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Just Like Last Time?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Photo courtesy of Fotolia

Everyone makes mistakes.

It’s not a performance.

Just keep going; no one is perfect.

The number of times I have offered one of these platitudes to a student must surely number in the thousands. Which is why, when telling them to myself, I found them empty. Unsatisfying. Mocking, even.

Don’t let one bad chanting get you down.

It’s in the past; let it go.

The circumstances are different; you’ll be great.

No matter what words of encouragement came to mind, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to screw up this Torah chanting like last time. Just like last time…

Each synagogue has its own minhag, its own custom, when it comes to the reading or chanting of Torah. In more traditional settings, the reader (or chanter) will be publicly corrected if he (or she) mispronounces a word. This is done out of respect for our sacred Text; each word is meant to be read the way that it is meant to be read. No variations. How this done, however, varies from place to place. In some shuls, the gabbai quietly pronounces the misspoken word and the reader goes back and says it correctly. Other places are less concerned with protecting the pride of the reader and every wisenheimer, from his seat no less, will shout out the correct pronunciation in what results in a cacophony of indistinguishable syllables.

The Reform movement has historically taken a different approach. We find a teaching in the Talmud (Baba Metzia, 58b) that states: He who publicly shames his fellow it is as though he has shed blood. Holding that shaming the reader would be considered worse than accidentally mispronouncing a word, the reader is not publicly corrected in order to prevent embarrassment. Additionally, and this applies most especially to inexperienced chanter, shouting out the correct word can completely throw the chanter off his or her game.

Now when it comes to the chant, my teacher, Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer, taught that there is no Halakhic basis for making a correction should the chanter sing the melody incorrectly.

But, as I said, every synagogue has its own customs…

I have only chanted in a Conservative synagogue two times in my life. The first time was such a disaster that it took me quite some time to recover from the experience. And to make it worse, that disaster was at the aufruf of JockBro and Syl.

Parashat Chukat. I had carefully and lovingly prepared my reading. I knew that portion. I knew that portion backwards, frontwards, upside-down. I had been working it over and over again. I did a practice read from the scroll the day prior to Shabbat. My confidence was not misplaced.

I was not the only reader that Sabbath morn. Nor was I the only reader to make mistakes. I was, however, the only out-of-town reader. And while the other readers’ mistakes went uncorrected, my reading was singled out for any misstep of word, melody, or even properly stated words. It was humiliating. And I felt as though I had embarrassed my brother in front of his soon-to-be makheteyneste.

Fast forward three years: I have been asked to chant one of the aliyot at the Bat Mitzvah service of one of PC’s cousins. Parashat Re’eh. It is a long section. I spend no less than five weeks preparing the reading.

I was not the only reader that Shabbat morn either. I was preceded by the father of the Bat Mitzvah. He’s Israeli. With a mesmerizing Yemenite trope.

It is my turn. And it is nothing like last time.


Remembe(RED) is a memoir meme. This week’s prompt was a fill-in-the-blank-for-your-own-prompt Prompt:
The first time I ________-ed after _________-ing. In order to keep it tightly written, a limit of 600 words. Mine came in at 598. It was not my intention to write about Torah chanting so soon after my post from two weeks ago. However, memoir prompts take us where THEY want us to go. Six years after that disastrous reading and I still feel the sting of humility. As always, constructive criticism is welcomed!

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 5:38 am

    About 18 months ago I was invited to be a speaker for a Conservative synagogue’s “Sisterhood Shabbat.” In my hometown. A talk/discussion on Friday night and a sermon on Shabbat morning. Plus I was invited to read an aliyah of Torah. I prepared about 600 times more for the darn Torah reading than I did for the speeches! Thank goodness the Torah reading was before the sermon or I never would have gotten through the speech.

    And then there is chanting Torah in front of the Cincinnati HUC crowd…oy. I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it must be in NY. 🙂

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 July 2011 8:41 pm

      Yeah. NY was tough.

  2. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 9:55 am

    I especially appreciate how much preparation goes into your readings/chantings. Preparation is something I am working on in my own life–leaving enough time to do the important things well, versus half-fast efforts in too many areas.

