Archive for November, 2010

A Bar Mitzvah That Misses the Point

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Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibbur – Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community

 

Rabbi Hillel, a great teacher who lived from approximately 30 BCE until 10 CE, taught us one of the most important precepts of our faith, “Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibbur – Do Not Separate Yourselves from the Community.” Community is central to Jewish faith. Although we can pray alone, we can’t say some of our most important prayers without being in the presence of 10 other Jews – a minyan. We can study unaccompanied, but tradition teaches us that we won’t learn as well or as much as we would studying in hevrutah with a partner. In fact the Hebrew word for synagogue is not, as one might expect, “Beit HaT’fillah” – a house of prayer, but rather “Beit HaK’nesset” – a house of gathering. As central as prayer is to our faith, community is its cornerstone.

This week the New York Times published an article entitled “Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web” about how modern technologies such as Skype are making it possible for students to prepare for Bar/Bat Mitzvah without the “expense” and “time commitments” of joining a congregation.

The article documented a new approach to Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation that completely defeats the purpose of this life-cycle passage.  Becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah means that you transition to adulthood in the Jewish community. This comes with privileges and responsibilities, almost all of which take place within the context of and in the presence of other Jews. A newly minted Bar or Bat Mitzvah counts in a minyan (a quorum of ten people required for prayer), can recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (which can only be said in the presence of a minyan), can lead others in prayer, and can read from the Torah. At Temple Beth Torah, they are welcome to take part in our adult choir and to sit on synagogue committees. What does it mean to mark this rite of passage if it doesn’t imply a change of communal status? How does studying for twelve hours over the internet compare with studying for a minimum of three years in a classroom with peers and five to ten months in a room with your cantor or rabbi?teacher

While studying with students for B’nei Mitzvah, I connect with them about matters of importance.  We discuss faith and we learn methods for studying that serve them for the rest of their lives. Sitting with them one on one, I sometimes discover learning disabilities that had gone previously undiagnosed.  We build what will hopefully become a lifelong relationship of trust with their clergy.  

I have no objection to the use of technology in teaching.  In fact, I am known in my community for my extensive use of all different kinds of online resources.  But studying solely online is incomplete.  There is no relationship.  You can’t learn to be a good football player, for example, by looking up football on Wikipedia.  You can know every rule there is, but you will never understand what it means to be a member of the team until you play the sport.  Without a good coach you may also find it difficult to reach your full potential.  There is simply no substitute for the special time that students spend in person, one on one with their Rabbi and/or Cantor.

The article argues that students today are accustomed to experiencing community online, but other articles in the same newspaper bemoan that very fact and the great many things that are lost to us when we forget to communicate person to person, face to face.  To quote the Jewish Educator at our Temple, Juliet Barr, “I find it shocking that, in an age when people are craving real community, the New York Times would praise a practice that encourages and promotes the synthetic cyber community in which our children are already quite deeply ensconced.”

Teacher In ClassroomAnd what about all those years of Hebrew school? Students in our school make Jewish friends and form Jewish community which they don’t get in public school. After their Bar/Bat Mitzvah they are given the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah at the simcha of their friends. They learned together, they studied together, and now they mark their adulthood by celebrating together.

My Rabbi, Rabbi Brian Beal said: “It’s unfortunate that there are people who believe that they can circumvent the need for community, acculturation and communal education by taking the expedient, less expensive way of educating a child for Bar Mitzvah. I think it reduces the Bar Mitzvah to the equivalent of learning one’s lines for a school play and puts the emphasis on the party and celebration. Those are not the values to which Reform Judaism aspires.”

The article touts this idea as a response to the rising cost of synagogue membership. Yes, joining a congregation is expensive. Why? Because, to one of the Rabbis referenced in the article, “Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation.”

People want there to be a congregation in their town. They want there to be a Rabbi and a Cantor available to them for times of celebration and in moments of need. But, because they aren’t all willing to contribute the necessary funds to support building, staff, and school, the task is left to the few to shoulder the burden of the many.  Those who want to fulfill the mitzvah, “v’shinantam l’vanecha – you shall teach it to your children” end up paying a higher amount because of those who opt out in favor of programs like the one described in the Times article, paying Rabbis and Cantors a la carte for weddings, funerals, and now B’nei Mitzvah rather than supporting and being a part of a community.

