Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Carlebach Slichos?

I went away with a nice group of people this past weekend to a retreat center, not for a retreat per se, but for a nice weekend in the country. The food was good, the davening good, the environment and cultural opportunities wide, and the people nice for the most part. We went to see a Shakespeare play an hour away. I might have liked to go see a chamber group nearby, but as I'm Mr Mourner this year, I can't go to concerts, or so it seems.

"Now, I don't want to go off onto a rant here" (tm), but the First Slichos was a miracle of misunderestimation.

The chazan announced it would be a mix of Carlebach and traditional. So far, so good. This group likes (a modicum of) Carlebach tunes, and the gabbai (who I think had planned this) is a big fan. The rabbi had concluded his speech at the campfire beforehand, with a wish that we all go with joy into the Selichos, which should be said out of joy. Huh? Pleas for forgiveness and an answer to our prayers are joyous? Um, OK.

The (kiruv-professional guest) rabbi's little talks until that point, during davening & whatnot, had been a bit puerile, as if he were talking to a kiruv shabbaton of teens & twenties, rather than a collection of 30s-50s adults, either singles or families, already established in O communities. But OK, he's out of his element, that's what he's used to saying, so that's how he conducts himself.

The first danger sign was in Ashrei, when the rabbi took out the guitar and started playing along with the group-sing of Ashrei. At which point Debbie stomped out of the guitar mass, as she called it (she taught in a Catholic school for a year). I was thinking - wait - there are 3-4 aveilim here among the men, and I don't know if any among the women, and you're... playing guitar? to be simchadig? at ... slichos? You're forcing us to choose between saying slichos with a minyan, and keeping to our mourning regulations. And there isn't another minyan for 40 miles, so there's no real choice. Sigh. OK.

Kaddish to another Carlebach tune, verses, concluding with more Carlebach for Haneshamah Lach, and we come to the first piyut. It's a cheery one, full of death and gloom, how they kill us in every generation, and the remnant left is full of sin, how can we carry on, when will You save us, etc. So of course, it gets a cheery Carlebach tune, I think one of the Lecha Dodi's. He tries for majestic, by slowing it down at the beginning, which sorta works, but speeds up after a couple of lines, and we're singing Yay, yay, gloom and doom, yippee. more or less. This leads to more grumbling. I start walking around, looking at the other people davening, is anyone else having this big negative reaction?

He does some Carlebach tunes for the Thirteen Attributes intro (You who taught us the covenant of Thirteen,...), but comes to some approximation of the traditional tune for the actual Attributes. Carlebach for some of the shorter verses passages, falling into the common Carlebach failing of the tune ends here, but it's the middle of a sentence or even of a phrase, but so what, this is when the tune ends and we have to start the next verse-tune in the middle of a sentence.

Walking around, and muttering to a neighbor from my home shul, this just doesn't seem right, it's falling into all the complaints I hear about Carlebach - it's shlepped out too long; if the words don't fit the tune phrasing, the words lose out; and the tune doesn't bear any relationship to the words.

By the time we got into the second piyut, I could see that almost none of the men were getting into this guitar mass, the other mourners were annoyed by the guitar, people weren't singing along (except for some of the women who were getting into it more). Several of us went stomping up to the gabbai, to make it clear that we found the Carlebach stuff distracting, and the gabbi, the chazan & the rabbi quickly tried to shift to traditional more-mumbly tunes. Of course, the chazan was flustered by the shift, he had clearly prepared hard for this, and had trouble reorienting his head and voice into the traditional tunes. If it were me, being forced to change gears like that, I probably would have thrown a fit, and stomped out. He handled it with remarkable grace.

We went along like that for a while, through the pizmon which got a Carlebach tune without guitar, but one which fit reasonably well. Zechor rachamecha, more mumbling through verses, then we come to Shma Koleinu. The rabbi introduced it as a time to be thankful for the good in our lives, for what God has given us in the past year. This further dented my impression of the rabbi's understanding of prayer. Shma Koleinu is a desperate cry for help, for Divine aid, mercy, energy. Do not send us away in old age, do not take away your Holy spirit, hear our cries. Long aneinu paragraphs, one with a tune and the guitar, leading into prostration and the end.

By the end, I was thinking of the two leaders as "the comedy duo of the rabbi and the chazan."

At least it was over about 2:00, having started about 12:45. A quick workmanlike version takes about 0:45, and our local baal tefillah still manages to inspire, by choosing appropriate tunes, and understanding what he's saying.

The next morning, I apologized to the chazan for the congregation's having pushed him into changing gears, forcing him to get flustered. He responded that "in Riverdale, you go, you expect the Carlebach slichos to take 2:15 hours, elsewhere it takes 1:15". Yes, but in Riverdale or most communities where you have the choice to go to a Carlebach minyan, you also have the choice to go elsewhere. Here, it was the only game in town. And musical accompaniment at an Orthodox service, while not forbidden by any means, is definitely out of the ordinary.

It seems to me, that Carlebach wrote hundreds if not thousands of tunes, most pretty simple, and in many different moods. It shouldn't be impossible to select tunes that actually follow the mood of the words, to find ways to incorporate uneven verses into a rhythmic tune, etc. The traditional tunes usually manage it.

On the other hand, if there is one part of the year whose moods are evoked by the use of traditional (Misinai, they are called, if not literally from much earlier than the 1300s) tunes, it is the High Holidays. There is a positive value to using (mostly) traditional tunes for the Yamim Nora'im. It's not just a default position.

I was just so furious during and after the service, that they had made a mockery out of the start of the liturgical teshuvah season. They seemed to ignore the principles of my teachers which guide my approach to leading prayers:

1) from Rabbi H. Lookstein from his father, "Interpret the words." The tune must amplify the meaning of the prayer, not ignore it.

2) from Cantor Goffin, "My guideline is MODE, MOOD, & MIN HAKODESH."

How am I led to greater teshuva by starting out mad at the liturgical leaders, who only thought they were doing a nice thing?