Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Music for the holiday

Take a poll, and I bet you'll find most people agree that the music is the best part of the YN davening. When we speak of a meaningful or spiritual Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, what we usually mean is that the chazan did a good job with the song selection and that the crowd participated in a manner we found enjoyable. Conversely, when we complain that the service felt flat, we usually mean that the chazan chose lousy tunes or that the congregation took the day off.

Previously, I thought this was all well and good. Now I think its something of an indictment of our generation. Now all our singing seems like a defense mechanism, because when we're humming along with the chazan we're not reading the prayer-poems or letting their words touch our hearts and minds. Those who sit studying while the rest of us pray are hiding from the piyutim in the same way. And, yes, I know the piyutim were originally written to be sung, or chanted, but not antiphonally in the style of the modern shteeble. An 11th century Jew would not have oi-boy-boyed a melody while the reader sang; he'd have sung along. (‪#‎irony‬ singing along is now called "modern")

On the other hand, my theory is that the piyutim were originally written to make the services more enjoyable, that is they originally served a secular purpose. In ye days of old members of all faiths and creeds seemed to have honestly enjoyed reading and reciting long, elaborate poems. Both Catholic and Muslim piyutim exist, and they share important characteristics with our poems. So allowing the piyutim to continue to entertain us may not be such a terrible idea. Just know that once upon a time, the ideas contained in the poem, as well as the skill and talent that went into its composition, seem to have been as much a part of the entertainment package as the melody.

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