Imagine if everyone in the United States who did not have children decided that they didn’t need to pay taxes to support the public school system. Those who did have children would have to pay a mighty high tax. It is indeed a sad state of affairs. But just as with public schools, the solution is not to abandon the model altogether! Most synagogues will offer assistance to those who cannot afford to pay dues. In our community, families are never turned away for financial reasons.

The only time when I believe that lessons over Skype and long distance B’nei Mitzvah preparation make sense are when a family does not live within driving distance of a congregation. In this case only, I can see this service offering something of value to these families. But it is a shadow of the community that they could have. For those who do have a synagogue nearby, well, there’s just nothing like the real thing.

101115_152212They say it takes a village to raise a child.  This is no less true for a Jewish child.  Every decision that we make regarding the lives of our families in the Jewish community sends a message to our children.  When we live in a community with a synagogue and therefore have other options, yet we choose to go the “cheap” route for B’nei Mitzvah, depriving our children of meaningful relationships with clergy, with Jewish peers, and with other Jewish role models, we tell our children that their heritage is not worth their time or their money.  At the end of their B’nei Mitzvah, we have produced mostly illiterate Jews with no community, little sense of history, and no reason to ever step foot in a synagogue again.  Where then will our Temples be in twenty years?  Where will they be in fifty?  Online? 

Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur – Do not separate yourselves from the community, or surely there will be no community left to join.

Someone Caught a Video!

This is the piece that is partially in Latin and partially in Hebrew. It’s an amateur recording caught on a phone or something, but it gives a good basic idea. Congratulations to Cantor Contzius on the composition of such a beautiful, ground breaking piece!

Il Vaticano

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So, I know that you are all wondering-what about the pope.  He didn’t make it to the concert, clearly.  How about the papal audience?  Most of our trip benefits were arranged through Cardinal Keeler, the Cardinal Archibishop Emeritus of Baltimore.  Unfortunately, Cardinal Keeler fell ill right before our departure and consequently was unable to come to Rome.  Because he was our primary contact here, plans began to fall through left and right.  My heart so went out to Cantor Claire Franco and Gunther Lawrence who had dedicated untold hours into this trip only to have this happen now.  Strings were pulled, pulled, and pulled again, allowing a small portion of people in the group to get VIP passes to the weekly papal audience.  Everyone else would get general seats with the rest of the crowd.  Debate went back and forth about who the lucky few would be.  A lot of non-Cantors paid very dearly to attend this trip.  They should surely get the tickets.  But, wait- this is supposed to be a cantorial mission.  Cantors should go.  A compromise was reached.  Some people graciously gave up their place and the group that ultimately went was a mixture of cantors and lay people.  There were, however, enough cantors to sing when, and if, we were acknowledged by the Pope. 

Our group name would surely be on the list.  I was 101117_102853granted the honor of being in this section in large part due to my association with George Bryant, my accompanist from the synagogue who had joined me on this journey.  As one of the ones who had paid for the trip, and a Catholic, he would go.  I got to go with him.  I cannot imagine what an amazing experience it must be for a religious catholic like George to stand so close to the pope.  Of course, George had done it before!  He was here with his choir 17 years ago.  They were acknowledged and they sang.

The scene at the Vatican was amazing.  Thousands of faithful pilgrims had flocked here to catch a glimpse of the Pope.  Groups in the VIP section were practicing their songs.  Bands of musicians in the general crowd were practicing as well. 

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We were debating what to sing if we got called.  Should we send the simple message of Oseh Shalom or Shalom Aleichem, or should we wow them with the magestic beauty of the Kol Haneshamah section of Lewandowski’s Halleluyah.  Many of us were concerned that the other pieces would not be loud or powerful enough to leave an impression.  but we settled on the Kol Han’shamah section of Lewandowski’s Hal’luyah.  We decided to practice to see how it sounded.  When we finished, the entire section burst into applause!  Later when I went to the front to take some pictures of the Pope’s chair, a man took me aside to ask if I was part of that wonderful choir.  He wanted to know who we were and where we were from,  I told him that we were a group of Jewish Cantors, clergy in charge of music, from America.  He responded, "That was JEWISH MUSIC?!?"

