Chazonus v. Punk by Max Witriol

I’ll put my cards on the table – I was never a big fan of chazanus [cantorial singing].  It was basically something you put up with, accepting it as part of shul [synagogue] going – itself an activity I never participated in very willingly.  

But as  Rabbi Lerer [Rabbi at Barnet synagogue] is fond of quoting from Joni Mitchell: “ Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.   And now that chazonim [cantors] are all but extinct in London shuls, I’ve belatedly come to realise how important and undervalued they were.

Synagogue services have to a large extent gone the way of music in general.  As a reaction to the age of the big rock gods of the seventies, punk came along and said anyone can be in a band.  Rock music  was purveyed by self-indulgent and OLD musicians while punk proclaimed that three chords and loads of  youthful attitude was all you needed.

Shuls also took up the  “Breaking down the barriers” war cry and lay-members started to daven, [lead the service] bypassing the need to spend many long hard years studying nusach [melodic style of services] and voice production, melodies, pronunciation etc. Unsurprisingly, shuls were quite amenable to the idea of drastically reducing their wage bill by dispensing with the services of a paid officiant and replacing him with able volunteers.  The congregants weren’t too fussed either.  A lot of them, like me, were focused on reaching Adon Olam [a hymn sung at the close of the Sabbath service], which in turn signalled the kiddush [a small repast held after the prayer services] – and  a chazan often delayed that ultimate goal.  In any case shul was never the place to go for music – after all it never played any T. Rex or Slade. (Yes, I’m that old). But  now I can see the hugely detrimental effect this has had.

Whereas people of my generation can remember competent and decent services and all the grand pieces that chazanim effortlessly delivered, today there’s no importance given to trained and impressive voices being put to the service of God.  And it’s getting worse year by year, as a whole generation has grown up going to shul and hearing services that have no splendour, no grandeur and that can, frankly, be somewhat amateurish. Lay members do a very good job on a regular and voluntary basis, but there aren’t enough of them to go round and, understandably,  they’re not normally in the same league as a trained professional, even if they do have pleasant voices.  

But the real tragedy is that today’s congregants don’t know or expect any different. Yes, it is great and important to have audience involvement and good singable melodic tunes that everyone can join in with.  But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t also have someone with an excellent voice leading the sing-along and producing the notes your average Joe Rabinowitz can’t reach.

Unfortunately, the situation could soon get even worse.  The Chief Rabbi has proposed radically reforming the barmitzvah criteria by encouraging boys to lead a service,  i.e.  karaoke Judaism.  Now I realise there’s a reason why karaoke is popular.  It has stayed the course  and since initially bursting on the scene and being all the rage, it remains a standard and cheap alternative to having a band of talented musicians playing in a pub or party. It kills two birds with one stone. It engages larger numbers of people who aren’t very talented, and because anyone can do it there’s no shortage of people who are desperate to get on stage/ the bimah [platform in synagogue] and are more than happy to do so for nil remuneration.

But while some people might find it highly entertaining to see their drunken, tone-deaf  mates belting out  ‘Angels’ or ‘Mustang Sally’ or whatever , one has to question whether that’s the right road to go down for our shul services.  We now face the prospect of young boys being encouraged to lead our services, regardless of whether they have particularly pleasant voices or not.  As long as the boys get more involved, that is, apparently, all that matters – never mind that the congregation has to endure an ever-worsening quality of service.

As I said at the top of this article I wasn’t, and indeed still am not, a fan of chazanus.  I’ve never gone to a chazanus concert other than first night selichos services and don’t see myself doing so any time soon.  Nevertheless in a shul service that I’m attending anyway it would be nice to hear some very high quality singing even just a few times a year, and I think this would upgrade the status of a synagogue service in the eyes of  congregants.  For me it’s extremely embarrassing and rather a disgrace when there’s a big captive audience such as at a big barmitzvah – many of whom would not often come to shul – being treated to a shabby out-of-tune performance from someone who hasn’t got the self-awareness to realise he’s not up to the job.  

After twenty years of interactive Carlebach services I think it’s time the pendulum swung the other way.  Come back chazanim, all is forgiven.

