Sunday, October 18, 2009

2 in 1: Shul-Hopping and Piyyut of The Week

While my writing has been a bit sporadic between the holidays (which were very joyous but also tiring), I was moved to share one of my favorite shulhopping experiences, which I took for the second time with my friend Jonah this past shabbat. Although I have been davening at Hillel a lot over the past year, it would be a shame to not take advantage of the diversity of synagogues and Minyanim in Manhattan, and it's always nice to share it with a friend.
Though I had been there once before at the end of last summer, I returned with Jonah to Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which has the distinction of being the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, founded by the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam in 1654 after being forced to leave the Colony of Recife, Brazil. The congregation was founded by and still counts most of its membership among Western Sefardim, those who were expelled from Spain (and later Portugal), whose descendants who remained in the West found havens in the Netherlands, and later England and the Americas. I fell in love with the service because of the beauty in every aspect of its orchestration - the sanctuary, one of the most stunning in the country (with a marble Bimah/Ark, golden doors, and Tiffany windows, just to start), unique liturgy and melodies, and the decorum that is unparalleled in most communities of any background.
While last year's visit was also special (and had an amazing extended kiddush for a 95th birthday), I was told that i had to come back on another shabbat when the synagogue's choir would be singing.
When Jonah and I arrived for the start of services at 8:15, there were very few people there, owing to the fact that Birkot Hashachar and Zemirot (known as P'sukei D'zimra by Ashkenazim) take about an hour, and many choose to arrive at some point before shacharit begins. When I attended last time, one of the congregants expaine their custom that one may sit when the Hechal (ark) is open, but that was towards the end of the service. This week, the golden Hechal doors were opened at Barukh Sheamar, early in the service, and the Sifrei Torah were decked out with a rainbow of covers, as opposed to the usual red velvet - based on instructions the siddur, I deduced that it was a Consecration Shabbat, when special features are added to the service in honor of the dedication of one of the Congregation's buildings. After Az Yashir was sung aloud (to a melody that would be familiar to anyone who grew up at Ramah or USY), the Rabbi (whose job is somewhat interchangeable with the Hazzan's at Shearith Israel), arose to the Tebah (reader's desk), and proceeded to lead to congregation in a special piyyut for the Consecration Shabbat known as a reshut, in which the worshippers poetically introduce and ask permission to recite Nishmat, a prayer recited in all tradition on Shabbat and Festivals, describing how 'all living creatures will praise God's name.' Interestingly, dozens of reshuyot, poems written to introduce Nishmat exist, but most have fallen out of use, especially among Ashkenazim. One such Reshut, Tzam'a Nafshi, was originally composed to be recited at this point in the service on Shemini Atzeret, and has instead become a popular zemer sung at the Shabbat table. In this particular Reshut, T'hilot l'el Chai, the author approaches God in reverence and joy ready to worship God, appropriate for its use on a Shabbat of dedication.
Since I couldn't find a recording or lyrics to the poem online (possibly signifying that it is unique to the small Western Sefardi community), I scanned it from the Hebrew English Western Sefardic Siddur (choosing to write my own translation, with no disrespect to the poetic one by Dr. David De Sola Pool), and record the first few verses. Again, the melody was shockingly familiar, and I imagine that others will recognize it as well.

Thanks to God and sweet smelling incense
- The praise of the souls of all living creatures.

You name, Adonai our God, Shall be forever blessed, Our king
- And the spirit of all living flesh, The praise of the souls of all living creatures.

Do not look to my trangressions, and do not remember my iniquities
-And I will sing my songs of praise, The praise of the souls of all living creatures.

Be raised high and acclaimed, King who sits on an exalted throne.
-To you I will give all of my praises, The praise of the souls of all living creatures.

Through this, bring us out of exile, and be quick to fulfill the word of Your prophet,
-To annoint the son of Jesse, with the thanks of the souls of all living creatures.

Bring us to Your [holy] city, and reestablish Your Temple,
-There I will offer my sacrifices, and there I will sing Nishmat Kol Chai.

After the rabbi returned to his seat on the bench in the center Bimah (see above photo), I was (pleasantly) awoken as choir began to chant Nishmat from a loft above the Hechal. As with the rest of the service they sang without any microphones, but Jonah noticed a vent intuitively built into the wall which carried the sound down to the main floor. Unlike in the Ashkenazi cantorial/choral tradition, the choir does not really chant any extended 'pieces', but chants the lines of service in a back and forth (antiphony) with the congregation and leader, with many lines sung in a call and response. After taking the Music Humanities course at Columbia last semester, I have a greater appreciation for the baroque style of the Western Sefardi Nusah, with its greater proportion of singing in a major key than Ashkenazi Nusah.
As with last time, I again enjoyed the rest of the service, with the beauty of the pomp and circumstance which raises Tefilah to a new level (though I still enjoy more infomal davening as well). It was amazing to think during the prayer for the country (which was followed by the prayer for Israel), that a version of this prayer has been recited by the forebears of these congregants since the founding of the country in 1776, before which a prayer was surely recited for the Dutch and British monarchies, respectively. A hallmark of Shearith Israel's tradition is that each man who receives an honor, including the boy who held the bells which adorn the Torah, must wear a hat of some sort, whether it is a bowler, top-hat, or the special cap worn by the clergy. Even the announcements have a liturgical plasce in the order of the service, as they are marked in the siddur following the blessing of the new month (or the Haftarah blessings), after which the Rabbi/Hazzan intones the verse, יהי חסדך ה' עלינו כאשר יחלנו לך 'May God's grace be upon us as we have placed our trust in Him,' signifying the hope that the community's activities are in accordance with God's will. Although the entire service was recited in Hebrew (and mostly aloud, as the Musaf Amidah was recited by the entire congregation with the Hazzan, there being no silent devotion), I was again fascinated by the Hazzan preceding the recitiation of Kiddush with Isaiah 58:13-14 in English. While I would like to learn more about this custom, my guess is that it is an old tradition, as the congregation's leaders directly appeal to them to honor and keep the Sabbath holy as they return home from the synagogue.
I look forward to my next visit Shearith Israel, as well as other Congregations in Manhattan and beyond which I hope to experience. I hope that others will join me in the fine tradition of shulhopping, experiencing how Jewish communities hailing from around the world and expressing a variety of beliefs, give meaning and honor to the act of worshiping God.

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