The pope came out in his Pope mobile to the adjurations of the crowd.  When he arrived at the front, he sat in his chair and delivered a sermon about Saint Julianna (I think).  It was all in Italian and I only understood bits and pieces of it. Still, it was mesmerizing because his speaking voice is so lovely, so gentle, so kind. 

After he finished speaking, Cardinals introduced the pilgrims from various countries divided by the language that they spoke.  The Pope responded to each one by welcoming the group in their native tongue and speaking a little bit again about the Saint.  I heard that the Pope speaks twenty languages (I looked it up later and it’s only 10.)  I heard him speak Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, and English (not in that order).  As various communities were named, many sang or played instruments for the Pope.  When the Cardinal got up to announce the English speaking pilgrims, we took our pitches for our song and prepared to greet him.  Unfortunately our name was not called.  Maybe, we thought, he was naming only catholic pilgrims at the point and others would be named at a later time?  Unfortunately not. 

We need to give the Vatican the benefit of the doubt and know that something went wrong in the communication, not that we, as Jews, were being snubbed.  I understand that things at the Vatican can, at times, be disorganized, and it is easy for things to be overlooked.  So, we never met or sang for the Pope.  We knew from the beginning that nothing was totally guaranteed, but of course, we were disappointed. 

In thinking about it now, I wonder if we miss the point by being disappointed.  Gunther said that we made history on this trip.  We were the first group of Jewish Cantors ever to be invited to perform in a Basilica.  We had interfaith conversations and our music and voices were heard and respected.

When I spoke with that reporter before my trip, I told her that I hoped we would make the world a more peaceful place.  She thought I was naive, I think, but I don’t care.  Every journey begins with a single step.  When children learn to walk, they don’t just stand up and start running.  They take a few tentative steps, they fall down, they cry, they get back up and keep walking.
I’m ready to keep walking.  Will you join me?

P.S.  This is not the last post about the trip.  I promised sound recordings of rehearsals, more pictures, and a copy of the program.  These will come in the next few days.  A documentary was made about our journey in addition to a recording of the concert.  We are looking for donations to help underwrite the production of this historic film.  If you enjoyed reading about my trip, I hope you will consider helping to underwrite the productions.  There will be more word in upcoming posts on how to do that, although I am sure that a donation to the American Conference of Cantors, earmarked for the production of this film, will end up in the right place!

L’SHALOM!    

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To G-d’s Ears – Part II


I managed to pull myself together before we walked out and began to sing. Cantor Lauren Bandman, who is fluent in Italian, introduced our program beautifully and we began our concert with Shalom Aleichem of Sharlin. I noticed that the Monsignor of this basilica was sitting in the front row. When the concert began, he looked like he was attending one of the many concerts that he is required to attend for his job. He was listening politely, but didn’t seem particularly engaged. The three highest level officials to make it to our concert were this man, the American Ambassador to the Vatican, and the vice chair of the Italian office on interreligious issues. I wanted this to touch them, to not be just another concert. Would we succeed?

The second piece was Hinei Mah Tov by Sulzer. It was at this point that we heard the organ for the first time… while singing! It was lovely, as was the piece. If you haven’t heard this piece, you should try to find a recording. It really sounds like it was written to be sung in a Cathedral. It has a High Church kind of sound and it was lovely. Cantor Jonathan Grant sang the solo with delicate grace. Delicious! About 20 seconds after we finished the last note, the sound finally died. During that time it just reverberated around and around the Basilica. This can be lovely, or it can sound like mud. In this case, it was lovely.


The third and fourth pieces were Adon Olam of Salomone Rossi (Cantor Lori Corrsin, soloist) and Etz Chayim of Naumbourg (Cantor Todd Kipnis, soloist) These were done in a smaller chorale, so I got to sit for a moment and just soak it in. Lovely!

