the end of Neilah the mighty shofar blasts loud and clear, a sharp contrast with the shofar described in U-netane Tokef, and we respond with relief and with joy, already making plans to celebrate it in Jerusalem, next year. May we all indeed be there to celebrate.