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The Long Walk To Freedom

Men jailed for years on end, such as Natan Sharansky, Gilad Shalit, Nelson Mandela or the biblical Joseph, who succeeded in staying positive, are truly remarkable individuals.

There are other parallels between those last two names. Both emerged from prison to lead their countries – the countries that had incarcerated them – from the brink of disaster to survival and success (albeit relative in the case of South Africa); both men preached forgiveness to those who had wronged them – Mandela to white South Africans, Joseph to his murder-plotting brothers who had sold him into slavery.  And both had hit songs written about them: Joseph’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mandela’s by The Special A.K.A., L’havdil.

Note well that Mandela’s death occurred in the week when the climax of the story of Joseph was read in synagogue. A compelling case of Divine Providence and an absolute gift to Rabbis worldwide who could hardly fail to knock out a sermon linking the two. Or Living with the times as Lubavitch like to say.

Now I come to my point. On New Years Eve, I was half-watching Jools Holland’s Hogmanay (basically an excuse for the host to alternate between walking around failing to say something witty to his various B-list audience guests and gatecrashing his jazz piano into the performances of the bands – who can’t exactly refuse him). Some trendy band was in full swing with Jools, bless him, playing a highly-diminished boogie-woogie riff as “accompaniment”, when one of the band members called out: “This one goes out to a fallen soldier of last year – Nelson Mandela”.

I take no issue with referring to a political fighter as a soldier – as Mungo Jerry put it, “You Don’t Have To Be In The Army To Fight In The War”. But if we’re going to remember a fallen soldier of 2013 can I suggest Lee Rigby is the man to whom we in England should be dedicating songs. A man who served his country, seeking to keep his fellow citizens safe and free, who suffered the most horrific murder imaginable at the hands of truly evil men. But then trendy bands don’t dedicate songs to English soldiers, do they? Much less compose tributes to them.

Max Witriol

Lowering your BMI the BMI way

After working for more than three years as an administrator with district nurses (they visit housebound patients), I’m familiar with their dedication, conscientiousness, professionalism, stoicism, good-humouredness, empathy – and their enthusiasm for food.

There are various reasons why this team, perhaps nurses generally, are at least as  prone to carb (and fat) loading as the wider population: the stress and pressure of the job, no staff cafe, sometimes eating on the go or only in truncated breaks, patients giving gifts of chocolates etc, cultural norms (the Nigerian and Ghanaian ladies I work with certainly seem to value fuller figures), a fatalism from seeing disease affect the young and fit as well as the old and fat. And of course a self-reinforcing peer pressure where anyone slim is seen as, and is, the odd one out.

Regularly, I am amused by remarks that reflect the centrality of food to my colleagues. Perhaps the most hilarious was the day after the London riots (the health centre is in Tottenham):

[African nurse of mature years, choking with anger]: The fucking bastards even burnt down Dunkin’ Donuts…

Given my own gluttony and laziness, this particular nursing attribute was one I enthusiastically absorbed. Ignoring my better half’s admonitions to diet, my girth grew, my face fattened and my pectorals plumped up. My wake-up call only came when I had blood tests and my cholesterol levels were “that-is-high”-high. My GP nonchalantly said it was up to me whether to go on to statins right away or try a low-fat diet for six months.

I chose the latter and tightly embraced my own regimen – loosely described as Beer, Melon and Indolence (see what I’ve done there?). No reduction, if anything an increase in my daily beer intake (average of 2.5 pints, zero fat, 500 calories roughly), plenty of fruit, cottage cheese, yoghurt, oily fish, porridge, chicken slices and not much else. So – cutting out fatty foods and non-beer carbs. Making sure we had little or no “bad” foods in the flat and not eating during and after pub visits were other key changes. I also started cycling to work most days but reckoned that this used up few extra calories –  I certainly did no vigorous exercise.

On several occasions, a Health Care Professional (HCP) would ask me how I had managed to lose so much weight. I said I had given up various foods. This is a not untypical dialogue that ensued:

HCP: Like what?

ME: Have a guess.

HCP: (after a pensive pause): porridge? 

ME: No, think fatty foods.