The fifth piece shifted the style to give our audience a taste of the chassidic sound – Charles Davidson’s L’cha Dodi. I think I caught the Monsignor crack a slight smile. Did I see him moving a little to the music? I’m not quite sure… This was a tough piece to perform effectively in such an echoey space, but with Cantor Barak’s joyful and animated conducting, I think we actually pulled it off! The soloists were Cantors Gail Hirschenfang, Tracey Scher, Peter Halpern, and Richard Cohn.

Next we sang Modim / V’al Kulam. The soloist for Modim was Cantor David Berger. The words just dripped from his mouth like honey! The piece segued into V’al Kulam with Cantors Lauren Bandman and Nancy Kassel taking the lead. It was so delicate, so sweet. Exquisite.

Sim Shalom of Janowski, with Cantor Roz Barak chanting the solo was, for me, a show stopper. You should have heard the echo at the close of the final chord! It was magic.

Throughout the program, different Cantors got up to announce some of the pieces and explain their liturgical context. It was now my turn to discuss the next two selections, Yihyu L’ratzon and Elohai N’tzor. Here is what I said:
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The central section of the prayer service concludes with our most important prayer, the prayer for peace, which you just heard. It is at this point in our worship that we turn our thoughts to G-d individually, rather than collectively.

Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. At its best, prayer is a perfect blend of the two – the mouth reciting the keva while, inspired by the text, the mind and heart add the personal dimension, the kavannah to the rich written word. After the communal prayer for peace, then, we have a moment for pure kavannah – pure intention – personal prayer. Following that we recite the words of this next prayer, “yihyu l’ratzon.” The translation of this short prayer is, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, oh G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

The song that follows in tonight’s program, “Elohai N’tzor,” is an example of a personal prayer that was provided to us by our Rabbis, and then written into the prayerbook as a meditation. In it, we pray that we will speak well of others and remain silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all, and that our hearts will always be open to Torah. The prayer concludes with the same words as the yihyu l’ratzon prayer that I just discussed.

This text is almost never sung aloud. The modern composition that we will perform for you is a lovely meditation on this text.
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Yihyu L’ratzon by Bloch was haunting in this space. There is no other word to describe it. Cantor Richard Cohn, as conductor, brought out every nuance of sound, every crescendo, every dynamic change. Stunning.

Elohai N’tzor of Danny Maseng was the next piece. I was part of a wonderful trio for this one (along with Cantors Susan Caro and Rosalie Boxt and David Berger on guitar) and had the honor of a solo at the end. The music was accompanied by guitar. I was very concerned that this would fall quite flat in the space, but it really didn’t. It was a little delicate gem in the middle of the program.


There were 17 pieces in the concert, in addition to an encore, so I won’t describe all of them. I will post a copy of the program when I return home and can scan it into the computer. I will let you know, though, that I had the honor of a second solo in the Braun V’ahavtah.

I also want to tell you about another special moment in the concert: the world premiere of a piece written just for this event: Eric Contzius’s Mah Ashiv L’Adonai (Psalm 116). The piece was written in a mixture of Hebrew and Latin and was an amazing blend of styles from gregorian chant through a more modern Jewish sound. It is gorgeous! One of my favorite pieces in the entire program. We had to wait (a LONG time) to start the piece because an ambulance was passing by outside and making QUITE a racket! It was well worth the wait! We could have been a little more together during the first few notes of the piece, but otherwise it was really special. I am hoping to do the piece again in collaboration with some church choirs. Congratulations to Cantor Erik Contzius on a true masterpiece!

The closing number of the concert was Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller’s Hall’lu – complete with guitar and tof! After our standing ovation, we did the Lewandowski Halleluyah as an encore. The audience loved it. They applauded for quite a long time. I almost wished we had another encore planned!


Now, music aside, I want to tell you the moment that I knew that our concert had “worked.” Remember when I told you about the Monsignor? Well, towards the last couple of pieces in the concert, he took out his own personal camera and started snapping pictures. He would not have bothered documenting this day if he hadn’t been effected by it. Right?
What did I think?

We did it.

This is me standing with Monsignor Renzo Giuliano after the concert.

To G-d’s Ears – Part I


What an unbelievably moving and inspiring evening tonight was! Since it is now after 1 in the morning, Rome time, and I need to be up early for our papal audience, I will divide the post into two parts.

