Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Shlomo Carlebach and company show me the way—a milestone in the life of a late-learner

This is a two-fer—you get two for the price of one.

Which, in this case, means that you might want to read this post first.

Not having had the benefit of a Jewish day school education, I haven’t quite mastered the art of speed-davvening because I simply can’t read Hebrew quickly enough. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea. What’s the point in praying so quickly that you don’t have time to think about what you’re saying?

There was a time, years ago, when, like many people, I would come into the synagogue and ask what page we were on, then fight to keep up with the chazzan (cantor). It took me quite a while to learn that that’s not the point. It’s more important to say a whole prayer than to skip half of it just to keep up. So what if I’m not on the same page as everyone else?

So how do I choose what to pray? Well, once I got to the point at which I was even interested in going beyond the matbéah shel tefillah (roughly, the core, required part of a service, which consists, to the best of my knowledge, of the brachot (blessings) before the Sh’ma, the Sh’ma itself, the brachot after the Sh’ma, and the Amidah (prayer recited while standing), I started asking questions. “You should say at least Ashré before the matbéah, and at least one prayer, preferably Alénu, afterword,” said a former rabbi. Fine. "What should I add if I have more time?" “You should add Baruch She-amar and Yishtabach,” said my husband. “If you have more time, you should add Hallelukah, hallelu kél b’kodsho” (Psalm 150). “You should add the verses after Baruch She-amar,” said the aforementioned rabbi. “With due respect, Rabbi, if I’m going to learn more prayers, I’d much rather learn a whole psalm than two pages of random verses." “Then add Hallelukah, hallelu min hashamayim” (Psalm 148).

And there my davvening stayed, for quite a while.

Eventually, I resigned myself to learning pages of random verses. First, there was U’va L’tzion goel/V’atah kadosh yoshev t’hillot yisrael. Then came Baruch Hashem l’olam, amen v’amen. I even learned a nice chunk of Tachanun, despite not being big on guilt-tripping.

I never did get around to learning those random verses after Baruch She-amar, though, aside from the last paragraph or so that includes Ki vo yishmach libeinu.

The hyperlink directly above brings me to my point.

Which is that, of the prayers and/or biblical quotes included as part of various services that I choose to say, probably about a quarter of them include words that I’ve learned from songs, be they nusach (traditional prayer melodies), Jewish folk music, Jewish rock, or choir music (which is why I first started reciting Hallelukah, hallelu kél b’kodsho, Psalm 146—I stumbled upon it one day, and realized that I knew the words because I knew a gorgeous four-part version of that psalm by the great Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi).

And therein lies my last Elul story.

One fine day, sometime this past Elul, I finally made a connection without help for the first time in my life. Even my husband had never made the connection.

There I was, saying Elokai n’tzor—which I used to skip, until I heard Mark’s song (yep, it’s in the radio blog—just keep scrolling)—when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d heard similar words before.

So I finished davvening through the end of the post-Amidah “closing verses” and turned back in the siddur (prayerbook).

And, sure enough, there were those words, in the middle of Psalm 34.

David haMelech (King David) said, “N’tzor l’shoncha méra, u-s’fatecha midaber mirmah, Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.”

And, generations later, a writer of prayers echoed those words when he wrote the prayer that we recite to end the Amidah, “Elokai, n’tzor l’shoni méra, u-s'fatai midaber mirmah, My G-d, guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully.”

The tradition continues to this very day.

Just as David haMelech wrote words of praise, and our prayer-writing ancestor followed in his footsteps, so, today, does one generation of songwriters after another sing of Hashem’s ways.

And so, Shlomo Carlebach wrote a song, “Mi ha-ish,” which includes the words "N’tzor l’shoncha méra, u-s’fatecha midaber mirmah".

And a generation or two later, Mark Skier wrote a song beginning with the words "“Elokai, n’tzor l’shoni méra, u-s'fatai midaber mirmah.”

I'd like to thank the chazzan of my previous shul (synagogue). He made it a practice to lead us in chanting responsively, in Hebrew, at just about every Shabbat and holiday service, at least one psalm that had a song in the middle, leading us in the song, then leading us in chanting the rest of the psalm. It's thanks to him that I choose to davven Psalm 19, which has the song Torah Adoshem T'mimah in the middle, and it's because of him that I also choose to davven Psalm 34—which has Carlebach's Mi ha-ish in the middle.

If it hadn't been for the fact that I knew Psalm 34, I would never have made this connection.

Thanks to my former chazzan, to the late, great Shlomo Carlebach, and to Mark for helping me learn—and for making learning such a joy.


Blogger Maya Resnikoff said...

That quote is also directly from the text of one of the Psalms traditionally said Shabbat morning. It's a long one, and it took me several years of "I'll read as much as I can, and try and get something out of that bit, and move on when the congregation moves on" before I could get through the whole thing. But that's where the full text of Carlbach's tune is from.

I'm the child of a member of the choir myself- so I too am familiar with Rossi, and shall second your opininon.

Tue Nov 22, 08:17:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yep, Psalm 34 is a long one, alright. It took me forever to learn it, too, debka_notion.

May I assume by your name that you're also a folk dancer?

Tue Nov 22, 08:30:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Rahel Jaskow said...

Shlomo Carlebach wrote a tune for "Mi ha-Ish"? Wow! I'd love to hear it.

The tune I know that's been around for ages was written by a man named Baruch Chait. It was recorded (in Israel) by Shuly Nathan together with Nehama Hendel and also by Hava Alberstein, among others.

Thu Dec 15, 05:57:00 PM 2005  

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