Light, Language, Learning … L’chaim!

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?


8 thoughts on “Light, Language, Learning … L’chaim!

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  1. What a wonderful experience you are having. I am so happy for you. I have two comments. First, about the cheese followed by the meat. I had been taught that there is no waiting period after dairy in order to eat meat, only for eating meat after dairy. Was I taught the wrong thing?
    Second, in answer to your question about Hebrew prayer, it only works if one knows the prayers and / or if one can read Hebrew. The transliterations in the new prayer books have been very helpful for my friends who either don’t know the prayers or can’t read Hebrew. I find that having the ‘right amount’ of Hebrew and English in a service is essential. I love going to a new synagogue and being able to hear the familiar Hebrew prayers. It is very comforting. But sometimes what is even more comforting are the familiar melodies. Last Friday evening, we went to a new synagogue and all the Hebrew prayers were familiar, but not one melody was. It was a ‘special’ service, with a band and it was almost completely done in song. But not one melody was familiar to me. I was amazed that as a regular temple goer (even if it wasn’t that particular temple) I could not recognize one melody. So, the combination of the Hebrew and the melodies are both important.

  2. Fascinating comments, pictures and remarks about this amazing experience. I am following any posts on this Cantors Concert for the Vatican I can find in hopes of being able to locate any recordings of the exquisite music being performed and shred and to follow history in the making. I am a congregant of Cantor Grant’s temple, a lover of music and Jewish liturgical music especially and a former history major. For all those reasons I am fascinated by this experience. I also have many Catholic friends with whom I am just as close as I am with all my Jewish ones and have been excitedly sharing this experience with them. They in turn are equally receptive. hat makes for great interfaith relations.

  3. What a rich day in Italy!
    I share your relief at not having to don “Jewish garb” today.
    I ponder your wonderful question about language. Our worship service is ritual, predictable. But each week each of us of us enters the sanctuary with unique needs and expectations. There are times when I cling to the meaning of certain words. I may silently read a prayer in English several times during the course of the service. There are other times when the ritual itself, of Hebrew prayer, the familiar Hebrew words, connects me not only to other times in my life, but also to Jews across time and space. And then there are times when the virtual meaning of words, even the language, whether English or Hebrew, is almost irrelevant; at those times, it is the sound itself that carries me to prayer. The variety of language, as well as the combination of recitation and song, offers me a variety of ways to connect to the service, to pray.
    Thank you.

  4. Not only do I love the topics you are choosing to write about, but I LOVE your clever titles of each piece. Regarding language in general, words are only symbols that help us communicate. How great if our hearts and minds can use words to reach our goal of prayer. But words, be they transliterated or in English or read in Hebrew, combined with the instrument of prayerful song, transcend us to a different level of spirituality. I do find that the poems in the Mishkan at times interfere with my “old” connections to the Hebrew prayer, but perhaps that is just me having to get use to something different. I think the same is true for many Catholics who were so use to the Latin mass. Change is hard but we all get there if our goal is to communicate with G-d. PLEASE let us know which pieces you will be singing. Curious singers want to know! Sending all my love, Libby

  5. Thank you for your regular posts. I am in a sense, reliving my trip to Rome, minus, of course, the Pope. But, I did get to the Vatican,and I did visit the Ghetto. I had lunch at the very restaurant whose photograph you have posted in this email! Please, if you have another opportunity to dine there, have a Jerusalem artichoke for me!

    To answer your question on Hebrew in the service uniting communities, I would answer an unconditional “yes”. I travelled to Cuba 3 Februarys ago, and I was amazed to see that the service and prayer book used in the service at the Conservative synagogue was identical to the one used in my synagogue in Columbus, Ohio! I felt an immediate connection to these people, who I was meeting for the first time. We had been separated for so long, due to political constraints, and now united because of our religion.

    Looking forward to more posts,
    Amy Nathans

  6. Hi Sally!
    I’m enjoying your posts very much and love the pictures. I remember when we went to Shabbat at the Temple in Tel Aviv. I found it comical that I was surprised to see no translation or transliteration into english! Talk about being ethnocentric!
    I found transliterations and translations extremely helpful as a learner, and I can see that the Mishkan can help even more, if congregants or visitors take the time to read what else is on the 2 page spread, other than what has been read. But the best way to get the meaning of the prayers, at least at TBT, is to listen to the soul of our Cantor as she prays/chants/sings them. Thanks for being such a good teacher!!
    Can’t wait for the next update – all about the concert! Love, Hilary

  7. I was hoping that you would have this experience. Within the educated population of the Catholic church there is a tremendous growing awareness that what Catholics believe, and how they practice, are deeply rooted in Judaism, and that to understand and practice their own faith, they need to learn about, understand and honor, Judaism. I have seen and sensed interest, respect, enthusiasm on the part of Catholics, with regard to learning about,,,observing…discussing Judaism with practicing Jews. On the other hand, these people are often like blind people discussing color… they are dealing with an area, totally unfamiliar to them, and so, obvious things, like the cheese on the pasta, after meat, simply don’t occur to them.

    Tbe Latin/Hebrew issue is very interesting. My husband is old enough to have grown up with Latin masses. When he was a kid, most laypeople did not know Latin, but memorized their responses, and learned in religion classes, what was being said in each Latin phrase. They also used to read along in a little book, called a misselette, so they knew what Latin response to make. (This is still done, no matter what language is used.) The sermon, as in synagogue, was in English. After Vatican two, mass was done in the language of the country, but now many churches offer Latin masses a few times a month again, but at times which do not interfere with standard mass times. Most people younger than baby boomers can’t follow along with these masses.

    We just came back from Rome, Florence and Venice. During that time we attended masses in English, and Italian. At each one, a missilette was provided, in many languages. In all cases, there were people attending each mass who did not necessarily speak the language in which the mass was held. yet there was a tremendous sense of togetherness.

    This was a very powerful experience for me. I was struck by the fact that each religion used one base language to tie its people together. I won’t go into the complex and different reasons behind this for each religion. But the bonding effect of the that language caused was what hit me so powerfully. Judaism uses Hebrew to link people together, when they come from different countries. Catholics used Latin, and some Greek.

    In Italy, in all of the masses, parts of all 4 masses we attended used both ancient Latin and ancient Greek prayers dating back to the beginning of the church to unite the people. The familiar pattern of the mass, which incidentally, is derived from the pattern of the synagogue service, also ties them together with its repetition. The similarity of the romance languages and of the chanted prayers and responses, much like the Hebrew chanting, also tells people speaking different languages, where they are in the service. Thus, it is possible to keep up mentally, or sotto vocce, if you do not know the language.

    The lack of “owning” such a language can be a barrier to joining a religion.

    ( I can’t speak or understand Hebrew/Latin. If that is a prerequisite for being close to G-d, who needs Him?)

    ( I can’t understand what is going on during services. It is boring. Etc.)

    However, owning the language can also serve as a tremendous bond, pulling people together, as I saw at mass. It certainly was part of what held Jews together for millenia. I have no answers. I was just awestruck.
    love, Marsha

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