We rehearsed this morning in our hotel and then headed to the Basilica for a few hours of rehearsal in the performance area itself. It was a huge and magnificent space. This basilica is where all of the official state functions take place – events like state funerals. It was so beautiful that I snuck off every chance that I got to take pictures! But there weren’t many chances.


I have sung in many large churches in my life, but nothing compared to this. The space was just so humongous that I worried the entire program might become lost in echo!

The organ in the church is, according to the man in charge, “one of the most wonderful in Europe.” It certainly was beautiful, and huge, but what would it sound like? Would it swallow the voices completely on those few songs that we had decided would be accompanied with organ? We wouldn’t know. The capelmeister in charge of the organ wouldn’t be in until 5 and we could not turn it on without him! He arrived during our dinner break. We heard the organ for the first time at 7:05 pm, or so… When we were singing the second piece in the concert program! It sounded… Perfect! But, I am getting ahead of myself. This post is only supposed to be about the time leading up to tonight’s concert.


Our dressing room was an exquisite mini-chapel with an amazing acoustic all its own! Once we were dressed in suits and tallit, ready to go out, we sang shehecheyanu, the prayer that thanks G-d for bringing us to this special day. We then lined up and processed into the basilica. As we stood in the back of the room, listening to the Monsignor introduce us in Italian, I suddenly felt my eyes fill with tears. G-d was smiling.

To be continued…

Light, Language, Learning … L’chaim!

LEND US THE WIT, O God,
to speak the lean and simple word;

give us the strength to speak
the found word, the meant word;

grant us the humility to speak
the friendly word, the answering word.
And make us sensitive, God,
sensitive to the sound of the words

which others speak
sensitive to the sound of their words
and to the silences between.

-Sheldon H. Blank, Mishkan Tefillah p.166

Today was a wondrous day of words, both spoken and sung. Our day began at the Pontifical North American College. The non-cantors in our group had discussions with the seminarians while the cantors went into the auditorium for our first rehearsal. It will be a stunning achievement to pull together so much beautiful choral music with only two days of rehearsal time, but this was a room full of amazing talent. The sounds of the voices of 20 cantors, no matter how jet-lagged, was really exquisite. It was strange to sing all of this Hebrew music in a room colored very blue in honor of the Virgin, and with rather prominent crosses and statuary. In generations past, we would almost certainly not have been welcome, we would have been targets for attack! Today we were welcomed in to sing and rehearse, to converse and to dine.

After our rehearsal, we joined the seminarians for lunch. They said grace. I understand that we said motzi, but I missed it and so said it quietly to myself. Again, a strange experience to engage in prayer under the cross. This lunch was, by far, the highlight of my day. The food was okay, the company was spectacular. I sat at the table with Cantor Roz Barak, who has an amazingly beautiful soprano voice, a non-Cantor whose name I cannot remember right now (sorry!), and with a priest and two students: Matthew, Luke, and… Richard. (It would have been so funny if his name had been John!). Because it was quite noisy in the room, Roz, Richard and I had our own conversation. We discussed what lead each of us into this field, what the processes of study were to become ordained as priest and invested as cantor, how the various Jewish movements differed and what was the content of our worship, and the role of language in prayer. Roz and I were particularly interested to hear how seminary students felt about the loss of the Latin mass (which is actually still done sometimes, if not in full than at least in part). We talked about how Latin and Hebrew can serve as both barriers to prayer and as tools that can connect people. A Jew can go anywhere in the world and recognize the Hebrew in a service. The same is true of a Catholic when it comes to the Latin mass. We did not delve into any controversial issues. Is was just lunch, after all. It was a time to meet, to talk, to connect on our commonalities, rather than our differences. It was fantastic!

After lunch, we went to meet the chief Rabbi. Regarding yesterday’s post: either I misunderstood, or nobody else was listening. When I brought up the topic of tallit for meeting the Rabbi at breakfast, everyone was as perplexed as I had been about why we would wear a tallit for that occasion. Nobody brought one, nobody wore one, and it simply didn’t come up. The Rabbi was quite cordial. The synagogue was incredible! We had a tour of the Jewish ghetto and then returned to the North American College for another rehearsal.

