May 28, 2009
I hear America singing, except it’s in Hebrew. Approaching Shavuot, the time of matan Torah — the giving of the Torah — I have heard the song of the new Torah reader in a storefront minyan, and the song of the Jew by choice; the singing of Torah in cyberspace, and the 60-year-old chanting for the first time.
How did this happen? After generations of relegating Torah reading to professionals, and to those seemingly born into this artful skill, who finally took the “can’t” out of cantillation?
A new wave of Torah readers is coming on-line, literally. How do they do it?
To begin, open a Hebrew and English edition of a Humash, the Five Books of Moses — it will help you navigate through the weekly Torah portions. Below each word are the usual dashes, T shapes and dots — the vowels used by many non-native Hebrew speakers to give each word proper pronunciation.
Look closer still and you will see above and below each word another set of curlicues, dots, curves, and zigzags. These marks are the Torah trope used for the public singing of sacred texts. As a group, the trope form a system of musical notation that can connect us in an intimate way to the Torah.
Trope, in addition to telling the chanters, the ba’alei koreh, how to sing each word, tells them how to punctuate each verse, which words to sing together and which apart, and where to place the emphasis.
Here’s the really hard thing about trope: The marks do not appear on the Torah scroll and must be memorized and then applied to the text.
Torah trope typically is taught to b’nei mitzva-age children through CD, cassette, or MP3 player accompanied by a printed version, a mnemonic device that shows the musical notes for each trope, arranging them by common combinations and usage.
For most Jews in North America, bar or bat mitzva time is trope time. Once it’s missed — perhaps you passed on the whole bar mitzva thing — it’s very difficult for an adult to go back and learn.
Yet you can. I did.
I did not read from the Torah at my bar mitzva. With too many baby boomers at my suburban temple and not enough teachers, the cantor was happy if we learned the Torah blessings and sweated through a haftara.
I was nearly 40 when I finally read from the Torah. My prayer community, the Movable Minyan, had just purchased a sefer Torah, and I wanted to be among the first to read from it. A friend who often read Torah recorded three verses for me on a cassette. Wary of trope, I learned my first reading the way many teens do, by memorizing it.
The morning of my first reading, our minyan had moved into a neighborhood living room. Standing at a simple tabletop converted to a Torah amud, I picked up the silver pointer and read for the first time, stumbling when the tape in my head didn’t match the reading, but pulling through to the final musical cue marking the end of the passage.
I didn’t need someone giving me a Cross pen to know that in those few minutes, about 26 years late, I had chanted myself into a new Jewish adulthood: Hebrew calligraphy was singing, and I could finally hear the words.
Today, years later, after learning the trope and being able to master a short aliya or two, I need to ask: If we can Twitter, why can’t we cantor? The music of our lives is all around us. Why don’t we want to sing it? Tone deafness does not quite cover it. Inability to read music doesn’t either. Gender-based prohibitions, in many settings, are no longer an argument. Is reading Hebrew the barrier? There is already an intrepid crew of cantors, tutors, and knowledgeable lay teachers out there struggling to teach the pre-teen learner: the Hebrew beginner, the tone deaf, the “my parents-made-me-comers.”
We also need a group just as eager and trained to teach the adult learner: the shul-shy, the preoccupied, the don’t-have-the-timers.
With the rise of the minyan and havura movements, who will read Torah? How will new readers learn?
Go on-line. An explosion of sites and products teaches trope in every conceivable way, including ORT’s Navigating the Bible (bible.ort.org) and Ellie Wackerman’s Torah Trope Tutor (www.ellietorah.com/index.html). We have grown accustomed to so many bits and downloads that learning a few notes of trope should be easy.
To a generation that invented its own text messaging notation and works emoticons, into their texts, integrating a few musical squiggles into your lives should be a cinch.
Many new readers have said it’s a life-changing experience. A few have become regular chanters; two women were able to have their banot mitzva as a result. All would agree that learning to read Torah — to leyn — has drawn them into the circle of understanding and ownership of the text.
On Shavuot, with the chanting of the Ten Commandments, celebrate a moment when we were handed so much.
Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.