HCP: Like what? I don’t eat fatty foods…

ME: (each item met by a head-shaking denial that it was partaken of): chocolate…cake…nuts…crisps… ice cream… fried chicken and chips…

HCP: (swivelling on her heels and walking away): Oh no, I can’t give that up…

Result: after six months I had lost about 30 pounds and taken at least two inches off my waistline. It had a limited effect on my cholesterol readings, just as the HCPs I spoke to had told me. Even this gung-ho article states “…you may be able to lower your reading by up to 20 per cent in three months…” [my emphasis].

So, I plumped for the statins and am now back to a more normal, balanced way of eating and drinking. But I have still cut down on my real ale and try to avoid bringing sinful food home – unless it’s been reduced by 90% at our local Tesco Express.

Return to Sendai

I have made five trips to my wife’s home town. Last year, my radio woke me up with a word I had never heard on air in the UK – Sendai.  A tsunami had struck. Even my intense rationality and Meg’s placidity could not completely cloak our anxiety. It took two days to make contact with her family. All was (relatively) well, but a city that I had developed an affection for was without electricity, gas, petrol and – worst – water.

When we went six months later, things in Sendai city itself were pretty much back to normal. Any discussion was pretty much confined to a matter-of-fact relating of events. Even a drive through areas that were still flattened did not engender the degree of emotional upset one might imagine. This blog gives some idea of the attitude of people in the aftermath.

From tragedy to the commonplace. A recent post on the engagingly quirky site Rocket News was entitled 46 Things That Surprise Foreigners in Japan. It starts

Even things that your average Japanese would consider completely commonplace and boring can be captivating for foreigners.

I would disagree with quite a few, though many are spot on. Here’s a few more that have struck me in Sendai:

  • The presence of traffic guards everywhere – entrances to car parks, on building sites,  by roadworks etc
  • Cyclists nonchalantly riding on pavements
  • Raised markings for the blind on pavements on all major, and some quite minor roads
  • The obligation to dress seasonally even if the weather is unseasonal
  • Bowing in unexpected circumstances – one example: a department store employee might bow when leaving the shop floor to go on a break even when no customers are in sight

And on our last trip I got to go to a maid cafe, something that my wife and her friends found more captivating than I did. The maids’ grubby aprons, among other things, making it less than titillating for me.

Maid in Sendai

You can ring my bell

One of the main reasons for my companions’ enjoyment appeared to be that the maids use the greetings associated with home rather than a public place. You can read more about maid cafes at this entertaining blog here. The irony for me was that we have been to genuinely old-fashioned coffee shops with waitresses in maid-like outfits elaborately preparing your drink – much more impressive!

A Guide for the Bedevilled

Recently, I came across Mamita Hebrea on You Tube and her monologue reminded me of the opening chapter (I Decide to Write a Book) of Ben Hecht‘s A Guide for the Bedevilled:

“I [his hostess “more famous than intelligent -which is one of the hazards of democracy”] would like to know how you explain the unpopularity of the Jews.”…She seemed to be asking me, as a Jew, to break down and confess something that would clear up the murder of the three million Jews of Europe… 

Written in 1944, I found it a brilliant and devastating analysis of German, American and universal antisemitism.

One of the two reviews on Amazon says that

 Hecht’s lofty vocabulary, though never pretentious, renders this book and its brilliant ideas almost inaccessible…

I cannot agree – most of it is written in what the same reviewer descibed as an “intimate, entertaining and engaging style” (!)

My copy is inscribed with the bookplate of Dave and Babs Blaushild.  Perhaps, based on this archive note, it even accompanied a Jewish American soldier during WWII.

A Guide for the Bedevilled by Ben Hecht

Hecht’s powerful polemic

Ben Hecht was an active “highly partisan” Zionist – so described in the brief summary here – but in the book (an act of deception?) he seems to suggest that he no longer has any interest in Zionism. Although a copy and paste job in parts, this is another interesting mini biography.

Seventy years on The Longest Hatred continues to morph yet thrive, with the “intellectual” left’s alliance with Islamists seeming to harden with every jihadi attack on the Jewish state and the West.