Thursday, December 11, 2008

Venice, Italy and Nusach Carelbach --

So two weeks ago I ended up in Venice, Italy for Shabbat (long story and largely irrelevant to the Nusach blog). Naturally, I avoided davening with the Chabadnikim given the chance to daven with the Italians. The Italian minyan actually followed a hybrid nusach of 90% Spanish & Portuguese and 10% Minhag Roma...and it was gorgeous.

Now here's what I don't get. Go into any random Ashkenazi modern Orthodox shul where there is no chazzan and you will get baal habatim doing the davening/leining. Invariably, one of the following things happens:

1. The chazzan will not only be unable to carry a tune but will have no idea of what he's reading evidenced by the rediculously bad phrasing and dikduk.

2. The nusach will be butchered or at a minimum, the chazzan will lose the nusach for a few workds here or there (for instance, when switching to shabbat nusach at the end of kedusha of mincha)

3. The baal koreh will get most of the pasha right but a few taamim will be missed and the occaisonal mistake will be made resulting in the entire shul screaming out the correct pronounciation. It's one reason why many people go to shul...(Hey Yanki, want to go to shul with Tatty to play heckle and correct the baal koreh?)

In contrast, between Kabbalat Shabbat, Arvit, Zemirot (Pesukei d'Zimra), Shacharit, Kriat Hatorah, Musaf and Mincha not a single mistake was made. There is no formal chazzan in the shul ---Friday night an Israeli (temani) transplant to Venice was the Shat"z and there was literally not a note different than what is done on a Friday night at Shearith Israel in New York. More surprisingly, Shacharit was led by a kid who looked no older than 22 or 23, did not exactly look yeshivesh (more Italian, fresh out of an espresso bar in Milano look), a typical Venetian local yokal, and his chazzaning was perfect --- everything was said out loud and his dikduk, nusach and transitions between the nusachy and singy bits were 100% perfect.

This is not the first time I have been overwhelmed by how importnant attention to detail is in sephardi batei knesset. Why is it that Ashkenazi tephilot don't come out the same way? Is it somethig in how the kids are educated?

This past shabbat, back in Israel, the shatz in my local shul used Carlebach. Being tired after a long (boring) work week and an even longer Friday getting ready for Shabbat, I had little patience for awkward Kabbalat Shabbat dancing (c'mon, you know what I'm talkign about) and 25 minutes of ny ny ny ny ny....Luckily, my 2-year old, who had spent all of Kabbalat Shabbat next to me happily munching on a candy had had enough and after Lechad Dodi insisted we go home. I was happy to oblige. On the way home it dawned on me why Sephardi (and paticularly Western Sephardi) and Yekke batei knesset have such a different character than the run of the mill Ashkenazi batei knesset and especially those that allow nusach Carlebach now and again:

It's all about philosophy of prayer --- and how we view our tephillot (avodah shebalev) as a replacement for the avodah in the mikdash.

If we are focused on creating a tekes or formal ceremony to take the place of a very formalized (and I imagine a largely unemotional avoda that was conducted in the mikdash) we will try to develop a tephilla that is focused on perfection --- nothing can be off. Everything like the ancient avoda istelf must be done in a formalized manner with pomp and circumstance (l'chavod u'litipharet?) . Of course, as part of this formalized process, we need to speak out to God.
The idea of ny ny nying and dancing in shul seems very out of place according to this philosophy.

On the other hand if we are to focus on reaching out to God via a spiritual experience (focusing on the shebalev part of avodah shebalev) than we don't have to worry about little mistakes in our nusach or for that matter, our didkduk --- the important thing is too get the vibe going....Clearly, chassidut has a strong influence on the latter school of thought.

There is no right or wrong here...just different approaches. Personally, I grew up in that more formal environment and therefore, I find the ny ny nying and dancing in shul thing very foreign and even more so because it is often accompanied by poor nusach/dikduk. However, I do love beautiful singing (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi) ...and I am quick to get a spiritual high from nicely sung davening (with multi part harmony of course) and this helps me to focus my tephillot to the Almighty.

Enough shtuyot...back to work.
Shabbat Shalom

Nusach Man

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