    I can’t help but wonder if your “disastrous” reading was merely the result of a New York crowd unfamiliar with you, or if your physical beauty also played a part. I don’t much like the discrimination (since the others who made mistakes were not called out), regardless of the reason(s).

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 July 2011 8:43 pm

      It so happens that this was NOT a NY crowd. Discrimination did seem to play a factor.

      (And thanks for the compliment, though I can’t imagine my physical appearance being much of a distraction.)

  3. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 10:33 am

    I layned Torah every Yom Kippur for about 28 years. Got to be so “good” at it that I didn’t have to look- I could just do it.

    About five years ago I walked up, said the blessing before and started chanting. About four words in I looked down and discovered that the scroll was in the wrong place and had to stop. Got all sorts of commentary from people who thought that I was nervous and had frozen.

    ‘Gabbai’ who stood six feet behind kept trying to ‘help’ by prompting me with words. Good times that.

  4. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 10:57 am

    I truly feel for you!! I can’t imagine having people shout out my mistakes. I might be tempted to shout back. Humbling! You have some guts!!

  5. Galit Breen permalink
    Tuesday, 21 June 2011 1:30 pm

    You brought me right back to twelve, and practicing-learning-perfecting-performing. You my darling? Are STRONG. XO

  6. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 1:42 pm

    Talk about pressure! I commend you for getting up and speaking again. I don’t know if I would be so brave.

  7. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 5:47 pm

    I love reading your posts not just because they are generally very well written, but because I love the glimpse into a religious tradition so different from my own.
    I appreciate that all the terminology is intact here, not dummed-down in case a gentile like me stops by.
    One tiny typo: THROW the chanter off, not through the chanter off 🙂

    I love to add diversity to my stories, and I’ve been toying with idea of having the MC in one be Jewish. I just don’t feel like I could do the character justice… yet… with my current knowledge.
    It’s something to explore.

    I did the prompt this week, but mine turned out kinda boring. But if you do visit me, I’d love to get a Rabbi’s opinion on my other blog post today about holidays in Science Fiction! http://wp.me/p1qnT4-ck

    And I hope the spam-detector doesn’t get mad at me for putting a link in a comment lol!

  8. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 7:17 pm

    I’m so impressed with anyone who gets up there and chants or reads or whatever. I don’t love the idea of correcting, HOWEVER, I do like the idea that the text and the community studying/hearing the text is more significant than the individual. Sometimes we put too much importance on the individual, like the crazy bar/bat mitzvahs. I like how in certain shuls the bar/bat mizvah student is not the star of the service. He/she is folded into the already existing Shabbat community that God-willing thrives with or without his/her participation that day. The message to the child being–this isn’t all about YOU. It’s about YOU becoming part of THIS.

    Don’t you love when I start sounding like a raving madwoman on your blog.

    Great posts! Great posts inspire commentary. 😉

  9. Tuesday, 21 June 2011 8:08 pm

    I would have been so embarrassed to be publicly corrected like that.

    I do, however, love the concern and care to make each word just right. To give each word the same level of importance. That is awesome.

  10. Wednesday, 22 June 2011 3:39 am

    I prefer to think of it the Gabbai’s support as helping, not correcting. in other words, every one of us agrees that the goal is to read it perfectly, and everyone of us knows that no one is perfect, so the team on the bimah works together to achieve that goal. obviously, it’s harder to frame shouters from the kehillah that way.

  11. Wednesday, 22 June 2011 9:21 am

    Wow, that would be so difficult! Thank you for sharing. I thought you did an excellent job. The only thing is that since I’m new to your site I wasn’t familiar with some of the text like “aufruf of JockBro and Syl”. I love that the ending was so confidently positive! So glad it went well the second time. 🙂

  12. Crys permalink
    Wednesday, 22 June 2011 3:32 pm

    I remember you being nervous about that and couldn’t understand why. Ah ha.. now I get it! It was beautiful!

  13. Jockbro permalink
    Thursday, 23 June 2011 7:36 am

    As the person (or half of the couple) whom you honored by participating in our aufruf I can definitively say you were–and are–a blessing. Your beautiful chanting not only added to our joy, but made us proud. And, as with most situations like this, the person who errs remembers it far more clearly (if at all) than the rest of us.

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