Two things really struck me today. The first was how amazing it is that we live in a time of such open and kind dialogue. We went from lunch with the priests to the tiny ghetto where Jews lived in too-close quarters, with constant threat and pressure to convert. We rededicated a holocaust memorial IN the seminary. The seminarians were as eager to learn about us as we were to learn about them, not because they wanted to convert us, but because they saw themselves in us.

The other has to do with kashrut. One of the effects of the laws of kashrut is that it keeps communities separate. It sounds like a strange thing to say, but being prevented from breaking bread with others helped keep Jews from assimilating. Reform Jews keep many different levels of kashrut. Reform Judaism is all about making informed choices about our traditions, and doing those things that are inspiring and meaningful to us as individuals. Obviously, we could not expect to be served a kosher meal when eating at a Catholic seminary. They didn’t serve us pork, but they did serve pasta with cheese followed by meat. I just didn’t eat the meat. The priest was fast to offer to see if he could get me fish, but I was perfectly content with pasta. It’s Italy! I could eat pasta for every meal!! Because my level of kashrut didn’t prohibit me from eating the pasta from the non-kosher kitchen, I had the chance to get to know this wonderful priest. I was also able to do that without compromising my own religious convictions.

Tomorrow is concert day, so I will sign off for tonight. Thank you for all of yesterday’s wonderful and thoughtful comments! I’d be especially interested to hear your views on Hebrew and Latin prayers. Do you find that they unite people from different communities or alienate those who do not feel that they can access the language. Have transliterations of Hebrew in the new Reform prayerbook changed your opinion at all? How have you felt attending synagogue or church (if you are Catholic) in other cities and countries?

Buona Sera da Roma

Good evening everyone! It has been a great, but exhausting first day in Rome. I departed the US as Shabbat came to a close. I said the blessing, “hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” the blessing that ends Shabbat and praises G-d for creating a distinction between the holy and the profane – the sacred and the everyday. It was a strange blessing to say as I embarked
on a journey that was anything but profane or everyday. It is a sacred and unique mission, the first of its kind.

It was interesting on another level, though. I was going to the Vatican, a city that is for millions, the most sacred place, but for me holds secular rather than holy value. I would be performing sacred music in a sacred place, but the music and place were unconnected with one another and the setting would not be worship. I would be meeting one of the holiest men alive, but a man who is, to me, just a man, albeit one with a great deal of power and influence. I would be working on a sacred mission of peace that would be watched through secular political and media lenses.

Just when I thought these two realms couldn’t get any more mixed up, I began to think about the attire that we were being asked to don for various occasions. In our first meeting today, we were asked (women and men alike to don tallit and yarmulke for: our meeting with the chief Rabbi of Rome and tour of the Rome synagogue, our meeting with the pope, and our concert. Of these three, none falls at a time when one would traditionally wear a tallit and none is a prayer service. Talk about mixing sacred and secular! A tallit is not like Catholic vestments. It is not a part of our everyday street clergy attire. Yet, if you are in a culture where religious leaders are identified by their clothing, doesn’t it make sense that we should have some way to identify ourselves as religious leaders? When in a Rome….

I am conflicted over these questions, and have begun raising them with my colleagues. It will be interesting to see how the discussion plays itself out over the next couple of days. I will respect the decisions of the organizers of this sacred event. But I am fascinated to hear what you think:
For the pope: tallit and yarmulke, just yarmulke, or up to the individual?
For the chief rabbi: same question as above, but what about the question of women. If the women cantors arrive in yarmulkes, will that distract from our mission by alienating the Rabbi. We have been asked to wear long skirts in order to respect his sacred space. Isn’t wearing a yarmulke going to somewhat cancel out the gesture of goodwill? Would wearing a tallit at the wrong time of day and in a non-prayer service risk making us look ignorant or, worse yet, that we were trying to offend?
For the concert: should we wear tallitot in order to create the visual impression of clergy for our non-Jewish audience?

P.S. I blame all bad writing on jet-lag!
P.P.S for TBT people… See anyone familiar?